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Thursday, February 12, 2009

Was Preservation of the Union a Moral Issue?

Modern historians hold that the Emancipation Proclamation "ennobled" the cause of the Civil War by making it a moral crusade to free the slaves and, eventually, to end the institution of slavery, which led to the recognition of the equality of all, thus perfecting the Union envisioned by the Founding Fathers.

Yet, Lincoln often said that preservation of the Union was his first and only concern. He famously said that to preserve the Union he would be willing to free all slaves, no slaves or some slaves. While I understand that his views of the goals of the War changed as it progressed, and that he grew to see the issues as unified, he continued to express it in terms of the question of Union, i.e., "... whether that nation [conceived in liberty and ... the proposition that all men are created equal] shall endure ...."

Lincoln repeatedly insisted that his mission was to preserve the Union at any cost --- in the face of disastrous military defeats, despite waste of treasure and lives of unprecedented numbers. Many in the coalition that brought him to power lost heart, repeatedly advised him to negotiate a peace, called him a tyrant, decried his intransigence. Yet, Lincoln persisted in his singlehanded pursuit of complete victory, which meant to him re-union. Why?

Why was Lincoln, who we now perceive as the deepest thinker of his day, the most eloquent spokesman of our nation’s principles, so focused on the issue of Union? Why was the principle of Union so important to Lincoln?

Would Lincoln have pursued a Civil War only to abolish slavery?

Was one a "moral" issue and the other merely a political one?

Why were the issues of Union and slavery so inextricable and so insoluble?

By the way: Why was slavery so important to the South when it is acknowledged that only a small minority of southerners actually owned slaves?

Why were poor southern farmers who made up the vast majority of the Confederate army willing to die for the right of a few wealthy plantation owners to their "property," a source of free labor?

Was slavery the issue Northern soldiers were willing to die for?

Modern historians concede that even if slavery was not the issue at the start of the war, by its end – especially after emancipation – it became the moral justification for the war, the issue that made the devastation and death toll morally justifiable in the eyes of history. Both sides claimed to be fighting for liberty and it was the existence of slavery on one side that made them the wrong, evil side.

All of that is true, but it implies that the issue of Union as a principle, contrasted with that of slavery — was not a moral question.

I am not so certain. I believe that Lincoln held Union as a principle of such importance in and of itself that it was worth dying for, whether or not the seceding states were slaveholders.

Lincoln certainly was opposed to slavery as an immoral institution. But if we take his words seriously, he saw another issue, that of Union, as more immediate, and the issue that was worth the enormous costs of war.

Everything we know about Lincoln leads to the conclusion that he was not a man who would have pursued such a war over an issue which he did not see as a moral and fundamental principle which was at the heart of his understanding of human effort.

Although Lincoln was a dedicated lawyer -- to whom the rule of Law was important, and for whom The Law was an important statement of ideals, I do not believe that his dedication to Union was merely legalistic.

The legal argument for Union is not a compelling one from a moral standpoint. It was based on the recognition that no government sows the seeds of its own destruction at its inception by permitting its dissolution any time a minority loses a vote.

On its face, The South’s legal argument for secession is the more attractive one. The Declaration of Independence established the principle that people have the right to withdraw commitments of loyalty to a government which they believe has become tyrannical. The colonies had grievances against the English king which were economic, but which they perceived as fundamental to their liberty.

Of course, the moral underpinning was inextricably bound to the moral issue of slavery in that the rebuttal is that one-third of the Southern population was not free, a fact which undercut the legitimacy of any southern complaint of tyranny from the central government.

However, the fact that slavery existed at the time of Union and was in fact recognized in the Constitution is a powerful legal – if not a moral – argument for its legitimacy.

The Constitution was a contract among the sovereign states which established a governmental system based on a fair but delicate balancing of the concerns of large states (those with large populations) vs. small states; agriculture dependent states vs. industrial ones; centralized power vs. local rights. The Southern delegates (particularly those from Virginia, Georgia, the Carolinas) were among the primary supporters of the Constitution in its final form as a contract of compromise. Southern historians have noted that they certainly would not have entered into the agreement if they thought they could not terminate it if it became too onerous.

