In any endeavor to measure the rectitude of some chosen course of action, one must first resolve to standardize and clearly define the component parts of the situation: the designated purpose of an individual or group, the forces acting against them, and the measure to which they or their opponent forces prevailed upon the other. In a case so arduous and wrought with historical interpretation and reinterpretation as the American Civil War, the contentious opinions as to the true nature of its underlying conflict (whether it was more a matter of states’ rights or one of slavery) soon make it difficult to derive the degree of success enjoyed by its victors- by measure not simply in military terms, but in terms of their principles. Yet no matter which principles were applauded and which cast asunder by the end of our nation’s bloodiest war, none can contest that it was a conflict of principles and, unequivocally, a man of principles who brought this conflict into being. His campaign was not deliberately provocative or sensationalist in its language, but rather set out to establish certain moral imperatives which, by their very nature, were bound to incite a great deal of unrest in slaveholding states. His demeanor, though at the outset perhaps a bit naïve and inexperienced, was not excitatory, but instead strove failingly for a diplomacy which betrayed the profundity of the challenge which he posed to them.
By November 1860, Abraham Lincoln’s election to the presidency of the United States without the support of a single Southern vote in the electoral college signaled not only an adjustment of the nation’s political locus away from the agrarian slave states, but also the rise of a leader whose persona was his principles and an unyielding allegiance thereto- principles which, despite the relative plainness with which he may have stated them, were accurately perceived by the future Confederate states to be diametrically opposed to their very way of life. To the future Confederate states, the election of a “black Republican” from Illinois denoted the zealous rise of ambitious powers in the northern states to foster their own economy by actively undermining that of the South. Their perceived strategy: to divest the South of her oldest and most fundamental institution, slavery. The South’s response, though more gradual and initially reluctant than is usually conceded in history books, was nonetheless ultimately decisive- they would secede. The ensuing five years in America’s history would prove some of her most anguished, most portentous, her bloodiest, and most tragic. Whether its breakpoint- the secession of eleven states from a union of thirty- could have been dissuaded is a question which examines the delicate balance between principle and diplomacy and can be best answered not solely by an examination of Lincoln’s early actions as president, but most importantly, as the Southern states knew him on the day that seven of them chose to secede. As a candidate and as president-elect, Abraham Lincoln’s speeches and reputation struck such an ominous chord in southerners as rung across countless fields of battle for five long years and fueled their discontent so violently as to turn brother against brother, nearly bringing the greatest nation that had ever been to its knees.
In the eyes of the South, the election of 1860 posed no great dilemma. The already Democratic-leaning region looked on as the Republican candidate came to embody all of the imposing perpetrations brought upon them by the northern states for years. The Republican party, by its very design and intention, was as vehemently opposed to the institution of slavery as the South was for it and Lincoln, as Richard Hofstadter notes in his study of the sixteenth president was, “as a politician… no maverick” (1). He was willing to change parties from Whig to Republican when the old party no longer best suited his views, but, once allied, was not likely to veer from party lines. Thus, if elected, Lincoln could be counted on to pursue Republican aims. And for a southerner to hear the more excitatory abolitionist language of Lincoln’s fellow party members- notably future secretary of state William Seward, who said in his infamous “Irrepressible Conflict” speech that, “The United States must and will, sooner or later, become entirely a slaveholding nation or entirely a free-labor nation.”(1) – it takes no breadth of imagination to know the threat to their livelihoods that they perceived in the election of the new president from Illinois.
Were party platforms not found incendiary enough to southerners, Lincoln himself provided more than a little fuel to the fire with increasingly explicit denouncements of the peculiar institution. Throughout his career, he had consistently and with increasing fervor vilified it in personal correspondences, proposed bills, and, eventually, his public speeches. His sentiments regarding slavery evinced early in his political career when, in 1837, he served on a joint committee in the Illinois legislature to address the question of slavery and voted strongly against the pro-slavery resolutions drafted by his colleagues, later responding alongside a colleague in the Journal of the House, “They believe that the institution of slavery is founded on injustice and bad policy, but that the promulgation of abolitionist doctrines tends to increase rather than abate its evils.” (1) In 1849, as a lame-duck Congressman, Lincoln introduced a resolution suggesting a bill to abolish slavery in the district of Columbia, along with a recommended plan for compensating slaveholders from the federal treasury. It was not until 1854, however, with the passage of the very divisive Kansas-Nebraska Act that Lincoln publicly and explicitly denounced slavery, saying, “As a nation we began by declaring that, ‘all men are created equal.’ We now practically read it ‘all men are created equal except Negroes.’” (1) Thus, in addressing the question of whether the rise of Abraham Lincoln to the presidency posed a ‘real’ threat to the South, one needn’t look further than the words of Lincoln himself. As for the differentiation between a real threat and proposed one, whether Lincoln’s rhetoric should have been construed as formidable or mere campaign banter, one need only consider the integrity of the man to appreciate that, though often cautious, Lincoln rarely spared words or pursued causes that he did not hold dear and, as his election drew near, the vehemence of abolitionist verbiage in his speeches grew such that no southern man felt he could abide it any longer.
