Some Southerners still call the Civil War the "War of Northern Aggression." I've already shown that -- it being an act of outlawry to secede the way the South did it -- it was no such thing. But was Lincoln, even though he was entitled to use force, nonetheless wrong in his judgment that it was worth a war to hold the Union together?
But for at least a decade I have been wondering about the wisdom and rightness of the main decision of his presidency, the judgment on which almost everything else about his presidency rested: to go to war against the secessionist South in order to preserve the Union.
Mr. Lincoln by CallMeWhatEver
His other reason was that he believed profoundly in the American experiment in democracy -- a government of the people, for the people, and by the people -- and he believed further that the nation's breaking apart into two nations would grievously discredit the American experiment and therefore the very idea of democracy. He believed that keeping alive this "last, best hope on earth" required keeping the Union together, by force if necessary.
I've not come across serious Civil War scholars who question that judgment. But I am unconvinced of its validity.
It is not clear to me that the example of the American democracy would have been discredited if the two regions --- which had become in many ways like two different cultures, aside from the deep polarization that had antagonized the two against each other --- had negotiated a separation. When Czechoslovakia divided into the Czech Republic and Slovakia, that peaceful division seemed an accomplishment to their credit.
If I could place myself back in early 1861, and were in a position to advise the newly-elected President, this is what I would have counseled:
"Offer to sit down with the Confederates and negotiate over the question of their independence. Keep the military option open, use it subtly as an inducement to come to terms favorable to the Union of which you would still be president. Your unwillingness to allow slavery to spread further into the American territories can guide the terms you would accept. See if this can be accomplished peacefully."
Of course, I have the benefit of hindsight: I know that the war would be more terrible than either side expected at the outset. (Nonetheless, during the 1850s, as the specter of secession loomed, many did anticipate that the outcome might be a nightmarish war.)
In The Federalist Papers, one of the arguments presented for the former colonies to form "a more perfect Union" is that if the colonies break into more than one nation, history suggests the great danger that these sovereign entities would in time find themselves at war with each other. My proposal to Lincoln, the logic of The Federalist would suggest, might only postpone the war.
Indeed, I expect that danger is even greater than the general history of intersocietal relations would suggest. For I do believe that the spirit animating the South was one that was itching for a fight, and I am quite uncertain whether peace would have been possible. Here are three reasons I might be wrong about the chances for a peaceful resolution.
First, I wonder if the Confederate States of America would have been willing to cede to the Union, as part of the price of secession with peace, ownership of the territories of the West that were not yet admitted as states. If I'm right about the spirit animating the South, it might well have been impossible for Lincoln to have achieved acceptable terms.