Was the Civil War a Terrible Mistake?


Mr. Powell, a senior fellow at the Cato Institute, is the author of The Triumph of Liberty (2000), FDR’S Folly (2003), Wilson's War (2005) and Bully Boy (2006). His latest book, Greatest Emancipations: How Slavery Ws Abolished in the West, will be published in 2008 by Palgrave Macmillan.

During Dr. Ron Paul’s recent appearance on FACE THE NATION, he suggested that the Civil War was a mistake, and he has been criticized for saying that. The topic was a minor part of the interview, and he didn’t have time to present much of a case, but fascinating questions were raised. How else would American slaves have gained their freedom if the Civil War hadn’t forced the issue? How could important social reforms of any kind be achieved against stubborn opposition?

Most Americans know only about the four main anti-slavery strategies pursued in the United States: (1) abolitionist campaigns that involved publications and speaking tours, organized by William Lloyd Garrison and others; (2) slave rebellions, like the one incited by Nat Turner; (3) the Underground Railroad, in which runaway slaves like Harriet Tubman and Frederick Douglass, supported by Quakers and others, helped many more slaves escape to freedom; (4) and war which became the most important strategy because of its disastrous short-term and long-term consequences.

Reliance on the use of force resulted in the emancipation of American slaves, obviously a good thing. But this, the military strategy for emancipation, backfired badly. Massive destruction and loss of life embittered Southerners, giving them powerful incentives to avenge their losses whenever they had the chance. Pro-slavery Southerners were bad before the war and worse afterwards. Abraham Lincoln’s conciliatory gestures had little effect because of the intense emotions stirred up by all the fighting, most of which had taken place in the South. Confederate President Jefferson Davis suggested that desperately hungry Southerners should eat rats because they tasted better than squirrels, while Union tax collectors went through the South, looking for assets to seize.

Imagine the disillusionment of Lincoln’s anti-slavery supporters when his hand-picked successor Andrew Johnson, a former slaveholder who had been a Democratic senator from Tennessee, offered a peace settlement that conceded much of what many Northerners thought they had been fighting for. Johnson said nothing about granting political rights for former slaves, and he appointed state governors acceptable to Southern whites. In Southern elections following the Civil War, ex-confederate colonels, generals, the former vice president of the Confederacy, a half-dozen ex-confederate cabinet members and 58 ex-confederate congressmen gained power. Such people dominated southern state governments, and they began enacting oppressive Black Codes.

Radical Republicans in Congress tried to thwart this resurgence of Southern power. They passed the Civil War amendments to the Constitution, they impeached President Johnson, and many Northerners went down South in an effort to make sure that Southerners did the right thing. But there never were enough Northerners to staff all the offices of Southern state governments. Moreover, some three-quarters of Southern males, 18 to 45 years old, had fought for the Confederacy, so unless Southern democracy was suppressed, and the overwhelming majority of Southern males were excluded from voting, they were going to have an impact on elections. They were against giving blacks and women the right to vote. Despite the decisive military victory of the Northerners, after the war Southern state governments were loaded with their adversaries.

There were violent reactions against Republican Reconstruction. The White Brotherhood, the Red Shirts, Knights of the White Camelia and especially the Ku Klux Klan organized efforts to intimidate blacks and Republicans alike. These groups held rallies aimed at driving Northerners out of the South. Klan members burned black homes, schools and churches as a reminder that blacks should not challenge white supremacy. Blacks who had achieved conspicuous success were at risk. Similarly, Klan members physically prevented blacks from voting. Blacks had a hard time defending themselves from Klansmen, because they ganged up on their intended victims, and state laws made it illegal for blacks to own guns. Whites who intimidated or killed blacks came to be called “Redeemers.”

Overall, Republican efforts were limited in their ability to help blacks. Republicans faced relentless opposition from embittered Southerners, and Southern governments – largely bankrupted by the war – didn’t have any money. The Republicans lacked roots in the communities where they held office. Republicans tended to be professional politicians, and – without an established business or profession to fall back on -- if they failed to win an election, they were without a livelihood. Aside from a Union army of occupation, they were supported only by Republican newspapers that had tiny circulations and received little advertising revenue, because Southern businessmen were loyal to Democratic newspapers.

Despite their good intentions, Radical Republicans did much harm. They promoted centralized government school systems in every Southern state. All the government schools were segregated, except for New Orleans government schools which were briefly integrated. Government schooling had taken root in Massachusetts during the 1830s and spread throughout most of the North before the Civil War. As a consequence, whoever controlled the government controlled everybody’s schools in each locality. This worked to the serious disadvantage of blacks who were excluded from schools their taxes helped pay for. Because they paid taxes for other people’s children, they had fewer resources available for their own children. Much like laws of the slavery era, that made it illegal to educate blacks, Reconstruction era government school laws helped promote black illiteracy and ignorance.

Republican politicians helped defeat themselves by becoming big spenders. They lavished subsidies on railroads, and in other ways state governments spent beyond their means to rebuild roads as well as other facilities destroyed during the war. The result of the spending schemes was corruption on a large scale. In North Carolina, $200,000 in bribes yielded millions of dollars of railroad subsidies. For years, bribery wasn’t a crime in Louisiana. Pervasive corruption discredited the administration of Civil War hero Ulysses S. Grant’s administration.

By the mid-1870s, Reconstruction ran out of steam as Radicals died or moved on. President Rutherford B. Hayes agreed to withdraw federal troops from the South in 1877, and Southerners were able to subvert the civil rights of blacks for nearly another century.

Various ideas for helping the former slaves achieve independence, like giving each slave 40 acres and a mule, were pipe dreams precisely because of the Civil War. It made angry Southerners even more determined than they had been before to suppress blacks. By going home, Northerners turned their backs on the mess they had made by promoting war.

Bottom line: the Civil War was no shortcut to achieving civil rights for blacks. While chattel slavery in the United States was abolished in 1865, blacks didn’t begin to get substantial legal protections for their civil rights until the 1960s.

The other place that relied on war to achieve emancipation was Haiti, and the results were even more dismal. French slaveholders had been brutal, but the understandably outraged slaves, who began revolting in 1790, proved to be just as brutal. The inability of slaveholders and slaves to do anything but fight each other, compounded by invasions of French, British and Spanish forces, convinced everybody that if they didn’t kill, they would be killed. The greatest champions of Haitian independence, like Toussaint Louverture, were brutal military dictators. After Toussaint was captured by Napoleon, Jean-Jacques Dessalines became president-for-life -- until he was assassinated in 1806. Then there was a civil war between black generals Alexandre Péxtion and Henri Christophe. Although about 465,000 slaves were emancipated, the result of all this violence was a seemingly endless succession of bloody power struggles up to the present, rather than a free society that slaves had dreamed of when their revolt began.

Since the abolition of slavery in Haiti, the people there have had to endure some 200 revolutions, coups and civil wars. Endemic violence obliterated historical information about Haiti when, for instance, fighting destroyed government offices in 1869, 1879, 1883, 1888 and 1912. The National Palace was blown up several times. Plagued with dictators to the present day, Haiti is the poorest nation in the Western Hemisphere and among the poorest nations on earth.

I embrace the moral sentiment expressed by William Lloyd Garrison's credo, "Immediate emancipation without compensation for slaveholders," but in fact there never was any such thing as immediate emancipation. Slaveholders everywhere resisted emancipation. When force was used in an effort to emancipate slaves, the result was fighting if not full-scale war, the destruction was worse than anticipated, and there were terrible consequences to deal with afterwards.

How else could slavery have been abolished in the United States without the Civil War?

Well, in 1838 Great Britain achieved the most peaceful emancipation in the Western Hemisphere. There were some 800,000 slaves in its Caribbean colonies, the largest of which was Jamaica. The first organized anti-slavery campaign originated in Great Britain during the late 18th century when that maritime nation dominated the slave trade. Great abolitionists like Granville Sharp, Thomas Clarkson, William Wilberforce and Thomas Buxton overcame the opposition of powerful interest groups, demonstrated the moral evil of slavery and gained the moral high ground. Their patient, persistent campaigning achieved perhaps the most dramatic turn-around in public opinion, securing passage of an 1808 law to abolish the British slave trade, the support of the Royal Navy that launched a remarkable 60-year campaign to help suppress it, the support of British diplomats to negotiate anti-slavery treaties with other nations, and an 1833 law to phase out slavery in Great Britain’s Caribbean colonies. Within a few decades, the British people who had been complaisant or supportive of slavery became the most implacable foes of slavery.

British abolitionists recognized that after emancipation, most former slaveholders and former slaves were going to end up in the same society together. Former slaveholders had more power, and there wasn’t anybody to protect the former slaves, so it made sense to undermine incentives of the former slaveholders to avenge their losses. Accordingly, Parliament appropriated 20 million pounds to compensate former slaveholders for their slaves. From a moral standpoint, of course, the former slaves, not the former slaveholders, deserved compensation, but this way there was more likely to be peace, and the former slaves would be safer, and that’s how it worked out.

After emancipation, many blacks preferred to farm for themselves on a small scale where they were likely to benefit from their labor, rather than remain on plantations where they had been abused. There was considerable social progress. More former slaves got married, and husbands and wives lived together. Schools were established for former slaves and their children, and the former slaves formed self-help societies.

Plantation owners had to adapt in a free labor market. Some shut down, while others turned to labor-saving technologies that should have been introduced long ago. In Jamaica, for instance, planters began using animal-drawn plows and harrows adapted for their particular soil conditions. In British Guiana, planters built elevators to bring cut sugar cane to mill houses. Planters there equipped sugar mills with steam engines. Keep in mind that steam engines had propelled the Industrial Revolution during the previous century.

In Brazil, the largest market for slaves – about 40 percent of African slaves were shipped there -- abolitionists raised funds to buy their freedom. Slaveholders resisted, but here and there slaveholders found it in their interest to cash out, and gradually slaveholding areas began to shrink. There was competition among towns, districts and provinces to become slave-free. As liberated areas expanded and became closer to more slaves, the number of runaways accelerated, relentlessly eroding the slave system. Brazilian authorities, like the British, appropriated funds to compensate slaveholders who liberated their slaves. Again, this wasn't because the slaveholders deserved compensation. If anybody deserved compensation, it was the people who had been brutally enslaved and forced to work for nothing. But compensation undermined the incentives of former slaveholders to oppress former slaves, and the former slaves were safer. So slavery was gradually eroded through persistent anti-slavery action involving multiple strategies. In 1888, Brazil became the last nation in the Western Hemisphere to abolish slavery, when there were some 1.5 million slaves remaining.

Some people have objected that the United States couldn’t have bought the freedom of slaves, because this would have cost too much. Buying the freedom of slaves more expensive than war? Nothing is more costly than war! The costs include people killed or disabled, destroyed property, high taxes, inflation, military expenditures, shortages, famines, diseases and long-term consequences that often include more wars!

