The Question of Inevitability I: The Coming of the War

Folks disagree over whether the Civil War was inevitable.  I think there are questions that need to be answered when asking about Civil War causation, because I think we need to prove what is often assumed.  So I want to unpack some of those assumptions of us to consider.

Implicit in the discussion of inevitability is the assumption that there must have been a way short of secession and war (which are two distinct events) to resolve the issue of slavery.  Was there in fact a chance that political leaders could have worked together to set slavery on the road to ultimate extinction?  This, after all, is essential to Thomas DiLorenzo’s argument, which in itself is not new, that the Civil War was an unnecessary war.  Indeed, readers familiar with Civil War historiography know that the notion of the Civil War as a needless conflict brought about by a blundering generation was once a vibrant interpretation held by leading historians.

That argument had its problems.  After all, one could have avoided war simply by letting slavery continue on its way.  There’s no guarantee that slavery would have faded away: there was little evidence that one could cite in 1860 in support of the notion that it was a dying institution.  Indeed, slavery and plantation agriculture was booming in the late 1850s, leading to a cotton surplus in European warehouses.  People who point to what happened to slavery in the next twenty to forty years forget that the course of events they highlight was fundamentally shaped by the events of secession, war, Confederate defeat, and reconstruction.  You have to take out those considerations and posit the continuance of a profitable institution with expansionist desires.

What does seem evident is that in 1860 there was no chance of a proposal to end slavery peacefully gaining much traction.  Slaveholders had no desire to end the peculiar institution, and they saw no reason to do so.  As it was, Lincoln spoke about compensated emancipation taking place gradually accompanied by the offer to resettle freed blacks elsewhere, and he had no takers, despite his own assessment of the costs of such a program as compared to the costs of war.  So one might want to set aside the notion of a peaceful end to slavery as among the options that would have gained widespread bisectional support in 1860.

What one does see in 1860 is evidence of a growing split within the slaveholding states about the future of slavery and growing tension within southern society about the relationship between slaveholders and non-slaveholding whites (and some divisions within the ranks of slaveholders as well).  The upper South was becoming more diverse economically, and one can see patterns emerging that would have led to the decline of slavery in those states (with the economic impact of that event softened by the ability to sell slaves southward).  One of the reasons people in the upper South opposed the reopening of the transatlantic slave trade in the 1850s was that it would have damaged their own ability to sell slaves southward.  Indeed, discussions of events in the 1850s need to take better care when people talk about “the South” and “slaveholders,” because the interests of the upper South were different from the issues of the Deep South, and the outlook for slavery differed in those two areas.

One should also separate secession from war.  After all, one way to avoid the events of the spring of 1861 would have been to accept, at least on a de facto basis, the secession of the seven states of the Deep South that seceded prior to Lincoln’s inauguration.  One could have had secession without war.  People debate that as well, but it’s worth considering: it’s especially worth considering what would have happened in the upper South had secession not been contested.

That said, there were good reasons for both Abraham Lincoln and Jefferson Davis to seek confrontation at the risk of war.  Much ink has been spilled on Lincoln’s actions during the first six weeks of his presidency (and I’m sure we’ll hear more about it in weeks to come); far less attention as been paid to the first eight weeks of Jefferson Davis’s presidency (and watch how most people will ignore it over the next several weeks).  Both presidents understood that they had something to gain by accepting the risk of war, and both thought it was necessary to preserve their position.  However, if you believe that war was inevitable, then it doesn’t really pay to agonize over those decisions, because the outcome was inevitable, anyway.

I happen to think that some sort of conflict was inevitable, just not necessarily the conflict that came in 1860-61.  I think that the advocates of southern independence pushed things in that direction (and their major reason for advocating independence was to protect slavery).  However, I also think the protection of slavery motivated many conditional as well as unconditional unionists, who saw in war a challenge to slavery’s survival and the safety of southern society.  There would have been some sort of crisis even had Stephen Douglas secured the presidency given the situation under which he would have assumed power.  Lincoln’s election simply gave matters more of an edge and brought into clearer and sharper view what was happening.

