When I taught American History to undergraduate students, one of the essay questions I would always pose on the final examination was, “Given Lincoln’s election in 1860, was the Civil War avoidable?” It is an intriguing question and one that, if you search for an answer, forces you to look deeply at the reasons for secession of the southern states. For me, the answer to that question is a resounding “No,” as it was for most of my students. The political atmosphere of the time was explosive, to put it mildly, and emotions on both sides ran deep. As a result, the art of compromise, which had mitigated previous sectional crises, was abandoned and everyone in the South was swept up in the rush to secession.
So, one must ask why the southern states made such an extreme response to Lincoln’s election. The reasons are complex and there is no way I can discuss them in any depth here. Suffice to say that there were economic, social, and political reasons for the break, and they all begin with slavery, with the perceived right to hold property in the form of a human being.
From an economic and social perspective, the two regions of the country were becoming increasingly different. The North, while still primarily rural in nature, was steadily urbanizing and industrializing. It could be characterized by a growing middle class, made up of a growing professional and mercantile class, as well as prosperous, productive farmers, plus industrialists and the workers that toiled in their factories. As a result, there was a large amount of capital available and investment was made in public infrastructure such as roads, bridges, and canals. Additionally, there was growing support for publicly funded schools, and the North projected what was at least perceived as a culture of opportunity, of providing everyone a way up the ladder.
The South, meanwhile, was quite the opposite. The South was an overwhelmingly rural region, but, here, there was no economic growth. Most of the property, wealth, and political power rested with those who employed slave labor growing cotton and tobacco. Slave labor was not only inefficient, it was expensive. As a result, the profit margins on slave-produced products were low and there was no capital to be had. Therefore, roads and infrastructure improvements lagged behind the North, which further exasperated the economic issues because there was no efficient means to get products to market. However, perhaps, the biggest differences between the two regions were social. In the South, there were essentially three classes: wealthy planters; poor, subsistence farmers, and black slaves. While there was a professional and mercantile middle class, it was very small, and those in power, the aristocratic Southern planters, were determined to keep it that way.
The aristocrats deplored the idea of a productive middle class, and constantly derided the North by calling them a region of “shopkeepers.” They thought that education was something to be enjoyed only by the wealthy and the concept of a public education system that would reach everyone was considered not only ludicrous but also socially dangerous. Their primary focus was the maintenance of political and economic power for their class, with the latter based on a slave-driven economy. They had no desire to offer any opportunity for advancement to anyone.
However, as the inefficiencies of a slave economy became more apparent, rather than adapt by abandoning the practice, they sought to expand slavery westward into the new territories, thus maintaining it as a viable economic system. Of course, this is what triggered a series of sectional disputes over slavery and its expansion into the West. There would be a series of political compromises over the issue, but as the South began to lose more and more national economic and political power, they constantly struggled against these compromises. They sought the unrestrained right to take slavery wherever they wished and, with the election of a president committed to stopping the expansion of slavery, they felt they could see the writing on the wall. For them, there was no more room for compromise on the issue of expanding slavery.
Politically, the South had steadily been losing power. While they still dominated the Supreme Court, the growing population of the North was leading to an imbalance in the House of Representatives and the addition of more slave-free western states would soon cause them to fall behind in the Senate as well. Therefore, they saw an approaching “tyranny of the majority.” Further, political discourse in the North and South had taken on a tone that was increasingly angry, shrill, and even vulgar. As this process intensified, the South began to view itself as an oppressed minority.
Further, because the arguments over slavery were couched in moral absolutes of right and wrong, civilization versus barbarism, progress versus feudalism, all hopes of compromise were rapidly eroded away. When looking at the issues that led to the Civil War, one of the most critical things to understand is how concrete political issues came to represent abstract principles; and how conflicts between opposing interests were simplified to levels where people let emotion triumph over reason, and, to quote historian Avery Craven, “where surrender meant loss of self-respect; where compromise was impossible because issues appeared in the form of right and wrong or involved the basic structures and values in a given society.”
With the rise of the Republican Party as a political embodiment of the progressive, anti-slavery movement, the South became increasingly isolated culturally, economically, socially, and politically. So, when Lincoln was elected, it served notice on the South that it must enter the “modern world,” accept national consolidation, industrial capitalism, and a more democratic social order. In other words, the South would have to accept the Northern definition of “progress” and, in their minds, surrender to forces that would destroy the economic and social system of the South. To the leadership of the South, it became, therefore, a matter of honor and self-respect for which secession and, eventually, war were the only recourse.
Therefore, I will restate my position that the war was unavoidable. The issues were too complex, the emotions were too strong, and the Southern leadership would lose too much if they did not secede. Now, it must also be said that almost no one in power in the South thought that there would be a war over secession. They believed that the North was so controlled by economic interests that they would never fight. Rather, they believed that, after some angry words, the two regions would resume normal political and economic relations, albeit as separate nations. It proved to a critical miscalculation and one that led to a bloody national catastrophe.