Happy Birthday Abe Lincoln: Slavery, Secession and Civil War
...an object of pity and commiseration rather than of fear and apprehension by a brave and chivalrous people.
But that is not what happened. The South DID secede and this gave Lincoln the opportunity to be a great figure in history. And Lincoln certainly rose to the occasion.
The claim that secession had nothing to do with slavery is bunk, mere revisionism by the losing side that didn't want to be tarred forever for defending slavery. Southern secession was EXPLICITLY (though not necessarily exclusively) about slavery. The North did not fight primarily over the issue of slavery, but over preservation of the Union. But for the South, preservation, and even expansion, of slavery was the prime issue for at least 2 decades before the Civil War, and was the main reason explicitly stated for secession. In fact, the issue of slavery almost led to secession more than once before South Carolina finally made good on the constant Southern threat. Slavery was the issue that dominated American politics. Perhaps the South and individual Southerners had reasons other than JUST slavery for fighting. But the single issue that led to secession was slavery. Period. Any other claims are false.
When Texas declared independence from Mexico in 1836, the issue of the annexation of Texas was avoided by Andrew Jackson and Martin van Buren. Jackson did not even recognize Texas independence until his last day in office and Martin van Buren declined Texas' offer to accept annexation. The reason was simple. Annexation of Texas would immediately raise the question of slavery because Texas would enter as a slave state. From the moment President Tyler raised the issue of annexation, to the final entry of Texas into the Union, the issue of slavery was a constant companion to the issue of the annexation of Texas. In fact, Secretary of the Navy Calhoun SPECIFICALLY tied the annexation of Texas with a justification of slavery. Calhoun claimed that opposition to annexation of Texas would place slavery in jeopardy.
The same constant preoccupation with slavery applies to the entry of every state in the Union between then and the Civil War. Political debate, maneuvering and compromise, all about slavery, surrounded each and every possible entry of a state into the Union. Even President Polk, when he couldn't find a proper compromise for the entry of California and New Mexico into the Union, left the issue for his successor. (As an aside, it seems Polk was the first president to publicly complain of lobbying of Congress by private interests...so this is NOT a new problem).
In the case of California, Southerners initially blocked statehood because it would enter as a free state. It took the HUGE, complex compromise of 1850 to resolve statehood for California, involving the status of several other new states as well and the Fugitive Slave Law of 1850, which imposed Federal control over fugitive slave laws in every state, forcing states to enforce slavery even it they were free states. Jefferson Davis, during this debate, even raised the specter of secession over the supposed attack on slavery and Southerners after its adoption threatened secession if that compromise was in anyway threatened.
In the case of Cuba, although several Presidents considered annexation of Cuba, no compromise was ever reached that coincided with such annexation interest, so Cuba, a potential slave state, never entered the Union. In the case of Kansas, compromises were circumvented, leading to bloodshed that presaged the Civil War. In most other cases, compromises were reached maintaining a balance between slave and free states. In no case was slavery not an issue.
States rights, though consistently an issue in American history from its foundations until today, was not a consistent issue for either pro- or anti-slavery sides. America has always, probably SHOULD always, have an ongoing debate between Federalist and States Rights factions. Our Founding Fathers were split on the issue, and the balance between the two probably more than anything defines America. But the claim that Southern States consistently favored States Rights over the Northern advocacy of Federalism is wrong. Some Southerners argued that no state could outlaw slavery because of a Federally guaranteed right to property even as one moves from one state to another. This is certainly not a States Rights argument, but IS a pro-slavery argument. Others argued that no individual state or territory should have the right to exclude slavery because this would create an imbalance between free and slave states. To many Southerners, this balance outweighed any sentiment in regards to States Rights. Northerners were split over whether Congress, territorial legislatures or states should determine the status of slavery within a state/territory.
