Did Westward Expansion Cause the Civil War?

Mass migrations have probably been among the great selective events of human history. The Ostsiedlung, for example, selected for German citizens who were well-disciplined, hard working, good planners, and probably quick to defend their land holdings from others. Overall, Germans descended from the folks who participated in the Ostsiedlung appear to be more likely to join or vote for far-right political parties, be Neo-Nazis, or otherwise engage in “far right subcultures.”

(Here is a map for you:

NPD = German far-right political party
NPD = German far-right political party)

In Jayman’s discussion of the Pioneer Hypothesis, he notes:

“The Whites in the U.S. have a much higher TFR than most any European country. As well, Europeans overall are much further to the Left than Americans. I became interested in this when I noted that most of the ethnic groups of Americans—particularly the ones away from urban areas—seem far more to the Right than their brethren in the Old Countries. …

“Particularly interesting is the conservative nature of huge swaths of the Midwest and the Upper Plains/Mountain West. These places, while receiving some settlers ultimately originating from the Anglo-Scottish border regions and other Scotch-Irish (the same people who settled Appalachia), are also suffused with large numbers of other Europeans, such Germans and Scandinavians, people who today aren’t exactly known to be raving right-wingers. …

Liberals are concentrated in old-colonial states, in places without much space to expand into. The reddest states on the other hand are areas with wide open stretches of land. … We can see what by looking the fertility rates of liberal (and sparsely populated) northern New England. The U.S. states of Maine, Vermont, and New Hampshire have plenty of land and low land values, but aren’t very fecund. … The population in upper New England is largely composed of the original colonial stock; they lost their fast-breeding inklings long ago…”

Jay hypothesizes that the cities produce liberals, ie,

“Liberal-minded people (and by extension, slow-breeders in general, when Eastern Europe and East Asia are also considered) descend from people who have stayed put for generations—or at the very least, never moved into previously empty lands. Under such conditions—which, prior to industrialization was Malthusian—rapid breeders were not favored. Rather efficient competitors—those who maximize their resources before starting a family—were selected for.”

And that the countryside produces conservatives, ie,

“The early colonist came and spread across the land very quickly, easily displacing the earlier inhabitants. … The rapid increase of a population when it moves into an area that it did not previously inhabit sounds like a great opportunity for evolution by natural selection to work its magic.

“When new land is abundant, and “family formation” is relatively easy, which types of individuals are selected for? Yup, those who married young and had lots of children (the fairly harsh and physically demanding nature of the American frontier ensured that paternal investment needed to remain high, such that stable marriage was important). In short, people who are “family oriented” are selected for.”

I propose a complementary hypothesis:

Migration is more appealing to conservatives than to liberals, so major migrations result in conservatives self-sorting into frontier areas, while liberals are left behind.

Further, this sorting event may trigger a “run away” effect: as people find themselves in an environment that seems increasingly liberal (or conservative,) due to all of the conservatives (or liberals) leaving, they shift their own political opinions to better agree with the consensus or perhaps maintain their own self image as more liberal than others, leading the group to shift increasingly liberal (or conservative.)

Notice an inconsistency in Jay’s theory that he himself admits: low fertility in rural Maine, Vermont, and New Hampshire. If open land itself selects for higher fertility, then even a population whose ancestors were liberals ought, over time, to become more fecund. But if the conservatives have simply left these areas for Kansas, leaving the liberals behind, then we might expect to find liberals in Maine and conservatives in Kansas.

Likewise, colonization of the US may have involved the more conservative elements migrating from Europe to the US, leaving behind a more liberal Europe compared to the new colonies. Since this is a post that’s ultimately supposed to be about the Civil War, let’s use slavery as an example issue.

France abolished slavery in its overseas colonies in 1794 (it had been illegal in mainland France since the 1300s,) though this was violently opposed by the colonists and slavery was re-instituted until 1848, (Haiti obviously excepted.)

In 1783, the British began agitating against slavery; by 1799, Britain abolished the enslavement of Scottish coal miners and salters. (An act passed in 1606 had enslaved them.) The slave trade was abolished in 1807, and in 1833, slavery was formally abolished throughout their empire.

Spain, (a major colonizer earlier than Britain or France,) attempted to outlaw slavery in its colonies in 1542, but this was never enforced throughout most of their territory due to colonialist opposition. Slavery was eventually abolished throughout most of Latin America during the 1810-1820s Independence Wars, but it persisted for a few decades more in a few places, and wasn’t abolished until 1873 in Puerto Rico, 1886 in Cuba, and 1888 in Brazil. (Brazil wasn’t a Spanish colony, of course.)

