Saturday, January 13, 2024

Musings on Whether the Civil War Was About Greed or Slavery

By Rudy Barnes, Jr.

Before the Civil War there was deep animosity between plantation owners and poor white farmers in the South, but rich slaveholders stoked racism and fear among white farmers promoting the belief that if slavery was ended, freed slaves would dominate politics in the South and deny whites their property rights.  That laid the foundation for secession and the Civil War. 


Paul Krugman has asserted that “American slavery wasn’t motivated by racism, but by greed.  Slaveholders were racists, but it was money and inhumane greed that drove the racist system.”  Slavery is gone, but greed remains at the heart of America’s materialistic culture, and it’s most evident in a stock market that’s normally the focus of Krugman’s commentaries.

In 1834, Britain outlawed slavery in its colonies.  If states in the antebellum South had  followed the example of Britain and abolished slavery before 1860, they would have avoided secession and the Civil War.  As it was, the greed of slaveholders cost us a war that killed 600,000 Americans, and unrestrained greed has remained to corrupt American culture.

The war ended slavery, but not the greed and racism that remains to corrupt American democracy.  Increasing economic disparities caused by the greed of crony capitalism are as much a threat to freedom and justice as was slavery.  While freedom was a remedy for slavery, the great irony is that political freedom and democracy invariably produce greed.

Communism is not the solution.  It has proven to be a greater evil than capitalism.  It will take government regulation and socialism in small doses to control the evils of greed and crony capitalism.  While slavery was the greatest threat to freedom and justice in 1860, today increasing disparities of wealth are the greatest threat to democracy and economic justice.  

In America’s pluralistic democracy economic justice is essential to political stability; and corrupt demagogues have exploited that issue with an unlikely constituency of the rich and poor.  The stock market thrives on greed and is the economy of the rich, but not for the rest.  Greed is at the heart of capitalism, and without government regulation greed prevents economic justice.

Profits are the objective of the megacorporations that produce and set prices on most consumer goods, and mega-mergers have eliminated much of the competition that once benefited consumers, who are now held hostage to unrestrained greed.  That isn’t slavery, but it’s a form of economic bondage that could have similar disastrous consequences.

The super-rich now control Congress with their contributions.  If the greed of crony capitalism and the increasing economic disparities they create are not addressed soon, they could undermine the stability of American democracy as did slavery.  It may take another depression or war to reset the American economy to avoid an economic and political disaster.


In the 1860 election, Abraham Lincoln justified the Civil War to preserve the Union, not to end slavery.  It wasn’t until January 1, 1863 that LIncoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation declaring "that all persons held as slaves within the rebellious states "are, and henceforward shall be free."  That was a strategic move by Lincoln to prevent the intervention of Britain and France in the Civil War.  Lincoln was opposed to slavery, but as an astute politician he avoided it as a national issue until his second inaugural address in 1864.  See  

Nikki Haley’s evasive comments to what caused the Civil War reignited the issue of slavery.  See For Zachary B. Wolf‘s commentary, see

“Slavery was the primary issue that led to the Civil War, and the greed of slaveholders was the direct cause of  slavery, not racism.”  Paul Krugman cited M.I.T. economist Evsey Domar to explain the economics of slavery: “There’s little reason to enslave a worker if labor is abundant and land is scarce, so that the amount that worker could earn if he ran away barely exceeds the cost of subsistence. But if land becomes abundant and labor scarce, the ruling class will want to pin workers in place, so they can forcibly extract the difference between the value of what workers can produce — strictly speaking, their marginal product — and the cost of keeping them alive.  Hence the rise of slavery as Europe colonized the New World.  African slaves offered two advantages to their exploiters: Because they looked different from white settlers, they found it hard to escape, and they received less sympathy from poor whites who might otherwise have realized that they had many interests in common. Of course, white southerners also saw slaves as property, not people, and so the value of slaves factored into the balance sheet of this greed-driven system.  So, again, the dynamic was one in which greedy slaveholders used and perpetuated racism to sustain their reign of exploitation and terror. Because U.S. slavery was race-based, however, there was a limited supply of slaves, and it turned out that slaves made more for their masters in Southern agriculture than in other occupations or places. Black people in the North were sold down the river to Southern planters who were willing to pay more for them, so slavery became an institution peculiar to one part of the country. As such, slaves became a hugely important financial asset to their owners. Estimates of the market value of slaves before the Civil War vary widely, but they were clearly worth much more than the land they cultivated, and may well have accounted for the majority of Southern wealth. Inevitably, slaveholders became staunch defenders of the system underlying their wealth — ferocious and often violent defenders (remember bleeding Kansas), because nothing makes a man angrier than his own, probably unacknowledged suspicion that he’s actually in the wrong. Indeed, slaveholders and their defenders lashed out at anyone who even suggested that slavery was a bad thing. There were relatively few Americans pushing for national abolition, but Northern states, one by one, abolished slavery in their own territories. This wasn’t as noble an act as it might have been if they had been confiscating slaveholders’ property, rather than in effect waiting until the slaves had been sold. Still, it’s to voters’ credit that they did find slavery repugnant.

The war happened because the increasingly empowered people of the North, as Grant wrote, “were not willing to play the role of police for the South” in protecting slavery. So yes, the Civil War was about slavery — an institution that existed solely to enrich some men by depriving others of their freedom. And there’s no excuse for anyone who pretends that there was anything noble or even defensible about the South’s cause: The Civil War was fought to defend an utterly vile institution.” See

The following commentary on religion, legitimacy and politics relates to greed and economic justice: 

(3/8/15): Wealth, Politics, Religion and Economic Justice

(10/18/15): God, Money and Politics

(6/4/16): Christianity and Capitalism: Strange Bedfellows in Politics

(10/1/16): The Federal Reserve, Wall Street and Congress on Monetary Policy

(2/11/17): The Mega-Merger of Wall Street, Politics and Religion

(2/17/18): Musings of a Maverick Methodist on Money, Wall Street, Greed and Politics

(6/15/18): The Prosperity Gospel: Where Culture Trumps Religion in Legitimacy and Politics

(4/27/19): Musings on the Legitimacy of Crony Capitalism and Progressive Capitalism

(8/24/19): Musings on How a Recession Could Transform Religion and Politics in 2020

(1/4/20): Musings on How a Depression (or a War) Could Make America Great Again

(2/8/20): Musings of a Maverick Methodist on America’s Love of Money and Lack of Virtue

(3/28/20): Musings of a Maverick Methodist on a Quick and Dirty Economic Revolution

(5/2/20): Politics, the Economy and Religion in a Brave New (Post-Pandemic) World

(5/9/20): Exposing the Corruption of Crony Capitalism

(6/27/20): Musings on a Zombie Economy Fostered by the Federal Reserve

(8/22/20): Musings on America’s Two Economies: One for the Rich and One for the Rest

(2/6/21): Musings on the danger of economic disparities and excessive debt in America

(3/6/21): Musings on Socialism, Capitalism, Democracy and Debt in Politics and Religion

(7/31/21): Musings on a Socialist Experiment in a Nation Burdened by Pandemic Debt

(9/25/21): Musings on an American Economic Apocalypse

(2/5/22): Musings on the Stock Market, Inflation and Providing for the Common Good

(5/14/22): Musings on Inflation, the Stock Market, and the Economy

(1/28/23): Musings on the Debt Ceiling, the National Debt, and Economic Uncertainty

(7/22/23): Musings on the Need for Altruism in Christianity and the American Civil Religion

(7/29/23): Musings on Why America Needs a Civil Religion Based on the Teachings of Jesus

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