Was the Civil War worth the price?
Whether the southern states had constitutional warrant to secede from the Union is a fascinating intellectual dispute with no accepted answer. In this case force of arms supplied the answer. Nor does it matter much whether the South had a more respectable reason to secede than slavery. Why should Northerners kill former fellow citizens for wanting to leave for whatever reason? It is hard to see why secession warranted war.
Still, slavery was the triggering event. There were other issues, such as tariffs, but none would have animated the white populations to leave the union. Although Lincoln pledged to respect the institution of slavery, it would have become much less secure facing hostile national executive and legislative branches. His election sparked the almost instantaneous walk-out by seven deep South states, starting with South Carolina.
However, eight slave states remained. Had all gone out the North’s task would have been far greater. But the eight remained loyal until Lincoln called up 75,000 militiamen to suppress the rebellion. Notably, this was no campaign to free the slaves. Although the president genuinely loathed slavery, he famously wrote Horace Greeley: “My paramount object in the struggle is to save the Union, and is not either to save or to destroy slavery.” Lincoln’s overwhelming concern was to preserve the national government; the status of the slave system that so distorted the government was secondary.
Only after the president announced his plan to coerce the seceded states did the upper South — Arkansas, North Carolina, Tennessee, and Virginia — leave the Union. They were willing to subordinate slavery to national unity but would not join an effort to suppress states with which they had more in common than with most of the North. The border states of Kentucky and Missouri divided and fought their own mini-civil wars, while Union occupation preserved Maryland’s loyalty and tiny Delaware never had a choice. One North Carolina unionist complained: “Union sentiment was largely in the ascendant and gaining strength until Lincoln prostrated us. He could have adopted no policy so effectual to destroy the union.… Lincoln has made us a unit to resist until we repel our invaders or die.”
The issue of coercion was critical to many Americans. Before leaving U.S. army service, Col. Robert E. Lee wrote: “I can anticipate no greater calamity for the country than a dissolution of the Union.…Still, a Union that can only be maintained by swords and bayonets, and in which strife and civil war are to take the place of brotherly love and kindness, has no charm for me.” Horace Greeley could have been plagiarizing Lee when the former editorialized in the New York Tribune: “We hope never to live in a republic whereof one section is pinned to the residue by bayonets.”
It is hard to disagree with such sentiments. If Californians today declared that they wanted to separate from the rest of America — perhaps with the enthusiastic encouragement of many conservatives! — should Washington send in the army? Conduct terror bombing from the sky? Set up a naval blockade, an updated “Anaconda Plan” of sorts? Hopefully not. Whether the Golden State’s departure was “legal” would matter little. Washington would have to choose between wishing 40 million Californians well or killing them. The first would be the better option.
Washington most certainly WILL do anything it thinks it must to prevent Cali or any other state from seceding, and none of us ought to be kidding ourselves about that. There is simply no chance whatsoever that Mordor On The Potomac will ever for one second countenance depriving itself of access to those seaports, military bases, natural resources, industries, and the tax dollars they generate—none.
Rightly or wrongly, the question of secession was indeed settled by the War Of Northern Aggression, and nobody in DC gives a tin fuck whether you like the way things worked out or not.
Being a proud Southerner born and raised, as well as having a lifelong fascination with Civil War history, I confess I have somewhat conflicted feelings about Lincoln. I don’t necessarily subscribe to the blanket condemnation of him as a “tyrant” like some of my friends do; his rhetoric as the War progressed describing his passion for preserving the Union was nothing short of soaring, a thing of rare eloquence and beauty.
At the same time though, there’s no denying that his prosecution of the war helped the abandonment of the Constitutional ideal of limited federal government along, and made the metastizing DC cancer we find ourselves confronting now inevitable. It’s more than a little ironic that Lincoln’s near-fanatical insistence on preserving the Union at any cost led directly to the establishment of precisely the kind of contra-Constitutional abomination the Founders so vehemently abhorred.
And so here we all are: seriously debating both the prospect and desirability of fighting another Civil War in hopes of ridding ourselves of the kind of intrusive, all-powerful central government the first one saddled us with. Left mostly undiscussed so far is what the odds off actually pulling that miracle off, rather than ending up with something much worse, might be.