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Chandra Manning: What if Lincoln lost the election?

By Chandra Manning

Associate professor of history at Georgetown University


As we prepare to mark the 150th anniversary of the Civil War, one of the things we must do is rid ourselves of the notion that it was somehow inevitable or even foreordained, or we have no hope of ever understanding it. What we can say, grounded firmly in evidence, is that without a Lincoln victory in November 1860, war would not have broken out exactly when and how it did.

Abraham Lincoln won the presidency after running on a platform of halting the expansion of slavery into federal territories. That victory did not touch slavery in any state, but it did signal that the federal government was now headed not, as it normally had been, by someone interested in promoting slavery, but by someone hostile to it. In a matter of weeks, delegates met in South Carolina to leave the Union, and they published a Declaration of Causes explaining why. Two of the three causes (Northern non-compliance with the Fugitive Slave Law and increasing anti-slavery sentiment nationally) were not dependent on Lincoln’s election, but the election of a president pledged to stop the expansion of slavery was also a major cause, and that was dependent on Lincoln’s election, because none of the other three candidates supported such a platform. The secession of South Carolina was quickly followed by the secession of six more states, all of which cited the same basic provocations.

Before secession, residents of Northern states had no interest in a war (Why rock the boat?), but secession in response to Lincoln’s election changed everything: Allowing any state simply to leave when its voters did not like the results of an election undercut any basis for self-government (elections only work, after all, if we all agree to abide by them even when we don’t like the results), and therefore could not be countenanced. And so, as Lincoln would put it, the war came.

Which is not to say it was inevitable no matter who won. Nor is it to say that no conflict would have erupted if anyone else had won. But it is to say that war coming exactly when, where and how it did was the product of long-term causes and immediate triggers, and the election of Lincoln was, without question, an immediate trigger.

By Chandra Manning  | October 31, 2010; 10:32 PM ET
Categories:  150th anniversary, Views  | Tags:  Chandra Manning  
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I believe war would still have broken out but not immediately.
The key would have been Virginia. Several states would have seceded but not Virginia. That important state was initially against secession and only seceded after Fort Sumter was attacked.
If Douglas won, Virginia would have held back joining the Confederacy. That would have left Jefferson Davis to force the issue by attacking the North at some location, say Norfolk Navy Yards or some other Virginia installation. Davis knew he could not win a war without Virginia and if he started a war at Fort Sumter or Fort Pickens, Virginia would not likely have joined the rebellion.
Douglas was a man to let things be and would not have taken it upon himself to stop slavery but to allow it to continue. After all, it was the law of the land, thanks to the Dred Scott decision. He would have tried to compromise with the South if he could. Davis and others would have seceded anyway, I believe, to preserve slavery for the future, fearing future president's desire to end slavery.
David had to have Virginia, so I believe he would have forced Virginia's hand by attacking the North in Virginia.

Posted by: lenagabe1 | November 4, 2010 3:30 PM | Report abuse

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