With cries for abolition ringing louder by the day in the North and four out of every nine men in the south reliant- either directly or indirectly- upon slavery for their livelihood (2), the Union no longer appeared to be a place for the southern states. Starting with South Carolina, seven states voted to secede before Lincoln’s inauguration on March 4, 1861, and by the end of April, as guns began to blaze, four more had followed. The question of whether secession was a reasonable response to the grievances held by the southern states must be addressed from the perspective of the South, considering both what they were legally permitted by the Constitution and, given the circumstances, what course of action was in the best interests of their states. All the while, one must also bear in mind that no one- north or south- ever anticipated that an act of secession could bring the monstrosity of full-fledged civil war upon America. Had they, it can be firmly doubted that either would have pursued the issue much further.
In strict Constitutional terms, the Southern states were justified in their claim that they withheld the right to leave the Union if and as they saw fit. The Constitution had been entered into voluntarily by the initial thirteen colonies, had grown consensually with each successive state, and no provision in the founding document justified the North’s insistence that the Union was a mandatory and binding pact. In a sense, that forcible detainment of unwilling parties echoed the founding fathers’ loathsome denunciations of unchecked democracy in which the rights of the minority can simply be voted away by a tyrannous mob. There can be no doubt that southern men saw it in such terms and, what’s more, something rather familiar would have resounded with them in the cries against taxation without representation. The feeling was not a new one, but it was one which they had thought subdued some eighty-four years prior. Interestingly, had the South chosen to secede a number of years earlier, they may have been surprised to find an ally in a young Illinois lawyer and aspiring politician who said, “Any people anywhere being inclined and having the power have the right to rise up and shake off the existing government, and form a new one that suits them better. This is a most valuable, a most sacred right- a right which we hope and believe is to liberate the world. Any portion of such people that can may revolutionize and make their own of such territory as they inhabit. It is a quality of revolutions not to go by old lines or old laws, but to break up both, and make new ones.” (1) How, then, could the lawyer who advocated such rights in simple rhetoric deny them in practice as president? Clearly, the politics had become principle and, despite the comfort to be found today in the Union‘s preservation, let us not forget that while history may favor the victors, amidst all the pomp and passion there was, legally speaking, much credence to the case of the southern states as well as an inviolate and exacting rationale to their call for secession.
As to the question of whether secession was truly in the best interests of the states or whether the continued pursuance of a diplomatic solution would have been preferable, one must consider that the differences which tore at the fabric of the nation were neither superficial nor fleeting. They were the result of two deeply ingrained ways of life which could not be reconciled and, time had evinced to the southerners, could not peaceably coexist within one nation. The rising population of the North had manifested in Congress a severely disproportionate political scene whose economically injurious proposed legislations the South feared desperately. As Howard Zinn so succinctly relates, “The northern elite wanted economic expansion- free land, free labor, free market, a high protective tariff on manufacturers, a bank of the United States. The slave interests opposed all that; they saw Lincoln and the Republicans as making a continuation of their pleasant and prosperous way of life impossible in the future.” (3) A Peace Convention, however, was held in Willard’s Hotel in Washington between Northern states and the tumultuous slave-holding border states, making a last-minute attempt to subdue the threat of true conflict before Lincoln’s inauguration. The convention produced a proposal for a constitutional amendment barring congressional interference with the institution of slavery within the existing states, rousing some hope in both the northern delegates and those southerners who were still reluctant to secede. In the end, however, that proposal and the promise that it carried met their ends at the hands of a four-to-one vote on the senate floor. (4) It was clear that no agreement could be drawn which would ensure to the South its way of life so long as they remained within the jurisdiction of the United States.
What, then, of Lincoln? Were his actions truly in line with his intentions and beliefs or, in the continued rebukes of the southern way of life issued throughout his campaign, did he do more to refine that image of himself as an enemy to the South than any opponent ever could? It was established that Lincoln’s sense of diplomacy on the issue of slavery had worn rather thin by the time of his election and to a southern man, no issue could have been more central to his culture and its identity than that institution. There can be no doubt that a more diplomatic approach could have been taken toward a South that perceived his election as a direct threat to their stake in the Union- he could have simply restricted the issue to those frontier states and territories affected by the Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854, perhaps arguing the case on economic terms, but ultimately avoiding the question of the moral evasions at the base of the southerners’ way of life. This, however, was not Lincoln’s way; despite his being so quintessentially the career politician, unlike many, he would not for the sake of appeasement give moral sanction to a practice which he knew since childhood to be unspeakably wrong. Still, he displayed no clear sign that any moves toward abolition rest at the top of his agenda as president; he merely stated his beliefs, grounded in a logical philosophical analysis, that “the principle of exclusion has no inner check; that arbitrarily barring one minority from the exercise of its rights can be both a precedent and a moral sanction for barring another, and that it creates a frame of mind from which no one can expect justice or security.” (2) Such an approach, somewhat Aristotelian in its pathology, struck at the heart of the issue with a clarity and impenetrable reason to which no sentimentality for the glories of southern living could ever hope to answer back on any but the most emotional, subjective grounds.