That’s one reason why this past February in Springfield at the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum I offered, somewhat in an offhand way, my notion that secession became inevitable with Douglas’s reelection to the Senate in the wake of the elections of 1858.  Had Lincoln won the Senate race, who knows what would have happened?  The freshman senator would have taken a back seat to his “rivals” in the Senate, while Douglas’s defeat would have set him aside as a candidate for president in 1860.  Chew on that one for a while.

27 thoughts on “The Question of Inevitability I: The Coming of the War

  1. Mark March 7, 2011 / 11:20 am

    At what point are you starting from? From 1820? That’s when the South started the massive violent oppression of free speech, free religion, and free press.

    From Dred Scott decision? That is the decision that said blacks were “so inferior” that no white man could possibly assume they had any rights from God, and that furthermore, no Congress or state could even GIVE them such rights.

    From the Southern Ultimatums? Where the Southern leaders, according to Southern headlines, promised war if the US Congress did not spread slavery by force into the territories?

    Sure – if you go back to 1820, and prevent the violent state oppression of speech and religion, you could avoid the Civil War. If you go back to Dred Scott — and not allow a corrupt court to declare that blacks are not even human in eyes of the law, you could avoid the Civil War.

    If you go back and stop the Southern Ultimatums and the attacks that followed, when Lincoln would not comply, you could stop the Civil War.

    It was only inevitable because of those three things.

    • Brooks D. Simpson March 7, 2011 / 11:39 am

      For sake of discussion, let’s say 1844, although I’d be willing to go back to 1820 and offer a case. However, if your argument is that at some point a conflict became inevitable, then you concede that at some time it was not. I also separate secession and war, and I take forward my assumption that the primary reason secessionists supported southern independence was to protect slavery.

  2. James F. Epperson March 7, 2011 / 1:21 pm

    I think war became close to inevitable when the Democrats fractured in 1860. I understand the distinction between secession and war, but I think war was inevitable once secession occurred—if not the war that started in April, 1861, then a different one that would have started over CS efforts to pry the Upper South out of the Union.

    • Commodore Perry March 7, 2011 / 2:04 pm

      If there was no fracture, then who do you think would have been the compromise Democratic candidate for President? How would that have affected the election? Think about an 1860 election with only two candidates, Lincoln and [Democrat]- Would a more Unionist Democrat have won the overall election carrying some northern states? Would a more radical Democrat have raised the clamor of Southern Unionists who felt they had nobody to vote for and perhaps successfully inflamed their push back against the secessionists? I think you have to make these arguments in order to say that the Democratic split at the convention was the point of no return.

      • Brooks D. Simpson March 7, 2011 / 2:12 pm

        I don’t think the Democrats remain united in 1860 if Douglas is a candidate (although he was in fact willing to withdraw). Otherwise, think Daniel S. Dickinson, Andrew Johnson, or Thomas A. Hendricks. In fact, a Dickinson/Johnson ticket might have done the trick, although I still suspect some secessionists would have tried to fracture the party.

      • Allen Gathman March 7, 2011 / 2:25 pm

        It seems possible that a Unionist Democrat might have won against Lincoln. However, since Lincoln won a clear majority of the electoral votes, you’d have to assume that a united Democratic party would have looked stronger or more attractive in the North than the combination of factions actually did. Who could have been their candidate? Douglas’ opposition to the Lecompton Constitution in Kansas made him anathema to the Cotton States; I don’t know who else could have had the broad appeal to bring the upper South, lower South, and Northern Democrats to the voting booth.

  3. Matt McKeon March 7, 2011 / 2:57 pm

    Without the secession crisis, internal stresses within Southern white society between slaveholders and nonslaveholders(the rising price of slaves made the two groups more and more distinct) might, repeat, might have led to slaveholding elite being voted out by populist type whites who resented the privileges slaveholders had given themselves.

