Tuesday, July 01, 2014


I have just finished reading Disunion!: The Coming of the American Civil War, 1789-1859 by Elizabeth R. Varon. The book maintains that disunion was a topic of political debate in the United States from the creation of the Constitution to the outbreak of the Civil War (and beyond), and that it was inextricably related to slavery and the abolition of slavery.

Author Varon recognizes that the possibility of disunion existed from the founding of the United States given the different histories and cultures of the founding colonies as well as the differences in their geographies and economies. Yet, as the northern states abolished slavery and as abolitionist thought increased in the north, the south's peculiar institution became more and more inextricably entwined with the debate.

Let me suggest that there were several alternatives open to the country in 1860:

  • Secession, accepted and the country divided peacefully
  • Secession, followed by civil war to restore the union
  • Union, based on a plan for the gradual ending of slavery
  • Union, based on acceptance of the status quo with regard to slavery
The book -- taken as a whole -- shows that people in antebellum America did not approach the analysis of these alternatives as we would hope to today. Today we would hope to define a scenario for each alternative, and  to obtain some idea of the probability of that scenario. One would then hope to negotiate based on those scenarios, with their attendant costs, benefits and probabilities.

We know from the historical record that the second alternative actually occurred. An estimated 620,000 men died in the war. Slavery was ended (to assure that European powers did not enter the war on the side of the Confederacy, to undermine the economy of the Confederacy, to enlist the former slaves in the Union war effort, for the moral purpose of abolishing slavery, and to assure the triumph of free labor) Much of the physical capital of the South was destroyed. 

Slavery was on the way out. It had been abolished in much of Latin America and most of the British empire, and the French and Danish colonies. Brazil, the last nation in the western world to abolish slavery, completed the process in 1888. Thus, a gradual process of emancipation of slaves and ending slavery should have been possible in the United States. Might it have been carried out in a way that was more supportive of the former slaves and less destructive than civil war? 

The united United States could always have been expected to go on to develop the west, attaining at least the geographical expanse and population it enjoys today. Whether it would have done so as quickly had free labor not won over slavery so completely by 1865 we will not know. It seems clear that Republican led government promoted rapid growth, and if more conservative politicians had had more power in the second half of the 19th century, they might have slowed the process. On the other hand, the cost of the war may have reduced the ability to invest in the growth of the west. Perhaps the men who died in the way would have led in that development had they lived.

What if the Confederate States of America had survived, and the United States had had to compete with it and with other nations for territory in the west? Would European imperial powers have been successful in dividing and conquering (at least some territory)? Certainly that had long been a concern of Americans. Would the failure of the democratic republic have proved a serious setback to the spread of democratic institutions globally? Lincoln thought so.

It seems to me that had the leaders of South Carolina approached the question of secession using better decision making tools, had they recognized that the north would fight and would win a decisive victory, would have opted for negotiations leading to continued union and gradual ending of slavery. Similarly, it seems to me that had the leaders of Virginia approached the question of joining the Confederacy or  remaining in the Union equally rationally, they would have remained in the Union; doing so would also have led to a more gradual ending of slavery, a less destructive civil war, and certainly a war less destructive to Virginia.

Today it seems clear that Africans were not and are not a lesser race, that slavery is not an institution consistent with Christian values, and indeed that slavery is simply an immoral institution. I suspect it was so rapidly abolished worldwide (except as a criminal enterprise) not only because it tramples over human rights, but also because it is economically inefficient. 

Author Varon's book shows, however, that southern policy increasingly came to be based on ideas we now see to be patently false -- that slavery was justified in the bible and a Christian institution, that slave owners were generally benevolent and slavery was beneficial for the slaves themselves, that is was beneficial for the whites in the south to live in a slave society even if they did not own slaves themselves (and indeed, that contrary to fact, the founders of the Republic believed as they did and wrote the Constitution to provide permanent protection for the institution of slavery).

How was thought control achieved in the south? Owners of large plantations with many slaves in the antebellum south were wealthy, and they had the time and resources to gain control of and manage the government of their states. While the slaves and freed blacks had no votes, the constitution added 3/5ths of a person to the population of the state for each slave, and as a result the slave owners gained disproportional influence in national government. The Methodist and Baptist churches split nationally, and southern Methodist and Baptist churches defended slavery on religious grounds. The press in the south defended slavery. Laws were passed in southern states to prevent speech opposed to slavery, and abolitionists were physically abused and intimidated.

How did the north come to oppose slavery? In the north, owning slaves was not a source of wealth. Immigrants could man the mills and build the canals, roads and railroads, mine the ores. While surely there were many northerners who profited from commerce with slave run plantations in the south, there were also free blacks (including escaped slaves) and abolitionists who acted out of moral conviction. The northern Methodists and Baptists rejected arguments that biblical references to slavery justified the modern institution, often holding that slavery was immoral. The free labor movement came to the fore in the north, as did abolitionist newspapers and abolitionist societies.

There was always a recognition that the states together were stronger than were they to separate. Yet some abolitionists came to believe that living in a country that allowed slavery to exist as a legal institution was so unacceptable, that disunion would be preferred. Similarly, some in the south believed that the institution of slavery was so central to their society, that disunion was to be preferred to abolition. Of course, the majority in the north were for union, and they elected Lincoln and other leaders who were willing to fight for it. Indeed, Varon shows that there were unionists in the south, some of whom supported the north during the Civil War and some of whom even conducted insurgencies against the Confederacy.

Ultimately, the book leaves me wondering. How is it that so false an idea can have such power and constituency that it leads to a major war? How can false ideas be successfully fought in a democracy. (I tend to support UNESCO, based on precept that the defenses of peace can  be built in the minds of men by strengthened educational, scientific, cultural, and communications institutions.)

I did not find this to be an easy read, but a very thought provoking one. I recommend it.

1 comment:

John Daly said...

"Whenever I hear anyone arguing for slavery, I feel a strong impulse to see it tried on him personally."
Abraham Lincoln in a speech to 14th Indiana regiment, March 17, 1865