Just consider some major costs of the U.S. Civil War. Altogether, an estimated 620,000 Union and Confederate soldiers died. Including the number of civilians killed – almost all of whom were Southerners – the total could exceed the 700,000 American deaths in all the other wars the United States has been involved with. In many communities, entire adult populations were wiped out. This was because of the practice of encouraging all the young men in a town to join the same fighting unit.

The financial cost of the Civil War was overwhelming. The North raised some $3 billion in taxes and loans. The Confederacy borrowed more than $2 billion. Both North and South printed plenty of paper money. People in the North endured the inflation of Greenbacks. In the South, there was a runaway inflation. An estimated $1 billion to $1.5 billion of property in the South was destroyed.

That kind of money could have bought the freedom of a lot of slaves and significantly undermined the slave system in the South!

Most of the Civil War had been fought in the South, especially Alabama, Georgia, Mississippi and Tennessee. Atlanta, Columbia, Richmond and other cities were substantially destroyed. Areas of the South that hadn’t been occupied by Union troops were flooded with some 200,000 refugees.

Union Major General Carl Schurz, traveling through the South on an 1865 fact-finding mission, reported seeing “ruin and desolation – the fences all gone; lonesome smoke stacks, surrounded by dark heaps of ashes and cinders, marking the spots where human habitations had stood; the fields along the road wildly overgrown by weeds, with here and there a sickly patch of cotton or corn cultivated by Negro squatters.”

Worst off were prisoners of war. Andersonville (Georgia) was among the largest Civil War prison camps, established in 1864 by the Confederacy. It held some 45,000 prisoners, of whom about 13,000 died from unsanitary conditions, malnutrition and disease. Altogether, a reported 215,000 Confederate soldiers died in Union prisons, and 195,000 Union soldiers died in Confederate prisons.

I might add that emancipation probably could have been achieved without having to buy the freedom of all American slaves. Buying the freedom of slaves was one among several strategies for reducing the number of slaves and the area of slaveholder influence. Presumably the initial focus would have been on undermining slavery in border states, then gradually moving further south. As some point, the combined impact of many emancipation strategies would surely have led to the collapse of Southern slavery, as happened elsewhere in the Western Hemisphere.

Okay, how long might it have taken for blacks to gain equal rights without going through a civil war?

Well, starting in the early 19th century, one Western nation after another that had tolerated the slave trade passed laws banning their citizens from participating in it. These nations included Denmark (1792), Great Britain (1807), the United States (1808), Mexico (1810), Venezuela (1810), Chile (1811), Argentina (1813), Sweden (1813), the Netherlands (1814), France (1818), Brazil (1851) and Cuba (1867). While banning the slave trade wasn’t the same thing as stopping it, clearly time was running out for the slave trade. Throughout this period, Great Britain’s Royal Navy persisted with its long-term campaign to disrupt the slave trade, and while it didn’t intercept more than a small percentage of slave ships, it definitely increased the risks and costs of the slave trade, and created uncertainties for slaveholders who depended on fresh shipments of slaves. Meanwhile, nations that got on board to ban slavery itself in their territories included Argentina (1813), Colombia (1814), Chile (1823), Mexico (1829), Bolivia (1831), Great Britain (1838), Sweden (1847), Denmark (1848), France (1848), Ecuador (1851), Peru (1854) and Venezuela (1854).

By 1860, the number of Western slave societies had fallen dramatically. There were only three places of consequence in the Western Hemisphere that still tolerated slavery: the United States, Cuba and Brazil. Many Southerners comforted themselves by citing Biblical passages defending slavery, but they knew that increasing numbers of people viewed them as backward and barbaric because of their slavery. Cuba outlawed slavery in 1886, Brazil two years later, as mentioned above.

While it’s true the defeat of the South helped convince Cuban and Brazilian slaveholders that the end was in sight, a number of other factors were working against slavery in Cuba and Brazil. As more places were knocked out of the slave trade, the Royal Navy was able to concentrate its resources on Cuba and Brazil. In Cuba, the Ten Years War (1868-1878) undermined slavery because both sides became so desperate that they promised emancipation to slaves who joined their side, which significantly reduced the number of slaves there. I’ve already noted the multiple strategies at work in Brazil – raising private funds to buy the freedom of slaves, competition among towns, districts and provinces to become slave-free, the escalation of runaways and government compensation for slaveholders, undermining their resistance to emancipation.

Without the Civil War, the abolition of American slavery surely would have come later than it did, perhaps a couple decades later. The United States might have been the last hold-out. There would have been mounting pressure on the South.

As in other cases, perhaps the most important anti-slavery pressure might have come from home rather than abroad. The Northern economy was growing rapidly because of expanding population, advancing technologies and industrialization. The increasing numbers of immigrants who came to the United States didn’t want to compete with slave labor, so they settled in the North. The majority of inventions that revolutionized American life were developed in the North. The principal centers of American finance, manufacturing and commerce were in the North. With each passing decade, the North became more prosperous than the South, and this must be counted among the significant, long-term factors working against Southern slavery. In our own time, the collapse of Communist Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union, and the dynamic influence of tiny Hong Kong on Communist China, have reminded us how subversive it is to have a prosperous free society bordering a totalitarian society.

I believe the experience of emancipation elsewhere in the Western Hemisphere suggests that without the U.S. Civil War, emancipation might have come a couple decades later than it did, but without the bigger backlash caused by the war, blacks would have gained their civil rights decades earlier than they did, long before 1960.

What we can say with a great deal of confidence is that the use of force and violence tends to backfire, and this happened with the U.S. Civil War. Many of those who supported the Civil War thought it might be a short cut for blacks to gain their civil rights, but the Civil War turned out to be the long way around.

As I hope I’ve shown, the alternative to the Civil War wasn’t to do nothing and wait for Southern slaveholders to decide when, if ever, they might emancipate their slaves. The alternative was to recognize that slavery was a gigantic beast, and no single strategy was likely to bring it down, so multiple strategies, including buying off slaveholders, had to be pursued – patiently, persistently, relentlessly, as Great Britain’s Royal Navy went after slave traders for six decades.

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Tim Matthewson - 3/9/2008

No group of slaveholders ever relinquished their slaves without the application of force or the threat of force! Look at all the exampications around the world and one will see that the force was an essential element in all of them!

Carol Hamilton - 3/3/2008

That's not an answer. Living in a place (being a citizen of a country) is not tantamount to visiting a place.

I'm saying that the South has benefitted, economically and otherwise, from its association with the rest of the U.S.

Carol Hamilton - 3/3/2008

I'm shocked to read the views of other Confederates in the Attic. I grew up in the deep South, and I'm familiar with its assets and deficits. Except for the black belt, it doesn't have very good soil--the southern part is too sandy, the north red with iron. The steel business in Birmingham went bust in part because the local coal, bituminous, was not as good as Pennsylvania anthracite, and ultimately it became cheaper to get steel from South America. So what "other activities" would the South have turned to?

Reading these pro-Confederacy remarks, I'm tempted to tell y'all to love it (the United States) or leave it...

John Edward Philips - 2/25/2008

"most people today are likely to ask how slavery could have been abolished without the Civil War"

In other words, Americans are so ignorant about their own history that you think you can lie to them and get away with it. Maybe you can to the Cato Institute and the public at large, but not here on HNN. Give it up.

R.R. Hamilton - 2/14/2008

I think that the belief that "only one-third of Americans supported the American revolution comes from a passage in a letter written by John Adams to his wife Abigail while he was at the Continental Congress that was considering the aims of the Revolution -- including whether to make it a war of independence. Adams wrote (and I may be paraphrasing), "We are one-third Tory, one-third timid, and one-third True Blue." By this he didn't mean the American people, but the state delegations at the Continental Congress: The four Southern colonies were "timid", the five Middle Atlantic colonies were "Tory" (opposed to independence), and the four New England colonies, including of course Adams' Massachusetts, were "True Blue" (supporting independence).

R.R. Hamilton - 2/14/2008

I've just sort of skimmed over it, but the author's contention that nearly 400,000 Northern and Southern POWs died in captivity is far off the mark. If I recall correctly, the generally accepted figures are 26,000 Northerners and 31,000 Southerners died in POW camps after the North ended the tradition of prisoner exchanges and began a deliberate policy of starving Southern POWs to death.

Oscar Chamberlain - 2/14/2008

I should have said 15th amendment, not 14th.

Oscar Chamberlain - 2/14/2008

Actually black voting rights was a considerable issue. Before the Civil War, many northern states had black codes of varying strength designed to discourage blacks from migrating there. The people in a number of states debated extending suffrage to blacks in the 1840s and 50s. I don't believe that any was successful in that period of time, though Wisconsin came close.

One of the arguments used against extending voting rights was that if a state did so in isolation, then blacks from all over the nation would flock to that state. A large in-migration of African-Americans was something that the majority of whites in most places did not want.

I don't know much about the state level debates on the 14th amendment, but I have always suspected that it was easier for northern whites to accept it as opposed to their own state extending voting rights precisely because of those arguments. If all states offer blacks that right, then blacks will not need to move to their particular state to obtain those rights.

Jim M Powell - 2/13/2008

I think the biggest mistake was going to war to save the Union. From the standpoint of securing equal rights for blacks as quickly as possible, I think a good case can be made that prospects would have been much better by letting the South secede peacefully.

George Washington was a great man, but saying that secession was unthinkable because he wrote a letter doesn't really address the issues. Hey, we seceded from the British Empire, didn't we?

Anybody with a modest amount of business experience knows that it's often better to let a counter-party out of a contract if the relationship isn't working. For example, if you hired somebody to do a job for two years, and they want to quit after one, you might be able to force them to continue working, but if they don't want to do it, how good a job are they likely to do for you? Better to go through another search and find somebody else who is highly motivated to do a good job.

Is it unthinkable for a married couple to get divorced if they're constantly fighting? What's the point staying together, even if they vowed to be a couple forever?

What's the point of forcing different peoples to remain in the state state when they really don't want to be together, regardless of legalities? So we can have a bigger country? Many small countries have much higher per capita wealth than resource-rich bigger countries. Particularly when there's relatively free trade, one doesn't need political control of an area to gain access to resources there.

R.J. Rummel, a political scientist who has compiled statistics on the number of people killed in various wars, reported that especially during the past century, far more people have been killed in wars WITHIN STATES than in wars BETWEEN STATES. We tend to think of World War I, World War II and other wars between states as the biggest killers, but in fact far more people were killed by their own governments or in civil wars. Hundreds of millions of people have been killed by the Soviet government, the communist Chinese government, governments in Cambodia and Vietnam, in Africa, etc. during the past half-century.

