• Paul D. Wilke

Marx and the American Civil War

This essay will take a look at Marx’s war coverage to see if the American Civil War can be explained by his theories. Did two contradictory economic systems exist in America after its founding? And if so, were they destined to fight a war to the death to resolve those contradictions? I will argue here that this was, in fact, the case, and that Marx was right, that the Civil War was a death struggle between one nation with two contradictory economic models. For Marx, the Civil War was inevitable, and the outcome as well, in order to resolve these contradictions.

But first, a brief look at the demographic situation of the U.S. in the first half of the nineteenth century is necessary for Marx's analysis of the war. As we'll see, those demographic changes also drove economic ones, creating two irreconcilable systems coexisting within the U.S. It was only a matter of time before a break occurred.

America in 1860 was a nation in transition. The institution of slavery had divided the young republic since its founding in the late eighteenth century. Over time, this division came to define the economies, societies, and politics of both northern and southern states.

In 1800, the population of United States stood at just over 5.3 million people [1]. The future Confederate states had a population of about 2.25 million, making up about 42% of the U.S. population at the time. However, included in this count, one finds 692,000 slaves or around a third of the southern population [2].

On the other hand, the northern states of this era had a population of 3.09 million, or 58% of the population, though these were almost entirely free citizens. Southern representation in Congress was distorted by counting slaves as 3/5 of a person in calculating congressional representation. Thus, the 692,000 slaves living in the southern states effectively added 415,200 people when counting seats in the House of Representatives, even though these slaves had no political voice of their own.

This ratio ending up skewing power in Congress, with the northern states represented by 76 out of 142 in the House of Representatives while the southern states had 65 (the still sparsely populated Midwest had one representative) [3].

Looked at another way, if we remove those 692,000 slaves from the equation, approximately 1.55 million southern whites, about 29% of the total U.S. population, held 46% of the seats in the House, and half in the Senate. Northern states, with 58% of the population, held only 53% of the seats in the House.

By 1860, however, this situation had radically changed. A quick glance at the statistics tells the story. The population had exploded from 5.3 million in 1800 to 31 million in 1860 [4]. However, only 9.1 million of these lived in slave states compared to 22 million in the North and Midwest [5]. Of this 9.1 million southern total, a third were slaves, meaning the South on the eve of the Civil War had only 6 million free citizens compared to 22 million for the north [6].

In other words, from 1800 to 1860 the ratio of free citizens to slaves had remained at roughly 3:1 in the southern states, though the overall population in the south had increased by an apparently impressive 400% during that same period. This pales, however, compared to the explosive 700% population growth experienced in the North.

Part of this difference stemmed from the fact that expansion westward had worked more in the North’s favor. Free states in the Midwest such as Illinois, Michigan, Ohio, and Indiana simply grew much faster during this period than analogous “westward expansion” states in the South such as Alabama, Mississippi, Arkansas, and Louisiana. This divergence created a growing rift between northern and southern states.

Political scientist Barrington Moore Jr. noted that the radically different nature of this westward push between North and South sowed the seeds of future conflict. “Before the middle of the nineteenth century, southern planters who had once welcomed western farmers as allies against the plutocracy of the North came to see the spread of independent farming as a threat to slavery and their own system” [7]. Moore is correct. The free settlers of the free states in the North prospered much more than those in the South did. Over time, these free Midwestern states came to represent an increasingly important economic and therefore political force in America’s politics.

Moore notes that this ended up creating an informal regional alliance between the family farmers of the Midwest and the industrial capitalists of the urban Northeast [8]. What had been a rough balance of power between northeastern and south Atlantic states in 1800 had shifted decisively in the North’s favor.

Westward expansion took place in both North and South during this period, but the economics of free settlers settling free lands worked to stimulate growth much faster than the plantation-based economy relying on slave labor did in the South. As this truth set in, southern slave owners felt increasingly threatened by this shifting balance as the nineteenth century wore on. That awareness would sow the seeds of civil war.

With the election of Abraham Lincoln in 1860, the crisis came to a head. The southern slave-owners worried about the new President and his party’s skeptical view toward slavery. This southern oligarchy, represented by no more than 300,000 slave-owners, feared that the slave economy of the South, upon which its economic existence depended, was under existential threat by the growing power of the northern states.

Marx blamed this southern oligarchy for pushing the nation to civil war in a last-ditch desperate attempt to protect its class interests. Marx explained this dynamic in an 1861 article for Die Presse. “The number of actual slaveholders in the South of the Union does not amount to more than three hundred thousand, a narrow oligarchy that is confronted with many millions of so-called poor whites, whose numbers have been constantly growing through concentration of landed property and whose condition is only to be compared with that of the Roman plebeians in the period of Rome's extreme decline” [9].

