North and South Conflicts | American Civil War Review

Conflict Between the North and the South

Today, we want to go over just some of the basics related to the conflict between the North and the South that resulted in the war between the states, or the Civil War, in the 1800s (1861-65). When we think about this, often it’s taught in very flat, basic terms. Things, as we know, in the real world are often much more complicated. The basic conflict between the North and the South was not merely slavery.

They had many differences, and these differences found perhaps a focal point in slavery, but there were other things as well. I want to go through just a few of those basic differences that led to the conflict between them that eventually precipitated out into the Civil War. First, when we think about the conflict between the North and the South, we need to think in terms of economic differences.

Economic Differences

The economy in the North and economy in the South were based on very different things. The Northern economy was much more diversified. It had small, individual farms run by individuals and it had an industrial base. The South, by contrast, was almost uniformly economic in terms of agrarian needs. They had large-scale plantations, as well as individual farms.

The economy was run on growing cash crops, like cotton and tobacco. You needed a lot of manpower to make that work. When we think in terms, also, of economics, we need to think in terms of population density. The population in the North was much more dense. There were more people in the North. The South was spread out with fewer people, and the majority of the people in the South were slaves, in this case.

In terms of economics, you’ve got a difference in population density, a difference in focus, more diverse in the North, much more uniform in the South, and when that comes into play, then you start making people worried if you start taking away their source of labor. You’re basically threatening their livelihood.

We’re going to get to the question of morality, but just in terms of economics, part of the way the South saw things was, “Hey, if you change things and you abolish slavery, you’re actually going to destroy our economy and our livelihood and our way to make money. We don’t have anything else to fall back on.” That was part of the issue that was economic differences. Industrial endeavors by the North, agrarian in the South. Large scale plantations, cotton, and tobacco primarily.

Population and Poilitics

Next, when we think about the conflict between the North and the South, it needs to be seen as a power issue, a political power issue. On the federal level, what the South was hoping for was equality. Now, if the federal level is run by representation that’s based on population and there’s more population in the North and less population in the South, then the South is going to say, “Hey, wait a minute.

You’re always going to get your way, because you’re going to have more representation, because you have more population. We’d like to equalize that, and the way we’re going to equalize that is we want our slave populations counted for purposes of representation. Taxation is also based on population. In that case, the South would say, “We don’t want to be taxed on our slave population, just on our landowning population.”

The compromise they worked out, which has been called the Three-fifths Compromise, three out of every five slaves counted for purposes of representation and taxation. It was a way to boost taxation from the South and also for the South to boost representation on the federal level. The South saw this, though, as “We want politically quality on the federal level, so you don’t lord it over us and get your way and we have no say in it”, but on the local level, the South very much wanted autonomy.

“We don’t want you telling us what to do on the local level. Leave us alone.” It’s been said that almost every day Robert Lee woke up during the Civil War, looked across the lines at the North and said, “I wish those people over there would go home and leave us alone.” It wasn’t a war of conquest on behalf of the South. They wanted to be left alone.


Economic differences, political differences, power differences, equality on the federal level, autonomy on the local level, and then we get to the whole question here of morality. This was a big one. To those in the North, and I think to those of us today, we would say that slavery is very much a moral issue before it’s ever economic or a power issue. It’s a moral issue. One human being owning another. It’s easy to be anachronistic here and say, “Well, you know, viewed from today we know they’re wrong.”

If you can get, though, into their mindset of their day, this is how they thought about it. The abolitionists of the North said, “It’s immoral and wrong, and here’s our reasoning.” Those who were pro-slavery in the South weren’t trying to argue that, “Hey, we think this is indifferent morally.” They actually as a Christian culture largely, at least a Christian culture on the surface, said that the Bible nowhere condemns slavery, and if we abide by its injunctions on how we treat our slaves, we’re well within morality.

That’s obviously easily debated, but from those in the North, the abolitionists, the standpoint was clear: It’s immoral, therefore it needs to end. We don’t care if it crushes your economy or if we have to do it through force of political power. It’s immoral. I think there was in the South at least a sense of fear of, “Well, if you’ve got the moral argument, then these arguments, which are important to us, hold no sway.” So it led to the inevitable conflict, I think in some ways.

This is very much a part of this question and part of the conflict between the North and the South.

Social Structure

Finally, we need think in terms of social structure. The North and the South were very different socially. The North was much more egalitarian. It had much more influx of peoples from all sorts of different areas. Even though there would obviously be squabbles between them, by and large they were more egalitarian in their culture. Everyone had equal opportunity, could rise as far as their ability allowed more or less, and that’s sort of their mindset was egalitarian.

The South was much more stratified, much more hierarchical, much more like Britain in that sense. Everyone had a class. You were born into a certain class. You needed to know your place and keep your place. If you were a slave, you were at the bottom of the bucket and it went from there on up to the landed aristocracy.

The landowners, basically. I’m not arguing the rights and wrongs of that. I’m just saying that that was part of the differences that led to the conflict and why they were that way. More or less egalitarian, much more stratified and hierarchical in their view of things. These sorts of differences and many more all flowed together into that volatile time leading to that conflict.

It wasn’t just a flat, easy read of, “Hey, the South was immoral and liked slaves and the North was moral and hated slaves and that’s why they fought.” It was issues related to economic differences, political power differences, social structure differences, and, yes, differences in how they saw the moral question related to slavery.

This is just been a brief overview, then, of some of the issues related to the conflict between the North and the South. It’s much more complex than we can possibly cover in this brief video, but I wanted to highlight those for us and then encourage you to study further.



by Mometrix Test Preparation | Last Updated: August 6, 2021