I’ve lately been running into various slanders against Lincoln, many of them generated by the recent and brilliant film starring Daniel Day-Lewis (show stolen by Tommy Lee Jones, thank you very much). One person on Facebook suggested that, since there were major economic factors in the North’s desire to end slavery, therefore, somehow, neither Lincoln nor most of the abolitionists should get any praise from posterity. Of course, the Right is anxious to separate itself from anything that has ever been progressive about capitalism, so they must either disavow Lincoln or distort his positions. The pseudo-Left, meanwhile, is unspeakably offended at the notion of white males fighting for black freedom, and as Lincoln is a striking representative of the thousands who fought specifically to end slavery, a way must be found to vilify him.
With this in mind, I want to address a single point regarding Lincoln: to wit, was he right in going to war against secession? For purposes of this discussion by “right” I mean the following: necessary to preserve the United States, which, for all of its ugliness, brutality, and injustice, was nevertheless, at that time, a progressive force in world history. For those who disagree, I would prefer that argument be postponed for another occasion, if possible.
Here are some things that are not up for debate–which means I have no intention of debating them, and if we disagree, I think you’re an idiot.
1. The South seceded because Lincoln was elected.
2. Lincoln was elected on the basis of no expansion of slavery, and the southern slave oligarchy believed that without expansion, their economy would die.
3. There is no decision Lincoln could have made that would have prevented secession (I mean, you know, he wasn’t even inaugurated yet).
4. Lincoln, therefore had only one decision to make: let the South go peacefully, or uphold the constitution (yes, that’s right; we are not going to get into the whole “was secession a constitutional right?” debate. If you think it was, A) you’re wrong, B) I don’t care anyway, and C) we’ll talk about it another time).
So, then, here is what is up for debate: did Lincoln make the right choice in using military force to prevent the South from leaving? To me, the very fact that all of the tyrants of Europe were hoping for the success of the south, and the overwhelming masses of the people of Europe were hoping for its failure, is indicative. I concede that this, by itself, is not proof. So, then.
First of all, I believe that the south* was right regarding point 2 above. Slavery is economically viable for production that is labor-intensive rather than capital-intensive; in other words, for cotton, sugar, and tobacco, but not ranching; for certain kinds of mining, but not manufacturing. The proof of this, if proof is needed, can be found in the fact that, throughout history, slavery has only ended peacefully in countries where the economy was based on capital-intensive production (Argentina, for example). One thing that is common to labor-intensive production, is that it is temporary for a given region. That is, the labor-intensive crops exhaust the soil; mines run out. This means that the slave-holders must expand, or permit themselves to quietly sink into oblivion. Given that no ruling class has ever permitted itself to quietly sink into oblivion, I don’t think it reasonable to have expected the slave-owners of the south to be the first.
It is worth remembering that Lincoln, in one of his earlier speeches, admitted that, although he wanted to see the end of slavery, he would not know how to go about ending it even if he had the power to do so.
This is, in my opinion, key. If Lincoln had chosen to let the south go, the south still would have needed slavery to expand. Okay, then, expand where? South? Well, they really wanted Cuba, but even with the force of the US Government behind it under Polk, then later under Pierce, the effort never went anywhere. Other filibustering expeditions were attempted in Central America, and all of them failed. Is there any reason to believe that an independent south could have managed to acquire more territory to the south? Well, they didn’t think so; after the Central American disasters, the attention of the slaveholders, by overwhelming majority, turned west. Those who disagree are invited to study the history of Kansas.
It is valid to ask how much of the western territories would have actually been suitable for slave-based production. But, in a sense, that’s not the point; the point is, the south believed it needed the west.
And certainly, the North did. If the agricultural resources of the south were denied the northeast, then it absolutely required the west (what we now call the midwest) to feed itself.
During the leadup to secession, the south said over and over, from the mouths of numerous politicians and newspapers, “The South needs its whole territory.” In other words, it needed the border states (Maryland, Kentucky, Delaware, and the upper south).
So, then, at a minimum, the south would have taken with it, or fought for, all of the upper south and the west. The remaining United States, then, would have been crippled if not utterly destroyed, simply for lack of resources. And not just resources, also manpower. Let us recall that, militarily, the south was in better shape than the north at the very outbreak of the war–they had not only most of the West Point graduates[ETA: I was wrong about this], but the graduates of other military schools, of which the north had none. They had armed militias that had been training. Arms and ammunition were mostly stored in southern states. Is there any doubt that, had Lincoln chosen to let the south go, all of the manpower of the upper south and border states would have been arrayed against the US, forcing crippling concessions? The myth that, had Lincoln chosen to let South Carolina, Mississippi, Alabama, Texas, Florida, Louisiana and Georgia secede there would have been peace is, just that, a myth.
So, even if we ignore the moral issue–the matter of walking away while hundreds of thousands of human beings are held in bondage–in my opinion Lincoln could not have done other than he did. If the United States were to survive, there would be war. The question was how to win it.
*When I say “the south” please take it as an abbreviation for, “the southern slave oligarchy;” in other words, the set of the largest slave-owners in the south, who functionally made all the decisions for the section.