Grade 6-8, 9-12

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

Updated: April 5 2016,
Author: Charlotte Higler

Essential Dilemma

Your students will consider the following questions: In deciding to secede from the Union in 1861, did the South violate its own self-interest and thus disprove the basic economic principle that people seek to further their self-interest in the decisions they make? To get at the question, each student will assume the role of an ardent secessionist. Acting in this role, the students will apply principles of economic reasoning and use a decision grid to weigh the benefits and costs of the South's effort to create a new nation in which slavery and state's rights would forever be guaranteed by law.


In light of the clear economic advantages held by the North at the start of the Civil War, it seems in retrospect that the South’s decision to secede from the Union flies in the face of the economic principle that people seek to further their own self-interest in the decisions they make. Historical sources clearly show the North’s advantages, including a larger population, more railroads, more farms, more financial institutions and a stable central government. Confederate wealth was largely held in the form of slaves and land; this wealth was controlled by approximately 10% of the South’s population.

War WeaponsThe students will examine information about the North and the South as both sides moved toward war, comparing and contrasting the advantages and disadvantages each side faced. They will also explore certain alternatives proposed before the war to eliminate slavery, considering the costs and benefits of each alternative. These analyses will help them evaluate the South’s decision to secede.

Working with the PACED Decision Model and the decision grid, the students will discover that the decision to secede was indeed motivated by what Southerners believed to be their self-interest. The students then analyze the opportunity cost involved in the Confederacy’s actions.

Learning Objectives

  • Use economic reasoning to explain why the South was willing to go to war against the North in 1861.
  • Identify and explore alternative plans the U.S. government considered in order to eliminate slavery and thereby avoid war.
  • Analyze the anticipated costs and benefits associated with the plans to eliminate slavery.
  • Identify the economic consequences involved in solving the issue of slavery.

Resource List

  • Visual 1: This visual displays the advantages for northerners for the civil war.
    Visual 1
  • Visual 2: This visual displays the advantages for southerners for the civil war.
    Visual 2
  • Visual 3: This visual explains the concept of economic consequences.
    Visual 3
  • Visual 4:This visual provides a quote from Lincoln's inaugural address.
    Visual 4
  • Civil War Sites: The following Web sites will provide a good starting place for exploration of the causes of the American Civil War.
    Civil War
    American Civil War Documents
  • Handout 1: Alternatives to Eliminate Slavery and Avoid Civil War: This is a worksheet on the alternatives to the civil war.
    Handout 1
  • Interactive Decision Grid: The students will assume the role of Southern secessionists; in that role, they will weigh the benefits and costs of the Southerner' decision to secede from the Union.
    Decision Grid
  • Handout 2: Creating a Costs-Benefits Analysis: This is a worksheet on why the south seceded.
    Handout 2
  • Social Studies Help Center: This website provides information on the civil and has an area where students can ask social studies questions.
  • Student Quiz: Students will complete this interactive multiple choice quiz to assess what they have learned.


  1. Explain to the class that there is a great deal of controversy among historians about why the South decided to go to war against the North in 1861. The North was much stronger than the South, economically. Given the superior 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. Display Visual 1, Advantages for Northerners. Review and discuss the economic advantages that the Northerners enjoyed over the Southerners.
  3. Display Visual 2, Advantages for Southerners. Point out that even though the Northerners held some important advantages over the South, the Southerners were not without advantages of their own. Review and discuss the information on Visual 2.
  4. Point out that there were several causes that led to the Civil War. Provide time for the students to use the World Wide Web in an effort to discover the leading causes of the Civil War. The following web sites are useful:

  5. Conduct a reporting session in which the students present their findings about causes of the war. The causes may include state's rights, sectionalism, the Missouri Compromise, the Abolitionist Movement, the Fugitive Slave Law, the Election of 1860, economic wealth created by slave economy, political power created by slave economy, growing fear in the South regarding the North's increasing Flagspower (due to influx of immigrants) as contrasted with the South's stagnation in population growth and its declining political clout.
  6. Emphasize the point that while the causes of the Civil War were complex and still not fully understood, the issue of slavery was central to the South's decision to secede. Still, the question remains: Was it in the South's best interest to pursue a path that would lead to war, pitting its own resources against the superior economic power of the U.S. government?
  7. Review Visual 1 and Visual 2 again.
  8. Distribute and assign Handout 1: Alternatives to Eliminate Slavery and Avoid Civil War.
  9. Review and discuss Handout 1. Tell the students that several individuals had created plans to eliminate slavery and, thus, avoid war.

    Answers to Handout 1:

    1. If the slave owners emancipated their slaves, they would lose all the wealth represented by the value of the slaves. Their standard of living and way of life would end.
    2. If the Federal government compensated the slave owners for their slaves, the slave owners would receive some of the value of their "property." This would affect the taxpayers, since they would have to carry the burden of paying for the slaves through increased tariffs or taxes.
    3. Compromise on the slavery issue did not seem likely. This underlying issue had been brewing since the writing and adoption of the Constitution. In 1858, William Henry Seward, Secretary of State for Abraham Lincoln, called the slavery issue the "irrepressible conflict." Fighting the war would mean that the slavery issue and all that it entailed would be settled once and for all. Many saw a benefit in this projected result of the impending war. The costs of the war would be measured in human life, property and possibly in the destruction of the Union.
    4. Each side weighed the costs and benefits of all the alternatives and of going to war. The gains each side expected to achieve-independence for the South, and preservation of the Union for the North-appeared to be worth the foreseeable costs.. On the eve of events at Fort Sumter, going to war seemed to be the least expensive and most self serving option for each side.
  10. Tell the class that economists use analytical tools called economic reasoning to help them weigh the benefits and costs of choices and thereby reach a decision. The students will apply economic reasoning here by learning a five step decision model known as the PACED Model. Then using the Decision Grid, the students will assume the role of Southern secessionists; in that role, they will weigh the benefits and costs of the Southerner' decision to secede from the Union..

