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David Blight: Could the war have been prevented?

By David Blight

Professor of American History and Director of the Gilder Lehrman Center for the Study of Slavery and Abolition at Yale University


Whether the Civil War could have been avoided is of course a matter of when in the chronology of the road to disunion we choose to ask this question. From a broad point of view, the marker at which I would make at least a qualified case for the inevitability of intractable conflict, if not war, is the Dred Scott decision of the Supreme Court in the spring of 1857. That decision, theoretically opening the entire West to the possible expansion of slavery and declaring that African Americans were not and never could be citizens of the United States, in effect, ruined the last vestiges of moderation. Genuine, reasonable compromises on the pivotal question of slavery expansion -- whether America would indeed pursue a future based on slave labor or free labor -- were now all but impossible.

In the midst of the secession crisis of the winter of 1860-61, many compromise proposals emerged in Congress and the press. As early as December, 1860, after South Carolina had seceded, all manner of ideas were floated publicly to save the Union: replacing the presidency with an executive council representing regions of the country; a new national police to enforce the Fugitive Slave Act; and a new kind of "gag rule" barring any form of legislation about slavery whatsoever. The "Crittenden Compromise" plan in Washington, named for Kentuckian, John J. Crittenden, offered various ideas for Constitutional amendments that would prevent the federal government from ever abolishing slavery in any government jurisdiction, prevent any interference in the domestic slave trade, or extend the Missouri Compromise Line to the Pacific Ocean. Ideas also floated in the air for removal and colonization of free blacks outside America's borders. Stephen Douglass even proposed a new "Sedition" bill to criminalize speeches and publications against slavery.

None of these proposals gained any real traction against the rising Lincoln administration's (and Lincoln's own) steadfastness to draw the line about any future expansion of slavery. The only measure that did emerge from Congress was an original Thirteenth Amendment, that would have explicitly barred Congress from ever ending slavery in the existing slave states. This idea even gained Lincoln's guarded support, although it never made it to the states for ratification, nor did it stop the wave of secession in the Deep South.

The only way war on some scale might have been avoided in the spring of 1861 is for Lincoln and the Republicans to give up the very cause for which their party and their coalition across the North had rallied -- to cordon off and restrict the future of slavery in defense of free labor ideology and a more egalitarian society - and for Southern secessionists to give up their conviction that their slave society and their racial order were under desperate threat from that new Republican persuasion and simply wait for another four-year cycle of elections. Some anti-secessionists in some Southern states argued for just such an approach. But neither side's dominant leaders in 1861 were willing to do this. It must be remembered, however, that virtually none of the leaders of either side had any clear idea of the kind of revolutionary scale the impending war would take on. Many people in 1860-61 were trying to avoid war; that much is clear. But tragically and for some gleefully, they were overwhelmed by the power of their own convictions, and driven by forces they only partly controlled which had put an expanding slave society and a burgeoning free labor society on a terrible collision course for at least two generations.

In the early to mid-20th century a generation or two of American historians argued that the Civil War was avoidable, indeed a "needless war" wrought by mere "politics" and the "unctuous fury" of power-hungry politicians. But that was before, in the wake of World War II, that a new generation of scholars came to see just how fundamental slavery and race were in the story of the 1850s and in the decisions that led to the firing on Fort Sumter in April, 1861. In the abstract we might never stop wondering about how the war could have been avoided, as we also must explain why it was not.

By David Blight  | November 8, 2010; 11:35 AM ET
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