If we need a further reminder about the trouble that can come from forcing people together, there's Iraq. The trouble intensified after World War I when Winston Churchill cobbled together the Iraqi state with Kurds, Sunni Arabs and Shiites. Previously, they had pretty much gone their separate ways, but with a centralized state, whoever controlled the power could disrupt the lives of everybody else, and now they are at each other's throats more than ever.

So I believe Unionists were asking for trouble to insist that the North and South remain in the same state. As we know, there was no end of trouble, and it was getting worse. Slave hunters foraged freely throughout the North for runaway slaves and free blacks alike. Southern senators blocked antislavery action sought by Northern senators. The South became increasingly desperate after California was admitted as a free state, and there weren't many good prospects for additional slave states. It became increasingly difficult to avoid war.

I believe war could have been avoided if both sides feared war enough. Europeans avoided fighting as long as possible during the 1930s, despite the rise of dictators, because the World War I bloodbath was still a nightmarish memory. The United States and the Soviet Union avoided a hot war despite many provocations, because both knew it could have been catastrophic.

At the very least, avoiding the Civil War and the killing, destruction and humiliation of losers meant avoiding an uncontrollable lust for revenge that was an almost inevitable consequence of that war. This phenomenon had occurred many times after previous wars, so it shouldn't have been a surprising hazard of warfare, but by 1860 in the United States terrible wars seemed long ago and far away. Northeners thought that since they won the war, they could go down South, take over the state governments, tell the Southerners want to do, and that would be that. Some of these Northerners wanted to eradicate slavery, some wanted to punish the Southerners, and others seemed most interested in loot, but after a few years they began to go back North to their homes, leaving the embittered Southerners to harass and murder blacks. The war intensified hatred all around, and nobody could be counted on to protect the former slaves and their descendants whose civil rights were subverted for another century.

It was hard enough to overcome racism without adding bad feelings intensified by the killing, destruction and humiliation of war. The Civil War made it harder to get to a point where blacks and whites could live together peacefully in a free society.

If the South had been permitted to secede peacefully, the Confederacy would have come under increasing pressure, regardless how much the Deep South slaveholders tried to hunker down. The politics of fugitive slave law enforcement probably would have changed. It no longer would have been politically acceptable for mayors, governors and the president of the United States to support Southern slave hunters who came North to haul away peaceful people, especially after the South rejected and insulted the United States by seceding. I expect runaway slaves would have been safer when they crossed the U.S. border and wouldn't have had to go hundreds of miles farther north to Canada, not because Northeners loved blacks (they certainly didn't), but because of the nationalist reaction against the Confederacy.

The Confederacy would probably have put up barbed wire, put up walls and ordered soldiers along the long border with the U.S. to shoot on sight any runaways trying to cross, which would surely have become a huge public relations disaster with political and economic consequences.

Because a safe border was likely to be be much closer (than Canada), the number of runaways from the border states was likely to increase, and the population of slaves in these states was already declining because of the demand for slaves in the Deep South. The lower the population of slaves, the less of a stake border state residents had in slavery.

The population of the United States continued to outstrip that of the Confederacy, in part because the overwhelming percentage of immigrants settled in the United States and in part because twice as many people left the Confederacy for the United States than left the United States for the Confederacy. Larger populations mean larger markets, more people to work in fields and factories, helping the economy expand -- and more people to settle in new states.

The U.S. economy was industrializing much more rapidly than the Confederacy, and the thriving centers of commerce, finance and trade were in the United States. As a result, the United States became an ever more powerful magnet for whites as well as blacks from the Confederacy, and the Confederacy probably wouldn't have been any more successful trying to stop the flow than mainland China in its efforts to stop its people from fleeing to Hong Kong, or East Germany in its efforts to keep people from fleeing to West Germany.

In March 1862, Lincoln proposed compensated emancipation, an antislavery strategy that figured in the comparatively peaceful emancipations that occurred in the British Caribbean and in Brazil (the largest slave market in the Western Hemisphere). But border state congressional representatives blocked the proposal, and Lincoln felt he couldn't push too hard because by that time he was in the middle of the Civil War, and he didn't want them to bolt to the Confederacy. Border state representatives knew Lincoln needed all the support he could get for the war, so they refused to compromise on slavery, and he couldn't do anything about it.

Most people still seem to believe that the civil rights of blacks would have been subverted up to the 1960s whether the Civil War occurred or not, simply because the Southerners were terrible people. Well, many were terrible, but the situation became much worse and much more difficult to deal with because of the killing, destruction and humiliation of the war. I haven't heard anybody who was pro-Civil War explain how to deal with the consequences -- the uncontrollable lust for revenge that led to the wholesale abuse of blacks, including the effective revival of Black Codes, the exclusion of blacks from state-controlled public schools, compulsory segregation on railroads, intimidation to deny the right to vote, and the refusal to enforce laws against murder when blacks were shot or lynched, on and on.

Comparing the experience of other Western emancipations offers a reminder that the way things worked out isn't the only way they could have worked out or the best way they could have worked out. People make different choices, and consequences can be very different. Minimizing the violence involved in emancipation (or any other kind of social reform) makes it easier to get people to the point where they can live together in peace.

John Edward Philips - 2/12/2008

Lincoln ran against the Dred Scott decision, and arguably won because the Dred Scott decision alarmed those in the North who were hoping to get homestead farms in the West. There was still a considerable Jeffersonian and Jacksonian sentiment against the power of the Supreme Court to declare laws to be against the Constitution, and Lincoln actually contemplated arresting Chief Justice Taney at one point.

John Edward Philips - 2/12/2008

Secession remains lawful? Go ahead and try it. See what happens. I'm waiting.

US Constitution, Article VI, paragraph 2:

"This Constitution, and the Laws of the United States which shall be made in Pursuance thereof; and all Treaties made, or which shall be made, under the Authority of the United States, shall be the supreme Law of the Land; and the Judges in every State shall be bound thereby, any Thing in the Constitution or Laws of any State to the Contrary notwithstanding." (signed) George Washington, President

I think that should be clear enough.

The original issue was the same issue in Bosnia, or in Angola in the 1990s. Losing an election doesn't give anyone the right to kill the winners. Lincoln was too good a lawyer to violate the law or the Constitution. Many southern officers in the US military took their oaths to the Constitution seriously.

John Edward Philips - 2/12/2008

Before the 14th Amendment, black voting rights were a state's right. When the Federal Constitution was adopted, five states, including North Carolina, gave free blacks the vote.

There were not large numbers of blacks in northern states until the Great Migration that began in World War I, therefore it was not an issue there. As for black disfranchisement in the south, it was not adopted until the 1890s. Most Bourbon restorationists would rather have had their house servants voting than to have those Unionist scalawags in the hill country voting.

The specter of Populist union between black and white sharecroppers led to the rise in race baiting and lynching in the 1890s. The last black in Congress, from North Carolina, left after the election of 1900, not after the Compromise of 1877.

John Edward Philips - 2/12/2008

War was not Lincoln's strategy of emancipation, the Emancipation Act was his strategy of war. By 1863 Lincoln didn't have much choice. It was either emancipate the slaves, or lose the war and/or election. It worked. Before the Act, and indeed for several months before it took full effect in breaking the back of the southern economy, the Confederacy was winning.

Lincoln's original choice of a strategy had been containment. If you wanted to discuss Lincoln's strategy for ending slavery that's what you should have discussed. It was the Confederacy that forced Lincoln into the choice of immediate abolition or surrender, and many loyal Unionist southerners considered secessionists "practical abolitionists" for having forced Lincoln's hand. They were right, in my opinion.

Americans went home after the Civil War, you say? Excuse me, but Americans WERE home IN the Civil War, which was what the whole thing was really about.

Union troops did not move north after the Compromise of 1877, rather most of the black units which had been used to garrison the south after the war were disbanded, with a few moved west into the Indian Wars, where they became known as Buffalo soldiers. The black Union veterans were left to the tender mercies of the Bourbon restorationists and the rest, as they say, is history.

Good history, I'm afraid, is what your essay above this is not. Please try to familiarize yourself with facts, as well as the extensive literature about whether or not containment would have put unbearable strains on slavery. Did slave owners really need to convert their chattel into capital improvements, as some at the time suggested? Could the mining frontiers of the west have absorbed the slave population? These are the real historical questions.

As for civil rights for the ex-slaves, immediate emancipation put that on the national agenda, at least for a while, and into the Constitution. Gradual emancipation wouldn't have done either one. Equal rights for blacks in the Union certainly wasn't Lincoln's intention in 1861.

Jim M Powell - 2/9/2008


Last time I heard, if I recall right, you were in Australia -- is that correct?

I recall publishing an article of yours in NEW INDIVIDUALIST REVIEW when I was an editor, at the University of Chicago.

Sudha Shenoy - 2/9/2008

Sentiment doesn't bring in the _net_ income needed to maintain a business. 1. The plantations of the American South were businesses, first & foremost. True, slaveholders had all sorts of non-material reasons to hold slaves, but does that automatically guarantee that a plantation is _always_ prosperous? Did plantations lose money _only_ when slaveholders decided they did _not_ want to hold slaves? What were the prospects for the contd profitability of slave-using plantations into the indefinite future? Brazilian planters certainly manumitted their slaves -- as indeed did Roman estate-owners in Roman Egypt.

The question: Why would/did American planters continue to keep slaves when Brazilian planters gradually manumitted theirs? The vast majority of slaves in Brazil had already been freed by the time abolition came there.

2. The point is, surely, that many Northerners would've actively supported runaway slaves, even as others turned them back. And as the North prospered, more people would've had more resources to put into purchasing & freeing slaves, or encouraging runaways. So, of course, for those who supported slavery. The real question is, which would've been stronger? Over time?

Also, to penetrate through the border states to the North is still shorter than fleeing all the way to Canada.

3. Any Federal 'protection' of blacks in the American South seems to have remained a dead letter until the change of sentiments all round in the mid-20th century. Black codes & 'Jim Crow' ruled till then.

Jim M Powell - 2/8/2008

This is a good exchange, thank you.

Mindful that the Civil War, like many decisive victories, gave the losers an uncontrollable lust for revenge and that nobody could be counted on to protect the former slaves and their descendants, I am trying to determine what might have happened if the Civil War had been avoided. Surely there had to be a better way than the Civil War that brought the deaths of some 620,000 people plus the massive destruction, the debacle of Reconstruction and the subversion of civil rights for another century. I think there's a strong case that the Civil War delayed by many decades the achievement of equal rights.

I agree that many Northerners weren't sympathetic to blacks. All the more reason to avoid the Civil War! The war intensified hatred and gave the losers a lust for revenge, and because many Northerners weren't sympathetic to blacks, they weren't highly motivated to sustain protection for the vulnerable blacks. The Northerners made a bad situation worse by pursuing an all-out war, and then they went home, leaving blacks to the KKK and other criminal gangs.

