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Harold Holzer: What if Lincoln lost the election?

By 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.

By Harold Holzer  | October 31, 2010; 10:29 PM ET
Categories:  150th anniversary, Views  | Tags:  Harold Holzer  
Save & Share:  Send E-mail   Facebook   Twitter   Digg   Yahoo Buzz   StumbleUpon   Technorati   Google Buzz   Previous: Civil War panelists join 'A House Divided'
Next: Gary Gallagher: What if Lincoln lost the election?


A mini-civil war had already occurred in Kansas and Nebraska; the cause of that violence depended not in the slightest on the person who was the President. Second, the South appeared to have been looking for a fight. Take a gander, if you would, at Harper's ferry:

Now if you are lucky enough to visit the place, you will likely conclude that "raid" the most risible act committed in US history. So paranoid were the Southerners they deemed the thing Promethean, firm proof that their property could not and would not be protected. Mr. Brown had been active in Kansas, so he likely would have done the same thing no matter who was in charge. No matter who was in charge, the reaction likely would have been the same.

Third, the Taney Court all but made the war inevitable. There is reason to believe that after Dred Scott v. Sandford, Taney would eventually prohibit slavery's abolition by any particular state.

Posted by: Martial | November 6, 2010 11:45 PM | Report abuse

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