South to North: Hello, I must be going.
Aug 15, 2011, Vol. 16, No. 45 • By EDWIN M. YODER JR.
“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.