If people have enough fear of an all-out war, as the United States, the Soviet Union and China did during the half-century after World War II, it can be avoided. I think that for people in the North and the South, the worst prior wars, like the Napoleonic wars and the Haitian wars, seemed long ago and far away. In these circumstances, I realize the Civil War was hard to avoid. There were provocations that became irresistible.

But that's not what I'm asking about. I'm asking whether there are credible reasons why blacks would have gained equal rights sooner if somehow the Civil War had been avoided, and I believe the answer is yes.

I believe most of the factors I mentioned that favored antislavery would have worked against the South if it had seceded peacefully and become a foreign country.

Namely, (1) the number of runaways probably would have increased as secession changed the politics of fugitive slave law enforcement and made it unacceptable for southern slave hunters to haul away peaceful people -- and the runaways would have brought more horror stories about Confederate slavery;(2) desperate efforts to stop runaways, such as orders to shoot them on sight, would have generated widespread revulsion against the barbarism of the Confederacy, with probably economic and political consequences; (3) the population of the North would have continued to grow much faster than the population of the Confederacy; (4) the Northern economy would have continued to grow rapidly, becoming an ever more powerful magnet for Southern whites as well as blacks.

I don't know that I would go so far as to say that runaway slaves would have been welcomed in the United States after the South seceded peacefully. What I'm saying is that fugitive slave law enforcement probably would have collapsed, and slave hunters no longer would have been able to seize people with the support of Northern mayors, governors and the president of the United States. I expect slave hunting would have ground to a halt not because Northerners suddenly loved blacks (they didn't), but because Americans probably would have insisted that the nation's sovereignty be respected, and no foreigers should be seizing peaceful people within our borders -- particularly no Confederates who rejected and insulted the United States by seceding. Blacks would have been safer because of a nationalist reaction against the Confederacy.

I expect deals could have been made to pay slaveholders to get out of the slavery business and liberate their slaves, starting in the areas near the border that already had comparatively fewer slaves. Any strategy that reduced the number of slaveholders and slaves, and the amount of slave territory, moved helped erode the slave system.

As I've noted already, it wasn't necessary to buy the freedom of every slave. Rather, any combination of peaceful strategies that reduced the population of slaveholders, reduced the political clout of the remaining slaveholders, reduced the population of slaves and increased the population of free blacks would have made the Confederacy less stable, and a "tipping point" would have been reached as happened elsewhere. I pointed out that political support for Brazilian slavery collapsed when there were still about 1.5 million slaves. If peaceful strategies had been pursued to erode the Confederate slave population by 50 percent, it would have been about 500,000 away from that 1.5 million number. I'm not saying 1.5 million was necessarily the tipping point in the Confederacy, but the Confederate slave system would have been far less stable, and political support for slavery when there were 1.5 million slaves than it was when there were about 4 million slaves.

I agree that private philanthropy probably couldn't have done the whole job, but I bet it could have done more than most people imagine after the South seceded peacefully and became a foreign country.

I have already said that because slavery was a long-entrenched institution, no one strategy by itself could have brought it down. A combination of strategies were needed to relentlessly erode the slave system, making it more unstable and more vulnerable to stresses -- such as, for instance, declining agricultural commodity prices.

If I were to summarize the experience with emancipations in the Western Hemisphere, I would say that antislavery activity wasn't the same in every place every year. There were great campaigns, and there were times when nothing much seemed to be happening. But antislavery activity and slavery-related problems never went away. They kept coming back. As a result, with each passing decade during the nineteenth century, fewer and fewer societies still defended slavery. By 1860, as I had noted, there were only three left in the Western Hemisphere. By 1888, slavery had been abolished in Cuba and Brazil. If the Civil War had been avoided, is it likely that the Confederacy would have continued for long as the sole slave society in the West, if its slavery hadn't been abolished already?

A few years after Brazilian slavery was abolished, the wealthy Belgian King Leopold's secret slave regime in the Congo began to be exposed and brought down by an English shipping clerk, an American minister, a Polish novelist, an Irish diplomat and an American free lance journalist. These seemingly ordinary people made the Congo the shame of the world and generated public pressure to force the king out of the Congo and end chattel slavery there.

If the Civil War had been avoided, Confederate slavery probably would have been increasingly vulnerable because of the brutality used to sustain it -- brutality that would have become a source of universal loathing.

Oscar Chamberlain - 2/8/2008

It is reasonable to look back and wonder if such bloodshed could have been avoided. It's also reasonable to wonder if there had been a better path to racial equality. But there is just too much here that is improbable for me to accept this as a solid counter-factual argument.

1. The other examples of abolition efforts that you give reflect experience within individual empires. But the Confederacy would no longer have been part of the United States.

The United States government was not going to pay to free slaves in the new Confederate nation. Private philanthropy could not have raised the money. Maybe over time, southern governments would have looked to end slavery for economic reasons, but they assuredly would have done so in a way that denied blacks equal rights and that created no constitutional provision that might promise rights in the future.

2. You seem to assume peace between the Confederacy and the Union. Even if secession had not been contested, there would have been two nations, each with claims (at least in their own minds) on western territories, and native American nations of some strength hoping to play them off against each other.

3. You assume that escaped slaves would have been welcome in the new, smaller Union. That's more possible, but I think there are good reasons to be dubious. First, the initial border would not have been between free states and slave states but between the Confederacy and the four states that had not seceded before Fort Sumter. They would have turned them back.
Second, I think it likely that at least some northern whites would see an independent Confederacy as the place where all blacks should live. For most whites, "Free Soil" meant white soil. Some northern whites might have worked even harder to turn the foreign slaves back than in the 1850s.

The politics within the US would no doubt have been contentious, but once the South was independent, those politics could have played out in entirely different ways from the 1850s.

Jim M Powell - 2/8/2008

A good case can be made that if the South had been permitted to secede without a civil war, slavery would have ended sooner rather than much later as many people suppose.

First of all, keep in mind that back in 1800 slavery was at a peak, and nobody dared predict when it might end. Slavery had been entrenched in the West for several hundred years. British and American bankers, shippers and outfitters made a lot of money from the slave trade. Pro-slavery interests were well-represented in all the governments with slave colonies, certainly including Great Britain where the Church of England owned Caribbean slaves. Established Western religions either tolerated or supported slavery (although Quakers have been credited for their pioneering role in abolitionist movements, original Quaker doctrine accepted slavery, and important Quakers like William Penn owned slaves). Despite all this, Western slavery was swept away in less than a century. Actually, after 1860, there were only three Western slave societies of consequence (the United States, Cuba and Brazil). It's hard to over-state what an amazing development this was -- and the trends that brought it about certainly weren't over.

Although slaveholders everywhere struggled to keep slavery going as long as possible, their time was running out. There are several reasons why blacks probably would have had equal rights much sooner than many people believe, without a civil war:

1. Secession without civil war probably would have made it easier for slaves to run away, because secession would have changed the politics of fugitive slave law enforcement. It seems unlikely that the United States would have continued permitting Southern slave hunters to come north and haul away peaceful people, even though many Northerners weren't very sympathetic to blacks. Canadians weren't permitted to enter the United States and haul away peaceful people, and Southern slave hunters would have been viewed as infringing on American sovereignty after the South insulted and rejected the United States by seceding. As a consequence, runaway slaves and free blacks probably would have been safe when they crossed the border into the United States, and they wouldn't have had to go hundreds of miles further north to Canada. Every runaway slave would have helped to undermine Confederate slavery, by reducing the population of slaves and increasing the population of free blacks.

2. The Confederacy would have had a long, porous border with the United States, and the Confederate regime probably would have increased patrols, built fences and walls and ordered soldiers to shoot on sight runaway slaves trying to cross the border, but such actions probably wouldn't have been any more successful than brutal measures adopted by communist regimes desperate to stop large numbers of their people from fleeing. The more brutal the measures, the more the Confederacy would have been viewed as a backward and barbaric place that civilized people shunned.

3. The longer the Confederacy persisted with slavery, the more politically isolated it would have become. Look what happened to Belgium's King Leopold. In the 1880s, when he was plotting to establish a slave regime in the Congo, he found it necessary to do so secretly. He financed an elaborate PR campaign presenting himself as a great philanthropist for Africans, and he distributed much of his loot around Belgium as public projects like statues. Nonetheless, an abolitionist campaign developed in another country -- Great Britain -- exposed his evil regime and generated so much public pressure that the Belgian parliament forced the king to give up his control of the Congo, and chattel slavery came to an end there.

4. Immigrants were already shunning the Southern slave society, preferring to settle in the United States and help that dynamic economy grow rapidly.

5. The United States was industrializing rapidly and becoming more and more prosperous, a powerful magnet for whites as well as blacks who lived in the Confederacy. The impact would have been comparable to tiny Hong Kong on communist China and West Germany on East Germany and the rest of communist eastern Europe.

6. The trend against Confederate slavery could have been accelerated if Americans had persisted, as abolitionists did elsewhere, with efforts to pay slaveholders who got out of the slavery business and liberated slaves, undermining the population and political clout of the slaveholders who remained. One strategy might have been to start in districts with comparatively few slaveholders, to take those out and achieve slave-free areas, then expand those. Sure, slaveholders adamantly rejected such offers, but the experience of other Western societies suggested that times change -- a period of declining agricultural commodity prices, for instance, made such offers attractive. In Jamaica, many slaveholders took the money offered by Parliament, quit the slavery business and settled in Great Britain, which was a lot better than becoming embittered by war and supporting the lynching of blacks after the war.

During the second half of the nineteenth century, antislavery trends accelerated much as anti-socialist and anti-communist trends accelerated during the second half of the twentieth century, and there wasn't much that the slaverholders could do about it.

This is why I believe it would have been better for the United States to support peaceful antislavery trends, avoid a big land war that the Civil War became, avoid the death and destruction that embittered the losers and caused an uncontrollable lust for revenge. Nobody could be counted on to protect the blacks from the fury of the losers. War made it harder to get to a point where blacks could be safe in a free society.

Oscar Chamberlain - 2/8/2008

Good exchange.

I think we disagree less on the facts than on some fundamental points of human nature (or human psychology). You are assuming a greater market-based rationality than I think existed.

Certainly southerners were market-savvy. Many recent studies of plantation operations have pointed that out. However, up to the Civil War and the end of slavery, ownership of slaves had been a rational economic act as well as an assertion of power and of status and a mechanism of social control over a race deemed inferior and dangerous.

Even if slavery as a rational economic choice declined, I think southerners would have used the power of a Confederate government to encourage economically its continuation because of the other non-economic "values" of slavery that I mentioned above.

