The South's Decision to Secede: A Violation of Self Interest?


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War WeaponsIn deciding to secede from the Union in 1861, did the South violate its own self-interest and thus disprove the economic principle that people seek to further their self-interest in the decisions they make? The South was quite aware of the North's economic superiority at the start of the war. Still, 11 Southern states made the momentous decision to sever ties with the United States, form a separate government, and pit brother against brother in the bloodiest war ever fought by our country.

Learn to use the tools of economic reasoning to explore, examine, and to reach some surprising conclusions regarding this tricky question.


You will assume the role of a Southern Secessionist in 1861. In this role you will compare and contrast the North and the South, taking note of strengths and weaknesses on both sides as civil war approached. Using the PACED method of economic reasoning, you will create a decision grid to decide whether it is in your own best interests,as a Southerner, to leave the Union. Finally, you will analyze the opportunity costs involved in the Southern decision to form the Confederate States of America.


Nation Divided

  1. There is a great deal of controversy among historians about why the South decided to go to war against the North in 1861. Economically, the North was much stronger than the South. Given the superior economic power of the North, it might seem surprising that the South would choose to fight a war of secession, one that it seemed likely to lose. Did the South's decision fly in the face of a basic principle of economic reasoning? In deciding to go to war, did the South act against its own self-interest?
  2. Look at Visual 1 and Visual 2. Compare and contrast the North and South, noting the advantages and disadvantages of each as the South as it made its momentous decision to secede.
  3. Civil War historians disagree over the causes of the American Civil War. Visit the following web sites to learn more about these complex and diverse causes.
  4. Access Handout 1, 'Alternatives to Eliminate Slavery and Avoid Civil War.' Using what you have learned about the Civil War, answer the questions.
  5. Economists use economic reasoning to weigh costs and benefits of choices and to help them reach logical conclusions. You will apply economic reasoning here to analyze the South's decision to secede; in your analysis you will use a five-step decision model known as the PACED method, along with a benefits/cost analysis decision grid.
  6. Access Handout 2, 'Creating a Costs/Benefits Analysis: Why did the South Secede?' and the Decision Grid. Remember that Southerners believed that following as the South made its bid for independence: Flags
    • Any war caused by secession would be a short war.
    • Most Northerners would not fight to abolish the institution of slavery.
    • The war would cost no more than $12 billion dollars-far less than the overall value of the entire Southern economy.
    • Slaves were not people but property. They were considered capital resources: "machines" that were necessary to maintain the South's plantation economy.
  7. Use Handout 2 and the Decision Grid to determine whether the South was acting in its own best interests when it made the decision to secede from the Union.
  8. Although the South did act on what it considered its own best interests in 1861, it seriously underestimated the actual costs of the war. This fact illustrates the economic principle that the consequences of our decisions lie in the future, and the validity of a theory is substantiated only by its proof.


  1. Look at Visual 3. Economic consequences may be negative (harmful) or positive (beneficial).
  2. Search the Web for sites related to the effects of the American Civil War or the aftermath of the American Civil War.
  3. In teams, discuss the economic consequences from the perspective assigned by your teacher. Present your findings to the class.


Now take a quick quiz to see how much economics you have learned from this lesson.


  1. Create a decision grid from the perspective of a Northerner who will have to fight to defend the Union or to abolish slavery.
  2. Using Handout 2 and the Decision Grid, create a decision grid from the perspective of a Southern slave newly freed by Abraham Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation. As a newly freed African American, you have an opportunity to fight as a Union soldier. Is it in your best interests to do so?