Mike Musick: What if Lincoln lost the election?
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.
| October 31, 2010; 10:33 PM ET
Categories: 150th anniversary, Views | Tags: Mike Musick
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