A Civil War what-if

A Civil War what-if November 9, 2017; By Daniel Schwen (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

You’re likely seen variations on the “what if the South won?” theme before.  There are various novels with this premise, for instance.

But what if the war had never been fought?  What if the South had been content to preserve, rather than trying to expand slavery?

Two articles came across my twitter feed in the wake of White House Chief of Staff John Kelly’s statement that it was a “lack of an ability to compromise” that led to the Civil War.

The first, by Francis Barry at Bloomberg View, “Kelly Was Half-Right About the Civil War,” provides some background on the Democratic party convention of 1860.  Barry writes,

In 1860, the Democratic Party arrived at its national convention in Charleston, South Carolina, deeply divided. Northerners chose Charleston as the convention site in hopes of promoting party unity. Once there, they proposed a platform meant to appease Southerners.

The Northerners’ platform condemned interference by states with the enforcement of the fugitive slave law, a rebuke to their own home states. It affirmed the party would “abide” by the 1857 Dred Scott decision (which barred the federal government from regulating slavery in the territories), even though that decision was deeply unpopular in the North. And it included the annexation of Cuba (which allowed slavery), a Southern priority.

It wasn’t enough. Southern delegates demanded an explicit endorsement of the principles underpinning the Dred Scott ruling; a federal slave code guaranteeing the property rights of slave owners and severely restricting those of slaves; and the protection of slavery on the high seas, a first step toward overturning the federal prohibition on the international slave trade. They drafted their own platform incorporating these positions — and refused to budge.

As a consequence of these uncompromising extremist demands, the party fractured, and the upstart Republican Party was able to win the election, setting the chain of events that produced the Civil War.

In the second, “Shelby Foote’s Civil War History Defends America Against Insatiable Haters Like Ta-Nehisi Coates,” Federalist writer John Daniel Davidson says,

Even someone with a cursory knowledge of the Civil War should know that the war came about, as all wars do, because of a failure to compromise.

In our case, the entire history of the United States prior to outbreak of war in 1861 was full of compromises on the question of slavery. It began with the Three-Fifths Compromise written into the U.S. Constitution and was followed by the Missouri Compromise of 1820 (which prohibited slavery north of the 36°30’ parallel, excluding Missouri), the Compromise of 1850, then the Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854, which repealed the Missouri Compromise and eventually led to the election of Abraham Lincoln and the subsequent secession of the southern states. Through all this, we inched toward emancipation, albeit slowly.

In other words, the breakdown of all those decades of compromise did indeed lead to the Civil War.

Why, then, was Kelly subject to such criticism?  Because, Davidson writes,

for writers like [Jonathan] Chait and The Atlantic’s Ta-Nehisi Coates, compromise was a bad thing because it preserved slavery. That such compromises limited slavery’s spread and put it on the path to extinction carries no weight with them.

A while back, I asked, “Was the Civil War worth it?” in which I asked whether, in the abstract, it was the right thing for one group of people to go to war against another in order to end slavery — and that, not a new enslavement of a conquered group of people, but a pre-existing system — or, more specifically, to go to war to end slavery sooner than it might otherwise have ended.  It was clumsily worded, and, before digging up that post, I thought I had said something along the lines of “given that slavery likely would have ended in the next couple decades anyway, were the 600,000 lives lost worth it, in order to bring about its end sooner than otherwise?” but it seems I wasn’t that direct.

But it’s striking to me that we, as a country, seem to have no ability to imagine that slavery might have ended in any other way than with military might.  To be sure, in terms of the genre of alternate history, I can understand that writing about slavery disappearing by some sort of phase-out, or by economic changes, or abolitionism taking hold, or the boycott of slaveowning plantations, or the purchase of slaves to free them, or whatever means, would be much more boring than writing novels in which slavery exists alongside the industrialism of present-day America.  But it stretches beyond that.

It seems to me that, fundamentally, the act of slaveowning is so fundamentally evil and so fundamentally foreign to us that we (that is, Americans as a whole) are simply unable to comprehend its ending in some peaceful manner.  Perhaps intellectually we can understand that all manner of other slaveowning countries ended slavery without fighting a war, but deep down, it’s such a great evil that it’s hard to really believe that any other alternative would have ever been possible.

Back in March, at Spring Break time, we took a trip down to St. Louis, to see the sights and visit with an aunt and uncle.  The Old Courthouse downtown had a display about Dred Scott and the case, and there was a bit of information about the Scott family that I hadn’t know, and that never shows up in the summaries online (probably worth seeing if there’s a book the library that hasn’t been deaccessioned).  It seems, if I understood it then and remember it now correctly, that St. Louis didn’t have much use for slaves, what with the high number of immigrants, and the Scotts’ owners weren’t farmers who could put them to work in the fields.  So they hired the Scotts out — but not in the sense of finding somewhere where they would be unpaid servants, and pay the owners for the use of the slaves.  Instead, the Scotts basically had to find jobs with which to support themselves, and a house to live in, and pay some sort of monthly sum to their owner, almost like an income tax, or, going further back in time, like the mutation of slavery into serfdom in the Early Middle Ages.  It was quite striking that this sort of odd form of slavery existed, and was a small indicator to me that the whole story was more complicated than I’d known.


Image:; By Daniel Schwen (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

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