Similarly, the South opposed States Rights on fugitive slave laws. The South believed the Federal government should force states to enforce fugitive slaves laws to the South's favor. In fact the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 was a Federal law enforcing the slaveholder's property rights, using Federal agents, over the laws of individual states. Federal judges and Federal marshals enforced the law and could fine anyone who aided a fugitive slave. This is about as Federalist a law as you can get, yet it was supported by the South. Northern states responded by passing state level laws asserting the right of each state to refuse to recognize slavery even in the case of a fugitive from another state. Wisconsin even passed an act of nullification against the Federal fugitive slave law of 1850, a strong exertion of States Rights. Other Northerners, of course, preferred a Federal solution to fugitive slave laws, but Southerners were more than willing to give the Federal government control if it meant enforcing slavery, and Northerners were willing to exert States Rights arguments if it meant refusing to return fugitive slaves. Similarly, many Southerners opposed letting Nebraska and Kansas choose whether to be slave or free, and wanted a Federally imposed solution to maintain a balance. The defining issue was slavery, with Federalism vs. States Rights being inconsistently used by many to justify their position on slavery. Northerners disobeyed the Federalist fugitive slave laws, but did not threaten secession over them. Southerners often threatened secession over opposition to slavery even when that opposition was by a state over Federal objections.
In fact it was the imposition of Federal control over how they treated fugitive slaves that finally split the Whig party. Southern Whigs thought it was a perfect compromise while Northern Whigs despised it. Northern Whigs gave up on their party aruond 1854, helping to form the Republican Party. Meanwhile, to avoid similar division in 1852, the Democratic Party had to find a pro-slavery Northerner, Franklin Pierce. Slavery was dominating and splitting BOTH major parties with each party shifting stands on Federalism and States Rights as needed.
The Southern states threatened secession if a Republican was elected. When Lincoln sqeuaked to victory, the Southern states followed through with this threat. In their declarations of secession, it is precisely the institution of slavery and the Northern refusal to enforce the Federal fugitive slave laws over state laws opposing Federal fugitive slave laws, that were cited as the reasons for secession. States Rights arguments were asserted within this context, but no other issue of States Rights was mentioned nor was the Federal fugitive slave law a cogent States Rights argument. The South Carolina declaration of secession is the most reasoned and interesting of those I have read and does emphasize the individual states independent actions in forming the Union, and hence asserts that each individual state has the right to break its ties to that Union. Though again, the primary grievance was that individual Northern States have exerted their individual wills against the Federal fugitive slave laws:
The states of Maine, New Hampshire, Vermont, Massachusetts, Connecticut, Rhode Island, New York, Pennsylvania, Illinois, Indiana, Michigan, Wisconsin, and Iowa have enacted laws which either nullify the acts of Congress or render useless any attempt to execute them. In many of these states the fugitive is discharged from the service of labor claimed, and in none of them has the state government complied with the stipulation made in the Constitution.
Thus it is the exercise of States Rights by Northern States against acts of Congress that South Carolina cites as their primary grievance leading to secession. And again, no other grievance other than ones relating to slavery are cited.
The Virginia article of secession is one of the shortest and least defensive, simply repealing their state's ratification of the Constitution, and it cites Federal "oppression of the southern, slaveholding states" without citing specific instances. This could ultimately be viewed as placing States Rights at the heart of secession, though since it is unclear what Federal actions they are referring to, it is hard to judge. I would view Virginia's act of secession as the most interesting for study because it simply exerts the right of any state to repeal its acceptance of Union. I will indicate later that this goes against statements made by Presidents Jackson and Madison, but otherwise could well be legitimate arguments for secession without the burden of slavery as an immoral reason for secession. But it also is the vaguest of articles of secession so requires a rejection of many founding father's and Presidents' views regarding the nature of the Union and the legitimacy of secession, as I will describe later.
The Texas articles of secession had perhaps the most disgusting justification: upholding racism per se. Their main objection was that the North was "proclaiming the debasing doctrine of equality of all men, irrespective of race or color", and that blacks "were rightfully held and regarded as an inferior and dependent race." Sorry, Texas, but this is a horrible justification for secession. But it was also perhaps the most honest since at heart, it was the Southern states' desire to hold one race as inferior and as property that led to secession. The Southern States wished to exploit and abuse other human beings without interference.
