Abraham Lincoln and the Civil War


With the current political divisions in this country, it’s hard not to be reminded of the
Civil War, and Abraham Lincoln, who presided over it. Especially with the new movie about him that I haven’t seen, but would like to.

Opinions about Lincoln have always been divided. Many consider him our greatest pre-sident, or one of them.

A recent article pointed out that during the Mexican War of 1848 he supported (as a Congressman) the right of Texas to seceded from Mexico. But the Civil War happened because he refused to allow the South to secede from the Union, a decision ultimately causing the deaths of some 620,000 soldiers, and a good many civilians. The bitter-ness of that war is still with us.

Why did Lincoln make that decision? The article was in a financial magazine, and was about a book written about Lincoln, Lincoln Uncensored, by Joseph Fallon, which I haven’t read, though I’d like to, so naturally they looked for the money in the situation. There was no income tax then, so national government was financed by tariffs on trade of which, according to the article, some 75% came from the South. A pretty compelling argument.

It’s known that Lincoln wasn’t necessarily opposed to slavery, just its extension into new territories. He played with the idea of sending slaves back to Africa, believeing that blacks and whites couldn’t possibly get along. He was surprised to discover that black leaders weren’t enthusiastic about that idea.

Of course he eventually did sign the Emancipation Proclamation, mostly to strike a blow at the South. A lot of Southerners have resented that ever since.

He’s said to have been a consummate politician, which not everyone would think a compliment. Politics exacerbates divisions between people as much as it does anything else, but politics seems to be something we’re stuck with. Humans haven’t figured out a way for large numbers of people to live together without power being an issue. Some have thought anarchy would be the best way, but relatively few humans rise to the standard of responsibility and morality necessary.

It’s hard to know what might have happened had the South won the Civil War or forced a stalemate. Science fiction writers have played with the idea, suggesting that a victorious South might have been a fertile ground for Communism, and that the North and South would have been unable to stop competing and simply allow each other to go separate ways.

And would both or either have allied themselves with Britan and France in the World Wars, or would one or both have allied with Germany?

It seems likely that the Northern states would have continued developing on a technological track. Maybe a victorious South would have considered that necessary too, or maybe they would have been content to remain an agricultural region.

The enforced Union of the two regions has contributed to the power of this country, but a great deal of bitterness still remains, as we’ve seen ever since. Southern defeat brought us the Ku Klux Klan and Jim Crow. Northern victory gave it financial dominance, and, arguably, intellectual dominance too. The financial picture has changed somewhat in the past 50 years, but some of the poorest states remain in the South.

After the Presidential election a movement in several Deep South states started petitioning for the right to secede. One columnist suggested it might be a good idea to let them go, pointing out that most of the states involved are poor, and receive a lot of their income from other states, via Washington, DC. Isn’t it interesting that these are the most conservative states, claiming to stand for smaller government and individual responsibility?

The columnist’s take on the petitions was that if they were granted those states wouldn’t do very well on their own, and I think his view is hard to dispute. Customs that don’t allow all citizens the opportunity to maximize their potential are unlikely to be very successful in the wider world. Little industry and few entrepeneurs are also strikes against the region.

Abraham Lincoln believed that North and South could learn to live together, although the relationship had been uneasy from the beginning. Maybe, had he lived, he might have persuaded both sides to forgive, but there’s a limit to what one individual can do. Southerners despised Northerners for being money-mad (not without some reason), and worried that the North would take their property (slaves) away, which eventually happened.  The compromise the South had demanded before acceding to the Constitution of the United States was for each slave to count as 3/5 of a person, giving the South more representation and most of the Presidents before the Civil War. It was a long time after that before a Southern president was elected again.

Northerners, on the other hand, felt Southerners were trying to dictate to THEM, as they did to their slaves. There weren’t that many Abolitionists in the North, but Southerners didn’t want slavery even to be DISCUSSED in the Congress. That was a fight they were unable to win, though, especially as the USA began expanding, and issues about fugitive slaves and importation of slaves into new territories arose. The fact is, neither North nor South cared that much about the slaves, who probably ended up worse off than anyone else involved.

By the time Abraham Lincoln began running for president it probably wasn’t a surprise to anyone that war was soon to follow, though it took a few coincidences to make it happen when it did. I’m not even sure if many of the soldiers had a clear idea what they werer fighting for, except for their respective parts of the country. That rivalry may have been the most fundamental reason for the war, though by that time there were enough others.

I wonder too how many people would have predicted the North would win. There was a lot of trade in the South, both tobacco and cotton being in demand in Europe, which made a European alliance possible. But such an alliance never happened (possibly in part because Europeans had outlawed slavery), and though the South had most of the good generals, and the Southern soldiers were arguably better, the North had more factories and more soldiers to use as cannon-fodder, so the North won.

So I question whether Abraham Lincoln was a villain or a hero. Or maybe a better way to frame it is, would anyone else have been a better president at that time? Maybe allowing the South to secede would have been a better choice. It’s probably the choice I’d have made in that position (but I would never be in that position). But who would have been unmoved by the financial aspect that supposedly decided Lincoln? And if Lincoln didn’t stand up for liberty , who would have? Government is always based on power, both financial and military. Peaceable solutions aren’t impossible, as witness the dissoution of the Soviet Union, and the changing of the South African regime, but they’re also not very frequent. Though much of eastern Europe made a fairly peaceful transition, but Yugoslavia didn’t, nor did Chechnya.

Lincoln’s  only other choices were to let the South secede or to come up with a compromise that would be acceptable to both sides. The latter was unlikely, though, as all the compromises of the 1850s had only further enraged each side. It would have taken a political genius even greater than Lincoln to have found such a compromise, and there doesn’t seem to have been one around. We’ll never know what would have happened if the South had peaceably seceded–all we know is that it didn’t happen, and the Civil War and its aftermath didn’t work out too well. North and South, as well as conservative and liberal, black and white, still have a long way to go in the task of learning to live together.

But no matter our view of Lincoln, the Civil War or current politics, we still have the possibility of learning to do better. We live in a time of tension, and of expectation of disaster, but that may turn out to be the challenge that helps us start learning to do things a better way. Humans tend to do best (and sometimes worst) when their backs are against the wall.

So was Lincoln a hero or villain? Like anyone else, he seems to have been some of both.


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