Visual memories, especially those of boyish vintage, tend to be inexact but I am pretty confident of this one: Joseph Grégoire de Roulhac Hamilton was a short, gnomish, balding figure, longtime chairman of the history department at the University of North Carolina, and founder of the great Southern Historical Collection there. And more to the present point, a valued friend and mentor to my father and his older brother, who had studied under him in the 1920s.

The occasion I recall here was one of a succession of visits at his house when my uncle, a West Coast academic, visited in North Carolina. He and my father would call upon their revered teacher, taking me along. I would sit patiently on the berm overlooking the front porch as the three of them, in their rocking chairs, talked into the warm summer night. I was too boyishly in-curious to listen carefully, but one topic was surely a shared interest in Southern history—as to which Dr. Hamilton, as will be seen, entertained emphatic views. He had done his doctorate at Columbia under William Dunning, eponymous founder of the dominant “school” of Reconstruction history, which tended to charge the South’s postbellum woes to vengeful Yankee intruders.

The scene might have faded from memory long since but for a personal sequel. In the mid-1960s, I took leave from newspapering to teach American history at the Woman’s College of UNC. As I prepared lectures on the “causes” and outbreak of the Unpleasantness whose sesquicentennial we are presently observing, I chanced with mild indignation on a noted talk the very same Hamilton had given in the early 1930s. He roundly accused Abraham Lincoln, by virtue of his mere election, of having been “an immediate menace to slavery in the states,” thus provoking and justifying secession. This was not an uncommon theme then, in view of the sectional nature of the new-minted Republican party. But it was always controversial.

The indignant notes with which I sprinkled the margins of Hamilton’s pages are missing, and I probably failed to notice that a number of variables lay concealed in the words “menace,” “immediate,” and “states”—variables with which a practiced quibbler could have had a field day. I was not in a quibbling mood. After all, Lincoln had often vowed to leave the South’s peculiar institution unmolested “in the states” where it had historically existed. Under the Dred Scott decision, neither a president nor Congress possessed authority to interfere with slavery in the states that were to constitute the Confederacy. The territories of the West, recently extorted from Mexico, were a far more explosive issue. The Missouri Compromise of 1820, which had barred slavery from the northern Louisiana Purchase, was now extinguished, and the militant dreamers of the South’s “empire” had turned covetous eyes on the whole Gulf littoral and the Caribbean, where slavery might flourish without limit.

With these thoughts, I challenged my elder and better, not without a guilty feeling that in view of the family veneration of Hamilton I was engaged in virtual parricide. I was then in my twenties, a new-minted “Southern liberal,” imbued with the enlightened racial outlook of latter-day Chapel Hill. Hamilton, born a year after the end of “radical” Reconstruction, was a man of his time, and had delivered his provocative lecture at the crux of the Jim Crow era when its cardinal assumptions were largely undisturbed. He would have been exceptional, even among enlightened Southerners, had his personal views not reflected the culture of that time—paternalist and tinctured with a complacent confidence in white racial superiority. In youth, he had studied at Sewanee, then a citadel of Southern traditionalism which, not so many years earlier, had attempted to recruit both Jefferson Davis and Robert E. Lee as vice chancellors.

As for what may be called the “secession guilt” question, there remains much to be said. My recent reconsideration of the vast material bearing on that issue suggests that neither Lincoln nor the other decision-makers of 1860-61 clearly foresaw what his election meant for peace in their time. Lincoln’s rival (and eventual secretary of state) William Seward had spoken of an “irrepressible conflict,” but as war clouds gathered, he had drastically modified his views. I still believe Hamilton to be wrong about the implications of Lincoln’s election. His polemical strategy is to identify the Republican party with its abolitionist fringe, and Lincoln as its tribune: an early case of guilt by association.