Confederate Vice President, Alexander Stephens, made all of this explicit:
The new constitution has put at rest, forever, all the agitating questions relating to our peculiar institution — African slavery as it exists amongst us — the proper status of the negro in our form of civilization. This was the immediate cause of the late rupture and present revolution. Jefferson in his forecast, had anticipated this, as the "rock upon which the old Union would split." He was right. What was conjecture with him, is now a realized fact. But whether he fully comprehended the great truth upon which that rock stood and stands, may be doubted...
[Jefferson's] ideas, however, were fundamentally wrong. They rested upon the assumption of the equality of races. This was an error. ... Our new government is founded upon exactly the opposite idea; its foundations are laid, its corner–stone rests, upon the great truth that the negro is not equal to the white man; that slavery — subordination to the superior race — is his natural and normal condition.
Again, disgusting and immoral.
Despite many later claims after the South lost, economic factors were not cited as a main factor in the articles of secession. This does not mean they didn't play a role, but it was not a major reason for secession.
Was secession justified? Immoral reasons aside, could a state secede? This is a very legitimate question, particularly at the time. President Andrew Jackson didn't think so in his "Proclamation to the People of South Carolina" during the nullification crisis:
...each State having expressly parted with so many powers as to constitute jointly with the other States a single nation, cannot from that period possess any right to secede, because such secession does not break a league, but destroys the unity of a nation, and any injury to that unity is not only a breach which would result from the contravention of a compact, but it is an offense against the whole Union. To say that any State may at pleasure secede from the Union, is to say that the United States are not a nation because it would be a solecism to contend that any part of a nation might dissolve its connection with the other parts, to their injury or ruin, without committing any offense. Secession, like any other revolutionary act, may be morally justified by the extremity of oppression; but to call it a constitutional right, is confounding the meaning of terms, and can only be done through gross error, or to deceive those who are willing to assert a right, but would pause before they made a revolution, or incur the penalties consequent upon a failure.
Similarly, James Madison claimed that a state could not secede at will from the union with other states without their consent or a violation of the compact:
A rightful secession requires the consent of the others or an abuse of the compact absolving the seceding party from the obligations imposed by it.
This is, of course, why most of the articles of secession tried to justify their secession by claiming abuse by the Northern states. I would argue that claims based on the refusal of Northern states to enforce slavery in the form of enforcing fugitive slave laws imposed on them by the Federal government is not a convincing argument. It certainly lacks any moral high ground and it also is not convincing from a States Rights point of view.
I should note, as was once pointed out to me by a Southerner, that although slavery was the true reason for secession, it was not the reason why most Southerners fought for the Confederacy. In reality, a form of nationalism that put state loyalty ahead of Union loyalty was why most individual Southerners, including anti-secessionist Robert E. Lee, fought. The South seceded over slavery and fought largely out of pride. The North primarily fought, initially, for preservation of the Union based on their interpretation of the Constitution (where secession was seen as treason), but in the end added abolition of slavery as a reason to fight. With the emancipation of the slaves, Lincoln gave the North a moral cause to fight for, which neither side previously really had. Perhaps that was Lincoln's biggest accomplishment, realizing that to win the North needed a moral justification for their side.
Secession made war inevitable. Lincoln in theory could have let them go, but in reality he honestly believed they were not within their rights (for the reasons quoted from Andrew Jackson, George Washington and James Madison above) and so he saw it as HIS moral duty to defend the Union from treason. Lincoln also was anti-slavery, though early on he showed every indication of compromising on the issue of slavery to preserve the union. As an aside, a fascinating story of American sailors shipwrecked off the North African coast and being enslaved by Berber tribes in what is now Western Sahara and Morocco, was one of Lincoln's favorite books and was an influence on his, and others', views regarding slavery. A modern version of this story can be found in the book Skeletons on the Zahara, by Dean King.
Much has been written about the give and take of the actual war. There is little I can add. I was looking at a very brief thumbnail sketch of the war as presented in the Times Atlas of World history. What struck me was how there really was no way that the South could win short of foreign intervention or a major blunder by the Union. Neither of these were impossible, but I think the South really had no chance.
