Wednesday, July 18, 2007

Maybe Lincoln was Wrong

As an unreconstructed Yankee, I never doubted for a moment that our giant of a President, Abraham Lincoln, was absolutely right when he decided to go to war to save the Union.

At least I never doubted that until that midget of a president, George W. Bush, compared himself to the giant, by claiming that we just had to stay the course in Iraq, as Lincoln did when the Civil War situation looked hopeless. My reaction was first indignation, then outrage.

But finally I began thinking outside the box, (sometimes a dangerous adventure, as one can get completely cut off from reality) and it occurred to me that maybe, just maybe everything would have turned out better for everybody concerned if the North had simply let those Confederate States secede. My great grandfather, himself an ex-Yankee, certainly thought so. Before receiving the news of Fort Sumter, and before enlisting as a private in the Tensas (Louisiana) Rifles, he wrote to his parents:
But really I trust that Abram is not quite such a fool as to involve the country in a war, and will never believe it till I smell the smoke of gunpowder....I think it all a farce on Abrams part. He is to make an attempt to collect the revenues as he is sworn to, and then give up like a sensible man, which I hope he is in the main, after all.
He was to learn different as he fought through the bloodiest war in American history.

Why then did Lincoln, a peace loving as well as a sensible man, choose war to save the Union? With the Gettysburg address he said the essential:
Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent a new nation, conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.
Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation, or any nation, so conceived and so dedicated, can long endure.
You didn't really need me to remind you of the text, but I wanted to concentrate your attention on the question of whether such a nation could long endure. If we look back at the international situation in 1861, the answer to that question was not obvious. At that time, the United States of America was the only substantial republic that showed any signs of stability, let alone durability. Mexico would soon become a short lived empire under the Austrian Maximilian. After two aborted Republics, France was again under an emperor, Napoleon III. Great Britain, although slowly democratizing, had strengthened its worldwide empire. South America had failed to maintain the united Bolivarian project and its disunited states were forever oscillating between anarchy and dictatorship. Now the United States threatened to split apart and perhaps follow the southern continent into insignificance. In Lincoln's mind, such a split could only further imperil his conception of Liberty and the as yet unproven proposition of human Equality.

So the bloody war began.

Would we could rewrite history and restore those valiant men to life! Although we cannot do so, the exercise of imagining what might have happened if Lincoln had followed Henry Richardson's advice is not entirely useless. At the very least, and if we can make a convincing case, it may serve further to weaken Bush's ludicrous attempt to draw an historical parallel between Iraq and the Civil War.

It is difficult to say what would have happened to the two separate nations. Certainly, the South alone was doomed to economic decline. One has only to review the price of cotton, the basis of the South's prosperity, which showed a continuous decline throughout the rest of the century. The South's other colonial crops could not have filled the gap. Southern capital was entirely invested in land and slaves, the value of which would have inexorably followed cotton and sugar downward. The historical resistance of southerners to taxation would have exaggerated the deficit in infrastructure and education that characterized the South for the next century. The Confederacy would therefore have been entirely dependent on foreign capital for development and would likely have joined Latin America in a century of underdevelopment.

The options of the South for territorial expansion were also limited. Lincoln would probably have moved rapidly to reinforce the North's presence in California, Arizona, and possibly New Mexico, regions less suitable for a plantation economy based on slave labor than the humid sub-tropical southeast. An agressive foreign policy might have enabled the Richmond government to overcome the centrifugal tendancies of states' rights doctrines. The South's military tradition might even have prompted southern jingoists to mount an invasion to "liberate" Cuba, and pretexts could easily have been found for further agression against Mexico, but the burden of governing hostile conquered territories would likely have weakened rather than strengthened the small Confederacy.

The North, however, would have lost none of the resources responsible for its rapid economic growth up to World War I, except perhaps for easy access to the port of New Orleans for its agricultural exports. Of course life cannot be reduced to a series of economic equations; although Yankees are not lacking in southern virtues such as courage, hospitality, loyalty, sense of honor, or skills such as polite discourse and military prowess, the rump United States would somehow have been poorer shorn of the southern contribution to these national qualities.

After living separate for two or three generations, both nations might even have decided that they were better off united rather than separated and found a way to reconcile their differences. If not, perhaps two smaller nations would have been easier to govern. Don't we often have the impression that nothing ever gets done because the United States is just too big, with too many diverse interests to satisfy? Don't many smaller European nations, particularly the Scandinavians, manage to solve their problems more efficiently than Americans do?

But what of the great evil of slavery? Certainly the inevitable decline of plantation style agriculture would have eliminated the economic rationale for the "peculiar institution", and the chattel value of slaves would have diminished with the value of the crops. Slave owners would have had less and less incentive to pursue runaway slaves heading for the northern borders, and the North would have no incentive to enforce a runaway slave law. Faced with growing international opprobrium and increasing passive - or even active - resistance by slaves, the southern planter aristocracy would slowly have realized that noblesse oblige was the better part of honor. Perhaps slavery would have withered away before 30 years had passed, as it had in Brazil, the last western nation to abolish slavery in 1888.

Abolition, however, remains the weakest point in this 'might have been' scenario. Despite the hardship and unspeakable atrocities suffered during Reconstruction and the Jim Crow years, few Freedmen would have consented to remain 30 more years even under an occasionally benevolent slavery regime in the hope of a liberation without hard feelings. Nevertheless, it seems quite possible that the former slave population could have reached near equality sooner if there had been a peaceful resolution of the slavery question.

Instead, the North had to learn the hard way that a foreign occupying power could not impose Liberty, Equality and Fraternity in a context entirely inimical to the cultural traditions of a conquered land. Too bad the Freedmen and women had to bear the brunt of the guerrilla resistance that followed.

Too bad the United States forgot that lesson at the turn of the second millennium.