Thursday, July 21, 2016

Trump's Civil War Hypothetical

After, it seems, binge watching Ken Burns' old Civil War documentary, Donald Trump offered that the matter could  have been settled by the right deal maker. The South, he added, "overplayed its hand."

Some political types are treating this as a gaffe likely to offend Southerners, but I think it's an interesting question. Suppose the Republicans had nominated, not the extremely principled Lincoln, but a more transactional politician like Simon Cameron. Was there a deal to be made between North and South? A new Missouri compromise?

I tend to think not, although I would be curious what others have to say. The Republicans ran on a pledge to exclude slavery from all the territories and recognize the free state government of Kansas. It would have been difficult for any Republican president to go back on those promises, and I doubt Southern leaders would have accepted any deal that did not allow them some new territory to claim in the west.

But I suppose that depends on how you see Southern goals. If their goal was to preserve slavery and the society that depended on it, then they absolutely "overplayed their hand." The war ended slavery much more quickly than any other conceivable means, and did more damage to the plantation economy. So if you think the goal was only to preserve slavery as long as possible, the South played their hand about as badly as possible. Perhaps a different Southern leadership would have let Fort Sumter alone and tried to negotiate the best deal they could short of war. Perhaps, say, Texas could have been extended to take in the upper Rio Grande valley, as a sop to secessionist firebrands, accepting anti-slavery control of the rest of the west.

I have always thought, though, that the key to understanding Southern behavior in 1861 is not slavery but honor.

One way to imagine Southern behavior is to see the Southern elite proclaiming, "They won't take our slaves without a fight." This made slavery an issue, not just of economics, but of honor. When the election of Lincoln seemed to portend the eventual end of slavery, they said, "We might as well fight now; things will never get better for us in a Republican-dominated Union." So they fought. Having fought hard for four years and won their share of battles, they took the surrender of Lee (the perfect gentleman) as a sign that honor had now been served. So they made peace with the Federal government, accepted the legal freedom of their slaves, and set about fighting within the Union to preserve their key political goals, white supremacy and an expansive view of private property rights. In those causes the history and rhetoric of the Lost Cause, along with the camaraderie and bloody-mindedness built up in four years of war, turned out to be great assets.

I tend to think that the violent spasm of war was a necessary background to that transition. As Virginia Governor Wise put it, "God knew that we could be torn away from our black idol of slavery only by the destroying angel of war."

4 comments:

David said...

It is striking to me that even border state slave owners in 1863 refused a plan for negotiated, compensated abolition. So I think there is something in what you say. Even if the border states couldn't get a majority wanting to secede, their slave owners simply couldn't accept voluntarily giving up the system. To do so was dishonorable.

That said, it should be emphasized that much of the white south never wavered from the postwar goal of establishing social, legal, and especially labor control, as complete as possible short of chattel slavery, of as much of the black population as they could. Much of the point of Jim Crow legislation--no loud talking in the presence of white women, etc.--was to ensure a steady supply of convict labor.

G. Verloren said...

So very many poor wretches have suffered and died defending the honor of wealthy elites.

Unknown said...

I could be wrong here, but the South did overplay its hand. They didn't have the resources the North did--people, money, industry, transportation--so the outcome was predetermined. They were relying on a third party, Great Britain, to supply hard currency by the sale of cotton, but instead of running the Union embargo for American cotton, the Brits turned to their own colony of India.

John said...

I think that's right about Britain. Some Southern leaders thought Britain would have to aid them, but they did not understand British politics. They thought British leaders would act solely from self-interest, which would mean supporting the South to get cotton. But it turned out that at least some British politicians had firm anti-slavery principles that did not allow them to support the South. There was a also the issue of cost. Britain probably could have helped the South become independent, but only by making a major military effort. Even breaking the Union blockade to open the South to trade would have required building some new ships, since in 1860 the British had no ironclads and one Monitor would have wrecked their wooden fleet. So from the British point of view there were both principled reasons not to intervene and significant costs to doing so.

Plus, as you say, they were able to get at least a minimal supply of cotton by ramping up production in India. Many other countries have made the mistake of thinking that their agricultural production was politically important. But really land in one place can always be replaced by land in some other place, and after all cotton was grown in India long before it was grown in Alabama.

On the other hand not all Southern leaders thought foreign help was essential Jefferson Davis in particular urged other Southerners not to rely on foreigners and to believe that they could win independence alone.