“In spite of all its professions and official declarations,” Hamilton writes, “the party .  .  . by 1860 had become abolitionized. Among Republican leaders Lincoln appears as a relative conservative, but a close reading of his writings indicates that he, too, grew fast to radicalism. .  .  . He had started out with the idea of restoring the Missouri Compromise, but quickly opposed such a suggestion; he had advocated allowing the Supreme Court to settle the territorial question, and then fiercely attacked the Court for attempting to do so.” Hamilton insists that in any case abolitionism was the nonnegotiable ideological binder of the Republican party, so that if the South had detected a conciliator in Lincoln and not seceded, “what,” he asks, “was left to hold the party together .  .  . save abolition?” All true. Yet Lincoln had only recently been a moderate Whig who protested privately that Henry Clay was his apostle and that he would govern in Clay’s spirit of sectional conciliation and compromise.

In the exacerbated political climate of 1860, when Lincoln made not a single campaign speech, his hostility to slavery as a permanent feature of American life was clear enough; and in any case, his Southern opponents were in no mood to draw fine distinctions. Lincoln had established himself after 1854 as an outspoken critic of both the Kansas-Nebraska Act (which abolished the Missouri Compromise) and the Dred Scott decision, which seemed to confirm its abolition. He had pronounced in his “House Divided” oration that the nation must eventually become either all slave or all free, and left no doubt of his own preference. Amidst the gathering anger, it hardly mattered that his views were moderate in tone. He never campaigned and his name was not on Southern ballots.

Of course, political factions in all places and ages would prefer to work their will without firing a shot, and the slide to the Civil War whose 150th anniversary we are observing is hardly the only instance in which war came uninvited. It is said that after reading Barbara Tuchman’s The Guns of August, about the surprising outbreak of the later and even more murderous First World War, John F. Kennedy summoned his secretary of the Army and instructed him to see that all officers read this dire warning of how nations stumble into wars. The circumstances of August 1914 and April 1861 were drastically different—neither North nor South had a Schlieffen Plan for mobilization for robotic “war by timetable,” as one English historian has called World War I—but one common denominator in our consideration of “secession guilt” is the surprise that plagues the human incapacity to foretell or control the future.

Historians have differed on the conclusions to be drawn. An eminent Civil War historian of Hamilton’s vintage, in a notable address to the American Historical Association, ascribed war guilt to a “blundering generation.” Indeed, with the lenses of 20-20 hindsight, it is easy to isolate turning points which, with greater foresight, might have been negotiated without gunfire. Students of the Civil War can list them by the dozen. What, for instance, if the Democratic party hadn’t split on sectional lines in 1860 and managed to elect Stephen A. Douglas president? Or what if Lincoln had dismantled Major Anderson’s fragile garrison at Fort Sumter?

After the Great War of 1914-18, the victors imposed a “war guilt” stipulation on the losers. That provision of the Versailles Treaty became so acute a subject of controversy in Germany that an amateur historian, Alfred von Wegerer, founded a scholarly journal, Die Kriegsschuldfrage (the war-guilt issue), devoted exclusively to its discussion. But with the advent of the Civil War sesquicentennial, we have no such journal, and any debate over war guilt is largely the preserve of cranks and moralists, not serious historians. Lincoln’s view prevailed: that the war was, in constitutional terms, a rebellion to be subdued by the exercise of executive powers. But had the South vindicated its claim to national sovereignty, had the war become a conflict between nation-states, concluded by treaty, might the victors have imposed a war-guilt clause? Or perhaps even a “secession guilt” clause? Possibly—but in view of the outcome, Abraham Lincoln would not have been indicted as the chief provocateur.

“Blunder,” for which another word is human impulsiveness, is easy to identify after the damage is done. But tragedy—the eternal spectacle of flawed humans, moving according to their lights and interests but blinded by their passions—seems a more useful template of historical understanding. No treaty that I know of has ever blamed an unintended war on the tragic flaw. And perhaps it belongs more to poetics than to history.

Edwin M. Yoder Jr. is the author, most recently, of Vacancy: A Judicial Misadventure.

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