It has been a commonplace among Lincoln’s enemies that he and the Republicans were the real instigators of the Civil War. Early in the twentieth century, for example, Mildred Lewis Rutherford, the historian-general of the United Daughters of the Confederacy (UDC), wrote that “It was Jefferson Davis not Abraham Lincoln who pleaded for peace and did all to enforce it and Lincoln it was who refused four times to make it when he could.” In the 1930s the poet Edgar Lee Masters, in his scathingly critical biography Lincoln: The Man, called the sixteenth president’s war aims “imperial,” while in his book The Real Lincoln, economist Thomas DiLorenzo lamented that “Only in the United States was warfare associated with emancipation. . . . In virtually every other country of the world, slavery ended through either manumission or some form of compensation.”
But did Lincoln and the Republicans want war? Actually, no. In fact, as James Oakes (full disclosure: Jim was on my dissertation committee at the University of Houston and has from time to time given me good suggestions about Loathing Lincoln) shows in his excellent new book The Scorpion’s Sting: Antislavery and the Coming of the Civil War, their entire platform was based on the peaceful yet “ultimate extinction” of American slavery. Here is Oakes on how the Republican Party – the abolitionist party, in my view – thought this would occur:
“What would it take to make the scorpion [American slavery] sting itself and die? . . . It looked something like this. Once the northern states stopped enforcing the fugitive-slave clause, the deterioration of slavery in the Border States would accelerate. The annual flight of slaves into the North, from Delaware to Missouri, would become a flood tide that southern masters would be unable to stop. The only way for Border State slaveholders to prevent a mass exodus of fugitives would be to sell off their slaves to the cotton states, or pack up and leave. But masters hoping to avoid the unprecedented insecurity of slavery in the Border States would be denied the option of carrying their slaves into the territories. Instead, each new territory would enter the Union as a free state. Meanwhile, the Border States – depleted of slaves and therefore slaveholders – would begin abolishing slavery on their own. This was not an entirely unreasonable expectation on the eve of the Civil War. Slavery had all but disappeared in Delaware and half of Maryland’s black population was already free. As this process advanced, the number of free states would grow steadily as the number of slave states inexorably declined, shifting the balance of power in national politics from slavery to freedom. All it would take was a shift from slavery to freedom in half a dozen states to make an abolition amendment feasible.
“Most antislavery advocates thought abolition would proceed on a state-by-state basis. As slavery became concentrated in the states of the Deep South, its intrinsic weaknesses would become more and more intolerable. Slavery’s economic vitality could no longer be sustained by steady infusions of fresh western soil. The borders of free soil would press ever closer to the edges of the cotton states – and the process of slavery’s internal dissolution that had already taken place in the Border States would commence in the Deep South. The slaves, restless and increasingly anxious for their freedom, now pent up and concentrated in the cotton belt, would become rebellious and even revolutionary. . . . The vise-like grip of the slaveholding minority within the southern states would give way as the slaveless white majorities asserted themselves, unwilling to be dragged down with slavery’s sinking ship. A homegrown antislavery party would finally emerge in the heart of slave country. The end would come when the slaveholders themselves awakened to the realization that their own future prosperity could only be ensured by shifting to free labor. Then the slave states would abolish slavery on their own. The scorpion, having stung itself, would die.”
Of course, this never happened, because the one fundamental and irreconcilable difference between the Republican Party and those who later formed the Confederacy was that the Republicans believed that there could be no property in man, while the slaveholders believed otherwise. Here is Abraham Lincoln, speaking in Hartford, Connecticut, in 1860, on this point (many thanks to James L. Huston’s brilliant book, Calculating the Value of the Union, for alerting me to the significance of this speech):
“Now what is the difficulty? One-sixth of the population of the United States is slave. One-sixth of the population of the United States is slave. One man of every six, one woman of every six, one child of every six, is a slave. Those who own them look upon them as property, and nothing else. They contemplate them as property, and speak of them as such. The slaves have the same ‘property quality,’ in the minds of their owners, as any other property. The entire value of the slave population of the United States, is, at a moderate estimate, not less than $2,000,000,000. This amount of property has a vast influence upon the minds of those who own it. The same amount of property owned by Northern men has the same influence upon their minds. In this we do not assume that we are better than the people of the South—neither do we admit that they are better than we. We are not better, barring circumstances, than they. Public opinion is formed relative to a property basis. Therefore, the slaveholders battle any policy which depreciates their slaves as property. What increases the value of this property, they favor. When you tell them that slavery is immoral, they rebel, because they do not like to be told they are interested in an institution which is not a moral one. When you enter into a defence of slavery, they seize upon it, for they like justification. The result is, that public opinion is formed among them which insists upon the encouragement or protection, the enlargement or perpetuation of slavery—and secures them property in the slave.
“Now this comes in conflict with this proposition that we at the North view slavery as a wrong. We understand that the ‘equality of man’ principle which actuated our forefathers in the establishment of the government is right; and that slavery, being directly opposed to this, is morally wrong. I think that if anything can be proved by natural theology, it is that slavery is morally wrong. God gave man a mouth to receive bread, hands to feed it, and his hand has a right to carry bread to his mouth without controversy.
“We suppose slavery is wrong, and that it endangers the perpetuity of the Union. Nothing else menaces it. Its effect on free labor makes it what [William] Seward has been so roundly abused for calling, an irrepressible conflict. Almost every man has a sense of certain things being wrong, and at the same time, a sense of its pecuniary value. These conflict in the mind, and make a riddle of a man. If slavery is considered upon a property basis, public opinion must be forced to its support. The alternative is its settlement upon the basis of its being wrong. Some men think it is a question of neither right or wrong; that it is a question of dollars and cents, only; that the Almighty has drawn a line across the country, south of which the land is always to be cultivated by slave labor; when the question is between the white man and the nigger, they go in for the white man; when it is between the nigger and the crocodile, they take sides with the nigger. There is effort to make this feeling of indifference prevalent the country, and this is one of the things, perhaps, that prevents the sudden settlement of the question. Is it possible that a national policy can be sustained because nobody opposes or favors it? It may answer to serve the ends of politicians for a while, but it falls at last. There may be one way, however, to make it stand, and that is to make the opinion of the people conform to it; must be made to conclude that those who want slavery shall have it, and that it is simply a matter of dollars and cents. I do not believe a majority of the people of this nation can be made to take this view of it.”
In short, the slaveholders had enormous wealth invested in their institution, believed it right that one man could enslave another, and wanted this arrangement to persist forever. The Republican Party disagreed and had a peaceful program to begin the immediate work of eradicating this “monstrous injustice” from the United States. For this, Lincoln and the Republicans are labeled war-mongers, or imperialists, or people not all that interested in abolishing slavery, while their slaveholding American counterparts have been seen as fighting for “states’ rights” (e.g. the right of the states to hold property in man) or “self-determination,” (e.g. the right to hold property in man so that one man can determine anothers life prospects) or the right to be let alone (e.g. the right be let alone to hold property in man).