To keep the support of the poor non-slave owning whites in the South, this oligarchy needed to dangle the hope of cheap land out west where slavery was still legal. In other words, slave owners needed the western territories open to slavery to entice the poor white southerners who aspired to farm plantations of their own.

As Marx observed, the Republican platform of preventing the spread of slavery any further west represented a direct threat to the slave-owners' existence. Marx, again, in the same Die Presse article summed up the terrible problem the slave-owning oligarchy faced. “A strict confinement of slavery within its old terrain…was bound according to economic law to lead to its gradual effacement, in the political sphere to annihilate the hegemony that the slave states exercised through the Senate, and finally to expose the slave-holding oligarchy within its own states to threatening perils from the poor whites” [10].

Thus, this class of slave owners perceived themselves as increasingly boxed in. On the one hand, northern economic growth was so much more robust that, as Marx noted, maintaining the status quo meant the slow doom of slavery as the growing industrial might of the North translated into political power. On the other hand, this tiny oligarchy of slave owners was too weak numerically to alter this status quo by anything other than the most drastic of measures. They needed allies, and poor southern whites were the best option available.

However, to entice them, southern leaders needed to ensure that the western territories remained open to slavery. If not, then as Marx rightly put it, slavery as an institution had no future.

In the 1850s, this conflict reached a fever pitch as slave owners and their allies tried to push slavery into Kansas, a state that had outlawed slavery back in 1820 [11]. The sporadic but savage fighting that took place there between pro and anti-slavery forces hinted at things to come.

As the crisis reached a climax with Lincoln’s election in 1860, Marx summed up southern sentiment: “The Union was still of value to the South only so far as it handed over Federal power to it as a means of carrying out the slave policy. If not, then it was better to make the break now than to look on at the development of the Republican Party and the upsurge of the North-west for another four years and begin the struggle under more unfavorable conditions” [12].

In other words, the desperate act of succession and civil war was for many southern leaders the only remaining option to protect themselves as a class. Doing nothing meant passively accepting the slow death of slavery as the North grew economically and politically stronger than the South. Not surprisingly, this oligarchy chose to roll the dice with succession and civil war.

Marx’s analysis that the primary driver for the American Civil War was the class conflict between an entrenched slave-owning oligarchy and bourgeois capitalism, finds support in the writing of the time. Eliza Frances Andrews, the daughter of a Georgia plantation owner, described the southern aristocracy to which she belonged as “intensely class-conscious,” and bound by “a solidarity of feeling and sentiment” [13]. Jefferson Davis, likewise, used his eloquent rhetoric to promote the southern cause. Of course, as was so often the case, this was expressed with the soaring rhetoric of the Founding Fathers.

Like today, appealing to the Founders, no matter how spurious the cause and how warped the logic, is a tried and true way to win the hearts and minds of the general public. Jefferson Davis knew quite well how to pluck the cords of public patriotism. He talked about respect for private property, states’ rights, and the sanctity of local sovereignty as the heart of the southern argument. These were all issues that resonated with the average American’s idea of what the Founding Father intended for our nation to be.

Davis, speaking in Boston on the eve of the Civil War, deployed each of these arguments in an attempt to show that the birthplace of the American Revolution still shared the same ideals as southerners. Check this out from Davis: “The government is instituted to protect, not to destroy property” [14]. Moreover, later in the same speech: “But I have said that this State sovereignty--this community independence--has never been surrendered, and that there is no power in the federal government to coerce a State” [15].

To the modern reader, the flaw in this argument is glaring. Values such as liberty, local sovereignty, and respect for personal property struck a cord as distinctly American values. As intellectually sophisticated southern slave owners were quick to point out, many of the hallowed Founding Fathers – Washington, Madison, Jefferson, just to name a few – were also slave-owners and therefore would have likely sided with the southern interpretation - that is to say Jefferson Davis’s interpretation - that supported life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, at least for white men.

Davis argued for the sanctity of states’ rights, but what he meant was each state’s right to enslave human beings. He argued for the sanctity of private property, but what he meant was the sanctity of human property, or slaves.

Into this contradiction, this gap between theory and reality, abolitionists would slowly build a case that those rights enshrined in the Constitution should be shared by all men, regardless of color, and that for one man to enslave another made a mockery of the ideals upon which America was founded.

The abolitionist counterargument represented a minority view at the start of the Civil War. Lincoln recognized that he could not wage war against the South with slavery as the core issue, at least not to start with, and that preserving the Union resonated with more people than ending slavery did. Taken at face value, this seems to contradict the notion that the Civil War was fought between two irreconcilable classes: slave owners and capitalists.