    As far as Lincoln is concerned, the only way he could have prevented secession was to call a conference with Jefferson Davis, Charles Yancey, Louis T. Wigfall, and Rhett Barnwell, then shot each one of them in the face. In 1844. So he needed a time machine.

    • Lyle Smith March 7, 2011 / 3:08 pm

      Jefferson Davis wasn’t a fire eater, I think. He didn’t support secession until late, and was mostly a Unionist, I believe, before coming to support secession. So it would have just been murder to shoot him 1844. It would have been murder even if he was a fire eater.

  4. Lyle Smith March 7, 2011 / 3:00 pm

    I think a war was inevitable because the South was stuck with the institution of slavery. Slavery wasn’t going away quietly. The slave economic system was too well rooted to just wither away in good time. Way too much wealth was tied up in slaves and in the land they worked for the planter class. People would be stupid to just obliterate their wealth for the sake of their morals. People in business don’t do such things today.

    It’s telling that the likes of Thomas Jefferson and a number of other well meaning founders could not part with their slaves when they died… and that’s because it would have been financial ruin or financial stupidity to do such thing. Furthermore a culture had developed around the planter class and those wanted to be in it or emulate it. To be a plantation owner was the Jeffersonian American dream. You were somebody special if you owned a large amount of land, a good number of slaves, and had a large house. This is exactly why even a handful of free blacks acquired land and slaves; they wanted to live the planter class dream as well, and be respected for what they had accomplished. It’s what they knew about agrarian life, and it is what they wanted like a lot of other Southerners.

    Slave owners and those that lived off that economy weren’t just going to give up their way of making a living without some kind of struggle.

    • Brooks D. Simpson March 7, 2011 / 3:13 pm

      Okay, but who says the North insists on abolition? Remember the Corwin Amendment? And what if Lincoln had just let the Confederacy set up shop for a while?

      • Lyle Smith March 7, 2011 / 3:52 pm

        The problem, I think, was not with what the North was going to try to do in late 1860 and early 1861… but what abolitionists were going to continue to try and do (from a pro-slavery perspective). The Corwin amendment could obviously be neutered or made null and void by future amendments, like the eventual 13th amendment (I think I’m understanding this correctly) has done to it. I think pro-slavery politicians understood this. It’s possible they saw that trying to remain in the Union was a futile effort, because the slave owning political class was going to continue to lose voting power in Congress as non-slave western territories grew into States, and because of future immigration. Abolitionists weren’t going to quit until they got what they wanted.

        If Lincoln or whoever was President had let the Confederacy exist… yes, a war might not have happened soon thereafter or ever. However, you would have had economic tensions between the U.S. and the C.S.A. because of trade up and down the Mississippi and the abolitionists, again, probably wouldn’t have just shut up because the Confederacy was allowed to become a sovereign state. You would have had your John Brown acolytes pushing for liberation. Slavery may have just come apart like apartheid did in South Africa, but there would have been a lot of domestic pressure in the North, I think, to do something about slavery before that happened. Anti-slavery Southerners might have been lobbying for some help as well. Maybe all the anti-slavery efforts wouldn’t have been enough to ignite a conflict, but if people really wanted slavery to end they were going to have to physically do something about it… at least until slavery no longer made economic sense to slave owners.

  5. James F. Epperson March 7, 2011 / 3:13 pm

    Something you learn in studying this period and its problems is the extent to which slavery was a trap—almost an addiction—that sucked people in and put them in a position where they could not conceive of going on in life w/o it. So it is no surprise that they were willing to start and fight a war to defend it.

      • James F. Epperson March 7, 2011 / 3:17 pm

        I don’t think many political entities would have agreed to the forced dismembering of themselves. Lincoln’s analogy about a highwayman accusing his victim (who declined to be robbed) of murder seems apt.

