Kate Masur: Could the war have been prevented?
Professor of U.S. History at Northwestern
The Civil War -- or a civil war -- could have been avoided only if slaveholders had been willing to acknowledge that they were on the losing side of major demographic and moral changes. Industrialization, immigration, and population growth were giving northern interests unprecedented power in the federal government. The election of Lincoln by a sectional bloc could have awakened slaveholders to the reality that they were going to have to compromise on slavery's expansion. Instead, southern leaders refused to stand down from their position that any encroachment on their supposed right to bring slaves into the unorganized territories was worth going to war over.
Slaveholders could also have looked at other plantation societies in the Western Hemisphere and drawn the conclusion that slavery was unsustainable in the face of rising movements for universal citizenship and the dignity of common people. At the end of the 18th century, Haitian slaves and free people of color had thrown off French colonialism and slavery, and in the British and most of the Spanish empires as well, slavery had already been abolished. But southern slaveholders did not feel chastened by these examples. Rather, many saw themselves as standing outside of history, insisting they could build not just a pro-slavery nation but a pro-slavery empire.
The war could have been avoided if southern leaders had taken a clear-eyed look at the changing realities they faced and chosen to negotiate with the Republicans. Instead, they rejected all offers of compromise. Perhaps they could not have done otherwise. As Frederick Douglass famously said, "Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did and it never will." Slaveholders were accustomed to wielding extraordinary power in the U.S. government, and secessionist leaders would not -- or could not -- concede that that power was on the wane. The irony, of course, is that had secessionists adopted a more accommodating approach, the country would likely have ended up with a program of gradual and compensated slave emancipation that would have left slaveholders much better off than they were after the devastation of the war they instigated.
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| November 8, 2010; 11:45 AM ET
Categories: Views | Tags: Kate Masur
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