Why did we need the Civil War? Couldn’t we just have worked things out amicably without the need for all that carnage? So wondered Donald Trump in an interview with the Washington Examiner scheduled to air subsequently on Sirius XM Radio. “People don’t ask that question,” Trump said, “but why was there a Civil War? Why could that one not have been worked out?” The President mused further, that if his hero Andrew Jackson had been around a bit later, “you really wouldn’t have had the Civil War.” Trump tells us that his predecessor “was really angry that he saw what was happening with regard to the Civil War,” and declared “‘There’s no reason for this.’”
Leaving out that the slave-owning Jackson died 16 years before the outbreak of the Civil War and would not likely have been able to comment on the conflict or the events leading up to it, Trump nevertheless asks an interesting question which, despite his insistence that “people don’t ask that question,” has actually received considerable attention by U.S. historians.
The answer, simply, is that without the war, slavery would not only have continued but grown, most likely into a vast empire spreading west across the American Continent, south to Latin America and into the Caribbean as well.
The war was fought not over maintaining the not-so-peculiar institution within the slave states but over extending it to the territories. When the South concluded that the election of Abraham Lincoln in 1860 would thwart its continental ambitions to expand a slave empire, it seceded. As the Confederate Vice President Alexander Stephens, declared in justifying secession, the new government’s “foundations are laid, its cornerstone rests, upon the great truth that the negro is not equal to the white man; that slavery, subordination to the superior race, is his natural and moral condition.”
Slavery was seen at the time not as a vestige of the past that would quietly pass away but as a vibrant, modern, industrial institution. Cotton was the oil of the 19th Century. It made vast fortunes for the plantocracy who were not about to surrender the slave labor on which it was based. The economic power of the plantation owners lead to political power as well.
As Matthew Karp points out in his instructive history “This Vast Southern Empire,” among the more recent studies in a significant literature on the subject, Southern slaveholders held a virtual lock on both American domestic and foreign policy in the antebellum period. Half the U.S. presidents until the Civil War were slave owners.
As Karp tells us, Southern industry during these years was growing rapidly and incorporating slave labor successfully. As importantly, it was more than holding its own in the debate on moral, religious and scientific grounds, much less on economic, venal and expedient ones. Southern preachers quoted the Bible to justify slavery; secular apologists cited the new science of Darwinism to explain “natural” differences between the races and the need of one to subjugate a lesser breed; Confederate statesmen were confident that European powers, who were voracious consumers of their cotton, would support them in their cause, and came close to realizing their goals.
At the war’s outbreak, Confederate leaders saw themselves not in defensive mode but as forward-looking and optimistic; they was a vanguard advancing the cause of civilization; forceful, unapologetic advocates, in Karp’s words, “of a theory of global modernity that named racial coercion as its single indispensable feature.” The Mexican War under President Polk was a first step in this slaveholding Manifest Destiny. On the horizon was the expansion of a slavery alliance extending to Brazil and Spanish Cuba as well as recognition by the world’s empires.
To Trump’s question of whether we couldn’t have made a deal, the answer is: no. Slavery was not fading away. It was growing stronger. The only way the slave power was going to relent was if it was beaten by a stronger force. For the antebellum South, slavery wasn’t just an economic system; it was a way of life. Both sides understood that once Lincoln was elected slavery could not expand in this country and so the Confederates chose to leave it, which precipitated the war.
Six hundred thousand Americans – including blacks who contributed 200,000 men to the Union cause – were slain in the conflict. Four million human beings were freed, not to mention their descendants who would likely have suffered the fate of their forebears. The “withering away” of slavery by a beneficent master class somewhere down the road is a myth with no historical basis.
The alternative was a “peace” in which slavery would have continued indefinitely and very likely grown. That the world would have been a more “enlightened” place in a few decades is a consolation of which we may disabuse ourselves by simply glancing at Europe’s colonial depredations that shortly followed our Civil War and the cataclysms of the last century.
The only alternative to the Civil War would have been the perpetuation of slavery for the foreseeable future. We can only hope that the President of the United States could not have appreciated the baleful consequences of his ill-considered remarks when he lamented the failure of such a “peaceful” resolution. Entertaining such an outcome would ill behoove a resident of the White House who bears the mantle of the Party of Lincoln. Unless Trump thinks that continued slavery would have been a reasonable price to pay in closing such a deal.
Jack Schwartz was book editor of Newsday.