      • Marc Ferguson March 7, 2011 / 4:31 pm

        One reason not to just let the slave states go is that it sets up a precedent allowing any state or group of states unhappy with a national policy or the result of a national election to essential hold the nation hostage. There were very real concerns, articulated in newspaper editorials, of other groups of states organizing their own confederacies. While one could argue over whether this would have been preferable, it does create a very different scenario for the future, from the perspective of 1860/61, America. The possibilities for future conflicts is heightened, as the Confederacy continues to meddle in the affairs of the U.S., attempting as Jim Epperson says, to pry away the border states. Also there would undoubtedly be conflict as the two, or more, nations vie with each other over settling the West, and for all the pleas to be allowed to “depart in peace,” made at the time and now echoed by those who think this would have avoided war, I don’t believe for a moment that the CSA had any intention of abandoning claims to the territories.

        • James F. Epperson March 7, 2011 / 4:36 pm

          To use a current phrase, I think “letting them go” is just “kicking the can down the road” a bit. It doesn’t solve anything.

      • Richard McCormick March 7, 2011 / 6:09 pm

        How serious were people about proving that democracy could work? I know it’s a point Lincoln made and believed, but I don’t know how widespread it was.

        If it did have some kind of popularity, then “letting them go” demonstrates that democracy does not work in a modern world and that a democracy cannot hold itself together. Not only would that foreshadow an unproductive, perhaps short, future for the Union, but it would leave the existing Union looking rather neutered to the rest of the world. Would the remaining “United States” have had any respect at all from other nations? And would other nations have been more likely to try to take advantage of the political fractures on the continent?

        • Brooks D. Simpson March 7, 2011 / 7:08 pm

          Let me offer my counterfactual scenario, based on the hopes of one William H. Seward, as a way of playing devil’s advocate:

          Letting the Deep South try to find its own way might have been one way to allow secession to collapse. Without much of a threat from the outside, and with a vulnerable border, the Deep South would have also found that the cotton surpluses produced in the late 1850s dampened demand for cotton and lowered prices. Moreover, before long the little Confederacy would have found itself forced to address a European presence in Mexico and would have to wonder about access to western lands. Where might this have led? Who knows … but an implosion is surely possible.

          I think Lincoln’s greatest challenge would have been to justify to northern voters letting the Deep South go.

          • Bob Pollock March 7, 2011 / 8:39 pm

            My impression is that most Northerners and many Southerners saw secession as a threat to democracy; a threat to the idea of majority rule. Kennneth Stampp in his edited book “The Causes of the Civil War” included newspaper editorials from Philadelphia, Chicago, and Ohio in 1860-61 that all vehemently argue this. You can read a few of these on google books (documents 63-69) here:


            Of course, many Southerners argued that “rule by an absolute majority free to trample upon the rights of minorities is not democracy but tyranny,” as Stampp put it. Somehow they failed to see the irony in complaining of the tyranny of the majority while they oppressed the minority in their own section.

            Nevertheless, this is the fundamental conundrum of democracy – how to have majority rule while still protecting minority rights. Perhaps we are seeing an example of this in Wisconsin right now?

            BTW, the editorial from the Chicago Journal (April 17, 1861), document 66 in the Stampp book, sounds a lot like one of Mark’s posts. 🙂

          • Commodore Perry March 7, 2011 / 8:49 pm

            “Nevertheless, this is the fundamental conundrum of democracy – how to have majority rule while still protecting minority rights.”

            The Founders considered this by equalizing representation in the Senate, creating the Electoral College, and requiring super-majorities for Constitutional Amendments. One wonders, therefore, whether secessionists perceived a realistic threat of enough free states entering the Union from the West to bring them to a two-thirds super-majority. I think Southern secessionists were indeed channeling the Founders in worrying about tyranny of the majority, but they seemed to miss the boat regarding not only whites-over-blacks but also the Founders’ built-in solutions to counteract this fear.

  6. Mark March 7, 2011 / 4:21 pm

    Well since the South literally did not allow Lincoln on the ballot, what on EARTH are you talking about?

    What on earth does the South have to do before any of you say the plain truth – they were cruel, violent despots, who never had an honest election.

    Do you think the 1860 election was on the level? Really? Lincoln not only wasn’t allowed on the ballot in most of the South — where he was allowed, they simply didn’t count his votes.

