The Future of Slavery Sans Civil War: Counterfactual Ponderings

Over the last several days commenters have been responding to one commenter’s desire to seek discussion on several counterfactual questions. There’s no harm in that. However, there is something wild about the conclusion reached that if, absent a war, slavery might have lasted only another thirty years, that the Civil War was even a costlier (and perhaps pointless) exercise than some would make it out to be.

First, how does one avoid a national confrontation over the future of slavery starting in 1860? One would have to posit that the Republicans did not win the presidential contest that year, as Lincoln’s mere election spurred secession. That means that a divided Democratic party would have to find some way to govern the country in a way that proved satisfactory to both North and South. How exactly would that have happened? Would not the next four years have seen an increase in Republican political power in the North if the Democrats continued to cow-tow to the slaveowning interests in the South? How, indeed, does one reasonably avoid eventual Republican victory … and, that being said, how then would one avoid secession in the defense of slavery by southern states? Can one construct a reasonable compromise whereby the Republicans come to power nationally without secession happening? After all, Lincoln was already on the record as being a colonizationist who believed in gradual compensated emancipation (look at his eulogy of Henry Clay in 1852). He was also on the record as saying he would not touch slavery where it existed: emancipation would have to come about by choice.

So we’d have to see a counterfactual that denies the Republicans coming to power for many, many years. No one’s offered how that comes about.

If you believe that the Republicans eventually would have reached the White House, then you have to explain whether a majority of white southerners in the Deep South would ever have opposed secession. Yes, in some states the minority was strong, but not in others … but for slavery to exist in the absence of war, would it not also have to exist in the absence of secession?

Now, some of you will say that secession by itself was not war. Let’s stipulate that such is the case. Let’s say that the original seven states of the Confederacy form their experiment in a slaveholding republic in 1861. Let’s also posit that Lincoln decides against contesting that secession explicitly, meaning that all of the upper South states stay out (leaving eight slave states in the Union). How do you think that works long term?

I happen to think that most counterfactual ponderings on slavery sans war, especially ones that suggest that the war was unnecessary as a means of destroying slavery because slavery was doomed to die out within a generation, miss some very obvious considerations. First, many of the assessments about what happens globally between 1860 and 1900 in this counterfactual point to events that might very well have not happened without secession and war. Were there alternative sources for cotton? Sure … but it was the war and the blockade that promoted that search for alternative producers of raw cotton. Second, why assume that slavery is linked simply to cotton? Aren’t there other enterprises in which slave labor might be used? Who says that the original Confederacy would not have thought of expanding southward, because there is plenty of evidence that this was indeed on the minds of a good many proslavery white southerners? And, of course, regardless of one’s counterfactual assertions, the fact remains that in 1860 white southerners saw slavery as a vibrant, profitable, expanding enterprise, with the price of slaves being what it was precisely because they were so valuable and people were willing to pay those prices. If you want to tell me that it was possible to see in 1860 that it was known that slavery was going to be unprofitable and on the point of collapse within a generation, show me who saw it and why more people did not listen to those folks. Then tell me why so many white southerners were so suicidal and so very, very stupid. This isn’t evilizing white southerners … it’s stupidizing them.

Otherwise, it’s like telling me that the Japanese were stupid for going to war with the United States in 1941 because less than four years later the Americans would have the capacity to level the entire Japanese mainland with atomic bombs. One may question the Japanese decision to go to war for other reasons, but I’d like to see someone advance this particular claim with a straight face.

Thus, assuming an eventual Republican victory in a presidential contest (very likely), either you have to posit a decision of white southerners not to secede (quite unlikely) followed either by a decision in the North to remain silent about slavery’s existence (extraordinarily unlikely) or to offer a deal to white southerners that they would accept that would set slavery upon the path to ultimate demise (note that they did not accept the offers made or counter with other ways to achieve the same end).  It’s unlikely that there is more than a seven-state Confederacy without aggressive action by a Republican president, and, in fact, in this scenario one could posit that what would have happened is that there would have been abolition in the remaining United States with slaveholders selling their slaves south (a growing supply in slaves would have cut the price of slaves, making slave ownership even broader in the Deep South) had Lincoln gotten his way with a plan of compensated emancipation with colonization … which, I suspect, might have been easier to secure in the remaining United States absent war, but not secession, because slavery’s hold simply wasn’t as strong and its profitability was not as great in those areas. You also have to consider the long-term viability of the seven-state Confederacy and posit that it would not have sought to expand southward, which is not a safe assumption to make. You don’t get an eleven-state Confederacy (or more) without war.

If the American Civil War was an unnecessary war because slavery was a dying institution anyway, then white southerners have a lot of blood on their hands and very little brains in their heads. You are free to make that argument. I won’t.