Civil War - avoidable?

Lincoln is revered for saving the Union and for freeing the slaves. These were great accomplishments, but the price was exceedingly high. Out of a US population of 35 million, over 600,000 soldiers died, and at least as many were badly wounded. Property and other Civil War damages mounted to a massive $4 billion, primarily in the South. While federal war spending helped industries in the North, tax monies could have certainly been put to use more productively.

Could US Civil War devastation have been avoided? An easy answer is Yes, if the North had not sent armies into the South. The more important question is: Could civil war have been avoided AND the Union been preserved?

The answer is also probably a Yes. Lincoln's political idol Henry Clay showed the way. In the Congress, Clay was the statesman behind three historic compromises that had earlier preserved the Union. In 1820, his Missouri Compromise maintained an equal number of free and slave states by admitting Maine (formerly part of Massachusetts) at the same time as Missouri was being admitted to the Union. With this approach, the evenly divided US Senate could block any legislation that the House of Representatives might pass. (With the larger population in the North, its number of Representatives were always going to have a majority.)

Although slavery was the big issue between Northern and Southern states, there were other major controversies. The Tariff Acts of 1828 and 1832, referred to as the Tariffs of Abomination, caused the first southern rebellion. People in the South were required to pay much higher prices for manufactured items. Northerners would pay them as well, but jobs in Northern factories would be protected by the high customs duties on imported goods. South Carolina actually passed a law to nullify these extraordinarily high federal tariffs. Threats of secession were made by some southerners.

Henry Clay continued his compromise work in 1833, negotiating with South Carolinian John Calhoun to structure a tariff reduction bill. North-South tensions were again reduced. In 1850 Clay fostered a third big compromise with a set of 5 bills, which included admission of California as a free state and a strict law on runaway slaves. His efforts defused impassioned calls to split the Union.

Lincoln did not follow Clay's example of compromise. Although Lincoln believed that slavery was wrong, he also held that it was legal under the Constitution - a sort of compromise position. It is always easier in hindsight to identify which decisions of a leader worked and which did not. Lincoln's decision to re-supply the federal garrison on Fort Sumter in Charleston harbor seems to have been made to force the South to start hostilities, not to start a compromise dialog. In 1861 tempers were short in both the South and North. But tensions were also high preceding Clay's statesmanlike compromises in 1820, 1833, and 1850. Clay reduced those tensions; Lincoln did not do so in 1861.

After Civil War fighting had begun, Lincoln was happy to support the splitting of Virginia into two states. West Virginia joined the Northern cause. Suppose instead that Lincoln had reassured the South immediately after his election. He could have followed the Missouri Compromise approach by saying he would support the split up of slave states as needed to maintain North-South balance in the Senate. New England had many tiny states. Why not allow the South to follow that pattern, especially if it could avoid a devastating war?

In hindsight, we now know that slavery was rapidly dying out around the world as the Civil War began.. In 1888, Brazil was the last major country to abolish slavery. If Lincoln had followed his political idol's compromise approach, it appears that the Union would have been saved, and that slavery would gradually wither away - all without a costly war. Dealing with the slavery question in its own way, the South would have avoided the turmoil of Reconstruction and the bitter feelings that persisted through the mid 20th century civil rights era. Yes, Lincoln did save the Union and freed the slaves. But the cost in lives and dollars was terrible. With more of Clay's statesmanlike compromises, the same goals could have been met without the huge cost and bad feelings. The Civil War was not only avoidable, it exacerbated regional tensions that hindered the growth of the US as a world power.

Information on: Sloan, the author

Go to: World History analysis by Sloan

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