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Q: If Lincoln had lost the election, would there have been a war?

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Sunday, November 7, 2010

Harold Holzer

Author or editor of 36 books, many on Lincoln, and chairman of the Abraham Lincoln Bicentennial Foundation

This age-old question assumes a chain of events with a big missing link: disunion. Abraham Lincoln's election provoked secession all right (unjustifiably, one might persuasively argue), but it was secession that provoked the standoff at Fort Sumter and, ultimately, triggered rebellion and war. What happened in between Lincoln's November election victory and March inauguration -- the Great Secession Winter -- ought to have mollified Southern extremists and empowered Southern Unionists, but the truth is that the election of any presidential candidate pledged to halt the expansion of slavery would have incited slaveholding states determined to expand their power base and, with it, their longtime control over the executive, legislative and judicial branches of the federal government. In other words, the die was tragically cast.

As for Lincoln, he was meticulously careful during the long interregnum between his election and inauguration to walk a fine line between conciliation and coercion -- insisting that he had earned the right to govern but assuring Southerners that he had no intention of interfering with slavery where it existed. "The South would be in no more danger in this respect, than it was in the days of Washington," the president-elect assured Georgia Sen. Alexander Hamilton Stephens -- for whom such reassurances typically proved insufficient (a pro-Unionist at first, Stephens ultimately supported Georgia's secession and became the Confederate vice president). During the last weeks in his home town of Springfield, Lincoln wrote an inaugural address designed to formally assert his policy of noninterference -- a manuscript whose every hint of bellicosity he successively toned down over a succession of rewrites based on advice from others. By the time he spoke its final passage on March 4, 1861 -- all but imploring those who would not listen that "we must not be enemies" -- it was too late for compromise.

Without real provocation, the Deep South had decided to defy the will of the voters and create a separate nation. Meanwhile, Lincoln had proven remarkably open to compromise except on the issue on which he had built his national political reputation -- limiting the extension of slavery. And on this issue, as provocative as it may have been to slave owners with eyes on expanding their base into the southwest, Mexico and even Cuba, can we doubt but that he was politically and morally right to hold firm on this point? Of course, as Lincoln readily admitted when he gave his second inaugural address four years later, "neither party expected for the war, the magnitude, or the duration, which it . . . attained."

Would Lincoln have drawn a line in the sand if he knew it would cost 600,000 American lives in the next four years? Hard to say. So let's always keep in mind not just what Lincoln knew, but what he could not have known. And to have expected the president-elect to bow to Southern pressures in anticipation of a magnitude of bloodshed he could not possibly have imagined in advance asks modern readers to turn history head over heels to prove a conclusion that can only be known in hindsight.

But to return to the original question: Was it the election of Lincoln in particular that brought on the Civil War? No, not really. Remember, the Virginia extremist Edmund Ruffin had only recently published a novel called "Anticipations of the Future" in which, Jules Verne-like, he predicted the election of a Republican president not in 1860 but in 1864, thrilled that "the obscure and coarse Lincoln" would undoubtedly provoke a Southern war for "independence" -- which is precisely what radical slave owners wanted. They got their wish four years early -- and to paraphrase Lincoln, the tug had to come -- better then than later. Ruffin, according to tradition, ordered the first shot on Fort Sumter a month after Lincoln's inauguration. So perhaps we should really consider whether Ruffin and the Ruffinites bore more responsibility for war than the constitutionally elected 16th president of the United States.

Mike Musick

Retired subject area expert for the U.S. Civil War at the National Archives

Some historians run screaming from the prospect of hypothetical questions. Perhaps less judicious than they, I will try to respond to this one.

Abraham Lincoln's election precipitated the attempt at secession by the Southern states. Those who held power in those states declared that the survival of their vital institution of slavery would be placed in jeopardy if an avowedly anti-slavery man -- such as Lincoln certainly was -- were to take the nation's helm. Without Lincoln's election, those states would have been deprived of their loudly proclaimed reason for leaving the Union. Thus, no President Lincoln meant no secession. It was secession that gave birth to the war, when cannons were fired in defending that alleged right at Fort Sumter, S.C. Therefore, the conclusion is inescapable that without secession there would have been no war. So my answer is a resounding yes: A defeat for Lincoln would have been a victory for peace.

But not for long. Few could envy whoever would have become chief executive instead of Lincoln. Tensions over the expansion of slavery had grown so great that eventually war had to come. Over the years, Southern threats of secession had been trumpeted with such frequency that they would have become a mockery if not one day acted on, and that day was not far distant. No president with an ounce of grit could have continued to abide the kinds of provocations with which he would have been assailed. In 1864? In 1868? In 1900? No one can say. Add to this the steadily increasing lethality of the world's weaponry, and we can envision an even more bloody "irrepressible conflict" than what took place in 1861-65.

History brings with it a large dose of irony. As an example, consider that the legitimacy of the doctrine of secession was the main point at issue in our Civil War. That legitimacy was emphatically denied by the war's outcome. And yet today, almost without exception, chroniclers state that in 1860-61 "the Southern states seceded." This strange form of posthumous vindication is the unconscious tribute we lay on the graves of those who died for the Confederacy.


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