Was The American Civil War Avoidable?
Rather than asking whether it was "worth it," the important historical question regarding the Civil War is whether it could have been avoided.
On Thursday, James Joyner wrote about a Tony Horowitz piece at The Atlantic questioning whether the American Civil War was “worth it.” Given that we’re talking about a war that resulted in the deaths of some 700,000 men and the infliction of gruesome, life-altering, injuries on many, many others, it is, I suppose, a legitimate question to ask. However, as I noted in a comment to James’s post, I’m not sure it’s the right question to ask:
I’m not sure that the question “Was the American Civil War Worth It?” is really the right question for historians to ask.
The correct question should be “Was the American Civil War Preventable?” Well, without delving into some long alternate history speculation about what might have been the one conclusion that one reaches after reading the history of the United States from the Founding to the eve of war itself is that the answer to that question is “probably not.”
As a preliminary matter, I would suggest that asking whether a war, any war was “worth it” has never been the right question. Wars, for whatever reason they’ve been fought throughout human history, can rarely be characterized as being “worth it.” At best, one could possibly say that some wars, though by no means all or even most of them, were necessary for one reason or another. In our own history, the Revolutionary War, World War II, the Korean War at least until MacArthur crossed the 38th Parallel, for international strategic reasons the Persian Gulf War, Afghanistan up to a point somewhere around 2006 or so, and yes the Civil War, all arguably fall into that category. That leaves plenty of wars — the War of 1812, the Mexican War, the Spanish-American War, World War One, Vietnam, and Iraq to name a few — that I would arguably classify as unnecessary, or having been fought because of diplomatic failures, mistaken information, or in two cases (World War One and Vietnam) something close to utter deception by the political leadership at the time. That, on some level is why it’s proper to recognize and honor the veterans who fought, and those who died, in the wars that our nation has fought. Not because such recognition is meant to legitimize the war itself, but because they weren’t the ones who made the choice to go there.
The Civil War, though, is a unique event in American history, and it will remain as such for as long as there is a United States of America. As many historians have stated, it was ultimately the final resolution of contradictions in the vision of what the United States was supposed to be that had been present when the ink from John Hancock’s signature on the Declaration Of Independence was still drying. The inherent contradiction between the Declaration’s exhortation that “all men are created equal” and “endowed by their creator with certain inalienable rights” and the institution which existed in America’s south was apparent even to observers then. When the time came to draft the Constitution 11 years later, there were several provisions written into the document that helped to preserve slavery in the states in which it existed. In both cases, the issue was swept under the rug in the name of national unity.
That practice of sweeping the issue of slavery, and the sectional divide it created in the country, under the rug was one that continued in the decades between the ratification of the Constitution and the start of the secession crisis that led to the Civil War. The most prominent of these, of course, were 1820’s Missouri Compromise and the Compromise of 1850, both of which attempted to deal with the issue of the expansion of slavery into the western territories that, with the Louisiana Purchase and the Mexican War, had made the United States a Continental nation. Neither “compromise” actually accomplished anything, of course, it merely served to push the issue aside so that the nation could get on with the important business of expanding. Meanwhile, slavery and the other sectional differences that had been developing between North and South continued to boil under the surface just waiting for the right moment to erupt.
It’s true that there was more to the secession crisis that followed President Lincoln’s election in 1860, and the war that followed that, than just the issue of slavery or its expansion into the west. Economic differences between the increasingly industrialized North and the largely agrarian South had become quite extreme and there difference over trade policy and the appropriate level of tariffs. More than a half million Americans didn’t die in four year long war over tariff policy, though, they died in a war that was at its base tied securely to the issue of human slavery. In that regard, it’s worth remembering that while slavery was often condemned even in the South during the Founder’s era, by sometime in the 1820’s or so southerns have come to view it as not only morally acceptable, but perfectly natural. That attitude continue to embed itself in the region’s zeitgeist until it reached its full form in the form of Confederate Vice-President Alexander Stephens’s “Cornerstone Speech”:
Our new government is founded upon exactly the opposite idea; its foundations are laid, its corner- stone rests, upon the great truth that the negro is not equal to the white man; that slavery subordination to the superior race is his natural and normal condition. This, our new government, is the first, in the history of the world, based upon this great physical, philosophical, and moral truth. This truth has been slow in the process of its development, like all other truths in the various departments of science. It has been so even amongst us. Many who hear me, perhaps, can recollect well, that this truth was not generally admitted, even within their day. The errors of the past generation still clung to many as late as twenty years ago. Those at the North, who still cling to these errors, with a zeal above knowledge, we justly denominate fanatics. All fanaticism springs from an aberration of the mind from a defect in reasoning. It is a species of insanity. One of the most striking characteristics of insanity, in many instances, is forming correct conclusions from fancied or erroneous premises; so with the anti-slavery fanatics. Their conclusions are right if their premises were. They assume that the negro is equal, and hence conclude that he is entitled to equal privileges and rights with the white man. If their premises were correct, their conclusions would be logical and just but their premise being wrong, their whole argument fails. I recollect once of having heard a gentleman from one of the northern States, of great power and ability, announce in the House of Representatives, with imposing effect, that we of the South would be compelled, ultimately, to yield upon this subject of slavery, that it was as impossible to war successfully against a principle in politics, as it was in physics or mechanics. That the principle would ultimately prevail. That we, in maintaining slavery as it exists with us, were warring against a principle, a principle founded in nature, the principle of the equality of men. The reply I made to him was, that upon his own grounds, we should, ultimately, succeed, and that he and his associates, in this crusade against our institutions, would ultimately fail. The truth announced, that it was as impossible to war successfully against a principle in politics as it was in physics and mechanics, I admitted; but told him that it was he, and those acting with him, who were warring against a principle. They were attempting to make things equal which the Creator had made unequal.
There really is no compromising with that kind of attitude, which is likely one of the reasons why those last efforts to avoid secession and war in the months between November 1860 and April 1861 failed so completely. Given that, it’s hard to see how the war itself could have been avoided.