Over on our Civil War blog, Adam Wesley Dean, author of An Agrarian Republic: Farming, Antislavery Politics, and Nature Parks in the Civil War Era, challenges the common historical misconception that the pre-Civil War North was comprised mainly of industrialized and urban populations, while the South was primarily an agricultural society. Dean argues that an accurate view of history will bring clarity to some of the motivations behind the Civil War. Dean writes:
Americans often feel comforted in the stories they hear about the past. A former professor of mine used to joke that some passionate visitors to Gettysburg Battlefield Park had memorized the familiar tales of action in the Peach Orchard and Little Round Top given by the park’s historians. One of these favorite stories is the old account of the coming of the Civil War. The narrative goes something like this: an agrarian South of farmers and planters sought to resist the coming of a modern industrial economy by seceding. Even as late as 2008, the Virginia Standards of Learning listed that one of the “cultural” reasons for why the war happened was that “the North was mainly an urban society in which people held jobs,” while the South “was primarily an agricultural society.”
The truth, of course, is much different. Of the North’s population, over 14.5 million lived in rural areas with a population of less than 2,500, while only 5 million lived in what any reasonable person could call an “urban society.” Roughly 60% of northerners worked on farms. Most farms were small, with the average varying between 113 and 169 acres in the states that stayed loyal to the union. The vast majority of historians and museums have long known these figures and their implications for understanding the war. Why, then, does the state board of education cling to the old story? Perhaps the public feels at ease in labeling the slave-holding Confederacy as something distant, something foreign, a relic of a bygone era, rather than a society in many ways just as capitalist and worldly as our own.
Even more critical, as my book An Agrarian Republic shows, if the public continues to understand the war as a conflict between an industrial North and an agricultural South, they cannot possibly understand the world that nineteenth-century Americans inhabited. Since most northerners were farmers, they carried the values and norms cultivated by this lifestyle into politics.
Read Dean’s full post, “An Industrial North and an Agricultural South,” at UNCPressCivilWar150.com.