July 14, 2007

Lincoln right? Or wrong?

Peter Robinson over The Corner highlights a couple of e-mails highlighting the pros and cons of Abraham Lincoln's actions prior to, and including, the Civil War (or, for any southern readers, the War Between the States). Here's the pro-Lincoln letter:

I read with some interest your correspondent who argued that "While I think slavery was an abomination, preventing the South from severing their connection to the Union set us on a course that I believe is leading to our ruin...weakening it to the point of eventual failure."

With all due respect to your correspondent, this is clearly balderdash. What would have irreperably weakened the United States of America would have been the severing of the nation into two seperate [sic] nations.

Given the historical record of the South (full disclosure - a region I was born in and have lived much of my life in) regarding Jim Crow, segregation, etc., it's fairly clear that slavery would not have easily been destroyed as an institution through "more ethical, moral, and logical ways of abolishing it." In fact, the most telling point of your correspondent's message is the absence of those alternatives.

Also, it's well known that although Lincoln was an abolitionist at heart, he had not taken any action to eliminate slavery at the time of South Carolina's succession, and had professed the priority of preserving the Union, even if that meant that slavery went on for a time. It was the South that pressed the existing civil, economic and social dichotomy into military conflict by firing on Ft. Sumter, not Lincoln.

I conclude by asking just how a divided nation would somehow be stronger or even one nation today? I can't fathom a reasonable answer to that question and I'd bet your correspondent doesn't have one either.

And the anti-Lincoln letter:

I must add that I think our country would be immeasurably greater if there were two of them. With northern and southern federations, Washington would not be able to jam so much nonsense down the throats of its citizenry: You raise taxes too high in the northern federation, and the people leave to go to the southern federation, or vice versa. I'd expect similar results for social engineering nonsense. Over time, this experiment might lead to a decision on which approach is superior: Federalist or Statist.

We would probably not have the quasi-socialist nanny state we see today if Lincoln had let the south go. There could be, in my estimation, no finer set of checks and balances than to have a pair of federations in alliance, and you know they would have ended up as allies.

This is an old (and good) debate, one that we've had here at Colossus a few times (probably done best here). Being a fan of the "alternate history" genre of science fiction, I continue to find this debate fascinating. (And, of course, minds more enlightened than mine on the time period/subject can offer better perspectives.) The main queries of the argument are:

  • Should the South have been allowed to secede?
  • Was it possible to abolish slavery via other means than armed conflict?
  • What are the lasting consequences of Lincoln's actions?

I've made it clear that I believe yes, the Founders believed in the inherent right of secession if people felt that the social compact with government had become hostile and dangerous to them. Fellow DCBAers Paul Smith Jr. and Ryan S. concur with me. Lincoln, on the other hand, believed that the Constitution forever bound the individual states in union. But good blog-buddy Rhymes With Right notes, however that Lincoln's adherence to this philosophy pertains to the old -- and refuted -- Articles of Confederation, not the Constitution.

The issue of whether slavery could have been eradicated here in the US without a war is obviously a more complicated matter. It involves a "what if?" scenario that is impossible to prove. However, what is established is that armed conflict to halt the institution was exceedingly rare. Indeed, "compensated emancipation" was the preferred method of doing away with slavery elsewhere in the world. Still, that does not mean that it could have been utilized here in the States. The whole Southern economy rested on slave labor and [federal] offers of "compensation" would not have easily been accepted. How would the amount have been determined? How would slave labor have been replaced even after compensation? Where would the now-ex-slaves go? Would the "slave amendments" (well, two of them, at least) -- 14 and 15 -- even have come into existence if compensated emancipation were reality?

Slavery was indeed a dying institution, and it could be argued that had the South been allowed to secede (and keep slavery), they would become international pariahs (as I noted in comments here). Dana Garrett, in the same comments (back when we constantly -- and fiercely -- squabbled), points out that an open black market could have perpetuated slavery for quite a while despite what transpired "legally."

I have read arguments that the Union victory in the Civil War (and subsequent Southern occupation) served to only deepen racial animosity worse than compensated emancipation ever would have. It's a fairly compelling argument; however, as I noted above, how much longer would it have taken (in a compensated emancipation scheme) for black Americans to garner citizenship and voting rights which were granted in the 14th and 15th Amendments? After all, could the amendments have passed Congress with attendance by [white] Southern state legislators? It seems doubtful. (Check out this little bit of mid-20th century, waning Jim Crow era piece of southern [Georgia] hate; it seems to make my point.)

Further, I believe it inevitable that the North and South would have come into conflict regardless if Lincoln had allowed secession. There would have been numerous problems over possession of [federal] territories (and the holding of slaves therein), and if the North had led the way in "isolating" the South via international economic pressure, would this have led to the South starting a war? The questions go on and on. (I discovered a good "what if?" conversation here.)

A good debate on the Southern right of secession can be found here.

An excellent examination (but from a somewhat pro-South viewpoint, admittedly) of all of the above discussion can be found here, detailing the Hampton Roads Peace Conference of 1865.

Posted by Hube at July 14, 2007 01:05 PM | TrackBack

Comments  (We reserve the right to edit and/or delete any comments. If your comment is blocked or won't post, e-mail us and we'll post it for you.)

1) Yes, I think the states had a right to secede. It was a repugnant reason to do so, but I think they had it.

2) I do think it highly possible that the "countries" would still have fought an armed conflict, because economic sanctions would have likely popped up at some point. It would also have depended on whose side the Europeans fell. I'm not sure whose exports the Europeans depended on more, but I'm guessing southern agricultural products were the largest good.

One other way to end slavery would have been fomenting large numbers of slave revolts. Sounds harsh, but the Civil War killed nearly 1 million people; I think slave revolts would have killed fewer people, and would have led to the former slaves having a larger voice in the new government, rather than having blacks still oppressed until the end of the Jim Crow era.

Of course, that would have had to have been much sooner than 1861, since the growth of the southern militias that formed the CSA army was pretty much a direct result of a fear of more John Browns.

3) Lasting consequences? Aside from the obvious end of slavery, I'd say the growth of federal government power is a key one. Some folks consider that a feature, not a bug, though.

Posted by: The Unabrewer at July 16, 2007 03:18 AM