Network News

X My Profile
View More Activity

Kate Masur: Could the war have been prevented?

By Kate Masur

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.

By Kate Masur  | November 8, 2010; 11:45 AM ET
Categories:  Views  | Tags:  Kate Masur  
Save & Share:  Send E-mail   Facebook   Twitter   Digg   Yahoo Buzz   StumbleUpon   Technorati   Google Buzz   Previous: Brent Glass: Could the war have been prevented?
Next: No fee at national battlefields on Thursday


None can disagree with Professor Masur. Unfortunately, acting rationally is but seldom part of the psyche of those on the losing end of history. If only Napoleon had not decided it was necessary to conquer Russia, after all, this map might never have been drawn:

What on earth did Nappy want with a vast wasteland bordered by a bunch of Muslims who were always upset about Europeans in general?

The same thing was true with the Civil War. Good heavens, they had Justice Taney in their backpocket, not just one one occasion, Dred Scott v. Sandford, but earlier on Prigg v. Pennsylvania . Had they waited, the Taney court might well have legalized slavery de facto in every state! Instead they embarked on a military adventure that was doomed from the start; Sam Houston sure knew this, for this is what he said before Texas went bonkers:

To secede from the Union and set up another government would cause war. If you go to war with the United States, you will never conquer her, as she has the money and the men. If she does not whip you by guns, powder, and steel, she will starve you to death. It will take the flower of the country-the young men.

It is too bad Texans then lacked the wisdom to hear the words of our most prudent leader. Instead we chose to write one of the foulest documents in history, our declaration of secession. Apart from making clear to all but the benighted why the South seceded, the document was contrived by a pettifogger. A gander at the remaining complaints apart from slavery would have anyone shaking their head.

Posted by: Martial | November 8, 2010 11:17 PM | Report abuse

Professor Masur is correct only if you assume that slavery was the only issue at play in the Civil War. Our current view casts only the slavery light over that period. A quick trip in a time machine would show that America in 1860 was rent by many forces with slavery among them. A sort of telling remark was made by Shelby Foote during the Civil War series about a captured Confederate who was asked by his Union captor why he was fighting for slavery when he was too poor to own slaves, his response was "I'm fighting because ya'll (the Union Army) are down here". I am always suspicious of revisionism that is based on a need to made history fit our modern sensibilities. As much as slavery was wrong, it is also wrong to obscure the details of this tumultuous period by thinking that all who fought on either side shared a monolithic view of slavery as the only reason for the war. Central reason? Certainly. Only reason? Not hardly.

Posted by: ArmyVet1 | November 9, 2010 4:18 PM | Report abuse

The war was all about the Morell Tax Act (period. Even Lincoln, the consummate politician wanted to resettle slaves to places like Panama and off the coast of Haiti.

President Davis gave up so much for the cause. He had a big position in the government of the north before the war. Robert E. Lee being the greatest american of all time (besides Thomas Jefferson), although he made the biggest blunder of all time (going to Gettysburg),could have commanded the north but the honorable being as he was,chose to defend defend his Virgina homeland from what was perceived as invaders.

What the yankees did during the war truly qualifies them as the original nazis. I will always remember the 620k + victims caused by northern aggression. Sherman should be tried post mortum as a war criminal for what he did to the civilian population. Grant's infamous order 11 goes down in the analogs of american history as the most extreme form of anti-semitism.

Posted by: Speedking8899 | November 9, 2010 4:49 PM | Report abuse

The comments from the Professors and the responders here capture many elements of the dispute. Of course the war could have been avoided. But in 10 years or so the development of the mechanical cotton picker would have made slavery a very expensive agricultural option. Slave holders would have been looking for a way to reduce the burden of supporting the human labor they had relied on for so long.

What solutions they might have proposed, we can only guess, but slavery would have begun to die a death by a thousand technological cuts.

Posted by: wildcat1 | November 14, 2010 12:55 PM | Report abuse

Post a Comment

We encourage users to analyze, comment on and even challenge's articles, blogs, reviews and multimedia features.

User reviews and comments that include profanity or personal attacks or other inappropriate comments or material will be removed from the site. Additionally, entries that are unsigned or contain "signatures" by someone other than the actual author will be removed. Finally, we will take steps to block users who violate any of our posting standards, terms of use or privacy policies or any other policies governing this site. Please review the full rules governing commentaries and discussions.

characters remaining

RSS Feed
Subscribe to The Post

© 2010 The Washington Post Company