LINCOLN AND GEORGE III
As Abraham Lincoln acknowledged, he was not pursuing the Civil War to end slavery but to prevent secession. In this regard, his motive was identical to that of George III in 1776: to suppress those who were seeking poitical independence. Perhaps judicious restraint, short of war, would have been the more far-sighted policy for both of these leaders.
Historians often view the Civil War1 as arising from an unavoidable conflict between an industrial and an agricultural society. But industry and agriculture are not necessarily antagonists. On the contrary, they are natural allies, for each benefits from the contribution of the other. More likely, the antagonisms arise when diverse groups quarrel over the privileges of the state. For example; the businessman who produces a product and sells it on the free market has no quarrel with the farmer who works his own land with his own hands. When the northern businessman demands a tariff, however. and when the southern planter demands measures such as the Fugitive Slave Law, passions are soon aroused to the shooting point. The Civil War erupted not because part of the country was industrial and the rest agricultural but because elements of each sector were engaged in the old struggle to use the illicit power of the state to their own illicit advantage.
Ironically, the highly protective tariff of 1816 was largely the work of two South Carolinians, Lowndes and Calhoun, who hoped to see industry encouraged thereby in their own state. Capital was going into slaves rather than factories, however, and the hoped-for industrialization never amounted to much. In the meanwhile, New England benefited from the tariff while the South paid for it in higher prices for the imported goods. Rates were raised in l824 and then raised again with the "Tariff of Abominations" of 1828. By now, of course, the South was fervently anti-tariff, and talk of secession was already in the air. In 1832 some of the provisions of the Tariff of Abominations were moderated, but when the rates on iron and textiles were retained South Carolina proclaimed an "Ordinance of Nullification," which forbad Federal officials to collect duties within the state, and threatened instant secession in the event of a blockade of Charleston. President Jackson was ready to send in troops then and there, and South Carolina raised a volunteer force to repel them.
Cooler heads finally prevailed, however, and in March of 1833 Jackson signed Clay's compromise tariff which would scale down the rates over a ten-year period. South Carolina repealed its Ordinance of Nullification, and the crisis was averted. Thereafter, the trend in rates was generally downward2 and the tariff diminished somewhat in importance. President Jackson observed, however, "The next pretext will be the Negro, or slavery question."
For decades the South had been highly successful in using the power and influence of the Federal Government to defend and further the interests of slavery, such as passage of the Fugitive Slave Act,3 in 1850. The measure did little to advance the cause of slavery, but much to arouse northern antagonisms. Said Ralph Waldo Emerson, "I will not obey it, by God!"
But each new legislative victory was followed by new demands, and by 1860 the old alliances were wearing thin. At the Democratic convention in Charleston the Southern delegates demanded nothing less than the explicit approval of slavery by the national party. "Gentlemen of the South," warned Senator Pugh of Ohio, "you mistake us - you mistake us. We will not do it!”4 The convention split on the slavery issue and the southern delegates walked out. This split marked the end of southern domination of national politics and secession soon followed.
The South did not secede because of any threatened action against slavery, it should be noted, but out of bitter resentment at northern reluctance to support slavery. As Jefferson Davis wrote in 1861, "Many states, like Iowa, have denied our rights, disregarded their obligations, and have sacrificed their true representatives. To us it has become a necessity to transform our domestic institutions (i.e., slavery) from hostile to friendly hands.” 5 With the loss of federal support the South had nothing to lose (it thought) by seceding. Moreover, in 1861 Southerners were jubilantly confident of their ability to sustain their own institutions without outside assistance and in spite of outside opposition. The great irony, however, is that it was all in vain. Slavery was already a dying institution and would have disappeared within a few years anyway just as it had disappeared peacefully throughout the British Empire. Slavery would have disappeared with or without federal support, with or without secession and with or without a disastrous Civil War. The question in 1861 was not whether slavery would survive but only how long it could be propped up.
