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John Marszalek: What if Lincoln lost the election?

By John Marszalek

Giles Distinguished Professor Emeritus of history at Mississippi State University


Had Lincoln lost the election of 1860, there most certainly would have been a war, but perhaps it would have come later. The other candidates in that election, had one of them won, would have continued to temporize, while Lincoln, in his own seemingly tentative style, refused to budge on the Republican Party's raison d'etre of no expansion of slavery into the territories. Other candidates would have waffled and delayed secession, but, down the road, the issue of slavery in the territories, nay slavery itself, would have reared its ugly head again. Then the crisis would have come. Considering the movement in the world against slavery and the tie of slavery to religion and morality in American life, the matter would have had to be confronted and decided sooner rather than later. Fortunately for the nation, the issue came to the forefront during the term of the nation's greatest president, and he guided the United States to preservation of the Union and the end of slavery. The war came under Lincoln, and the slaves were freed. But, it took a war to accomplish this feat.

By John Marszalek  | November 2, 2010; 1:30 PM ET
Categories:  Views  | Tags:  John Marszalek  
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Next: National Archives opens 2nd Civil War show


Great column. Many thanks, Linda.

Gail Stephens

Posted by: gailsteph | November 2, 2010 8:50 PM | Report abuse

What if the writer of the headline had used correct English and said "What if Lincoln had lost the election"?

Posted by: Fenelon | November 4, 2010 2:49 PM | Report abuse

Secession of SC and provisioning of Ft. Sumter brought on the CW. But, on a legal basis, what is the authority for the conclusion a state may not secede? I don't think there is any and I don't know if AL cited any authority. I think the CW grew in fits and starts in its carnage to conclusion when the "boys just went home. Their honor tucked between their legs...and taking their weapons and steeds with them." As time passed, the great compromise would have been to compensate the South for its "property" war, no secession, no bitterness, no a fraction of the cost of the CW. Think of the books that would have gone unwritten!

Posted by: annerogerduncan | November 7, 2010 12:13 PM | Report abuse

A more interesting question would be "What if Lincoln had not been reelected?". That was highly likely. McClellan would have been tempted to finish the war, with victory being so close. But the Democratic platform was an anti-war one.

Or the lame-duck Lincoln would have pushed his armies to attack attack attack, maybe even leading the armies personally, in order to finish the job before inauguration (which was in the spring in those days).

The interesting issue is that had a few less states succeeded the rebellion would have been rapidly crushed. Had a few more states done so, it would have been an irresistible force. It was that it was in a certain balance, where the Confederate defenders (defenders in the sense of they won if they didn't loose) were outnumbered, but not overwhelmingly, that made it so long and bloody.

Posted by: cyberfool | November 8, 2010 7:57 AM | Report abuse

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