Even so, as the war progressed, and northern victories piled up despite stiff southern resistance, Marx’s early observations about the class nature of the conflict became more apparent. After Antietam, Lincoln felt politically strong enough to issue the Emancipation Proclamation; likewise, that same year, the Homestead Act opened up all of the western territories to free settlers only.

At this point, it became clear that barring an increasingly unlikely southern victory, slavery as an institution was finished. From this point on, the nature of the war shifted from a tentative, limited war, to a total war, from the limited war aim of preserving the Union to the more expansive war aim of preserving the Union, destroying slavery, and forever crushing the slave-owning class that precipitated the war in the first place.

Marx, writing in 1862 after the Union victory at Antietam, noted this shift. “So far, we have only witnessed the first act of the Civil War — the constitutional waging of war. The second act, the revolutionary waging of war, is at hand” [16].

In retrospect, Marx was absolutely correct. What he meant was that the Union now had the political capital, won on the battlefield, to expand its war aims to include those of the vocal northeastern abolitionists whose views were coming to the fore. Those aims demanded the destruction of slavery as an institution in the entirety of the United States. The American Civil War, started to preserve the Union, transformed itself into a revolutionary crusade to destroy slavery.

In conclusion, Barrington Moore characterized the American Civil War as the last “bourgeois revolution” in that it represented a revolutionary victory of the capitalist, bourgeois North against the slave-owning, plantation economy of the South [17]. Marx, too, early in the conflict had recognized how the war represented a revolutionary class struggle between two irreconcilable economic systems.

The present struggle between the South and North is, therefore, nothing but a struggle between two social systems, the system of slavery and the system of free labor. The struggle has broken out because the two systems can no longer live peacefully side-by-side on the North American continent. It can only be ended by the victory of one system or the other” [18].

Indeed, while the war failed to resolve the question of race, the slave-owning oligarchy as an economic and political force was finished. Without the friction of this regional conflict between two class systems, the United States experienced uninhibited industrialization fostered by laissez-faire capitalism during the last quarter of the nineteenth century.

Just fifty years later, as the First World War raged throughout Europe, the United States would find itself the foremost industrial power in the world, a staunchly bourgeois society proudly practicing perhaps the purest form of capitalism in the world. The outcome of the North’s revolutionary bourgeois victory set the stage for the dominance of American capitalism in the twentieth century. Marx’s observations about the class struggle nature of the American Civil War remain as relevant today as they were during his time.

[1] "United States Resident Population by State: 1790 - 1990." United States Resident Population by State: 1790 - 1990. New Jersey Department of Labor, n.d. Web. 3 Jan. 2018. <>.

[2] "Statistics of Slaves." (n.d.): 132-41. United States Census Bureau. Web. 5 Oct. 2015. <>.

[3] "Apportionment of the U.S. House of Representatives." (n.d.): n. pag. United States Census Bureau. Web. 3 Jan. 2018 <>.

[4] United States Resident Population by State: 1790 - 1990." United States Resident Population by State: 1790 - 1990. <>.

[5] Ibid.

[6] "1860 Census Results." The Civil War Home Page., n.d. Web. 09 Oct. 2015. <>.

[7] Moore, Barrington. Social Origins of Dictatorship and Democracy: Lord and Peasant in the Making of the Modern World. Boston: Beacon, 1993. Print. 129.

[8] Ibid., 130.

[9] Marx, Karl. "Die Presse Article, 25 Oct 1861." Articles by Marx in the U.S. Civil War 1861., 1999. Web. 12 Oct. 2015. <>.

[10] Ibid.

[11] Levine, Bruce. "The Second American Revolution." Jacobin Summer 2015 18 (2015): 35-41. Print.

[12] Marx, Karl. "Die Presse Article, 25 Oct 1861."

[13] Levine, Bruce. "The Second American Revolution." Jacobin Summer 2015 18 (2015): 35-41. Print.

[14] Davis, Jefferson. "Jefferson Davis Speech at Boston, Mass., October 11, 1858." The Papers of Jefferson Davis. Rice University, n.d. Web. 6 Oct. 2015. <>.

[15] Ibid.

[16] Marx, Karl. "Die Presse Article, 09 August 1861." Articles by Marx in the U.S. Civil War 1861., 1999. Web. 12 Oct. 2015.

[17] Moore, Barrington. Social Origins of Dictatorship and Democracy: Lord and Peasant in the Making of the Modern World. Boston: Beacon, 1993. Print. 142.

[18] Marx, Karl. "Die Presse Article, 07 Nov 1861." Articles by Marx in the U.S. Civil War 1861., 1999. Web. 07 Aug. 2015.