When the Civil War began a prime slave cost well over a thousand dollars and a typical planter’s capital was completely tied up in his 50-100 slaves. Most planters were caught in an endless cycle of debt with crops mortgaged two or three or four seasons ahead. Where a Northern farmer would put his profits into better machinery the Southern planter, just to stay even, would buy more slaves. The cost of keeping a slave, the planters reasoned, was only 10 cents a day compared to two dollars a day -the rate of free labor in the North. Still, considering the initial cost of a useful slave, and considering further that the free worker took care of his own children, his own housing, his own health and his own old age, and did not have to be guarded, to say nothing of his greater productivity, it would have been more profitable in the long run to abandon slavery and resort to free labor.The primitive institution of slavery could not compete with the emerging market capitalism.
In 1857 the entire fallacy of slavery was laid bare in a book called "The Impending Crisis In the South" by a former North Carolinian, Hinton Rowan Helper: Based largely on the census figures of 1850, Helper made a series of devastating comparisons between the free-labor North and the slave-labor South, pointing out, for example, that the northern hay crop alone was worth several times all the cotton grown in the South; northern manufacture was worth nine times all the southern crops combined; two-thirds of the country's capital was in the North; the average assessed value of land in South Carolina was only $l.32 an acre compared to $28.76 in New Jersey, etc.
Why the great disparity in wealth? Helper concluded that southern capital, which should have been invested in machinery, farm equipment, banks and factories, was being frittered away in the purchase of slaves. Helper went on to urge the non-slaveholders (who made up the vast majority of the white population) to organize and vote down the politically dominant slaveholders. Helper's book sold several hundred thousand copies, but, as might be expected, it won few converts among the planters.
The economic facts, however, could not for long have been denied. Far from being a boon, the primitive institution of slavery was a massive burden. Slavery was doomed even without a war, not because of any benevolence on the part of slaveholders, certainly, but because of implacable economic reality. Slavery could not compete with market capitalism!
While slavery was desperately supported by the slave-holding aristocracy, which totally dominated southern politics, it is worth noting that slavery was not widely supported by the general population. Only one white family in four owned slaves. Most confederate soldiers were small, independent farmers. Robert E. Lee was opposed to slavery and had freed his own inherited slaves years before the war. Though the motives in the South were diverse, confused and often contradictory, what most southerners were fighting for was not slavery at all, but precisely what the colonists had fought for 8o years before: independence from external domination.
The North did not fight to "free the slaves." While Lincoln was personally antislavery, his official position was entirely neutral; as he made quite clear in his famous letter to Horace Greeley, publisher of the NEW YORK TRIBUNE, he would abolish slavery, support it or compromise; whatever was necessary to preserve the Union. The Emancipation Proclamation, moreover, was not so much a document of high moral principle as it was a shrewd propaganda device. After a year-and-a-half of war Lincoln desperately needed a great and unifying moral issue, and the issue closest at hand happened to be slavery. The true nature of the Proclamation is evident from the fact that it "freed" the slaves in the secessionist areas - over which the Union had no control anyway - but specifically exempted from emancipation those held in areas allied with the North!
Slavery, and to a lesser extent the tariff, were two burning issues of the day, but few in the North were prepared to shed blood over either institution. The South could have kept its slaves and could have ignored and evaded the tariff forever and not a shot would have been fired. For the North the true cause of the war lay in the act of secession itself. Secession was the one fundamental issue, which finally radicalized a crucial body of northern thinking. In the years since the ratification of the Constitution the popular attitude toward central rule had continued to change, No one better exemplified this subtle shift in feeling than Lincoln himself. On the subject of secession he had declared in 1848 in defending the secession of the Texans from Mexico,
Any people anywhere, so inclined and having the power, have the right to rise up and shake off the existing government and form a new one that suits them better. This is a most sacred right - a right which we hope and believe, is to liberate the world. Nor is this right confined to cases in which the people of an existing government may choose to exercise it. Any portion of such people that can may revolutionize and make their own of so much of the territory as they inhabit...." 6
Later, however, in his inaugural address he took precisely the opposite position:
I hold that in contemplation of universal law and of the Constitution, the union of these states is perpetual. It is safe to assert that no government ever had a provision in its organic law for its termination. No state upon its mere motion can lawfully get out of the Union. I therefore consider that the Union is unbroken and I shall take care that the laws of the Union are faithfully executed in all the states...., You have no oath registered in heaven to destroy this government, while I have the most solemn one to preserve, protect and defend it.