    Saddam Hussein would blush — or be proud of — the “elections” in the South. Stop free speech for a generation – -torture arrest and deport people who question slavery — then don’t allow anyone on the ballot who challenged the insane nonsense.

    But here were are, talking about 1860 farce as if it was an election.

    Don’t believe me? Go read a few Southern newspapers, bragging about hunting down of people who simply SPOKE their opinion against slavery. Go read accounts of preachers arrested and subject to torture. They BRAGGED about this at the time. What on earth do they have to do before we take reality into account? They BRAGGED about things then, that we dare not whisper today, lest we be called “ant- South”.

    Hiton Helper didn’t pretend – why are we? Helper said (from the safety of the North) that if the South had free speech (they did not) and if they had real elections ( they did not) slave owners would have been kicked out of power. I believe hm.

    The whole point here is the totalitarian control of free speech and free religion in the South had a PROFOUND effect.

    Helper was there, and knew the South. He was from the South. He was kicked out for speaking against slavery, along with men like Cassius Clay. Every single anti-slavery publication was shut down. You could vote for any candidate you wanted, as long as he was pro slavery. You could read any book you wanted, as long as it didn’t question slavery. You could listen to any sermon you wanted, as long as the preacher said what the government wanted.

    Yes, Helper was an extreme racist himself — he hated slavery because he hated blacks. But he knew a totalitarian government when he saw one – and he saw one in the South.

    The North had free speech, and used it to get rid of slavery, a basic fact we seem embarrassed by. It wasn’t the temperature in the SOuth that made slave owners rich – it was the oppressive of free speech that perpetuated slavery.

    Lncoln would have been arrested, at least, and killed, most likely, if he tried to give his very moderate speeches, in the South. When even preachers — yes preachers — were arrested for preaching against slavery, and subjected to torture – what would they have done to Lincoln? I think we know, because they eventually did exactly that, when he was assinated. Booth heard Lincoln SPEAK — and speak for rights for blacks. In less than 24 hours, Lincoln was dead.

    What is this collective denial we still have 150 years later? Who are you afraid of pithing off? Booth died. The South lost. While you could be arrested then for saying these things, no one is going to arrest you now.

    If you want to get real, wonder if LIncoln and people like him, were allowed to even walk down the street in the South and speak — to ANYONE, if that would make a difference. Wonder if the preachers in the South were not tortured for questioning slavery, what would have happened. Wonder if freedom of speech could have any effect on slavery.

    • Brooks D. Simpson March 7, 2011 / 5:28 pm

      While I appreciate your passionate contributions, just as I appreciated “Frank’s” contributions, let’s see if we can stay on the issue and not veer into insulting people just because they do not share your perspective. Thanks.

  7. Mark March 7, 2011 / 5:35 pm

    Letting them go? Are you not paying attention?

    The South was not about being “let go” — what part of Southern Ultimatums don’t you grasp? What part of expanding slavery against the will of the people and states don’t you get?

    Do you think Toombs was kidding when he yelled “EXPAND OR PERISH”?