Eventually, that would have failed, but I think it would have taken generations. Even in failure, a transition from slavery would have likely incorporated some of the mechanisms of repression utilized after Reconstruction. Only in a Confederacy, there would have been no 14th or 15th amendments that forced southern whites to obscure in law what they were clearly doing in fact.

Sudha Shenoy - 2/7/2008

Thank you very much for the information.

One clarification: I referred to the _legal_ disabilities imposed on free blacks. By this I meant (eg) inability to sit on juries or to testify in their own behalf against whites; restrictions on employment & movement; etc.

No doubt many northeners equated _political_ activity -- voting -- with _social_ equality, & therefore denied blacks the vote. But voting is _not_ the same as the _legal_ shackles tied onto free blacks (eg above.) These & far worse were imposed by the Black Codes, both pre- & post-war. In effect, legislation denied blacks impt aspects of the protection afforded by the common law. This was _not_ the case in the West Indies.

Matthew Polzkill - 2/7/2008

"Besmirch the character of this great and good man who is no longer here to defend himself"...I too will bow down to without a doubt the greatest railroad lawyer who ever lived. They never had a better employee, in fact he also spread his goodness to most American banking & mercantilist interests with an iron fist. Though, of course not everyone appreciates these things he accomplished, but we are still pygmies in comparison.

All one needs to besmirch him is look at his words, his deeds, or in a combination for instance, his sophistry in claiming executive privilege to suspend habeas corpus(which he wielded wildly) when it was clear that only the Congress had authority to. 1854, and another quote regarding the human beings he was known in private to habitually refer to as "the Africans" as if they were from another planet. When not telling howlers he could sometimes be TOO Honest Abe:

"...the Southern people. They are just what we would be in their situation. If slavery did not now exist amongst them, they would not introduce it. If it did now exist amongst us, we should not instantly give it up. This I believe of the masses north and south. Doubtless there are individuals, on both sides, who would not hold slaves under any circumstances; and others who would gladly introduce slavery anew, if it were out of existence. We know that some southern men do free their slaves, go north, and become tip-top abolitionists; while some northern ones go south, and become most cruel slave-masters.

When southern people tell us they are no more responsible for the origin of slavery, than we; I acknowledge the fact. When it is said that the institution exists; and that it is very difficult to get rid of it, in any satisfactory way, I can understand and appreciate the saying. I surely will not blame them for not doing what I should not know how to do myself. If all earthly power were given me, I should not know what to do, as to the existing institution. My first impulse would be to free all the slaves, and send them to Liberia, -- to their own native land. But a moment's reflection would convince me, that whatever of high hope, (as I think there is) there may be in this, in the long run, its sudden execution is impossible. If they were all landed there in a day, they would all perish in the next ten days; and there are not surplus shipping and surplus money enough in the world to carry them there in many times ten days. What then? Free them all, and keep them among us as underlings? Is it quite certain that this betters their condition? I think I would not hold one in slavery, at any rate; yet the point is not clear enough for me to denounce people upon. What next? Free them, and make them politically and socially, our equals? My own feelings will not admit of this; and if mine would, we well know that those of the great mass of white people will not."

Really rose above the fray on that occasion. Some Spooner, an actual visionary and humanist, might cure you of your adulation.

Braine Tree - 2/7/2008

Abraham Lincoln had more character and wisdom in the tip of his little finger than many of his critics today have in their whole body and soul. In regard to slavery, Lincoln was tolerant where he was helpless. He knew that slavery had existed for two hundred years, that it would be impossible to uproot it overnight. He knew full well that slavery was ingrained into every facet and aspect of life in the Southern states, but he refused to accept the spread of slavery to the territories where the practice had not existed previously. As Lincoln stated in his debate with Stephen Douglas:

"The Republican party ... looks upon [slavery] as being a moral, social, and political wrong; and while they contemplate it as such, they nevertheless have due regard for its actual existence among us, and the difficulties of getting rid of it in any satisfactory way. . . . Yet having a due regard for these, they desire a policy in regard to it that looks to its not creating any more danger. They insist that it should as far as may be, be treated as a wrong, and one of the methods of treating it as a wrong is to make provision that it shall grow no larger."

Lincoln was prudently tolerant where he had to be, but his personal opposition to slavery was explicit. Radicals in his own party condemned him as a "slave-hound." Besmirch the character of this great and good man who is no longer here to defend himself, but his character and wisdom shine undimmed a century and a half after his passing!

Jim M Powell - 2/7/2008

Of course, the North went to war to save the Union, not to abolish slavery, but abolishing slavery became a justification for the war, and most people today are likely to ask how slavery could have been abolished without the Civil War. So I discussed the pros and cons of war as a military strategy for emancipation, and compared this with other antislavery strategies.

Although chattel slavery was abolished after the Civil War, the civil rights of blacks were subverted for another century, so one certainly couldn't claim that war did the job. I think it's more meaningful to ask which strategy or combination of strategies would have have been most likely to secure equal rights for the former slaves and their descendants.

One big problem with the military strategy, particularly if one side wins a decisive victory and is able to humiliate the losers, is that the losers are likely to want revenge. There will be an uncontrollable backlash. There was a backlash in Europe following the Napoleonic conquests, a backlash in Germany following the imposition of the vindictive Versailles Treaty, on and on.

Moreover, a number of times Americans have gotten into wars and then gone home. Certainly that was the case after the Civil War. After the losers were outraged by the death, destruction and humiliation, the Northerners went home and let the losers take it out on the former slaves. Nobody could be counted on to protect the former slaves.

Well, suppose Northerners didn't go home. Suppose they occupied the South for decades, maybe up to the present. What might have happened? We might have ended up with chronic violence such as has plagued Northern Ireland, with local guerrillas targeting the occupation forces, and hatred continuing from one generation to the next.

War isn't a shortcut for achieving equal rights or any other social reform that needs widespread acceptance. War is the long way around.

I believe the experience of emancipation in the Western Hemisphere suggests that persistent application of multiple antislavery strategies would have worked in the United States, as elsewhere, if the Civil War had been avoided, and equal rights probably would have been secured decades sooner.

William J. Stepp - 2/7/2008

Yes, the upper south would have been affected earlier. I'm not sure what you mean by "the power of the states." Power to tax?
If you are identifying wealth with state power ("much of the southern wealth was theirs"), I must demur. Wealth comes from the economic means (Franz Oppenheimer) or social power (Albert J. Nock). It's not the same thing as political power or state power, which is parasitic and a barrier to more competitive means of wealth accumulation.
Slavery depended for its existence upon political power, which is sometimes overlooked in these debates.

More to the point, though much of the southern wealth was theirs, the growth of that wealth (compared with the increase in wealth in the North and the rest of the free world) would have been impaired by the continuation of slavery, and the relatively smaller increase in investment in capital goods and more productive technology.

Matthew Polzkill - 2/7/2008

"Would you really like to be living in the South today"

Of course not, I'm a westerner, but I mourn the South's defeat exactly as Lord Acton did. Because it was the death of the 10th Amendment.

Matthew Polzkill - 2/7/2008

We could go the other way with that, Ms. Schoolfield. If Lincoln was justified, the South in the wrong then perhaps Britain was in the right & the (one third of) colonists in the wrong.

Matthew Polzkill - 2/7/2008

I don't know about the writer of this article, but I lay the blame on the same men Lysander Spooner did. You've done a nice & subtle (wait you stared subtle & then came out and trumped with your race card) tarring of the writer. How does he show No concern for the plight of American blacks?! He clearly bemoans the 100 YEARS of terrible oppression that fell upon them, most certainly because of this needless war.

Fahrettin Tahir - 2/7/2008

Turkey did not control the entire peninsula so the saudis could keep their ways in the desert where they lived. After the war they took over what is now Saudi Arabia.
There were two reactions to realising Islamic backwardness. Turkey went the way of modernising as other European countries and the Saudis the other of returning to Mohammeds aera in the hope that God will solve their problems if they obey him. The oil was then interpreted as Gods way of helping them. Islam of course accepted slavery. Turkey proper had virtually none so it was easy for them to abolish it. Arabia had a lot of slaves and some say they still treat their migrant workers as such.

Jim M Powell - 2/7/2008

The question isn't whether slavery should have been abolished as quickly as possible. In other words, the question isn't about intentions. The question is empirical: in light of experience, which antislavery strategy or strategies would probably have brought the end of slavery quickest? Actually, since abolishing slavery in the United States ushered in a great deal of harassment and lynching, perhaps the question should be which strategy or strategies would probably have secured equal rights for blacks quickest?

I should add that although the North pursued the war to save the Union, not to abolish slavery, abolishing slavery did become a rationale for the war, and most people ever since seemed to have come to believe that war was the only way slavery could have been abolished. That's why when comparing various antislavery strategies, I refer to war as a military strategy for emancipation.

I challenge the view that the way things worked out wasn't the only way or the best way they could have worked out. People make different choices, and there can be different consequences.

I agree with the moral sentiment, the intentions expressed by William Lloyd Garrison when he urged "immediate emancipation with no compensation for slaveholders."

But in fact, there never was any such thing as immediate emancipation. Slaveholders resisted emancipation as long as they could. They stalled, they weaseled and they lashed out with violence. Without a doubt, it was hard to resist going to war against these people.

But war was no shortcut to equal rights. As we know, it turned out that Southerners could put up more of a fight than the Northerners expected. The South bore the brunt of the war, but there was plenty of suffering all around during that long nightmare.

That war as the long way around, not a shortcut, became apparent during Reconstruction.

Having amassed overwhelming force and won a decisive victory, supposedly the good guys (Northerners) went down South and told the losers how to behave, and that would be that.

Of course, it turned out that a lot of northerners, starting with Abraham Lincoln's hand-picked successor, had mixed feelings about the antislavery thing. There wasn't much recognition how death, destruction and humiliation could trigger an uncontrollable backlash, and how it could make a bad situation worse.

Those of you who believe the Civil War was a necessary, good war -- how could anybody have dealt effectively with that backlash?

The issue is similar to the dangerous backlash against Napoleon's conquests, against the Versailles Treaty after World War I and against other terrible conflicts.

The more one appreciates the seriousness of such violent reactions that can follow a major war, the more keenly one understands how important it is to go after social problems with multiple non-violent strategies.

Matthew Polzkill - 2/7/2008

It's immaterial, the reason. ANY motivation in the world is all a body of OR an individual FREE man needs. The 1859 statement by the Wisconsin legislature virtually identical to Jefferson's Kentucky Resolve of 1798: "Resolved, That the government formed by the Constitution of the United States was not the exclusive or final judge of the extent of the powers delegated to itself; but that, as in all other cases of compact among parties having no common judge, each party has an equal right to judge for itself, as well of infractions as of the mode and measure of redress."....(individual states),"being sovereign and independent, have the unquestionable right to judge of its [the Constitution's] infractions; and that a positive defiance of those sovereignties, of all unauthorized acts done or attempted to be done under color of that instrument, is the rightful remedy." To speculate, about a good reason to leave, how about they had a premonition of the future and the ULTIMATE Yankee: Hillary Clinton.

