Network News

X My Profile
View More Activity

Mike Musick: What if Lincoln lost the election?

By 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.

By Mike Musick  | October 31, 2010; 10:33 PM ET
Categories:  150th anniversary, Views  | Tags:  Mike Musick  
Save & Share:  Send E-mail   Facebook   Twitter   Digg   Yahoo Buzz   StumbleUpon   Technorati   Google Buzz   Previous: Chandra Manning: What if Lincoln lost the election?
Next: John Marszalek: What if Lincoln lost the election?


For much of my life, allegedly neutral and pro-southern accounts of secession have referred to a single book in the West Point library that claimed secession was constitutional. The compromise in literature seems to be just as he suggests--secession was proven unconstitutional by force of arms. Certainly--the southern interests initiated the war through arms and the Republic had a compelling obligation to defend itself, but this sort of talk neglects the constitutional theory. Excepting the people who believe secession was a right that could be executed without provocation, the most reasonable secessionist argument is based on the Compact Theory. But even seeing the Constitution as a compact, or contract, doesn't support the secessionist winter.

The least democratic states in the union seceded because they knew their days were literally numbered since northern manufacturing and free labor were developing better than their human capital was. Fewer immigrants would fill the bottom of the totem pole.

One cannot break a contract without cause and, by tacit admission in the secession debates and official declarations states issued, the election of Lincoln was indicative of future abuses rather than what had happened already.

I like to think of the Civil War as a nasty divorce. A spouse can't declare separation when the other is becoming good friends with a person of the opposite sex nor can they proceed to seize and destroy common possessions before a legal separation is in the works. Nor should they declare themselves the victim if the wronged spouse cleans them out.

Posted by: achampion | November 1, 2010 4:57 PM | Report abuse

But calling it "secession" also helped legitimize the Emancipation Proclamation, which relied on Lincoln's powers as Commander-in-Chief. Since the slaves were in effect under control of a foreign enemy, they could be seized as war material and then set free. After the de facto secession was over, we could then quibble about the de jure legitimacy of it.

Posted by: foxjh | November 4, 2010 2:23 PM | Report abuse

A number of issues. Had there been a stronger President in office in 1860 (perhaps an Andrew Jackson) who could have cowered the secessionists, the contest might have been averted. However, another pretext probably would have been found, as the question could no longer be postponed. The North was receiving the lion's share of immigrants, and as such, was becoming stronger visa-vie the South. It was merely a question of time as to when the preponderance would become too strong to resist.

Also, when one considers the rate at which the North was industrializing, it was also becoming an issue that would overwhelm the South. The contest probably couldn't be postponed.

What has never been fully answered is would the South have accepted compensated emancipation. One of the big issues is that the Abolitionists were demanding immediate uncompensated emancipation in a time when people had their fortunes tied up in slavery. This, of course, caused an extremely hostile reaction. Had the Abolitionists gone to slave auctions and purchased the freedom of the slaves slowly, individually, and killed it with cash rather than bullets and blood, the history of the death of slavery in the US might have been much different.

For example, it probably would have been easy to buy up all the slaves in lightly enslaved Delaware. Use cash to convert Delaware to a free state. Move from there to Maryland and Kentucky. Yet again, states with low to moderate levels of enslavement. Buy up the slaves, free them, and make the state free. Proceed systematically, methodically, and demonstrate examples of peaceful, compensated emancipation.

The whole point, of course, would have been to remove the scurge of slavery from the land, but do so without bloodshed. Tragically, it happened much differently, and also tragically, it hardened people's hearts and even after slavery was abolished, Black Americans were treated as second class citizens, to put it mildly, throughout much of the country.

Posted by: wapocensorsbite | November 6, 2010 5:05 AM | Report abuse

Every nation on Earth freed their slaves without a major war.

There did not have to be a war with such loss of life.

The industrialization argument as to why the South left the Union may look good on the surface, but I doubt that was it.

The South still controlled half the Senate, and the Supreme Court. Keeping a balance of forces in the Senate could have insured a "check and balance" on Northern power until an agreement could have been arrived at.

One must remember that Lincoln was a moderate Republican - the rhetoric of the more radical elements of the Republican party was far stronger against slavery.

The South knew perfectly well that the split in the Democratic Party caused Lincoln to win the election. Had the democrats been united, their election prospects would have been far greater.

So, the fact that Lincoln won the election - how bad could that have been for the South? They still had their half of the Senate, and they could have blocked any legislation. There was still the provision in the Texas annexation that Texas could break into 5 States which could balance out the Senate in the event of admission of Free States.

So why couldn't they work out a compromise which would avoid killing people? It is still a question?

Why was the rhetoric so strong that people ended up killing each other?

Why were the Southern interests so intend on sparking a military conflict, instead of a compromise???? What was to gain???

I don't buy the idea that industrialization could not have come to a South with slaves.

Lincoln was not elected on a platform of freeing the slaves - and the two sides should have been able to work things out.

Obviously in the beginning few thought the war would be so bloody, but once it became apparent that the war would be protracted and bloody, why didn't they just stop it???

I suppose the Civil War was a 2nd Amendment solution - to answer that book on the shelf at West Point.

Posted by: PolarBearMadness | November 6, 2010 5:46 PM | Report abuse

Post a Comment

We encourage users to analyze, comment on and even challenge's articles, blogs, reviews and multimedia features.

User reviews and comments that include profanity or personal attacks or other inappropriate comments or material will be removed from the site. Additionally, entries that are unsigned or contain "signatures" by someone other than the actual author will be removed. Finally, we will take steps to block users who violate any of our posting standards, terms of use or privacy policies or any other policies governing this site. Please review the full rules governing commentaries and discussions.

characters remaining

RSS Feed
Subscribe to The Post

© 2010 The Washington Post Company