In 1861, the Union had all the advantages. With a higher population (particularly when only free citizens were taken into account), more wealth, merchant and naval shipping, factory capacity, iron, coal and firearms production and food production, the Union had every advantage. The South had only one material advantage: cotton production. But cotton alone can't win a war. Barring major mistakes by the Union or foreign intervention, the South was doomed from the start. It just didn't have the manpower or resources. This is no big revelation, but I think this overwhelming advantage is often not appreciated when the details of battles and generalship are examined in minute detail.
The South without a doubt had the better generals...by far. And this is probably the main reason the war dragged on for so long. In fact, this is also reflected in the fact that even though nearly three times more soldiers fought on the Union side, the Union lost more men, killed or wounded. Generally, when one army is outnumbered, it has far higher casualties. But when well led, a smaller force can out do a larger one almost every time. Good generalship kept the South alive for as long as it could before sheer exhaustion defeated them.
But leadership wasn't enough and in some ways it didn't extend to an overall vision for the war. When I look at the broadest view of the war, campaign by campaign, the Union had the better overall vision for the war because they fought it in a way that losing key battles would not lose them the war. They focused on isolating the heart of the South, and they kept at this despite whatever dramatic defeats they suffered in the most famous theater of the war in the East.
There really were two main fronts: the Vriginia/Maryland region, where most of the famous battles were fought, and the periphery. Most attention both then and now is given to the Virginia/Maryland front. But looking at the big picture, it seems to me the war was won and lost in the periphery. The Virginia/Maryland front involved successive unsuccessful invasions. Mostly the Union, with mediocre leadership, tried to invade Virginia and were driven back by better generalship on the part of the South. I think an invasion by the North that succeeded could have ended the war quickly. I think an invasion of the North by the South could never have won. And I think they knew that. Mostly the South played a defensive war. It wasn't until June 1863 that the South invaded the North in what was probably a desperate move. Their loss at Gettysburg, of course, is recognized as the turning point of the war.
But I think the war was lost before then and it was lost on the periphery. The Virginia/Maryland fighting took up a tiny area and until the very end accomplished little. It was here the South fought at its best. But strategically the South lost the rest and that was decisive.
The Union spent a great deal of effort methodically cutting off the deep South from the rest of the world, including the trans-Mississippi Confederacy. This was the plan of General Winfield Scott. It was this strategy that won the war, and it was possible because of the Union's superior manpower and resources. Had they kept exclusively to it, and not tried successive invasions of Virginia, the Union probably would have done far better. And the Scott strategy didn't take superior generals, merely methodical ones like Grant.
And Grant began by methodically capturing key positions along the Mississippi, Tennessee and Cumberland rivers in 1862. This was a HUGE strategic move. One attempt by the South to stop him was beaten back at the battle of Shiloh. His victory at Shiloh allowed Grant to continue cutting off the South. At the same time, Admiral Farragut and General Butler took the same approach at the lower end of the Mississippi. A naval blockade all along the Southern coastline was carried out with limited, but increasing, effect by the superior Union navy. Combined, these three efforts aimed at surrounding the deep South completely, and even before it was complete, it doomed the South. One attempt by General Bragg in Kentucky to break this effort ultimately bogged down. Bragg's failure ensured the loyalty of the border states to the Union. This encircling effort culminated in the complete cutting of the South in two when Grant finally captured Vicksburg in 1863. The entire Mississippi river and the border states were in Union hands, and the sea was largely dominated by the Union. Gettysburg occurred at about the same time as the capture of Vicksburg. Gettysburg represented one more turning back of an invading force on the Virginia/Maryland front (yes...Gettysburg is in Pennsylvania, but this was just a brief extension of that front). Vicksburg, I would argue, cut off the South irrevocably and opened the way for the devastation of the Southern heartland.
Which is what General Sherman proceeded to do. His famous/infamous march through Georgia cut the South in two diagonally. This wouldn't have been possible without the previous cutting off of the South along the Mississippi, the border states and ocean peripheries.
