Wednesday, May 10, 2017

Was the Civil War Inevitable?

You wouldn’t know it, but counterfactual history is thoroughly respectable. Its practitioners study what might have been, not what has been. The purpose, as reported on this blog, is to see what could have been done to avert catastrophic wars. It is not an ignoble pursuit.

One notes that economists studying the Great Depression have developed theories about how that calamity might have been avoided. They draw lessons from past policy errors and try to do better. They do not throw up their arms and stoically say it was all inevitable. It is not an ignoble enterprise.

I myself wrote about some of the counterfactual histories of World War I last month. Link here. With different leadership, with Theodore Roosevelt in charge after 1913, the war might have been averted. Or the carnage might have been reduced. The history of the twentieth century would have been radically different. Seeking to understand the errors that were made and knowing that different leaders would not have made the same errors is not an ignoble activity.

Or, at least, it wasn’t until one Donald Trump opined the other day that if Andrew Jackson had been president in the 1850s the Civil War might have been avoided. Of course, many astute historians noted that Jackson had been long dead by the time the first shots were fired at Fort Sumter, but Trump did suggest that “had Andrew Jackson been a little later.” The phrase tells us that Trump was contemplating what would have happened if Jackson had been born later.

Naturally, historians went apoplectic. Jim Grossman from the American Historical Association said this:

If one sees the Civil War as a war of liberation, which is what it was, then it shouldn't have been avoided. Had you compromised out the differences between the government and the confederacy, or between anti-slavery forces and southern slaveholders, the victims would have been the enslaved people of the south.

If the president has the notion that it would be desirable to compromise that out, without emancipation, it is frightening.

He is saying that the Civil War should not have been avoided. Would it have been possible to end slavery and emancipate the slaves without turning the nation into a killing field? Perhaps it would not have been possible, but Grossman’s cavalier statement that the Civil War was desirable does not inspire very much confidence. Could it have done more quickly, with less blood spilled? I do not know, but Grossman doesn’t know either. He does not seem to care. He thinks that the South deserved to be ravaged. 

Grossman thinks that Trump would have wanted to make a deal, but he imagines that Trump would have made a deal preserving slavery. Surely, that is too speculative. The question is whether the Southern states would have given up slavery without the war. Perhaps they would not have. We do not know. But we do not know the terms of an imaginary negotiation. And we do not know whether a similar result could have been accomplished with a shorter war and less bloodshed. Is it not worth the trouble to reflect on these matters? Inevitability is certainly not an historical fact.

Yale University historian David Blight dismisses Trump’s counterfactual:

If it reflects anything, it reflects a kind of great man idea of history, that if you just have the right man with the right strength you can change the course of history. And that is plain nonsense.

Why is this nonsense? We did not have to opine about how Theodore Roosevelt would have dealt with the outbreak of the Great War. And, Winston Churchill once noted that only one man on the planet could have averted that War. I presume he was referring to the weak-kneed American president, Woodrow Wilson.

By the way, wasn't Churchill’s leadership during World War II one of the decisive factors in the allied victory? Do you imagine that if Neville Chamberlain had not been sacked the outcome of that war would have been the same?

To put these theories to the test, blogger Ann Althouse,(via Maggie's Farm) who is not an historian, reread Jon Meachum’s 2009 book: Andrew Jackson: Lion in the White House. She offers a few excerpts:

[Jackson] believed to his core that [South Carolina] was about to destroy the nation... [I]n Charleston, radicals were raising an army to defend South Carolina’s right to nullify federal laws it chose not to accept— the first step, Jackson believed, toward secession, and the destruction of the Union. “I expect soon to hear that a civil war of extermination has commenced,” Jackson said, musing about arresting the Southern leaders and then hanging them....

“I seriously apprehend a civil war if something is not done to conciliate the discontents which prevail at this time and for aught that I can see will increase,” William Crawford of Georgia wrote Van Buren the month after the Jefferson dinner.....

Jackson sought the preservation of the Union, not personal vengeance; a powerful presidency, not a military dictatorship. He achieved that on Saturday, March 2, 1833, when he signed both the compromise tariff and the Force Bill into law. “We have beat the Nullifiers and things are quiet for a time— I verily thought we should have had a struggle and a short civil war, and was prepared once more to take the field,” Joel Poinsett wrote a friend on Monday, March 25, 1833. “I was exceedingly indignant with these Radicals and rather desired to put them down with a strong arm.… I have fought the good fight manfully and zealously, and now I am laying out grounds and making a garden.”

Serious political leaders do not rush into civil wars on the grounds that they are inevitable. The questions are interesting, but on this score the historians seem a little too wedded to their Trumpophobia.


Ares Olympus said...

Stuart: Serious political leaders do not rush into civil wars on the grounds that they are inevitable. The questions are interesting, but on this score the historians seem a little too wedded to their Trumpophobia.

Yes, surely there are historian egos involved, and Trump's muddled thoughts about the death status of Jackson (or Fredrick Douglass as well) makes it easier to dismiss remarks as signs of ignorance more than curiosity.

Given the number of Americans who died in the Civil War equal to all other wars combined should show the failure of communication in that war. Lincoln's election marks the rise of the Republican party, and his assassination perhaps even contains a moral a necessity, but also raising his status to hero and martyr for the union.

Coincidentally, Trump may mark the last Republican party, at least if he leaves office disgraced rather than assassinated.

My own alternative history question is - what would have happened if Lincoln had allowed the southeastern states to secede? At least that would allow the morality of human slavery to continue, and the south would have to deal with their own conscience on their own terms.

