Waite Rawls: What if Lincoln lost the election?
President and chief executive of the Museum of the Confederacy
The Civil War started because a match lit a fuse on a keg that was filled with powder. Let’s look at each ingredient.
Neither Abraham Lincoln nor the Republican Party built the keg. The wood for the keg was shaped by the inability of the founding fathers to solve the two big problems of state sovereignty and slavery in the shaping of the Constitution. In a complex but steady course, the economics of taxes and the politics of control of the westward expansion were added to those two original issues as the keg was filled with powder.
By the time of the creation of the Republican Party in 1856, the powder keg was almost full and waiting for a fuse. And the election of any candidate from the Republican Party — a purely sectional party — put the fuse in the powder keg, and the Deep South states seceded. But there was still no war. Two simultaneous mistakes in judgment brought the matches out of the pocket — the Deep South mistakenly thought that Lincoln, now elected, would not enforce the Union, and Lincoln mistakenly thought that the general population of the South would not follow the leadership of the Fire Eaters.
Lincoln struck the match when he called the bluff of the South Carolinians and attempted to reinforce Fort Sumter, but that match could have gone out without an explosion. Lincoln struck a second, more fateful match, when he called for troops to put down the “insurrection.” That forced the Upper South and Border States into a conflict that they had vainly attempted to avoid.
In short, the election of Lincoln did not start the Civil War all by itself. But it certainly was a critical ingredient.
| October 31, 2010; 10:31 PM ET
Categories: 150th anniversary, Views | Tags: Waite Rawls
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