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.