One of the more interesting counterfactual exercises open to people interested in the era of the American Civil War is what would have happened had the Confederacy prevailed. It is worth thinking about. Part of such a counterfactual exercise would be to define the moment at which the Confederacy prevailed in securing its independence, because what follows depends on when that moment occurs. For example, the story’s far different if the United States decided to accept Confederate independence in March 1861 than if Confederate independence is secured as the result of war-weariness and a negotiated peace four years later. The story would differ if you chose the Confederate counteroffensive of 1862 or the summer and fall of 1863. So, if you are going to ask, “What if the Confederacy had won?”, first you must determine when you would have that event happen.
That said, I wonder whether in the long term the Confederacy would have welcomed the consequences of independence. My own sense is that the Confederacy would have found itself in best shape had independence been achieved in 1862, maybe 1863. So let’s stipulate for the moment that there was a war, and that after 18-30 months of conflict, Confederate triumphs led to Union war-weariness and a negotiated peace that would have left the original eleven Confederate states largely intact, with and acceptance that some sort of West Virginia would exist, and the the fate of Kentucky would remain up in the air (since one could make a case either way).
You see how many variables you have to establish before going on, and I assume that many comments will pick at the variables. Remember, it’s a counterfactual exercise, and so to speak with the greatest of certainty as to what would have happened is more than faintly ridiculous, given the inherent nature of the exercise.
I think an independent Confederacy would have found it tough going, tougher still if it could not secure the Ohio River as a northern boundary. It would have remained an economy that relied primarily on exporting agricultural goods. At the same time it would have had to make a higher investment in homeland defense costs than was previously the case, and it could no longer rely on the United States to return fugitive slaves. Unless the Confederacy rebuilt relations with the United States in rather short order (which would have been a tall order indeed), it’s major trading partner would have been Great Britain. That would not have deterred the British from looking for alternative sources of cotton, which would have led to a decline in cotton prices. What would have happened to the Confederate economy then? After all, if cotton went down, the price of slaves would have gone down as well, unless the Confederacy soon found alternative employment for slaves. Would the result have been an industrial revolution founded upon slave labor? Or would the Confederates have looked longingly at Mexico and the Caribbean as fertile ground for an expanded slave empire?
Emancipation would have been a bit of a challenge, given that so much Confederate capital was invested in slavery, and that capital (which would have been needed to invest in economic diversification) would simply erode in value and eventually vanish. Thus the notion that slavery would have faded away really doesn’t make sense to me unless one is willing to accept the result of an impoverished Confederacy, deprived of its major source of capital. Would it have become a haven for foreign investment? Would the almighty Yankee dollar have the last laugh? Or would it be the British pound that would prevail?
Now, maybe things would have turned out differently. That’s inherent in counterfactual exercises, right? But there’s no guarantee that Confederate independence would have been a good thing for Confederates. Be careful what you wish for.