I'm glad to entertain the idea that Jackson and others could have done something to stop the secession, whether decades earlier or had he been born later.

Since we may be approaching a new civil war of sorts, or secessionistic impulses, I'd hope the lessons should be - if a state wants to leave the union, good riddance, unless of course it is my state, and then I'll say "Thank goodness."

Certainly secession shouldn't be done by majority vote, way too unstable, but it is fair to consider if 2/3 or 3/4 of residences want to go it alone, or along with a multistate pact exit, it seems better to let them do it.

In comparison, Brexit from the EU passed on a 53.4% to 46.6% vote, much too small for any confidence. And perhaps Scotland will be soon asking for their independence from the UK, and asking back into the EU?!

Political civil wars seem unavoidable, and even necessary, while civil wars fought for real seem best to avoid.

Sam L. said...

You keep believin', Ares. Still, this too shall pass.

Dennis said...

I wonder if it is inevitable that Ares will do to this site what he did to his own and so degrade the intellectual content and context by his rabid TDS that it will lose many of its commenters. I am beginning to wonder whose site this is what with Ares trying to moderate?
Strong leaders make a difference.

Stuart Schneiderman said...

Is that a hint? Of course, no one is obliged to read the comments of those who seem not to be elevating the level of the discussion. I do think that AO would do everyone a favor if he tried to be more succinct and less prolix. I would rather not resort to more drastic means, but I might have to.

Leo G said...

Good take of the same material by Prof. Althouse and her readers. Some of the comments there are quite enlightening to a civil war dufus like me.

Ares Olympus said...

Stuart Schneiderman said... I do think that AO would do everyone a favor if he tried to be more succinct and less prolix. I would rather not resort to more drastic means, but I might have to.

I keep within the apparent 4000 character limit for individual comments (~800 words?), and prune beyond that, rather than splitting comments like I've seen IAC do. And I try to stay on the topic of the day, even if I happily will stretch that topic.

The only clarity I've found from Stuart, by trial and error, is that his personal life and his motives are off-topic, and profanity should be avoided.

Ignatius Acton Chesterton OCD said...
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Ignatius Acton Chesterton OCD said...

Dennis' comment does not seem like a hint. It seems like a polite plea for order and sensibility.

Ares is out of control, and his Trump Derangement Psychosis becomes more deranged by the day. And it's boring. Devastatingly boring.

Yes, yes, yes... that IAC guy. Mmmmm... what a problem. That chap adds nothing to the conversation here, eh?

Broken comments? You want to go toe-to-toe on total word count? It's not even a contest.

Stuart, you write a terrific blog. Ares is a gross distraction. He has no respect for you. He's a consummate troll.

Time for the hook.

Ares Olympus said...

IAC, I'm sorry I hurt your feelings on noting that sometimes you continue comments over multiple entries when you exceed the 4000 character limit. I didn't mean to imply you did this frequently, only that I used that limit for my pruning challenge.

If I have Trump Derangement Psychosis/Syndrome, clearly you have Ares Derangement Psychosis/Syndrome, which can in the future be referenced here as ADS or ADP as you like.

I accept if I want my opinions read, I benefit by more prudent brevity. But I see no real to be bullied into silence by your name calling.

Perhaps in the future Blogger will have a "block" option like Facebook, and then we can move one step closer to only hearing from the voices we agree with. Until then, all we have is Stuart's patient benevolence.

Ignatius Acton Chesterton OCD said...
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Ignatius Acton Chesterton OCD said...

You did not hurt my feelings.

Your comments are drivel.

DRIVEL: (c) silly nonsense.

That's not name-calling.

NAME-CALLING: (n) Abusive language or insults.


If you want to say I am name-calling, then look at the top of the model: "Refuting the Central Point." You rarely have a central point to refute. Your contributions are a meandering mess of subjective conjecture, backed up with unpersuasive links to "facts," punctuated with references to straw men.

So let's get to the point...

You've talked about Donald Trump in 95%+ of your comments here since the election. This is particularly troublesome when you make no attempt to talk about the subject at hand. You tie everything back to Trump. You are out of control.

Nor is distinguishing you as a "troll" name-calling.

TROLL: (n-informal) Make a deliberate offensive or provocative online post with the aim of upsetting someone or eliciting an angry response from them.

Ares, you embody the term. You claim Stuart has exercised "patient benevolence." Self-restraint on your part would mean he wouldn't have to. Yet you persist. Stuart even had to use the word "prolix," which is a DEFCON 1 type of word.

I am not a bully. I can't be.

BULLY: (n) Someone who uses strength or power to harm or intimidate those who are weaker.

Am I strong? Do I have strength or power? Have I harmed or intimidated you? Are you weak? Another trendy psychobabble term, ill-used.

As for the "block" function and hearing voices, I come to this blog to learn and engage in exchange. I learn nothing from you, and you are not a credible person to have an exchange with, given your disingenuousness. You get ample feedback on your contributions, yet you persist. You are not someone who expands the conversation. You are a pest.

PEST: (n) An annoying person or thing; a nuisance.

Anonymous said...

In "A Disease In The Public Mind" (pub. 2013) Thomas Fleming asserts that Northern Elite hatred of the South was a significant cause of our Nation's Catastrophe.

William Lloyd Garrison's "The Liberator", and other Abolitionary writings were incendiary. No insult was spared. Even references to Satan.

The South knew slavery was wrong. But constantly feared slave uprisings like Nat Turner's.

The Nation fractured. "And The War came" - President Lincoln. - Rich Lara

Unknown said...
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