Matthew Polzkill - 2/7/2008

...countdown for all time funniest presidential zingers:

No.2 "I am naturally anti-slavery. If slavery is not wrong, nothing is wrong. I can not remember when I did not so think and feel."

No.1 "I did not have sexual relations with that woman, Monac........"

Oscar Chamberlain - 2/7/2008

I am not assuming contentment. I am assuming determination. I think this would have been particularly true in the states in which a high percentage of the population was slaves.

Your market argument is stronger for the upper south, where slave percentages were lower. However, in the Confederacy--even assuming the upper South states were in it--the power of the states with high slave populations would have been magnified, in part because much of the southern wealth was theirs.

William Dalton - 2/7/2008

I think you're 100% right, Mr. Philips. My question has always been why the deep South states voted to secede (the later seceders did so when Lincoln demanded they go to war on their neighbors). With Dred Scott in effect, the South not only had their right to hold slaves secure, but also the right to have them returned from free states. President Lincoln could not have changed this appreciably. Likewise, with Dred Scott, the expansion of slavery westwards would have been less vital to the South. So what was the motivation for secession when it came?

Braine Tree - 2/7/2008

"I am naturally anti-slavery. If slavery is not wrong, nothing is wrong. I can not remember when I did not so think and feel."
--Abraham Lincoln, 1864

Jim M Powell - 2/7/2008

While the North pursued the Civil War to save the Union, not to free the slaves, freeing the slaves became a rationale for war, and most people seem to have concluded that war was the only way to abolish slavery.

How could we be confident that emancipation would have occurred if the South had been permitted to secede peacefully, eliminating any legal authority that the federal government had in the Confederacy?

First, secession would almost certainly have meant the end of fugitive slave law enforcement, and free blacks and runaway slaves in the North would have been safe from Southern slave-hunters. As things were in the North, runaway slaves weren’t safe anywhere, and they couldn’t breathe easily unless they were able to get all the way up to Canada, a daunting task. Northern mayors, governors and the president of the United States supported Southern slave-hunters. But secession would have made the Confederacy a foreign country. Surely, the politics of the situation would have changed. Canadian agents weren’t permitted to come into the United States and seize people, and Canadians, sensitive about the colossus along their southern border, didn’t permit U.S. agents to come into their country and seize people. It would have an intolerable national affront to have agents from a foreign country come into the United States, seize and drag away peaceful people. The affront would have been especially acute since it came from the Confederacy that had rejected and insulted the United States by seceding. Probably even Northerners who weren’t particularly sympathetic to blacks would have insisted that American sovereignty be respected. Enforcing fugitive slave laws and appearing to serve a foreign government probably would have been viewed as unpatriotic – a sure way for U.S. politicians to lose the next election.

Consequently, secession would have made it far easier for slaves to escape from the Confederacy, because they probably would have reached safety by crossing the U.S. border which was hundreds of miles closer than the Canadian border. The changed political situation, resulting from secession, seems likely to have undermined support for slavery in the border states that remained part of the Union. Even if slaveholders had enough clout for some border states to secede, runaways still would have reached safety much more easily than if they had to get to Canada.

Of course, the Confederates would have done everything they could to prevent slaves from escaping into the United States. They would have established border patrols. They might have amassed troops at key points. Perhaps they would have built barbed wire fences and concrete walls. But in our own time, we have seen such efforts fail. For almost a half-century, people used many methods to escape from communist China into Hong Kong, a British colony on China’s southeastern border until 1997. People bought forged papers, they tried to crash through barriers, they escaped on fishing boats, and they swam to Hong Kong. People smugglers – in what until recently was called Operation Yellowbird -- did a lively business. Many Chinese made it to freedom. Similarly, communist East Germany tried to stop people from escaping, and in 1961 they built the Berlin Wall, but people never stopped trying to escape. East Germans climbed over the wall. Some hid themselves beneath cars leaving East Berlin. Many tunnels were dug from the basements of buildings near the border. Two families accumulated enough small pieces of cloth to sew them into a hot air balloon, and they waited for an opportune moment to float over the wall. Despite the wall, the barbed wire, the vicious dogs and the guards ordered to shoot on sight anybody trying to escape, thousands of East Germans made it to freedom. I doubt the Confederacy would have been able to stop the tide of slaves from crossing the border into the United States, and every runaway would have helped to undermine Confederate slavery. Publicity about Confederate troops shooting runaway slaves trying to cross the American border probably would have helped to solidify antislavery views in the United States, undermined slavery in the border states (if they were still part of the United States) and inflamed public opinion everywhere against the Confederacy. All this would have been a huge public relations disaster, tending to drive away whatever supporters the Confederacy had.

If we become impatient with a strategy of relentlesslyy eroding slavery -- reducing the population of slaveholders, reducing the political clout of remaining slaveholders, reducing the population of slaves and increasing the population of free blacks -- we must remind ourselves that war is no shortcut for achieving social reform.

How can anybody today, knowing what we know, say the Civil War was a good thing when nobody could be counted on to protect the former slaves from the former slaveholders and their allies motivated by revenge?

Sudha Shenoy - 2/7/2008

"Would you really like to be living in the South today [without]the benefits of [a larger US]with its two long coastlines....and rich Midwestern farmland?"

1. Unfortunately the American South in the late 20th century is highly dependent on _transfers from_ the vast bulk of American _taxpayers_. Transfer payments ('subsidies') for cotton, tobacco, peanuts, sugar -- are a large part of Southern income. Likewise military spending: bases, plus the large numbers of Southerners who join the military.

Similarly: that 'rich Midwestern farmland' produces crops at some of the highest costs in the world: therefore it too is wholly dependent on American taxpayers.

**If the American South & the rest of the US had been _two_ separate political units:

(a) the South would long since have ceased producing some of the world's most expensive & most highly-subsidised, cotton, peanuts, tobacco & sugar. It would've long ago turned to other activities. Similarly for the unconscionably costly & heavily-subsidised Midwestern maize, wheat, & whatnot. Here too resources would've been used _productively_.

(b) Geography: If the American South were independent, then it would have a fair portion of the US East coast, not to speak of the coastline of the Gulf of Mexico. The remaining US would've had the West coast & a share of the east coast.

Pat Hines - 2/7/2008

"Would you really like to be living in the South today if it did not share in the benefits of belonging to this large, powerful, and rich nation, with its two long coastlines, world-class cities, and rich Midwestern farmland?"

Yes. Is one capable of visiting Scotland, England, France, Italy, and Germany today? Yes. We don't need to dominate them to be able to enjoy their natural beauties.

The Union success of waging the War Against Southern Freedom, it certainly was not a civil war, has given us the world hegemon we're dealing with today.

Pat Hines - 2/7/2008

When South Carolina lawfully withdrew from the Union, the Union Army facilities were no longer on sovereign USA soil. A written agreement between South Carolina and the Union government prohibited any garrisoning of the new, and unfinished Fort Sumter. That's right, both a written agreement and the fact that the Fort had no assignment of troops stationed there.

In the middle of the night, Christmas day, 1860 the commanding officer at Fort Moultrie moved his garrison by boat to Fort Sumter.

That is an act of war under any known US and international law, now or then.

South Carolina this act of war for over 4 months, allowing food and other essentials of daily life to be taken to the fort, but no war materials.

Only when a second act of war occurred, the Union Army attempted to reinforce the garrison now ensconced in Fort Sumter withh 300 additional troops, did South Carolina fire upon the invaders.

No soldier was killed in action.

The Union invaded the south illegally.

Secession remains lawful in America.

Oscar Chamberlain - 2/7/2008

Good list of questions. I'll alternate answers to some of them below.
1. _Why_ did the southen states think that secession was the answer? since slavery was entrenched in the US Constitution? (a)No doubt there were conflicts -- often bloody -- over the extension of slavery to the western territories added to the US -- but did this threaten slavery where it was _already established_? _And_ expanding? (b)How did secession give the slaveholders additional territory to expand into -- since that is what they wanted?
Slavery was in the Constitution, but there was no positive injunction to support it, except in the fugitive slave provision. As Stephen Douglas achkowledged in his debate with Lincoln, a territory could keep out slavery simply by not implementing the laws necessary to its continued existence. At the national level this same logic could hold. A sustained hostility from the majority of states could wear it down.

Concerning US territories, I don't think that southern whites would cheerfully give up their right to at least some of the territories even if a peaceable secession technically required it. I think there would have been war, with some Native American tribes attempting to play North against South.

2. No doubt the southern states looked wistfully at the West Indies & Central America as possible slave territories, but just how realistic were these dreams? Did they expect (eg) the Jamaican blacks to return to their slave status?

Really good question. When I made my comment concerning Caribbean conquests I was thinking of the transport of domestic slaves to those newly acquired areas. I really don't know how they would have handled indigenous free non-white populations. It's something they should have contemplated before acting. I'm just not sure they would have.

3. Lincoln & many abolitionists expected to 'solve' the slave problem by _deporting_ the ex-slaves: back to West Africa or to somewhere in Central America. Surely this is an impt part of _their_ thinking?

The delusion of colonization was part of some northerners' thinking, including Lincoln. I really don't know when he let go of that.

However, some northern abolitionists really did support equality. Many others assumed--and hoped--that most blacks would remain in the South.

4. _Unlike_ all other slave territories in the Western Hemisphere, states in the American South _forbade_ manumission. They also imposed severe legal disabilities on free blacks. Why was this? How did this affect the situation overall?

Actually I believe that most slave states did not ban manumission by slaveholders, but most if not all made it harder over time, primarily by insisting that manumitted slaves be transported out of the state. I do not believe that it was enforced rigidly, at least not often, but it was a barrier nonetheless.

The free black was a conundrum to most whites, north and south. There was a general believe in the Jacksonian era that political and social equality were one and the same. Thus for most whites, to give blacks political rights was tantamount to acknowledging their social equality, and not too many whites were willing to do that.

This is why voting rights for blacks actually declined in the North after the War of 1812. The distance between black and white became an unbridgeable chasm as opposed to a barrier that more talented (that is, property owning) blacks could cross. This was part of the same process that led whites to see each other as essentially equal. The conception of blacks as inferiors helped whites to define themselves.

In the South, the conundrum had real dangers, as free blacks seemed like a walking incentive for slave revolt. Countering that were bonds of affection (or at least responsibility) that some masters felt for some of their slave born children. Portions of the free black populations of Charleston and New Orleans had such origins and were favored over other free blacks.