A whole generation of schoolboys had been brought up reciting Webster's stirring oration on "Liberty and Union Forever," and many a breast now thrilled with a new sense of Nation. Secession was not merely an act of defiance against a particular act of government - it was a profanation of the revered concept of government itself. To many, reverence for a central government had become virtually a religion, and secession was heresy. Influential pamphleteer William Bannaway Brownlow of Tennessee, for example, had no interest one way or the other in slavery, but regarding secession he thundered, "This war must be pursued with a vim and vengeance until the rebellion is put down if it exterminates from God's green earth every man, woman, and child south of Mason and Dixon's line!” 7 Horace Greeley, who had originally counseled "Let the erring sisters go," was now crying "On to Richmond!"
The cry that electrified the North was not "Free the Slaves" or "Save the Tariff"; the cry was "Union Forever!”
The great folly of the South (i.e. the political leadership) was its determination to maintain the dying institution of slavery no matter the cost. The comparable folly of the North (i.e. the political leadership) was its equal determination to maintain the Union, no matter the cost. But a Union imposed at gunpoint is not a union at all, but a despotism.
The Civil War need not have been fought. Suppose a more subtle Lincoln had declared in his inaugural address, "The tumor has been removed, and I have no desire to re-attach it."
There would have been no firing on Fort Sumter five weeks later, and no war. Horace Greeley was right the first time: "Let the erring sisters go."
Slavery would soon have disappeared for economc reasons if for no other, and in five years or ten years, peaceful reunification would no doubt have ocurred, to the benefit of all. However, like George III, Lincoln was determined to impose political union at gunpoint, no matter the cost. And the cost was terrible: 600,000 of the best and the bravest on both sides, killed in a war which, like most wars, need not have been fought.
1) The conflict was not really a civil war at all, since the South was not seeking to overthrow the national government. A more accurate title would be the War of Secession, or War Between the States.
2) Tariff rates generally declined up to the passage of the highly protective Morrell Tariff in 1861. This was passed, however, only because the Southern senators had departed.
3) The Fugitive Slave Law placed under Federal jurisdiction the matter of runaway slaves. U.S Commissioners were empowered to render decisions and to summon citizens to aid in capture. There was no trial for the captured slave and he was not permitted to testify in his own behalf. Anyone who obstructed the process was subject to a fine of $1000 and six months in jail. The commissioner's fee varied depending on his decision - if he set the Negro free he received only one-half as much as if he turned him over to the alleged master. All expenses of recapture were borne by the U.S Treasury.
In 1854 the case of an escaped slave named Anthony Burns threw the whole city of Boston into turmoil: Burns, who had escaped to Boston, made the mistake of writing his brother in Virginia. The letter fell into the hands of Burns' former master who soon appeared in Boston with the necessary papers for Burns' forcible return. The law was clear and Burns was jailed pending transportation back to Virginia. Much public indignation was aroused, a mob sought to force Burns' release, and in the melee a deputy marshal was killed. The next day a fund was raised to buy Burns' freedom. His master was willing to sell but the U.S district attorney forbad the transaction on grounds that it was illegal to buy or sell a slave in Massachusetts! Authorities suspected another rescue might be attempted, so Burns and his master were escorted to the ship by a battalion of U.S artillery, four platoons of marines and a sheriff's posse. The hissing onlookers were held back by no less than 22 companies of state militia. It was estimated that the cost to return Burns was $100,000 – borne by the U.S. Treasury.
4) Morison and Commager, The Growth of the American Republic, (Oxford University Press, 1950) p. 636.
5) Ibid, p. 639.
6) Hodding Carter, The Angry Scar - the Story Of Reconstruction (Doubleday and Co., N.Y., 1959), pp. 74-75.
7) Ibid, p. 271.