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.


12 thoughts on “The Future of Slavery Sans Civil War: Counterfactual Ponderings

  1. Patrick Young February 14, 2013 / 5:17 pm

    When have the oligarchs in a society ever voluntarily redistributed their property?

  2. Mark February 14, 2013 / 6:18 pm

    All great points. It was reasonable to think at one point that slavery would decline. By the mid 1850’s it was delusional. Current, or some other famous historian made this point first, that to believe slavery would just pass out of existence peacefully given enough time depends upon the sort of fuzzy-headed idealism or utopianish ideas of which the Lost Causers never tire of attributing to the civil war era Republicans.

  3. wgdavis February 14, 2013 / 7:32 pm

    Just a counter question: Would there be anything, anything at all, that possibly might have united the Democratic Party to enable Lincoln’s defeat? Perhaps unifying behind Douglas, signifying a movement by the slave-power toward some compromise down the road…

    I picture the governors of the upper south traveling to Charleston to ask them to tone things down…along with an emissary to Davis in Mississippi to suggest he do the same in the realization that civil war was a cost the region could not afford without international help, and they needed time to obtain promises of that.

    Like I said in the counter-factual comment, I don’t think the war would not have happened, yet posing my ideas about what would happen to slavery if it did not. After thinking more about it, the only thing I think that could avoid the war, at least temporarily, was the election of someone other than Lincoln, and Douglas is the only one I think would have a chance to win, if the deal was Breckinridge would withdraw, and of course, that per-supposes that Douglas would survive the four year term.

    That would forestall the war to allow for the secessionists to explore more deeply the securing of promises of assistance if they seceded and established a new nation.

    I think that four years is critical. It’s a cooling off period, it defuses the immediate threat of disunion, and offers an olive branch to the Northern emancipationsts/abolitionists the south was willing to move toward the end of slavery.

    The defeat of Lincoln by a unified Democratic Party, which if the numbers remain true to what happened, would have led to am 8% victory over Lincoln, which would have put a serious dent into the future of the Republican party, and would have seriously changes the political landscape in Congress.

    It all hinges on the political power of the Upper South. Are they able to forestall SC and Davis?

    But, as we know, the Fire-Eaters intervened, inserting their will on the majority.

    I do not think slavery was dying in the US at the time of the Civil War’s start. It did suffer a militarily enforced death over the next four years. And no I do not believe the Civil War would not have happened. But I can see the possibility that it could have been avoided by counter-factuals such as above.

  4. rcocean February 14, 2013 / 7:47 pm

    The war was inevitable because of the blindness and arrogance of the Southern political elite and dumb and passive attitude of the average “poor white”. All the Southern political class could see in 1860 was that “cotton was King” and that secession not only was justified legally and morally but that it would be successful. Almost all of them thought that either the North wouldn’t fight or that the South would win easily over a divided North, or that England would intervene on their side (Cotton was King!!). This men were backward looking – not forward looking. They had no desire to change the “Southern Way of Life” and had no imagination to see that slavery was becoming economically outdated and unnecessary. Pretty much all of them 20 years after the fact admitted privately or publicly that the whole war had been colossal mistake.

  5. Michael Confoy February 14, 2013 / 8:27 pm

    You hate to think that war was inevitable by 1860, but I think it was. The other direction has to be looked at — it seems the previous three presidents actions (or lack there of) made war inevitable. If Fillmore had said no to the compromise of 1850 as Taylor said he was going to do, then what happens? Perhaps Taylor had to live to see this scenario occur.

  6. neukomment February 14, 2013 / 8:29 pm

    I have from time to time pondered what would have happened if Lincoln was elected but the Confederate states did NOT leave the union. My tentative speculation is he would have been a 1 term President.

    An issue at play in any possible scenario is the aggressiveness of the slave states in seeking the expansion of slavery into the territories. Lincoln’s comments regarding waking up one day to find a “Dred Scott II” decision has effectively expanded slavery into the free states, rightly or wrongly, expressed the fears many in the free states were feeling regarding the intentions of the pro-slavery forces..

    I do not think we can safely downplay the impact of events of the preceding 10 years before 1860. The Dred Scott decision, the Kansas-Nebraska act, and the events of bloody Kansas fed the apprehensions, concerns, and even fears of free states just as much as the slave states. That is clearly seen in the content and reception of Lincoln’s Cooper Union address.

  7. M.D. Blough February 15, 2013 / 1:47 am

    I agree with neukommnent that the splits had already started, long before Lincoln was elected. Bleeding Kansas was an informal civil war. The splits in the Protestant Churches had started as early as 1838 (Presbyterians) continuing into the growing schism in the Baptists and the final split in 1845 as well as the 1844 split among the Methodist Episcopals. Buchanan and Douglas had come to a bitter split over Buchanan’s support of the fraudulent pro-slavery Lecompton Constitution that sought to have Kansas admitted as a slave state. The threat to secede if a Republican won was made in the 1856 presidential election. The Democrats came to their 1860 presidential with the secessionists openly trying to provoke a split and many Northern Democrats having reached the end of their ropes in catering to the slave state Democrats. Without the war, the US Supreme Court still headed by Chief Justice Taney would have decided the case of Lemmon v. New York on whether free states had the right to declare slaves brought into free states by their owners to be free.