    We are adopting Jeff Davis insane pathological nonsense — the South did not want to be left alone. They wanted to SPREAD slavery by force. Do you not know that? What do you think the “compromise” of 1820 was about? The spread of slavery.
    What do you think the “compromise” of 1850 was about — the South didn’t like the first robbery, and were back demanding more, like a 7-11 armed robber comes back for a a fill up.
    What do you think the 1861 Southern Ultimatums were about? Here, the Southern robbers were demanding — under promise of war — that the NORTH spread slavery for it. These guys reached the point of hubris, that they just gave Ultimatums to the 7-11 clerk, to BRING them the money, they didn’t even want to have to take it.
    What do you think the Dred Scott decision was about? The spread of slavery. Blacks were “so inferior” that no white man could POSSIBLY assume they had any rights AT ALL given by God. Can you grasp that?
    Furthermore, Dred Scott decision said no Congress or state could even GIVE them any rights whatever, that white men had to obey.
    Do you think Lincoln was wrong when he said they did Dred Scott in order to SPREAD slavery?
    These were not insane men. They were trained. Violence and threats were how they got power and prestige and possessions. They could order a woman tortured, and she was tied up to be beaten. They could order a child sold, and it was taken to the auction. THAT is the kind of men we were dealing with.
    They would have rather spread slavery by deceit — such as Dred Scott, but they were more than willing to kill and torture and threaten, if the deceptions didn’t work, as Kansas proved.
    Somehow, in our political pathetically correct history, we have idolized these men. Far from just covering up for them, we are taught, even in the North, to see them as near God like. It’s pathetic, actually.
    WHy do you think George Mason said these men went “to the schools of hell” (infernal schools) where they looked like Gentlemen, but were as cruel as any brute, as vile as any torturer. And these were their LEADERS.
    George Mason had it right. He knew these men. He spoke of what would happen to the country when men like this ruled the South completely.
    Mason was able to talk this way in 1780. He would have been hung up and tortured if he said such things in 1850.
    I can understand why we don’t tell our grade school kids the ugly truth about our own history. But why on earth do the grown ups who have access to Southern books at the time, Southern newspapers at the time, Southern documents at the time, Southern laws at the time, have to pretend?
    I just don’t understand it.

    • Brooks D. Simpson March 7, 2011 / 5:55 pm

      It’s simple, Mark. I ask questions to propel discussion. Just because I ask a question doesn’t mean I think Lincoln should have let the seceding states leave uncontested, and in any case my job as a historian is simply to understand why he did not follow that path. You might want to modify your approach in light of that information. Like DiLorenzo, you tend to get personal in your responses, and I think you would be far better advised to stick to the merits of the argument. Thanks.

  8. Tony Gunter March 8, 2011 / 9:14 am

    I actually agree with Mark. The southern states’ response to the Nat Turner rebellion sent The South into a xenophobic spiral that seemed to guarantee an eventual conflict over the peculiar institution. Government control of the press, control of what could be transmitted via the mail, and even control of what could be expressed as a personal opinion meant that the people of the slaveholding states were being constantly propagandized with the idea that emancipation would be cataclysmic.

    It’s interesting to see the same forces at play in 1960 that were at play in 1860, with the Citizen’s Council playing the part of the Vigilance Committees. Constant propagandization of the people guaranteed a conflict. if on a smaller scale.

    I find it sad that teachers spend so little energy discussing the reaction to Nat Turner. I wonder if there is not some lesson to be learned today with regard to our response to extremism. Are we setting ourselves up for another inevitable conflict?

  9. Daniel E. Spector, PhD March 15, 2011 / 10:02 am

    First a comment: Did Commodore Perry give up the grave?

    To the meat of a very useful dialogue. I avoid declaring any given event as preordained, a trap many of us fall into because looking backwards as historians must do, it often seems that what happened was inevitable. My worldview is not Hegelian: thesis, antithesis, and synthesis. That is why I cannot buy into Marxist determinism, nor a Calvinist approach to cosmology. I encourage my students to think in terms of causes and effects over time, and explore which individual cause could be isolated and taken out of the equation to change the ultimate event. That is not as simple as it seems as causes are normally multiple and interacting, but a useful discussion. It does require establishing a time line and evaluating what happened along that timeline. Working back from Lincoln’s decision to put down the Southern revolt after the firing on Fort Sumpter to determine what caused the Civil War, one must look at all the events leading up to that April in 1861. In the sequence of causes and events over the time line, the Southern institution of slavery is critical. If this was not lurking behind each cause and effect event going back to the Missouri Compromise, the Civil War might not have happened. I realize that this is not acceptable to many in the South—where I was born, raised, and live.

    In an analogy, a death certificate often notes pneumonia as the proximate cause of death, like the case with Stonewall Jackson. It also seeks, or others seek, the ultimate cause of death; for Jackson this was being shot at Chancellorsville.


    Dan Spector

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