Chandra Manning: What if Lincoln lost the election?
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.
| October 31, 2010; 10:32 PM ET
Categories: 150th anniversary, Views | Tags: Chandra Manning
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