Lincoln’s Folly

Wednesday, July 3rd, 2013

The arrogance of the South Carolinians and their followers in the six Deep South cotton states would not have plunged the nation into a war that killed 750,000 Americans, Steve Sailer says, if not for Abraham Lincoln’s Hicksville unpreparedness:

Indeed, Lincoln’s worldly Secretary of State William Seward came up with a brilliant plan to avert civil war at the last moment, only to have it shunned by a jealous Lincoln.

The 16th president has been so sanctified that we’re not supposed to notice that Lincoln’s insularity left him unready to lead during the great crisis of secession in 1860-1861. Conversely, Lincoln’s detractors like to portray him as a power-mad dictator. Yet his actions during the crucial months in which the Civil War might have been averted are most redolent of a crafty small-town lawyer who was badly in over his head in his new role. Lincoln worked hard and learned fast, but by the time he was ready for his job, the worst catastrophe in American history was underway.

In early October 1860, the experienced Democratic candidate Stephen Douglas conceded to his secretary, “Mr. Lincoln is the next President. We must try to save the Union. I will go South.”

But Lincoln took few steps to ready himself for this task. His main response to his election in November 1860 was to hire a second secretary to help answer his increased mail from politicians seeking patronage.

During the interregnum, Lincoln kicked around the notion of maybe adding one Southerner to the Cabinet, what with the secession and all, but nothing came of the idea. After Lincoln finally took the oath of office on March 4, 1861 he devoted much of his first six weeks to conscientiously interviewing the long line of Republican job-seekers that stretched out of the White House and down Pennsylvania Avenue to determine which would make the best local postmasters.

But could anything have been done to avert the Civil War?

Perhaps. A glance at a map showing the dates of secession suggests that it might have been contained at the brushfire stage.

The 15 slave states can be thought of as comprising three tiers from south to north. The first tier to secede was the southernmost, led on December 20, 1860 by South Carolina, home of the ideological spokesmen of the pro-slavery “King Cotton” interests. English mills’ demand for cotton had created vast wealth and self-righteousness in the six Deep South cotton states. Inspired by South Carolina’s Fire-Eater orators, the states of Georgia, Florida, Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana, and Texas soon followed.

But then, secession ground to a halt.

It is unknowable whether a seven-state Confederacy would have survived the next downturn in world cotton prices, or, disheartened, would have asked for readmission to the Union. We can see now that King Cotton proved to be a bubble. With the North declaring a blockade and the South an export embargo in 1861, the British ramped up cotton growing in Egypt and India, leaving the South impoverished after the war.

A rump Confederacy confined to the Deep South might have eventually been bought off by the plan Lincoln floated in the middle of the war for ending slavery voluntarily by compensating slave-owners with the proceeds from the sale of Western lands. At minimum, a seven-state Confederacy would have been easier to defeat on the battlefield than the eleven-state South that fought for four years.

The next tier of states northward—North Carolina, Tennessee, and Arkansas—didn’t secede until May or June, well after the outbreak of fighting at Fort Sumter, South Carolina on April 12, 1861.

Finally, in the northernmost tier of slave states, above 36.5 degrees latitude, four states never seceded—Delaware, Maryland, Kentucky, and Missouri. Legend has it that Lincoln wittily replied to a well-wisher who assured him God was on his side, “I hope to have God on my side, but I must have Kentucky.”

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