Tuesday, February 22, 2011
Did the seceding states believe they could leave peacefully without provoking a war?
By Brag Bowling
The leadership in most Southern states was guided by the following credo—“hope for the best but prepare for the worst”. In 1860, most Americans were of the opinion that secession was a legal and constitutional doctrine. A country which had to be held together by force of arms was a country which nobody sought because our Founding Fathers created a voluntary Union.
One would have to wonder how many of the original 13 Colonies would have signed on to the Constitution if they were told in 1787 that should they exercise their perceived right to leave that they would be invaded, with the resulting deaths of thousands of citizens, millions of dollars of property stolen or destroyed, and economic chaos which would depress their economies for nearly 100 years. My bet is that there would be no signatures placed on that document.
Of all Southerners, perhaps Jefferson Davis understood the costs of war if it should come. He had been both Secretary of War and a high ranking Senator. He could see the steep odds the South faced both economically and militarily should war come. He sought peace in both his famous Senate Farewell Speech and his 1st Inaugural Address in 1861.
Southern leaders worked hard to pursue a peaceful separation. Conferences were set up for a lawful transfer of assets in areas under Confederate control. Virginia set up a Peace Conference to avoid war. Unfortunately, the Lincoln Administration would not work out an agreement on Ft. Sumter and several other installations. Ft. Sumter would become the flashpoint of the war. South Carolina demanded possession of the fort and offered to pay for it. Viewing themselves as a sovereign entity, they were not interested in another country militarily occupying a fort within their boundary. Through the offices of Secretary of State William Seward, the South relied on his promises that the fort would not be resupplied militarily and that the garrison would be removed. At the same time, President Lincoln covertly assembled a fleet to resupply Ft. Sumter. He was well aware of the crisis in Charleston and proceeded accordingly, thus negating Secretary of Seward’s assurances. He had shrewdly maneuvered the South into fighting and firing the first shot which certainly galvanized Northern public opinion towards war.
Everyone today knows that there was no peaceful secession. A tragic, terrible and costly war occurred. But one thing which today’s historians fail to address is what might have been the result of “peaceful secession”. I have seen a few guesses but here is a theory which you will never see in a textbook today but may have been quite feasible. Both countries would have continued to thrive politically and economically. Slavery would have ended on its own, certainly by the end of the century with advances in technology. Brazil was the last nation in the western hemisphere to end slavery in 1888 and like most nations, ended it peacefully. The North would have been forced through economic competition to drop its high tariff policies. The transition to the centralized, high tax state would certainly have been stalled. Perhaps most interesting, America’s intervention in World War I made it possible for the punishing Versailles Treaty, resentment to which led to the ascendency of Adolf Hitler and the Second World War. This might not have occurred if there were two nations. A reasonable settlement in Europe probably would have occurred. And probably, the commonality of interests between the United States and Confederate states may have led to a reunion.