The Work Divide

Painting of Cincinnati, Ohio from Newport, Kentucky. By: John Caspar Wild.

The North and the South had come to develop two distinct cultures by the mid-1800s. One of those fundamental differences was the nature of work.


The South had come to define its work culture by “cotton and tobacco plantations,” with “isolated backwoods settlements,” and “subsistence farms.” David Potter, The Impending Crisis: America Before the Civil War, 1848-1861, 30. There was a distinct rural, agricultural way of life for southerners, and it was “static in its rate of change, decentralized and more or less primitive in its social and economic organization, and personal in its relationships.” Id. Generally, southerners were more concerned with values such as “loyalty, courtesy, and physical courage.” See id.

On the other hand, the North were agricultural in general but “had begun to respond to the dynamic forces of industrialization, mass transportation, and modern technology; and to anticipate the mobile, fluid equalitarian, highly organized, and impersonal culture of cities and machines.” Id. at 30-31. The North had developed “values of enterprise, adaptability, and capacity to excel in competition,” which served as a contrast to the South. See id. at 31.

Ironically, despite these differences, both cultures had harsh, exploitative systems for workers. Whereas the South had slavery, the North was not immune to servitude. See id. Nonetheless, the existence of slavery meant that the South would treat slaves as property and deprive slaves of any semblance of rights.

While there was a sense of nationalism that had emerged after the War of 1812 and had only increased by the 1840s and 1850s, that sense of nationalism did not and could not trump the deep divide between the work cultures of the North and the South. The fundamentals of both economies meant that conflict was nearly inevitable.

These differences would not be a primary cause of the rift that would emerge between the North and the South, but it was one factor at play. It provided fodder for individuals on both sides that the other side simply did not understand or appreciate their way of life. While differences of this variety would not ignite the conflict, they had an impact on the minds and spirits of ordinary Americans when the divide would become deep.

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