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The American Civil War Origins: An Anthropological Perspective

Myranda Grecinger is a graduate student in interdisciplinary studies at Liberty University studying American History & Executive Leadership.


By Myranda Grecinger

There is a great deal of information surrounding the tensions that built in the U.S. that gradually lead to a separation of the states and eventually the civil war that ensued. It is estimated that at least 620,000 American diedas a result of the bloody battles produced by this war (Civil War Center, 2011). From as early as the signing of the declaration of independence and the bill of rights tensions were already building, but it was not until 1860 that the south finally separated itself from the north in an attempt to perpetuate the institution of slavery. It was agreed by many of the southern states that the servitude of the African race was a necessary and mutually beneficial arrangement and a right worth fighting for. Many northern states held that slavery should be abolished, sighting the phrase that “all men were created as equals.” Though many theories have emerged to explain the events that unfolded leading to war, Spencerian Theory provides some insight into the minds of both the Confederate movement and the Union government of the time and the possible underlying causes of war.

From an outsider’s standpoint over one hundred and sixty years later it seems as though some agreements could have been made between the states in to prevent war, certainly there were other options. It seems such an un-necessary tragedy to pit family members against each other and lose the lives of so many over a difference of opinion. The United States was built on the notion that people should have a right to choose their government and way of life, so why then were the states not simply allowed to secede without any further complication or meetings held to discuss arrangements that would satisfy the needs of both sides? Was there no solution that could be found other than war or was war simply the solution that would resolve more issues at hand? Is it possible that human nature prevented the introduction of other solutions or at the very least encouraged war? Perhaps the Spencerian thesis can provide some plausible answers to these questions.

The Spencerian thesis is a combination of Hobbes theory and Malthus theory and tells us that war serves the grand function of human evolution. It really consists of three main elements, first it states that war is part of human nature and serves the internal function of solidarity, second, it holds that war serves the external function of maintaining the balance of power, third, it maintains that war serves the function of reducing population. This theory certainly makes the American Civil War make a bit more sense on many points. If the Civil War had more to do with the human method, instinct or even simple desire to maintain power, solidarity and reduce the population, surely all of these goals were achieved to some extent throughout the battles of the Civil War.

According to Dr. John M. Swomley, (1998) “The USA recognizes that hunger, poverty, refugees, migration, shortages of water, and overpopulation, are major threats to peace and stability” he goes on to cite a 1997 Pentagon Quadrennial Defense Review that states “Some governments will lose their ability to maintain public order and provide for the needs of their people, creating the conditions for civil unrest.” If this is true of today then perhaps these same ideals can be said of the mindset of government officials in the past, in fact in 1849 congress enacted a bill establishing a census board ( to help track population, among other things. In 1850 the United States combined population consisted of approximately 23,191,876 people and by 1860 that number had increased to 31,443,321. That is 8,251,445 (Texas State Library and Archives Commission, 2010) more people in just ten years, clearly the rapid population increase was something to be concerned with. The battles of the American Civil War claimed many lives and just ten years later a slight decline in population increase could be seen when compared to the previous decade. This information certainly supports one aspect of Spencerian theory.

The human idea of solidarity may have the least physical evidence in this case but still certainly holds true to the theory. Solidarity is necessary to the survival of any nation, its people and communities must rely on one another to function, thrive, and simply survive as a whole. The uprising of the south undermined the idea of solidarity among the states and rather than let it be and live in peace, the United States felt compelled to fight back. The same can be said of the southern states who rather than accept the mandates from a government they no longer felt connected to, choose to display solidarity among those that they did feel connected to and defend that necessary human element against all threats.

When it comes to the balance of power it is easy to see the connection in this war and once again support Spencerian Theory. The United States, still a young nation by any measure, needed to hold onto the power that it had and could not allow that power to be undermined by a few of its own constituents. Had the United States government allowed the secession the balance of power would have been lost and the nation would have been open to any threat. From the perspective of the rebellion, they already felt that the balance of power had been lost and were in essence forced to correct the scale. Every person and every nation has the internal need to hold some power and control over their own existences and experienced the need to fight back during tyrannical total domination, whether it be an abused woman fighting for her life or a countries tensions leading to war.

In short, the tensions that built in the United States that gradually lead to a separation of the states and eventually the civil war that ensued came not only from the simple disagreement on the issue of slavery, but also from an internal drive within man to protect his way of life, the notion of solidarity among his people, the idea of a natural balance of power, and the desire to prevent a threat to these things by limiting population growth. It is in a sense a survival tool, ensuring the continuation of the species through maintaining safety in numbers, maintaining order and control, and maintaining the resources necessary to do this.While pitting families against one another or turning a nation against its own is not by any means a simple choice for any leader, it is plausible that there honestly was no alternitive, that one way or another at that particular point in time conflict was unavoidable even if the issue of slavery had been resolved. The vast amount of evidence to support this theory is undeniable. Though neither the government nor its people may have been consciously aware of these underlying and driving forces at the time, Spencerian Theory makes a strong argument that under these circumstances and at this particular time in history conflict and war were almost unavoidable.


American Civil War Center at Historic Tredegar

The Origins of War: Biological and Anthropological Theories

Doyne Dawson

History and Theory
Vol. 35, No. 1 (Feb., 1996), pp. 1-28

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The Texas State Library and Archive Commission, 2010

The United States Census Bureau, 2010

War and the Population Explosion: Some Ethical Implications. Dr. John M. Swomley, JUNE 1998

© 2011 Myranda Grecinger


JB on February 12, 2018:

I understand your feelings for plagiarism. I noticed you failed to cite the source of the followign quote. The following quote is a direct quote from the first page of the Dawson book, but you haven't supplied a citation. I know you listed the book at the bottom, but that doesn't cut it for direct quotations.

"The Spencerian thesis is a combination of Hobbes theory and Malthus theory and tells us that war serves the grand function of human evolution"

Paul Swendson on April 25, 2013:

Humans may have a propensity toward war, and this was likely a factor in the Civil War as in all conflicts. But the Spencerian theory needs to account for why people turn to war in some circumstances but not others. Simply pointing to population numbers, for example, is not enough in itself. There have been other times in American History where population increased much more rapidly than in the 1850s without any wars involving heavy American casualties occurring. In fact, in terms of the percentage of Americans killed, the United States has experienced no event comparable to the Civil War.

The roots of the Civil War may be more geographic than anything. Since the North was not suited to a cash crop economy, two different economic and social systems emerged. And when the South concluded the North was becoming the dominant region, and that it might at some point force the South to change its cherished way of life, they panicked and turned to secession.

Population growth, in fact, wasn't much of a problem. There was plenty of Western frontier out there. The trouble was that both the North and South were struggling for control over that frontier. Whoever controlled more of the West would have its way in the federal government. When California was added in 1850, the North now had the advantage in both the House and the Senate, and things deteriorated from there.

Myranda Grecinger (author) from Rochester, MN on September 19, 2011:

Thanks, and I agree with your assesment of ww1 as well

jblais1122@aol from Kansas City, Missouri, USA on September 19, 2011:

I have read and believe that it was Spencerian Theory that led to the Powers involved in WWI to react so thoroughly and quickly to go to war in Europe. Many political advisers to the ruling entities of Europe held the view that war was a natural and good thing to have happen. Economically, many viewed war as a means to boost employment for the hoards of unemployed steaming into European cities at the peak of industrialization. What most did not see before 1914 was the huge advances mankind had made in the machinery of war and the human devastation it could result in.

In any event, I thoroughly enjoyed reading your hub.

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