The superiority of Union resources even in the face of superior Southern generalship, made Union victory inevitable. This is illustrated in the fact that the Union by 1864 had some 44% of its free male population, aged 16-60, in military service. That is a HUGE percentage. Imagine nearly half of the men you know, age 16-60, in uniform. But the South had 90% of its free male population aged 16-60 in arms, a level that is simply unsustainable. The Union was overextended, but the South was way past that. They were ruined by the war. The Union had a frontline and normalcy behind it. The South had no normalcy.
What about foreign intervention? Could the South have been saved by intervention? After all, the American Revolution probably would not have succeeded without French aid to the rebels. Seems to me that the one foreign power that could have swayed the balance from the Union was Britain. And Britain might have had an interest in hobbling America. After all, it was only about 50 years since the last war between Britain and America where Britain practically destroyed America (and, incidentally, which set the stage for Skeletons of the Zahara). But, since Britain, inspired by the likes of the African explorer David Livingstone, who saw first had the horrors of the slave trade in Africa, had taken a strong anti-slavery stance some time before, it was probably unlikely that there would be a political will within Parliament to side with the slaveholding South. This was another example of how the immoral foundation of the South's secession worked against them. By linking their cause with slavery, they lost any moral justification and made foreign intervention far less likely. Had Southern secession been divorced from slavery, Britain almost certainly would have jumped in on their side.
What of Lincoln? What role did he play? Lincoln won on a platform not of abolition, but merely opposing any further extension of slavery. Even this was unacceptable to a South that had demanded either expansion of slavery within the Union OR secession. In effect Lincoln drew a line in the sand. He allowed the South their peculiar institution, but refused to allow them to extend it beyond it's current extent. Had the South accepted that, Lincoln may well have been rendered obscure. But the South seceded and it was at that extreme moment that Lincoln's greatness became manifest. He justified first the preservation of the Union to America using the arguments of Madison and Jackson, and when the slow, methodical strategy of the Union was taking its toll on American morale, he further justified the war as a war against slavery, giving the Union the moral high ground. That was the extent of his greatness. And it succeeded.
What if he had not been President? Secession might not have occurred. What then? The South was in no way near abandoning slavery. This immoral institution would have continued longer. But the constant conflict between free and slave states would have continued. Secession would have happened eventually. It is possible that a weaker President would have allowed secession or been unable to rally America to the cause of Union. Had that happened, the history of the Union might have been similar, though possibly further secession would have reduced the Union. I am convinced that the South, with little industrial strength and maintaining the immoral system of slavery, would have become somewhat of a third world nation and probably even have further split. Texas and the deep South had little in common. That alone would have been a rift. Other rifts might have occurred. Division and economic weakness would be hard to overcome. The Union would have had more of a chance as long as further secessions didn't occur. But the worst aspect would have been the further perpetuation of slavery.
Lincoln's refusal to allow secession finally enforced the views of Madison and Jackson of the invalidity of secession. Until Lincoln put the might of the Union army behind those views, they were merely opinions of great Americans, but not necessarily definitive. And his realization that the moral high ground lay in finally accepting abolition as Union policy was a risk, but one worth taking and one that defined his greatness.
Had he survived longer, there is evidence that Lincoln's view of reconstruction would have been similar to Grant's, but probably better executed. As it was, reconstruction was left to the problematic Johnson and the competent, but certainly not exceptional, Grant. This allowed Southern racism to defeat reconstruction despite early gains for blacks in the South. Had reconstruction been better carried out in the South over the racism of the defeated South, the Northern forms of racism would have had a much harder time standing the test of time. As it was, re-establishment of Southern racist policies in Jim Crow laws prevented America from fulfilling its ideal of all men being created equal for many, many more years. I should note that the South was not alone in having racist laws, but the defeat of the South in the Civil War gave the nation a chance to allow more equal treatment even to the point of allowing blacks to run for political office. The resistance to this in the South prevented progress for almost 100 years. Had Lincoln survived, I believe his greatness would have been even more manifest and even more critical for the reconstruction of the Union along better lines where Jim Crow, North and South, would have been far weaker. As it was, Lincoln's Presidency and the Civil War are one story.
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