Q If lINCOLN had LOST THE ELECTION, would there have been a war?
Sunday, November 7, 2010

Harold Holzer
Author or editor of 36 books, many on Lincoln, and chairman of the Abraham Lincoln Bicentennial Foundation

This age-old question assumes a chain of events with a big missing link: disunion. Abraham Lincoln’s election provoked secession all right (unjustifiably, one might persuasively argue), but it was secession that provoked the standoff at Fort Sumter and, ultimately, triggered rebellion and war. What happened in between Lincoln’s November election victory and March inauguration — the Great Secession Winter — ought to have mollified Southern extremists and empowered Southern Unionists, but the truth is that the election of any presidential candidate pledged to halt the expansion of slavery would have incited slaveholding states determined to expand their power base and, with it, their longtime control over the executive, legislative and judicial branches of the federal government. In other words, the die was tragically cast.

As for Lincoln, he was meticulously careful during the long interregnum between his election and inauguration to walk a fine line between conciliation and coercion — insisting that he had earned the right to govern but assuring Southerners that he had no intention of interfering with slavery where it existed. "The South would be in no more danger in this respect, than it was in the days of Washington," the president-elect assured Georgia Sen. Alexander Hamilton Stephens — for whom such reassurances typically proved insufficient (a pro-Unionist at first, Stephens ultimately supported Georgia’s secession and became the Confederate vice president). During the last weeks in his home town of Springfield, Lincoln wrote an inaugural address designed to formally assert his policy of noninterference — a manuscript whose every hint of bellicosity he successively toned down over a succession of rewrites based on advice from others. By the time he spoke its final passage on March 4, 1861 — all but imploring those who would not listen that "we must not be enemies" — it was too late for compromise.

Without real provocation, the Deep South had decided to defy the will of the voters and create a separate nation. Meanwhile, Lincoln had proven remarkably open to compromise except on the issue on which he had built his national political reputation — limiting the extension of slavery. And on this issue, as provocative as it may have been to slave owners with eyes on expanding their base into the southwest, Mexico and even Cuba, can we doubt but that he was politically and morally right to hold firm on this point? Of course, as Lincoln readily admitted when he gave his second inaugural address four years later, "neither party expected for the war, the magnitude, or the duration, which it . . . attained."

Would Lincoln have drawn a line in the sand if he knew it would cost 600,000 American lives in the next four years? Hard to say. So let’s always keep in mind not just what Lincoln knew, but what he could not have known. And to have expected the president-elect to bow to Southern pressures in anticipation of a magnitude of bloodshed he could not possibly have imagined in advance asks modern readers to turn history head over heels to prove a conclusion that can only be known in hindsight.

But to return to the original question: Was it the election of Lincoln in particular that brought on the Civil War? No, not really. Remember, the Virginia extremist Edmund Ruffin had only recently published a novel called "Anticipations of the Future" in which, Jules Verne-like, he predicted the election of a Republican president not in 1860 but in 1864, thrilled that "the obscure and coarse Lincoln" would undoubtedly provoke a Southern war for "independence" — which is precisely what radical slave owners wanted. They got their wish four years early — and to paraphrase Lincoln, the tug had to come — better then than later. Ruffin, according to tradition, ordered the first shot on Fort Sumter a month after Lincoln’s inauguration. So perhaps we should really consider whether Ruffin and the Ruffinites bore more responsibility for war than the constitutionally elected 16th president of the United States.

Mike Musick
Retired subject area expert for the U.S. Civil War at the National Archives

Some historians run screaming from the prospect of hypothetical questions. Perhaps less judicious than they, I will try to respond to this one.

Abraham Lincoln’s election precipitated the attempt at secession by the Southern states. Those who held power in those states declared that the survival of their vital institution of slavery would be placed in jeopardy if an avowedly anti-slavery man — such as Lincoln certainly was — were to take the nation’s helm. Without Lincoln’s election, those states would have been deprived of their loudly proclaimed reason for leaving the Union. Thus, no President Lincoln meant no secession. It was secession that gave birth to the war, when cannons were fired in defending that alleged right at Fort Sumter, S.C. Therefore, the conclusion is inescapable that without secession there would have been no war. So my answer is a resounding yes: A defeat for Lincoln would have been a victory for peace.

But not for long. Few could envy whoever would have become chief executive instead of Lincoln. Tensions over the expansion of slavery had grown so great that eventually war had to come. Over the years, Southern threats of secession had been trumpeted with such frequency that they would have become a mockery if not one day acted on, and that day was not far distant. No president with an ounce of grit could have continued to abide the kinds of provocations with which he would have been assailed. In 1864? In 1868? In 1900? No one can say. Add to this the steadily increasing lethality of the world’s weaponry, and we can envision an even more bloody "irrepressible conflict" than what took place in 1861-65.

History brings with it a large dose of irony. As an example, consider that the legitimacy of the doctrine of secession was the main point at issue in our Civil War. That legitimacy was emphatically denied by the war’s outcome. And yet today, almost without exception, chroniclers state that in 1860-61 "the Southern states seceded." This strange form of posthumous vindication is the unconscious tribute we lay on the graves of those who died for the Confederacy.

