Skip to content
Breaking News Alert Report: Trump Rally Assassin Hid Gun On Site Before The Event

What Keeps America From Civil War Is Not Markets But Shared First Principles


Writer Jay Cost’s recent article in National Review, “We’re Not on the Brink of Civil War. Here’s Why,” attempts to answer an increasingly important question about why America has stayed, and will continue to stay, united. While the main premise, that we are not on the brink of civil war, is correct, his explanation is incomplete.

“To put matters bluntly,” Cost explains, “we do not have to like one another, so long as we make money off one another. That is what will keep us together.”  

Cost is right to say that commercial ties among the states are vital to America’s prosperity.  He is right to suggest that states have closer relations because they engage in commerce with one another. Although those factors may be necessary, however, they are not sufficient to explain the strength of America’s union and why it will last.

Cost bases his contention on as sound a justification for the American constitutional order as there is: the Federalist papers. He cites Alexander Hamilton’s Federalist 12, which he summarizes as making “a compelling case that if groups of people recognize that they make money from interacting with one another, they will come together. Their interests will ultimately be ‘blended and woven,’ even if they have different religions, regional dialects, or professions.”

But Hamilton’s argument was less about the perpetual bonds that robust interstate commerce would generate than about “the tendency [of Union] to promote the interests of revenue.” That revenue would be necessary for the states to maintain independence, which was on the mind of the new country.  

Hamilton’s Case In Favor of Commerce

Hamilton mentions war once in Federalist 12, but it is not civil war.  He does not argue that “if we [the states] make money off one another,” war between the states will be less likely. Rather, he recalls the emperor of Germany who, though blessed with a “fertile, cultivated, and populous territory, a large portion of which is situated in mild and luxurious climates,” as well as “the best gold and silver mines in Europe,” is unable, for “want of the fostering influence of commerce,” to sustain a long or continued war.

Hamilton is making an affirmative case for a union to facilitate interstate commerce, and to provide revenue for the national government, in part so that the government will be able to wage war against other governments if need be.

That isn’t the only benefit of the commercial prosperity of union that Hamilton describes. As Cost notes, Hamilton makes the case that prosperity can bring together the interests “between agriculture and commerce.” It is here that Hamilton proposes that, as prosperity goes up,  domestic strife goes down. But, again, prosperity is not enough to prevent civil breakdown.

Cost ties this connection to the American Civil War, arguing that, “although the dominant issue [of the Civil War] was, of course, slavery,” because the South “remained a world unto itself”–connected to Europe but not economically-integrated with the North and West of America–interests were not aligned and the country did not stay united.  

But Can Commerce Save Nations From War?

But if the South had shipped more of its cotton to Boston rather than to London, or if it had been better economically integrated with the rest of the country in other ways, would the Civil War really not have happened? Commerce can align interests, but its record in building lasting peace is mixed at best.

The countries that have traded the most with one another throughout history have been countries that share borders. Trade with neighbors is convenient and efficient. The countries that have gone to war with one another the most throughout history have also been countries that share borders. War with neighbors is convenient and efficient.

Europe in the summer of 1914 was as economically “blended and woven” as any continent ever had been up to that point. Beyond economics, even the ruling families of the major powers were “blended and woven.” Queen Victoria had seen to it that Kaiser Wilhelm II of Germany, George V of England, and Tsar Nicholas II of Russia were all cousins.  

But the Great War still happened. To a lesser extent, even in 2018, the marketplace is not enough to keep Europe together, as the current crises of the European Union show. Cost’s Hamiltonian explanation for ongoing American unity comes up short. But to his credit, Cost does show that John Jay’s rationale doesn’t measure up either.

Does American Unity Depend on Shared Culture?

Jay argued in Federalist 2 that “this country and this people seem to have been made for each other.”

[We are] a people descended from the same ancestors, speaking the same language, professing the same religion, attached to the same principles of government, very similar in their manners and customs, and who, by their joint counsels, arms, and efforts, fighting side by side throughout a long and bloody war, have nobly established general liberty and independence.

Cost notes that Jay was being more aspirational than descriptive. By 1788, Cost says, America was “hotly divided along religion, class, and ethnic lines.” This phenomenon has persisted into the present day. If neither market forces nor cultural and patriotic ties are sufficient to explain our lasting union, what is?

In Abraham Lincoln’s second inaugural address, given when America was in the midst of its Civil War, he declared:

Fondly do we hope, fervently do we pray, that this mighty scourge of war may speedily pass away. Yet, if God wills that it continue until all the wealth piled by the bondsman’s two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil shall be sunk, and until every drop of blood drawn with the lash shall be paid by another drawn with the sword, as was said three thousand years ago, so still it must be said ‘the judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether.’

Lincoln was willing to sacrifice prosperity to keep the United States united. There was something else more fundamental and more important to the people’s bonds of affection to which he alluded in his first inaugural address. It was what brought the “better angels of our nature” to “strike the mystic chords of memory” and “swell the chorus of the Union.”

“I hold that in contemplation of universal law and of the Constitution the Union of these States is perpetual,” Lincoln avowed. “Continue to execute all the express provisions of our National Constitution, and the Union will endure forever, it being impossible to destroy it except by some action not provided for in the instrument itself.”

Lincoln’s case was built not on prosperity, but on America’s founding documents and ideals.