I did not address all of your questions, but I hope this is a good start.

Dwight Johnson - 2/7/2008

Mr Powell, you say that the Southerners refused to give blacks voting rights after the war. When did they get them in the north?

William J. Stepp - 2/7/2008

You're assuming that Southern slave holding farmers would have been content to keep investing in less productive slaves than to increase their investments in labor saving (and more productive) capital goods.
Yet you agree in the second paragraph that slavery was doomed. This raises the question: at what point would farmers have realized this and changed their investment mix? Why assume this would have taken several generations? Maybe it would have, but I think the transformation would have happened faster than you think, given their opportunity costs and profit opportunities forgone.

Farming is not a very profitable business even in the best of times (cue the agricultural subsidy chorus, and yes John Cougar Mellencamp does farm the taxpayers, so boycott him already).

Carol V. Hamilton - 2/7/2008

"The War against Southern Freedom"!!

Would you really like to be living in the South today if it did not share in the benefits of belonging to this large, powerful, and rich nation, with its two long coastlines, world-class cities, and rich Midwestern farmland?

Are you aware that many hill-country whites who did not own slaves didn't want to fight in what they called "a rich man's war and a poor man's fight"? That others were enticed into service by slaveholders and their daughters, who promised them glory and a pension for life? That owners of 20 or more slaves were initially exempt from service in the Confederate Army? That men from Winston County in northern Alabama proposed that the county secede from the state, and that many Winston men hid in caves to escape from the Confederate draft? That some of them specifically objected to firing on the flag for which their grandfathers had fought against England? And that other escaped to form the First Alabama Union Cavalry, which marched with Sherman through Georgia?

Carol V. Hamilton - 2/7/2008

What? The North attacked first? Check out the following from the Fort Sumter website:

"Decades of growing strife between North and South erupted in civil war on April 12, 1861, when Confederate artillery opened fire on this Federal fort in Charleston Harbor. Fort Sumter surrendered 34 hours later. Union forces would try for nearly four years to take it back."

Lincoln did NOT want war.

The Confederacy was NOT a "sovereign nation"; that's what was in dispute. When South Carolina's representatives signed the Constitution, they made a binding agreement with the rest of the former colonies.

Pat Hines - 2/6/2008

"Informed commentators have clearly pointed out the principal problem with the Powell essay: The North didn't go to war to free slaves."

That correct. The Union went to war to achieve what it could never have achieved without war, a forcibly centralized super-nation state. The "American System" of Henry Clay was vindicated at bayonet point.

"In fact, the North didn't go to war, per se. That is, they didn't start the war. The South went to war as an act of political secession from the Union. But everyone knows this. The point is what would have happened had the North not responded to Southern military actions."

The Union invaded the southern states, the Union committed the first acts of war, the Union was both illegal in its acts of aggression and immoral in its prosecution of the war.

The Confederate states did not seek war, Lincoln did.

Sudha Shenoy - 2/6/2008

Jim Powell raised a number of _key_ questions on the total costs of the American Civil War -- esp. the costs that came _later_: during Reconstruction & after the passage of 'Jim Crow' legislation in the southern states. It is interesting that no one has addressed these points.


1. _Why_ did the southen states think that secession was the answer? since slavery was entrenched in the US Constitution? (a)No doubt there were conflicts -- often bloody -- over the extension of slavery to the western territories added to the US -- but did this threaten slavery where it was _already established_? _And_ expanding? (b)How did secession give the slaveholders additional territory to expand into -- since that is what they wanted?

2. No doubt the southern states looked wistfully at the West Indies & Central America as possible slave territories, but just how realistic were these dreams? Did they expect (eg) the Jamaican blacks to return to their slave status?

3. Lincoln & many abolitionists expected to 'solve' the slave problem by _deporting_ the ex-slaves: back to West Africa or to somewhere in Central America. Surely this is an impt part of _their_ thinking?

4. _Unlike_ all other slave territories in the Western Hemisphere, states in the American South _forbade_ manumission. They also imposed severe legal disabilities on free blacks. Why was this? How did this affect the situation overall?

In Brazil, for example, many slaves were manumitted -- permitted under Roman law. (Jim Powell doesn't mention this.) In the West Indies, free blacks served on juries & came under the same common law as the whites.

Pat Hines - 2/6/2008

"One is constantly disappointed by the distortions and lack of context by those like Jim Powell."

I've read his piece thoroughly, it's quite accurate in it's details and analysis.

"As I recall, Southern states seceded from the Federal Union."

Quite right, a lawful activity, pursued entirely lawfully.

"It was the Southerners that would not abide any limits on transporting their "property."
I'm not entirely sure what the above means.

"It was Southerners that refused to compromise and it was Southerners that chose the remedy of war to settle their grievances with the Federal Government."

No, that's ahistoric. The Confederate States were attacked, the first act of war against South Carolina was by the Union Army in direct violation of written agreements. Troop movements onto sovereign soil of another nation are acts of war. South Carolina provided the Union Army 4.5 months to evacuate their position on South Carolina territory. The Union Army refused, then attempted to militarily reinforce their position. A further act of war, all prior to the first shot to be fired by South Carolina.

Lincoln wanted war, not the Confederacy.

"One is constantly amazed by the distortions--since Reconstruction did not succeed the wartime enterprise to abolish slavery was flawed, to say the least."

The euphemistically named 12 years of terror, flawed? Yes, it was flawed. Totally counter productive, criminal, and venal behavior.

"Please give it up. Part of the problem was Southern arrogance and their idea that their way was the only way. They mistook forbearance and indifference for cowardice."

The forbearance was totally on the Confederate side. While hubris was the Union's stock in trade.

It still is.

Pat Hines - 2/6/2008

"What do people of Ron Paul's persuasion think of the American Revolution? If the Civil War was unnecessary, what about the American Revolution?"The Revolutionary War was fought by the British to prevent the secession of Americans from the UK. The War Against Southern Freedom was fought by Lincoln and his mercantilist corporate supporters to prevent secession of the Americans of the south.

When we discuss these two wars, the relative roles played by each government must be well understood.

Sudha Shenoy - 2/6/2008

The Ottomans _formally_ abolished slavery in 1847. WWI ended in 1918, some _71_ (71) years later. How did the British support slavery in Saudi Arabia -- a province of the Ottoman Empire -- during those 71 years?

Saudi Arabia was then, & is now,a relatively backward _tribal_ society -- when compared with other parts of the Muslim world. What influence did this have on their determination to keep their slaves?

Sudha Shenoy - 2/6/2008

??? It might be useful to have a look at Jamaican history. The _sugar_ plantations were kept going by bringing in indentured labourers from India; some were brought from China. Jamaica & the other West Indian colonies kept on supplying the world market with sugar, as they do to this day.

When did Jamaican planters ever talk about anything as insane as declaring independence? To what end?

Oscar Chamberlain - 2/6/2008

If the South had been independent, then slavery would not have to have outperformed free labor in the North. It had to be sufficiently profitable for southern whites to prefer to continue its existence. Given the economic investment in slaves and the importance of the institution to the social structure, breaking even might have been sufficient for several generations.

And when slavery ended--and I agree that was inevitable at some point--it would have been done in the absence of constitutional amendments that, on paper at least, gave equality to the freed men and women and authority to the national government to enforce that. An unequal and constitutional peonage would have begun.

William J. Stepp - 2/6/2008

Slaves were used in urban manufacturing and in mining in the South, but economic reality would have doomed this model. Even if an independent CSA had expanded, slavery would have been outcompeted to the point of extinction.

Oscar Chamberlain - 2/6/2008

The logic of this post assumes that cotton and sugar were an economic cul-de-sac for slavery. But there were other potential uses for slaves, partcularly in factories and mines.

If secession had occured, the South would have sought to expand, certainly into the Caribbean and probably by disputing possession of New Mexico Territory, the Indian country, and perhaps part of Colorado. Slaves were being used successfully as factory workers. Concerns about controlling them in an urban context had discouraged expansion of this, but given an independent South that (irony of ironies) could place a tariff on Northern manufactured items, the potential gains might have outweighed the fears.

Are my speculations certainties? Hardly. But they strike me as likely possibilities if peaceable succession had occurred. And imagining a path between peaceable secession and a stable compromise between the South and the rest of the nation is challenging indeed.

Fahrettin Tahir - 2/5/2008

Slavery was abolished in Turkey in 1847. The result was a revolt in what is now Saudi Arabia, where the Saudi family claimed that Turks had become infidels by abolishing slavery. happily the British made the place independant after Turkey lost the first world war and could continue with slavery until the 1960ies.

William J. Stepp - 2/4/2008

The long second quote is from pp. 181-83. Sorry.

William J. Stepp - 2/4/2008

Jim Powell paints a picture of the South's economic distress compared to the North with a broad brush. He apparently overlooks the problematic microeconomics and financial picture of the Southern planters.

The British traveler James Stirling closely observed the U.S. during a several months-long tour from August 1856 to late April 1857, and wrote a remarkable series of _Letters from the Slave States_ (London: John W. Parker & Son, 1857). When he arrived back in New York April 24, 1857, he wrote that "Behind me is despotism and desolation; around me is freedom and prosperous industry. One breathes more freely. The little step from South to North is a stride from barbarism to cililization.; a leap from the sixteenth to the nineteenth century (p. 353)."

He summed up the problems with the South's cotton- and sugar-based agriculture by noting first how precarious their productions were. They were commodities, the production of which were contingent upon factors beyond the control of planters, such as weather and disease. World agricultural markets were always cyclical, and were subject to the vagaries of war and politics.
He noted that planting was in a sense a form of gambling. Planters tended to base their financial calculations on the expectations of good crops and high prices, which was okay if the market was robust and their expectations were met. But otherwise they had to take on more debt. "This I believe is the secret of the notorious 'indebtedness' of the Southern planters. Not one in fifteen, I am assured, is free of debt."

They were up to their eyeballs in debt, as a number of economic historians have observed. That is not a characteristic of a healthy economic system.

Stirling continues:

"But sugar-planting has another, and perhaps worse, bane to contend with; it is based on Protection. Cotton culture is, at least, a natural and legitimate industry. It is not, like sugar-planting, to fear the breaking down of a rotton foundation. I believe that cotton-growing in the Gulf States can defy all competition. The perfect adaptation of soil and climate, the ready access to the ocean, and the comparatively short transit to European markets, must always ensure for it vast facilities. The one thing which in my view may yet expose the South to a dangerous competition (however paradoxical it may sound here) is her slave-labour. Within the last ten or fifteen years the value of slaves has risen fifty per cent. at least. During the same time the price of bacon has risen 100 to 200 per cent. Let this process only be ocntinued for ten years longer, and where will be the profits of the cotton-planter? And here we may perhaps find the long-looked-for solution of the Nigger question. When slave-labour becomes unprofitable, the slave will be emancipated. South Caroline herself will turn Abolitionist, when slavery ceases to pay. When she finds that a brutalized race cannot and will not give as much efficient labour for the money as a hired class of superior workers, it is possible that she may lay aside the cowhide, and offer wages to her niggers.