Joan Waugh
Professor of history at UCLA

If Abraham Lincoln had lost the election to the (Northern) Democratic candidate Stephen A. Douglas, I do not believe that seven states of the Deep South would have seceded so quickly or formed a government in Montgomery, Ala., by February 1861. A wholly sectional party had come to power that threatened the slaveholders’ social and economic security, and that fact spurred secessionist action. But even if Douglas had won in 1860, would secession have come eventually, as so many Northern Democrats were in favor of limiting slavery’s expansion in the western territories? Maybe, but I suspect that Democrats would have found a way to compromise to at least delay it for a while.

Chandra Manning
Associate professor of history at Georgetown University

As we prepare to mark the 150th anniversary of the Civil War, one of the things we must do is rid ourselves of the notion that it was somehow inevitable or even foreordained, or we have no hope of ever understanding it. What we can say, grounded firmly in evidence, is that without a Lincoln victory in November 1860, war would not have broken out exactly when and how it did.

Abraham Lincoln won the presidency after running on a platform of halting the expansion of slavery into federal territories. That victory did not touch slavery in any state, but it did signal that the federal government was now headed not, as it normally had been, by someone interested in promoting slavery, but by someone hostile to it. In a matter of weeks, delegates met in South Carolina to leave the Union, and they published a Declaration of Causes explaining why. Two of the three causes (Northern non-compliance with the Fugitive Slave Law and increasing anti-slavery sentiment nationally) were not dependent on Lincoln’s election, but the election of a president pledged to stop the expansion of slavery was also a major cause, and that was dependent on Lincoln’s election, because none of the other three candidates supported such a platform. The secession of South Carolina was quickly followed by the secession of six more states, all of which cited the same basic provocations.

Before secession, residents of Northern states had no interest in a war (Why rock the boat?), but secession in response to Lincoln’s election changed everything: Allowing any state simply to leave when its voters did not like the results of an election undercut any basis for self-government (elections only work, after all, if we all agree to abide by them even when we don’t like the results), and therefore could not be countenanced. And so, as Lincoln would put it, the war came.

Which is not to say it was inevitable no matter who won. Nor is it to say that no conflict would have erupted if anyone else had won. But it is to say that war coming exactly when, where and how it did was the product of long-term causes and immediate triggers, and the election of Lincoln was, without question, an immediate trigger.

Waite Rawls
President and chief executive of the Museum of the Confederacy

The Civil War started because a match lit a fuse on a keg that was filled with powder. Let’s look at each ingredient.

Neither Abraham Lincoln nor the Republican Party built the keg. The wood for the keg was shaped by the inability of the founding fathers to solve the two big problems of state sovereignty and slavery in the shaping of the Constitution. In a complex but steady course, the economics of taxes and the politics of control of the westward expansion were added to those two original issues as the keg was filled with powder.

By the time of the creation of the Republican Party in 1856, the powder keg was almost full and waiting for a fuse. And the election of any candidate from the Republican Party — a purely sectional party — put the fuse in the powder keg, and the Deep South states seceded. But there was still no war. Two simultaneous mistakes in judgment brought the matches out of the pocket — the Deep South mistakenly thought that Lincoln, now elected, would not enforce the Union, and Lincoln mistakenly thought that the general population of the South would not follow the leadership of the Fire Eaters.

Lincoln struck the match when he called the bluff of the South Carolinians and attempted to reinforce Fort Sumter, but that match could have gone out without an explosion. Lincoln struck a second, more fateful match, when he called for troops to put down the "insurrection." That forced the Upper South and Border States into a conflict that they had vainly attempted to avoid.

In short, the election of Lincoln did not start the Civil War all by itself. But it certainly was a critical ingredient.

Gary Gallagher
Professor of history at the University of Virginia

Given the realities of electoral politics in 1860, it is almost impossible to imagine how Abraham Lincoln could have lost. It is even more difficult to say what the election of Stephen A. Douglas — the only one of the other three candidates who stood even a remote chance of success — would have elicited in the way of responses across the nation.

Rather than try to answer a question that cannot be answered, it is worthwhile to remember that Lincoln’s election did not trigger the war. More than six months elapsed between the casting of ballots in November 1860 and the firing on Fort Sumter in April 1861. Only seven of the 15 slaveholding states deemed Lincoln’s triumph sufficient cause to secede; four others followed suit only after Sumter and, more especially, the new president’s call for 75,000 volunteers to suppress the rebellion. Four slaveholding states remained loyal to the Union, a fact that should remind us why describing the war as North against South is misleading and why we should never use "Confederacy" and "the South" as synonyms.

We always should resist what might be called the Appomattox syndrome, that is, reading back from what we know happened to understand how that end came about. We know that Lincoln won the election and that a war eventually came, so we often assume that a Republican victory inexorably led to military conflict. In fact, only a fascinating and complex series of decisions and events, some centered in Washington but many played out elsewhere, finally brought a war that rapidly escalated to a level of bloodshed far beyond what anyone at the time could imagine.

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