On to the US!

It’s no secret that the bulk New England’s colonists happened to be more liberal than the bulk of the South’s, and by 1804, slavery was illegal throughout the North. This may overstate the North’s position, however, as the anti-slavery laws came only gradually into effect.

While slavery remained legal in the South until 1865 (and who knows how long it would have stayed legal had the North not intervened,) many Southerners had begun voluntarily freeing their slaves. By 1810, Virginia, Maryland, and Delaware had substantial freedman populations, with Delaware in the lead with 75% of their slaves free. Estimates of the total number of free blacks on the eve of the Civil War vary from 488 thousand (or 11% of the total black population of the US,) to 1.5 million (or 34%). (I suspect the discrepancy is due to different definitions of “free.”)

I have heard some speculation that, had the North not intervened, the South would have eventually given up slavery on its own, much like Brazil. Certainly this fits with the generalized pattern across the Western world, but I have no evidence at my disposal to support (or contradict) the idea.

Regardless, I do know that the attitude in the North toward abolitionism changed radically between 1800 and 1860.

In the early 1800s, Northern views on the abolitionists in their midst ranged from “Kind of weird” to “Kill them with fire,” as graphically illustrated by the time white abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison was nearly murdered by an angry mob in Boston, MA:

“In the fall of 1835, a mob of several thousand surrounded the building housing Boston’s anti-slavery offices, where Garrison had agreed to address a meeting of the Boston Female Anti-Slavery Society after the fiery British abolitionist George Thompson was unable to keep his engagement with them. The mayor and police persuaded the women to leave the building, but when the mob learned that Thompson was not within, it began yelling for Garrison with cries for his lynching or tar and feathering. The mayor managed to sneak Garrison and an assistant out a window, but the mob pursued, captured him, tied a rope around his waist, and dragged him through the streets of Boston. The sheriff rescued Garrison from lynching by arresting him and taking him to the Leverett Street Jail for his own protection.” (Wikipedia.)

By the late 1850s, private citizens in the North were raising money to fund John Brown’s eventual bloody raid on Harper’s Ferry; by 1861, the North collectively decided it was worth killing at least 260,000 Southerners (the vast majority of whom did not even own slaves) and sacrificing at least 365,000 of their own people to end slavery in the South. Estimates of total Civil War deaths range from 625,000–850,000, in exchange for the freedom of 3 to 4 million people.

And by 1870, African Americans were given the right to vote.

Other than the printing press, what caused this radical shift in attitudes?

The other big thing going on in America at the time was Westward Expansion.

Between 1607 and 1776, Americans didn’t even settle the entirety of of the 13 Colonies:

Zone of American settlement circa 1776
Zone of American settlement circa 1776

The western portions of New York, Pennsylvania, Georgia, etc., were still under Indian control. But with the end of British control, settlement expanded rapidly. A mere 55 years later, the territory had more than doubled:

Zone of American settlement circa 1820
Zone of American settlement circa 1820

By 1822, Americans were swarming into Mexico, soon to be known as Texas.

Interestingly, here’s how the Wikipedia describes the circumstances:

“Hoping that more settlers would reduce the near-constant Comanche raids, Mexican Texas liberalized its immigration policies to permit immigrants from outside Mexico and Spain.[74] Under the Mexican immigration system, large swathes of land were allotted to empresarios, who recruited settlers from the United States, Europe, and the Mexican interior. The first grant, to Moses Austin, was passed to his son Stephen F. Austin after his death.

“Austin’s settlers, the Old Three Hundred, made places along the Brazos River in 1822.[75] Twenty-three other empresarios brought settlers to the state, the majority of whom were from the United States.[75][76] The population of Texas grew rapidly. In 1825, Texas had about 3,500 people, with most of Mexican descent.[77] By 1834, the population had grown to about 37,800 people, with only 7,800 of Mexican descent.[78]” (Emphasis added)

In 1830, Mexico attempted to halt American immigration to Texas; in 1835, the Texicans revolted. California also began receiving American settlers in the 1820s, and quickly followed a similar path.

Zone of American settlement circa 1835
Zone of American settlement circa 1835

By 1848, Mexico had lost half its territory to the US, officially opening up almost the entire continental US to American settlement. By 1861, California Oregon, Texas, and Kansas had become official states, not just territories:


American states in 1861
American states in 1861

Let’s take a closer look at this map.