If Lincoln, then, had no specific ambition at that time to emancipate the slaves, should a wise leader have chosen to express his personal convictions at a time less volatile for the maintenance of the nation? Popular discourses in diplomacy would indeed teach us so and Lincoln, as we have well established, was rarely an instigative or impolitic statesman. In the end, however, it was not diplomacy which was the prevalent trait in him, but one which had shown itself long before he took to the public arenas, one upon which no relative or acquaintance of young Lincoln ever missed the chance to comment: that of an unyielding and resolute sense of moral integrity. He could not permit such injustices to be perpetrated against humankind in the country which he was to lead without first forbidding those accountable the moral sanction of his silence as to the social ills upon which their way of life was founded. His words, though direct and sometimes boldly accusatory, made no direct threat of emancipation, but he knew that as the issue rose to prominence and factious interests in the South and West had begun to drive a wedge between themselves and the Northern states, any effective leader must acknowledge the situation wholly and rationally and would not be permitted the luxury of evasions. If his words, in laying bare the inhuman practices of the southern states, made their inhabitants uncomfortable, then their discomfort should be no more credited to Lincoln and the northern abolitionists for having recognized that evil than should a virologist be held accountable for the physical illnesses analyzed and classified in his work. Thus if it may be agreed that the actions taken by the South in seceding, attacking Fort Sumter, and initiating the use of physical force against the Union Army were instigated by the fear they felt at the words of Lincoln and northern abolitionists, yet those words were merely the enunciation of principles which could be deduced from any rational code of ethics, then what remains is an image of a people wrought with the consequences which befall any culture which has tried and failed to base their way of life upon philosophical contradictions and moral exceptionalism. A rational man who stands unflinchingly by moral principles cannot be held responsible for what consequences may befall men when he scorns those who partake to deny others the inherent, God-given rights consonant with man’s very nature: life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. Ultimately, was it metaphysically possible that Lincoln could have done enough to appease the South and, in doing so, perhaps avoid secession and war? Assuredly, but not without first espousing a politic which turned a blind eye toward a system based on the very supposition upon whose rejection this country was founded: the concept of man as a sacrificial animal, one whose life is not his own and whose life’s purpose is the health, wealth, and happiness of another.
At the outset of this discourse, a set of standardized criteria were proposed so as to facilitate a clear analysis of an individual’s success or failure in any endeavor. Let us now apply those criteria to Lincoln and his actions leading up to the outbreak of the Civil War, beginning with Lincoln’s affirmed and unwavering purpose as president: the maintenance of the Union. While history tends to focus most poignantly on the result of things and, by that standard, Lincoln has prevailed in the textbooks, one must not neglect to realize that the emotions which drove the South toward secession were, at least in some part, brought about by the rise of Lincoln himself. While his intentions may have been more moderate than southerners had supposed, Lincoln nonetheless posed a rather formidable, though inadvertent, threat to the most fundamental aspects of their way of life. The forces at work against him were profound: a nation rife with regionalist animosities ready to tear apart at the seams and such poignant fear and anger directed at him personally that, short of affirming that which he found to be morally reprehensible and disregarding his beliefs as a man, whatever was to be accomplished by the North in terms of reconciliation had to be done despite him and in compensation for his very being. As for the degree of prevalence enjoyed by Lincoln, all are aware today that the Union was retained and slavery was abolished, but the question will remain in the minds of many whether Lincoln posited himself in such a way that brought on as much trouble as he later would abate. Indeed, true victory is victory over war, not through it. His actions were, however, not instigative of bloodshed or injustice, but in response to them. Lincoln, thrust into what could be called the most difficult term of any president in our nation’s history, into a conflict between two livid foes who each fought to selectively uphold those aspects of the Constitution which they saw fit and to dismiss those found inconvenient, merely chose the hard and moral route of integrity and conviction in his approach to the circumstance, one which cost more American lives than any conflict we have ever faced, but one which finally expelled from our country the cancer of slavery and affirmed this nation, some ninety-one years after its first inception, as the freest and most moral nation in the history of humankind.
1. Hofstadter, Richard. The American Political Tradition and the Men Who Made It. New York: Vintage, 1989. Print.
2. Glatthaar, Joseph T. General Lee’s Army: from Victory to Collapse. New York: Free, 2008. Audio.
3. Zinn, Howard A People’s History of the United States. New York: Harper Perennial, 2005. Print.
4. Marvel, William Mr. Lincoln Goes to War. New York: Houghton Mifflin, 2006. Print.