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Gary Gallagher: Could the war have been prevented?

By Gary Gallagher

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.

By Gary Gallagher  | November 9, 2010; 4:11 PM ET
Categories:  Views  | Tags:  Gary Gallagher  
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Next: John Marszalek: Could the war have been prevented?


The "war" had "already begun."
We probably could've avoided a "declaration of war" but, to what affect?
Missouri/Kansas, was still bleeding.
The Jayhawkers, and Ruffians, were beginning to slaughter each other,
in turn. Kansas/Nebraska, was being overrun, by opposing factions.
John Brown had been hanged, in Dec, 1859.
There was "no way" that human effort was going to persuade, or prevent, the various different factions from murdering each other.

Posted by: Shadowsmgc | November 9, 2010 9:52 PM | Report abuse

"Democratic rule in Washington, which always gave slaveholders a disproportionate measure of power, had continued."

I believe this is a reference to the "3/5ths of all other persons" clause of the Constitution. Population counting for apportioning congressional seats counted all white people and then 60% of everyone else (African slaves certainly and non-reservation Indians possibly). That gave areas with larger slave populations more representation in congress. The controversy for the territories is that slave-holding areas would diminish in power as new, free states entered the Union.

The problem is not unusual, even in the Godfather it surfaced...

"But I must have strict assurance from Corleone -- as time goes by and his position becomes stronger, will he attempt any individual vendetta?"

The abolitionists in the North would make no such promises. The South correctly saw that the institution of slavery would be eliminated in time, unless they could seceed.

Posted by: blasmaic | November 11, 2010 10:44 AM | Report abuse

Preventing war was almost totally in the hands of the southerners. Had they not tried revolutionary means to maintain the status quo, which is an oxymoron beyond belief, war would not have occurred. Had they chosen to passively resist, to not fire upon federal forces, the war could have been avoided. They roused the populace to a frenzy about succession, which included rhetoric about war. The succession had been going on for months before the firing of Ft Sumter. Had they stuck to peaceful means, there would not have been justification for Lincoln to raise a large army and force the issue.

With all due respect, Professor Gallagher only looks at it from the perspective of what the Union could have done, not what could the Confederacy have done to prevent a war.

Posted by: cyberfool | November 12, 2010 9:48 AM | Report abuse

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