...Spread the wealth is a modern gloss of a complicated economic and political issue. Here is in a nutshell the issue at hand. The federal government was wrestling with how to best generate revenue based on the commerce clause (it was clear at the time that the northern and southern economies were becoming increasingly divergent). The south primarily exported cotton(primarily to England) in exchange for European produced goods (read profit through tariff imbalance). The north was becoming a industrialized giant and they exported to Europe in exchange for hard currency (read profit through hard currency), the question was how to balance the import and export duties so that there was balanced trade that benefited the nation as a whole. Buchanan’s answer was to lower the import duties on imports. This benefited the south as they exported cotton and most of their economy was based on overseas imports in exchange for cotton. Thus, with the export duties held rather high, and Buchanan lowering the import duties to 20%, the economy of the north collapsed into depression, while the south benefited from the high export tariff that artificially inflated the value of their cotton. This was because the north was industrialized and there was very little importing of goods in the north because they produced domestically most of their needs. They in-turn were exporting to Europe and the far east as stated above, for the purpose of generating hard currency. This lowering of the import duties caused a flood of cheap goods to pour into the country which came close to destroying the north’s economy. This led to the depression of 1857.
Many contemporaries believed that Buchanan had pro-southern sympathies and referred to him as a “doughface” (a nineteenth century expletive that meant a northerner who supported southern issues). This came out of such issues which occurred during his presidency including the Dread-Scott decision, The Kansas- Nebraska act that led to a civil war before the civil war, and the tariff act, all of which were perceived to be pro-southern in their results.
As to the cause of the Civil war, every modern writer attempts to put some new spin on the causes. Some who are pro-southern write from the perspective of it being a War of northern aggression, while those in the north, refer to it as a War of rebellion. Modern scholars attempt to create some new cause for the Civil War that tends to denigrate the issue of slavery as being the primary issue. The truth of the matter is, when one looks at Buchanan’s state of the union address of 1860, and one reads the debates between Lincoln and Douglas in 1860, slavery was a central issue that led to the war. This is borne out by the central debating issues between Lincoln and Douglas was the issue of how best to deal with the slavery issue.
When war broke out, Lincoln narrowly and wisely defined the prosecution of the war, not as a war on slavery, but a war of re-unification. Lincoln introduced slavery as a central theme to the war in September of 1862, following the Union victory at Antietam. He did this primarily to keep England out of the War. England was the chief importer of cotton and was very pro- southern. They had funded and built several Confederate privateers (The most famous of which was CSS Shenandoah). It was feared that England would enter the war on the side of the Confederacy, but England was opposed to slavery. When Lincoln turned the war to a war to end slavery with the Emancipation Proclamation, England ceased open support of the Confederacy.
Increasingly, the issue of slavery became more and more as the focus of the war. Lincoln introduced all-black regiments in the war, and in April of 1865, ironically, the southern congress introduced a bill to form black regiments with the promise that any slave who fought in defense of the Confederacy would be freed. According to Richard C. Davis, in his book, Nine April Days, a single regiment of slaves was indeed seen marching through Richmond a few days before Richmond fell.
It could be implied that the southern legislature was willing to throw off slavery in exchange for an independent southern confederacy. Ironically, just a year before (an unrelated subject), Confederate General Patrick Cleborne was passed over a commander of the Confederate Army of the Tennessee because he advocated openly the freeing of slaves in exchange for service in the Confederate Army. Jefferson Davis passed over Cleborne, who was an extremely talented general and chose John Bell Hood, who succeeded in wrecking the army around Atlanta, and finally destroyed it at Franklin (where Cleborne was killed). Less than a year later Cleborne’s recommendations were being debated on the floor of the Confederate Congress...