Red = States that seceded before April 15, 1861

Light Red = States that seceded after April 15, 1861

Yellow = States that stayed in the Union, even though they permitted slavery

Blue = Union states where slavery was illegal.

I don’t know what’s up with Kentucky, but Missouri had significant populations of both Southerners and Northerners. Maryland and Delaware, as we’ve discussed, were already well on their way toward ending slavery when the war broke out, and were basically occupied by Union troops, anyway, due to their proximity to DC.

The difficulty of this sort of map is that it only shows the territorial borders of the states, rather than the population densities; parts of West Texas today probably have a lower population density than many parts of the non-state territories on this map. Regardless, the nation had expanded quite a bit in the <100 years since independence, and seems to have been expanding faster in the North than in the South.

At the same time as Northerners were leaving the coast in droves, more immigrants, eg Irish and Germans, were arriving from Europe. The Germans were particularly selected for liberalness, being the losers of the 1848 rebellions against the German government; Thomas Edison’s father was a refugee from a failed Canadian independence bid.

In sum, I propose that Westward Migration in the 1800s drew disproportionately from the East Coast’s more conservative folks–the guys most likely to drag an abolitionist through the streets and tar and feather him–thus leaving behind a population of more liberal folks. This caused a radical shift in the ideas being discussed in the North as there were simply fewer pro-slavery arguments to be heard, and public consensus therefore shifted suddenly leftward.

“But wait,” I hear you saying, “Didn’t the South expand Westward, too? Why didn’t that cause the South to go liberal?”

A few factors:

  1. The South started out more conservative than the North, so even if it did become more liberal over time, it still would not have become as liberal as the North.
  2. The South probably received fewer liberal Germans and Canadians, though don’t cite me on that because I know a lot of Germans settled in Texas.
  3. The South is really inhospitable, especially to whites:


Take a good look. Houston is on the same latitude as Cairo. North Carolina is at the same latitude as Tunisia. Florida is down by Western Sahara. Even Washington, DC, is only at the latitude of Spain, southern Italy, Greece, and Turkey.

Most Southerners hail from places too far north to even show up on this map. To get to London,’s latitude, you’d have to go to the northern tip of Newfoundland, Canada. For Scotland, you’d have to go to Labrador.

Whites did not thrive in the South. It was really hot, swampy, and full of diseases they had no immunity to, like Malaria and Yellow Fever, which arrived with the African slaves and quickly spread. The population was suffering widespread malnutrition due to inadequate, improperly prepared food and parasites like Necator Americanus, “American Killer”, aka hookworms, which also came over with the slaves. When people finally figured out what was causing all the anemia and began eradicating hookworms, they discovered that about 40% of Southern children were infected.

Since these diseases were endemic to Africa, their effect on the black population was less devastating; it’s no wonder that the Scottish and Scotch-Irish settlers in the South migrated up into the cooler regions of the Appalachians and stayed there, leaving the low-lying areas open for black settlement.

As a result, the Southern economy and population grew very slowly, especially compared to the North. It has only been since the invention of air conditioning that much of the South has become remotely inhabitable by whites; Houston, Texas, would be nothing but a speck of dust on the map if it weren’t for AC.

The North, by contrast, had an abundance of land at its disposal that wasn’t riddled with malaria-infested swamps, and so could expand quickly.

So not only was the South not expanding as quickly as the North, Southern whites really did see themselves as at a biological disadvantage to blacks, who did not suffer as much from the Southern diseases and heat.

4. As a result, obviously, the Southern economy was actually more tied up in slavery than the Northern economy, where it had never been as big a factor and the long winters gave the environmental upper hand more to whites, and it is obviously going to take longer for attitudes to shift in a place where eliminating slavery going to be a big deal than in a place were there weren’t a whole lot of slaves to start with.

So environmental factors basically colluded to dampen an effects of Western migration in the South while the North expanded freely, leading to an acceleration in political changes in the Northern cities, resulting in a sudden willingness to go to war over the issue.


10 thoughts on “Did Westward Expansion Cause the Civil War?

  1. There’s some truth here, along with exaggeration. Houston was much smaller in 1940 than it is now, but it was, even then, a large city.
    I enjoy your posts.


  2. I guess the million dollar question is to determine what modern day migrations are selecting for.

    A climate zone map that I think displays your point about Southern inhospitality.

    Also you mistyped some years, mostly 19 instead of 18.


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