Victor Nuovo: Was the Civil War inevitable?
Editor’s note: This is the 42nd in a series of essays on the history and meaning of the American political tradition.
Was the Civil War inevitable? On the face of it, the answer is obviously no. We label events “inevitable” when we believe they cannot be avoided, like death and taxes. But we also believe that human events are the result of choices made by persons who are by nature free, rational and responsible, who could have done otherwise than they did if they had only chosen to do so, and who might have chosen otherwise if they had given more careful thought to their options. To suppose that human events are inevitable is to deny that human beings are free agents, capable of deliberate choice, and, hence responsible for their actions. It is true that a deed, once done, cannot be undone, that the past cannot be changed. But the irrevocability of the past does not take away from our freedom in the present or our openness to the future, and it does not make us immune from guilt and remorse. What is described as historical inevitability is better cast as the product of human folly and impulsiveness. Secession and war belong in this class.
In any case, regarding the Civil War, in 1861 the Confederate States might have taken Lincoln at his word when he pledged in his first inaugural that he would not interfere with the institution of slavery in any state where it existed; that the federal government had no right to do so; and that he was not inclined to do it. He offered the Secessionists an olive branch, which they scorned. It could have been otherwise.
Yet were these outcomes unlikely? Perhaps it was an instance of an unstoppable force meeting an irresistible object. In human terms, Secessionist pride, reinforced by fear, came up against Lincoln’s determination to preserve the union. Even more, what made the Secessionists afraid was the irresistible moral force of Abolitionism.
Leading Abolitionists were confident that slavery would eventually be ended in the United States, and they fashioned a strategy to achieve it. They were pacifists and believed that war was neither desirable nor necessary; they were sure that there was a better, peaceful way to abolish slavery. Emerson, for example, suggested compensating slave owners for their economic loss if slavery were abolished. They were also moral idealists, confident that justice is an irresistible historical force. Armed with this confidence, and aware of the evident rightness of their goal, they proposed to surround the slave states with a circle of righteousness, which would cause the South to come to its senses and voluntarily to abandon slavery; and, like a scorpion surrounded by a circle of fire, the institution of slavery, being evil, would self-destruct; in the end it would be its own executioner. Abolitionists and radical Republicans adopted this image as a symbol of their purpose and expectation. In their minds, the outcome was certain. Unlike John Brown, most Abolitionists did not desire to wield a “terrible swift sword.” They feared that a military solution would bring ambiguous results. In retrospect, their fear was warranted.
There is an ironic element in this narrative. The bombardment of Fort Sumter was a gross strategic blunder by the Confederacy; it sealed its fate and even more surely the fate of American slavery. Lincoln had no other choice but to respond with force. And once the war began it required a noble purpose.
James Oakes, a historian at the City University of New York, has developed a theory that the South seceded in order to free itself from the affects of the “circle of fire.” They assumed that political separation would make them immune to moral condemnation, that political boundaries would provide them moral sanctuary. They imagined that all that was necessary to prove their immunity was a show of force. They were mistaken; for justice knows no boundaries, nor does it recognize any force superior to itself.
In his second inaugural address, Lincoln acknowledged the inevitably of the war as a consequence of divine justice. The war was divine retribution, delayed perhaps, but inevitable and devastating. Here is what he said.
“The Almighty has his own purposes. ‘Woe unto the world because of offenses! for it must needs be that offences come; but woe to that man by whom the offence cometh!’
“If we shall suppose that American Slavery is one of those offences which, in the providence of God, must needs come; but which, having continued through His appointed time, He now wills to remove, and that He gives to both North and South, this terrible war, as the woe due to those by whom the offence came, shall we discern therein any departure from those divine attributes which the believers in a Living God always ascribe to Him? Fondly do we hope — fervently do we pray — that this mighty scourge of war may speedily pass away. Yet, if God wills that it continue, until all the wealth piled by the bond-man’s two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil shall be sunk, and until every drop of blood drawn with the lash, shall be paid by another drawn with the sword, as was said three thousand years ago, so still it must be said, ‘The judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether.’”
If the war was a demonstration of divine retribution, then the object of divine wrath must have been sin. That sin was slavery, and this nation was immured in it, from its very beginning. Thus, a war of retribution became a national fate.
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