The chances of the continuous prosperity of sugar-planting seem poor indeed. Resting on artificial props, it has to fear social and political disturbance as well as natural calamities. The progress of Free Trade notions may destroy it.... (pp. 282-83)."

We can't rerun history, but if you had told a colleague in 1981 that the USSR and communism in Eastern Europe would have collapsed, with the Berlin Wall being turned into souvenir pieces within a decade, he might have had you committed.

It's just an educated guess, but had the War Between the States not been fought, slavery would have been extinct in the South by the close of the nineteenth century.

Paul Noonan - 2/4/2008

I don't know what the reaction of the Jamaican slaveholders to emancipation was, but certainly they had to bow to the inevitable.

They could have scarcely declared independence from Great Britain, an island nation can hardly defy the greatest navy in the world. And blacks outnumbered whites on Jamaica about 20 -1, even if Britain had conceded indpendence white Jamaicans could not have expected to be able to keep down a restless slave population on their own. Even the likes of Robert Barnwell Rhett or William Lowndes Yancey would have had to surrender to abolitionism at those odds.

In the US, by contrast, in 1861 the slave states thought they could win independence and keep their slave minority in check at the same time.

A paln like the British compensated emancipation scheme of the 1830s would not have been accepted in the South and the South would not have had to accept it. In Jamaica it was otherwise.

Randll Reese Besch - 2/4/2008

Such measures as given in the piece could have worked if those like Garrison would have gone for the gentle relentless approach and others in gov't were of the same idea.
Alas their really were none to do it. The first compromise with the South and slavery occured during the Revolutionary war and it went on from there to now. Slavery is still alive and well using poor immigrants by corporations in 'sweat shops' in terrible contitions of duress.

Randll Reese Besch - 2/4/2008

I would also like to go back to the original pledge for all republics:
"I pledge allegence to the flag and to the republic for which it stands.One nation,indivisable with libery and justice for all."
And return to our national motto e pluribus unum & novus ordo seclorum
And remember the Federal gov't aided slavery by the Missouri Comprimise and the Fugitive Slave Act.
There is a whole series of alternate world history of a world where the American Civil War ended with a split nation. From 1861-1945 over six books.

Randll Reese Besch - 2/4/2008

Though as late as 1775 some like Ben Franklin was promoting a peaceful resolution to the taxation problems. The counter factual fiction is out there on "what ifs?". I am working on one myself.
My bone of contention was the silent coup with the convention of 1787 that was supposed to revise the Articles of Confederation not abolish them and replace it with a Federalist super state.One hobbled by the Bill of Rights(anti-Federalist) compiled by James Madison,that slowed the accreation of power till now. Took some 200 years to do it. Too much power in the central gov't not enough in the states or most importantly, the people.

Geoff Elliott - 2/4/2008

The Civil War occurred due to many reasons, not only because of slavery. From the founding of our republic, there were many inherent conflicts between north and south. Southerners were so adamant about states' rights that it stood for no interference from the federal government. For example, South Carolina nearly seceeded from the union as early as the 1830s during the "nullification" fight over taxes and tariffs imposed by the federal government.

Slavery may or may not have eventually died out in the United States, and no one can claim with certainty that it would have. People in the South were advocating prior to the Civil War the conquest of Cuba and Latin American countries so slavery could be expanded to new territories. The horrendous bloodshed in Kansas was the fight between the expansion and containment or elimination of slavery.

There is absolutely no evidence that slavery would have disappeared from the United States in another decade or two.

To claim otherwise is simply bad history.

Jeff Cote - 2/4/2008

Informed commentators have clearly pointed out the principal problem with the Powell essay: The North didn't go to war to free slaves. In fact, the North didn't go to war, per se. That is, they didn't start the war. The South went to war as an act of political secession from the Union. But everyone knows this. The point is what would have happened had the North not responded to Southern military actions.

No one really knows, but conjecture suggests that military units loyal to the North would have packed up and moved north, assuming they were permitted to do so; but this is not unlikely given the chivalry of the times. Most units would have disbanded as soldiers from Northern states went home and soldiers from the South stayed home. A similar series of events would have occurred in Northern states, and in fact did, to some extent.

But what would have come next? Southern military and political leaders certainly were not interested in Northern conquest. That simply was not the purpose of their secession in the first place. Had Lincoln accepted secession as a fait accompli, what would history look like today?

Slavery certainly would have continued in the South for some time, probably much longer than Powell believes. Economic incentives such as compensation suggested by Powell probably would not be forthcoming because the act of secession took away most of the voices in government opposed to slavery that could have lobbied for laws granting compensation in the first place. There certainly would be no such "pay-off" of slaveholders originating from legislatures in Southern states. Only the sheer economic disparities between the North and the South, growing ever steeper and sharper over time, might have led to changes in the Southern slave culture. But, again, how long would that have taken? Fifty years? Sixty? Perhaps longer.

The larger question is what would have become of the America we know? It is a distinct possibility that war between confederate states would have erupted over any number of issues, perhaps becoming endemic. What would have happened to the West? How about Texas? How would America (in the form of many states) have responded to WWI and WWII? America might very possibly have come to resemble Europe in the 19th century South America today.

I am not prepared to suggest that the America we know today - and indeed the world we know today - would be a better place had the Civil War not settled, for all time, the question of the right of states to secede from the Union. I'm willing to bet history on "One nation, under God, [and, ultimately,] indivisible."

John Nicholas - 2/4/2008

My reaction while reading this was disbelief at what I was reading.

It certainly wasn't the south where Brown v. Board of Education occurred.

If his premise is true, there is no explanation for the segregation and repression in the Northern States or in agencies of the Federal Government.

Actually, the answer is human nature and that is not strictly history -- only the effects of human nature is.

John Nicholas

James W Loewen - 2/4/2008

Phillips is right: this is the least competent piece I've read on HNN for years. The errors are so many, there is no point picking on one or a few. It would be a fine article to give to HS students, however, for their dissection.

Brenda Thompson Schoolfield - 2/4/2008

So, what about the American Revolution? If the colonies had not demanded their independence in 1776, wouldn't they have been part of the British emancipation process?

What do people of Ron Paul's persuasion think of the American Revolution? If the Civil War was unnecessary, what about the American Revolution?

Tim Matthewson - 2/4/2008

The author does not seem to be aware that his essay is a variation on the long dead school of Civil War historiograhy called the Respressible Conflict, embracing the Needless War doctrine. The basics of the interpretation is embodied in this paragraph: "I believe the experience of emancipation elsewhere in the Western Hemisphere suggests that without the U.S. Civil War, emancipation might have come a couple decades later than it did, but without the bigger backlash caused by the war, blacks would have gained their civil rights decades earlier than they did, long before 1960."
The basis thrust of the Needless War doctrine is to blame the war on the abolitionist leaders of the north and the fire eaters of the southern states. If only these dogmatic radical had kept their mouths shut, the war might have been avoided. And even if the south had seceded Lincoln was wrong the attempt to coerce with arms the Southern states because the Souther would have gone independent for about 20 years or so, would have emancipated the slaves, and would then have returned to the Union.
These are interesting speculations, but they are idle and can never be proved or disproved. One can only say what actually did happen.
But one can say that the Needless war school was favored by southerners and it was laced with racism, having not interest in emancipation, especially of black men. Not how quickly the author Jim Powell is willing to give away "a couple decades" of the freedom of 4 million black people. Powell seems to believe that the freedom of 4 million people is not important; it is not worth fighting for, not work sacrificing for. The best that can be said of this idea is that Jim Powell must be a white man, who believes that fighting for the rights of whit persons is the be all and end all of history, the purpose of history itself, but freedom for blacks is not important.

Lewis Bernstein - 2/4/2008

One is constantly disappointed by the distortions and lack of context by those like Jim Powell. As I recall, Southern states seceded from the Federal Union. It was the Southerners that would not abide any limits on transporting their "property." It was Southerners that refused to compromise and it was Southerners that chose the remedy of war to settle their grievances with the Federal Government.
One is constantly amazed by the distortions--since Reconstruction did not succeed the wartime enterprise to abolish slavery was flawed, to say the least.
Please give it up. Part of the problem was Southern arrogance and their idea that their way was the only way. They mistook forbearance and indifference for cowardice.

John Edward Philips - 2/4/2008

"the alternative to the Civil War wasn’t to do nothing and wait for Southern slaveholders to decide when, if ever, they might emancipate their slaves. The alternative was to recognize that slavery was a gigantic beast, and no single strategy was likely to bring it down, so multiple strategies, including buying off slaveholders, had to be pursued"

The war didn't start because the North marched down to emancipate the slaves. The war started because seven southern states seceded and attacked the Union. Lincoln wasn't an abolitionist who wanted to forcibly emancipate slaves. He wanted to contain slavery where it existed because he thought slavery couldn't survive without expanding. The secessionists agreed with him about that, although many people, opponents and proponents of slavery alike, did not.

I had hoped to see an informed discussion of whether Lincoln's policy of containment would have brought down chattel slavery the way the policy of containment later brought down Communism. I am disappointed to find the old canard that the North went to war to abolish slavery. If so, why did the Union wait almost two years to make emancipation a war aim, and instead started out by offering a Constitutional Amendment to guarantee slavery where it existed?

This is bad history. Does the Cato Institute officially endorse it? Does HNN stand by this misrepresentation of both Union and Confederate war aims?

Lawrence Brooks Hughes - 2/4/2008

When the British crown freed the slaves of Jamaica by paying their owners for them, (not at the market price but at something not far below it), the white plantation owners promptly departed for England with all the money. Their farms were quickly overgrown, and the former slaves engaged in a series of civil wars which went on for years, generally pitting blacks versus mulattos.

Elaborate records were kept to show agricultural production prior to emancipation, proving that Jamaica was one of the most fertile places on earth with very large crops under the slave system. In fact, agricultural production did not return to pre-emancipation levels for well over a century, until sometime after 1962 under Manley, I believe.

All the slaves in Jamaica were freed in the 1830's, well before our own Civil War, and Americans of both the North and the South were fascinated by what ensued there.

Jonathan Dresner - 2/4/2008

...something seems to me to be missing. If the North had not declared war immediately on the seceeding South -- unless this counterfactual goes back a lot further than I think -- it would have left unsolved the problem of whether western states would be slave or free or, more fundamentally, whether they would be North or South. It seems highly likely, then, that North and South would have fought a war over the West, even if they didn't fight one immediately over secession.