The Civil War in Cereal (V): Cereal Belli

January 16, 2008

What caused this great schism; this tragic rift between two Americas? There are a lot of disputed answers to that. Superficially, it seemed to be a dispute over slavery. Digging deeper, one must conclude that it was over differing interpretations of the Constitution.

That isn’t digging deep enough. Both of these causes are vague; they are proxies for a root cause: different cultures. And nothing divided the North and the South more readily than what order they poured their cereal.

No one knows why, exactly, the two cultures differed. Certainly, they weren’t alien to each other. There was a lot of travel from one to another, and breakfast habits weren’t any more uniform than voting is today: there were many “purple” states in those days.

But there was a difference – both in consumption, and creation of cereal. Most antebellum Southerners were proud to pour their cereal first. It was an aristocratic, genteel tradition to them. The Northerners – more concerned with the industrial revolution and pragmatic inventions than tradition, slowly drifted from this ideal.

But the production of cereal is interesting to study as well. In fact, most cereal grains were grown in the South, processed in the North, and shipped around the world. Modern political theorists would do well to examine what happened next. One would suppose the two economies, one agricultural and one industrial, had grown together so tightly that they would be inseparable. Not so, for several reasons:

  1. The North was shifting its cereal production to the west, in the states of Iowa, Kansas, Illinois, Michigan and Wisconsin.
  2. The south had a bumper crop in the years before the Civil War. When the North had finally consumed its share of this cereal, it had already safely stored enough to last it for a decade, without export, thanks to the recent technique of pasteurization (developed in 1862).
  3. There was a flux of raw cereal grain on the market produced in Egypt.
  4. The Confederates also assumed that foreign countries, notably England, would put pressure on the North to keep producing cereal, but together with the factors above, this assumption was misguided.

Thus, the dependency was one-way. The South depended on the North for its production. England, provided with enough cereal from the Southern bumper crop and Egypt, could also keep its mills and factories running. There are dozens of tearful accounts written by Southerners as they watched uncountable pallets of cereal rotting on the docks, with no buyers in sight.

We must conclude that the endemic cultural differences related to cereal were the casus belli of the Civil War.