    **Special Note: Teachers may wish to provide students with additional practice in using the PACED model and the decision grid. See Teachers' Resources for lessons on these skills.
  11. Distribute Handout 2, 'Creating a Costs-Benefits Analysis: Why did the South Secede?' to each student. Use the interactive Decision Grid online or print off copies to distribute to each student. Teachers may direct the students to work individually or in small groups of no more than three. Before students begin, point out that (1) Southerners believe that any war caused by their secession will be a short war; (2) Southerners believe that most Northerners will not fight to abolish the institution of slavery; (3) Southerners believe that the war will cost around $12 billion dollars-far less then the overall value of the Southern economy; (4) Southerners consider their slaves to be their property and therefore capital resources-the "machines" that kept the South's plantation economy going.
  12. Allow the students at least 30 minutes to complete their decision grids. Be available to offer assistance and support. Review the decision grids by having students place them on the board or by creating visuals to project examples of finished grids. No two decision grids will look the same. Use the example of an acceptable decision grid for reference.
  13. Reinforce your discussion of opportunity costs; define opportunity cost as the second-most valued alternative given up in an act of choosing. Have the students identify the opportunity cost involved in the South's decision to secede.
  14. Review the idea that, according to this analysis, neither the North nor the South acted irrationally in deciding to fight. In the estimation of each side, the anticipated costs were worth the anticipated benefits. However, once the war began, each side found that it had seriously underestimated the actual costs of the war. This historical episode illustrates the economic principle that the consequences of our decisions always lie in the future, and that the validity of a theory is substantiated only by its proof.


  1. Display Visual 3. Review it and provide examples of economic consequences. For example, a neighbor who remodels and improves his or her property might increase the value of other houses in the neighborhood. Or, the building of a new convention center might increase the economic value of the properties that surround it. Explain that economic consequences may be negative or positive. Positive economic consequences have beneficial effects, and negative economic consequences have harmful or adverse effects.
  2. Point out that the decision to seek independence by seceding from the Union, thus causing a civil war, had abundant economic consequences for both the North and the South.
  3. Divide the class into teams of 3 to 5 students. Assign each group assume one of the following economic-consequence perspectives as a basis for identifying economic consequences::

    • Positive economic consequences (for the South) resulting from the Civil War
      Some examples include:
      (1) Southern states would remain in the Union and eventually benefit from that relationship; (2) Slaves were granted and assured their freedom; (3) the South would continue to exert political clout in the Federal government by voting as a solid Democratic block for almost 100 years.
    • Negative economic consequences (for the South) resulting from the Civil War
      Some examples include:
      (1) The South lost its slave economy; (2) Southern slave holders lost their slave property; (3) the South would have to struggle into the mid-20th century to regain its economic stability; (4) Southern property, transportation systems, industrial plants and local governments were in ruin by the end of the war since most of the war had been fought on Southern soil; (5) Southern manpower devastated due to military casualties.
    • Positive economic consequences (for the North) resulting from the Civil War
      Some examples include:
      (1) Northern industrial power was tremendously increased; (2) Northern military power was increased; (3) Northern financial power and wealth were greatly enhanced; (4) Northern transportation systems were expanded; (5) The North would enjoy leadership position within the federal government and for a while it would exercise political control; (6) The principle that federal power was superior to states' rights was once and for all determined.
    • Negative economic consequences (for the North) resulting from the Civil War
      Some examples include:
      1) The North suffered a tremendous loss of manpower due to military casualties; (2) the Southern states developed a system of segregation laws to keep former slaves in a subordinate position; (3) the Ku Klux Klan rose to a position of influence in several states, North and South..

      *For larger classes, the teacher may want to assign some of the economic consequence perceptions to more than one group.

  4. Have each group present its findings to the class. Discussion and debate should ensue.
  5. For Web sites related to this topic, see the sites listed above under the Resources section. Students should be required to research information to complete this task.

Extension Activity

For additional economics lessons on the Civil War see United States History: Eyes on the Economy, Vol. 1, Unit 8, Lessons 1 and 2.


  1. Have the students create a decision grid illustrating the benefits/costs analysis from a Northern perspective. How might the alternatives and the criteria differ?
  2. Have students create a decision grid from the perspective of a newly-freed slave who has decided to join the Union army.
  3. Use Visual 4 to focus on a quotation from Abraham Lincoln's Second Inaugural Address. Have the students write an essay regarding the decision to go to war in defense of the union. How might history have been different if the North had permitted the South to secede?
  4. Use the student quiz below to assess the students' grasp of the economic concepts presented in this lesson.

View Interactive Activity