    The slave states’ escalating demands for protection for slavery had finally persuaded many free state whites that their rights were jeopardized by agreeing to those demands.

  8. William Houston February 15, 2013 / 10:14 am

    Why chastise your commentators for simply addressing the questions as asked? I suspect you would have had plenty of us agree with you that the war was likely unavoidable in 1860 if you had asked “How does one avoid a national confrontation over the future of slavery starting in 1860?”

    Also, regarding your comment “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.” I would posit that Abraham Lincoln also has a great deal of blood on his hands as during the secession crisis he subordinated every other consideration —disunion, war, etc.—to his desire not to splinter the Republican Party. William J. Cooper’s latest book is only one of many works to demonstrate this. I wonder sometimes if the great sadness he experienced throughout the war was at least in part guilt over his lack of understanding of the South’s resolve in 1860 and his failure to provide leadership that might have prevented hostilities or at least kept them on a lesser scale (i.e. seven not eleven Confederate States).

    • John Foskett February 15, 2013 / 12:08 pm

      Wrong. The premise is that the South undertook the illegal act of secession unnecessarily because the fight was over a “dying institution” (accepting the rhetoric of the “dying institution” crowd). And we know that secession was based on fears that Lincoln planned to erode this allegedly “dying” institution. Lincoln was simply reacting to an illegal act of rebellion/treason. The war resulted because of secession (and the concomitant firing on a U.S. military installation). Secession resulted because of Lincoln’s election and fears about what he would do to the South’s vital institution (see, again, the correspondence and speeches of the commissioners). If it was “dying” anyway, was that worth engaging in illegal rebellion and the resulting war?

    • Brooks D. Simpson February 15, 2013 / 1:02 pm

      No one has chastised anyone for answering the questions Mr. Nelson posed. Perhaps you need to read more carefully. I have questioned the usefulness of the questions Mr. Nelson posed, and I have offered some observations about the assumptions upon which they rest, as well as Mr. Nelson’s assumption of what most people believe. Nevertheless, I let Mr. Nelson’s questions go forward … and you would rather quarrel about that than answer his questions.

      As for Mr. Lincoln’s responsibility for the war … and thus having blood on his hands … any president who decides to risk war is well aware of the consequences of military conflict, although it would be difficult to see how anyone would have understood the terrible dimensions of the conflict in 1861 as well as its revolutionary impact. Lincoln held firm on his opposition to the expansion of slavery, and in so doing risked the very party divisions you say he fought to preserve as his paramount concern. Bill Cooper’s book enters into a larger discussion among historians about this, and, as most people know, there are other perspectives, so you should not rush to declare as settled a matter that still elicits much debate.

      Did Lincoln misunderstand the extent and depth of the resolve shown by secessionists? Yes. Did he overestimate the determination of many southern unionists, especially in the Deep South? Yes (he had more reason to understand the variations in unionist determination in some places, such as Tennessee). Had his assessment been more in line with the unfolding reality, however, one would assume that Lincoln would have embraced waging a harder war far more quickly. He would not let secession pass unchallenged.

      For Lincoln to have prevented hostilities, he would have required the cooperation of Jefferson Davis. We know that such cooperation was not forthcoming. Indeed, it was in Davis’s best interest to provoke a conflict that would tip the scales for secession in several upper South states, as events demonstrated. I suspect Davis underestimated Lincoln’s resolve as well as the resolve of most northerners. The Confederate president was well aware of the division between Lincoln and Seward (as you can find out by reading Cooper’s biography of Davis). Lincoln resolved to let Davis make the choice between peace and war, and Davis chose war, in part because it looked to add more states to the original seven.

  9. ironrailsironweights February 17, 2013 / 10:10 am

    Would the experience of Brazil be instructive? Brazil had far more slaves than the American South, and slavery was far more important to its economy, yet slavery ended in 1888 without a civil war.


    • M.D. Blough February 17, 2013 / 12:15 pm

      Most of the northern states had chosen very gradual emancipation laws to end slavery, but ending slavery nationally was another matter. To arrive at a peaceful end of slavery, you have to have slaveowners who are willing to discuss the possibility of slavery ending. Pro-slavery forces in the South were not willing to do so. In fact, in the 1850s, they were not only exerting pressure to have the Federal government protect their being able to take their slaves into territories without risking the loss of the slaves but they also were taking a case to the US Supreme Court that would have invalidated STATE laws that made states free states and prevented slaveowners from being able to take their slaves into those states without risking the loss of the slaves. As late as 1862, loyal slave states rejected Lincoln’s offer to have federal financial assistance in gradually ending slavery and ended up having their slaves liberated without compensation to their former owners by the 13th Amendment.

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