Gary Gallagher: Could the war have been prevented?
Professor of history at the University of Virginia
The easy answer to this question is yes, of course, the war could have been avoided.
It could have been avoided if Republicans had not won the election of 1860 and Democratic rule in Washington, which always gave slaveholders a disproportionate measure of power, had continued. Even with Republican victory, it could have been avoided before mid-April 1861 if the Republican Party had placated disgruntled slaveholders by abandoning the promise, expressed in its 1856 and 1860 platforms, to bar slavery from the national territories. Or if the mass of loyal citizens in the United States decided that it was acceptable for seven slaveholding states to break up the Union and take possession of all federal property within their borders. It could have been avoided even after the firing on Fort Sumter if Abraham Lincoln and the loyal states chose to overlook the assault on United States soldiers -- as the Buchanan administration had chosen to overlook shots fired against the Star of the West when it tried to re-supply Major Robert Anderson's garrison at Fort Sumter in early January 1861.
But it is difficult to imagine a Democratic victory in 1860, or Republican leaders willing to betray all those who voted for them by capitulating on the question of slavery in the territories, or a loyal citizenry willing to watch passively as the Union created by the Founders and defended with the blood of citizen soldiers was destroyed. None of this is to say that war was inevitable, but the key lay with reactions in the loyal states to the Deep South's provocations.
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| November 9, 2010; 4:11 PM ET
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