By 1860, Southern leaders had good reasons to believe that the conditions that impelled them to join the union of states had irrevocably changed beyond amendment or compromise. The northern states far surpassed the South in population, industrialization, and wealth. Fundamental issues relating to finance, foreign affairs, and trade divided the sections in every vote in Congress. Southern states had maintained a tenuous power in the federal government by presence on the Supreme Court, in the bureaucracies, the Presidency, and in the congressional committees because of longevity.

But all that was threatened by continuing immigration from Europe (the vast majority of immigrants were attracted to the cities of the North where employment opportunities were greatest) and the inevitable westward expansion, which would bring in states which would reduce the power of the South to nothing.

This is why Southerners persisted in making the central issue of the first half of the 19th century in Congress whether new states would be slave or free. The southern hope was that new slave states would maintain the balance of power. But they must have realized that it was a losing proposition, even if it could be achieved.

A look at the western map revealed the certainty that many more non-slave states would eventually be admitted to the Union. Kansas and Nebraska, the last attempt of a long history of desperate compromises, proved that self-determination would result in more Southern losses. Slavery was too expensive to its owners, and was viable only if the labor was economical. It was, in the cotton states, but the conditions including climate and suitable farmland did not exist in most of the western lands.

I recognize that "slavery" was central, not only to Southern economy, but also to Southern social structure. By 1860, the Southern economy was so dependent on cotton which was dependent on slavery that it could not give up either without destroying itself. Moreover, Southern manhood and self-image was so wrapped in its superiority over the slave class that poor whites could not conceive of life without the existence of Negro slaves as a class below their own.

The growth of the abolition movement in the North was terrifying to the South for these economic, practical, and psychological reasons. The movement was vocal far beyond its actual numbers, and in its radical extreme, made full use of propaganda available in contemporary media: the growing newspapers of the cities, the pulpit, the speech circuit, the popular novel ("Uncle Tom’s Cabin" was a best seller, a galvanizing symbol of the movement the way "The Jungle" and other muckraking books were for a later generation of reformers). Monied Christians in Northern cities were pouring money into the movement in support of the underground railroad and radical terrorists like John Brown, whose cry for slave revolts were feared.

Yet, my speculation is: What would have happened if the South chose not to secede? Would the abolition movement have achieved its goal by the vote?

There is good reason to believe it would not have won any time soon. There were no polls of the day, but it is certain that a vast majority of Northerners would have opposed emancipation. First, it would have been seen as disastrous to create a flood of cheap labor into northern cities, competing with the burgeoning immigrant labor market. Second, even among abolitionists, racial mixing was anathema.

Lincoln and others who saw slavery as immoral also foresaw insurmountable problems in freeing Negroes to full equality, and preferred a plan of colonization to Africa. That plan would also have been prohibitively expensive and impractical (the Negro slave population was 3 million). Any plan of emancipation would have required compensation to slave owners for their loss of "property" and also would have caused disruption of a critical source of national wealth – the trade of raw cotton to foreign nations, which now would be far more costly to produce. Beyond all that, the South’s predicament of diminution of power and influence over its own fate would have remained unsolved.

Also of parenthetical interest relevant to our day is that the Bible was used by both sides of the abolition argument to support its position. In our day, current issues have its passionate adherents quoting the gospel on either side of issues like homosexuality, abortion, and "family values." Southern Christians pointed to the existence of slavery in the Old Testament and New. Northern Christian abolitionists quoted the principles of Christian morality in support of theirs.

It is clear that slavery was an inextricable part of the Gordian Knot of the day. But I have a nagging sense that there was even more at stake.

I believe that Union was essential for another reason, which becomes evident when I ask another speculative fascinating question:

What would have happened if Lincoln had permitted the southern states to secede? ... (or if the South had won the war? – a possibility that seemed likely with small turns of events, such as if Lincoln had taken Horace Greeley’s advice after the debacle at Bull Run, or if England had conferred recognition and support to the Confederacy, which was arguably in its national interest to do.)

The first result would have been that there would be two nations on the continent (in addition to Canada and Mexico). Border disputes would then have been inevitable and competition for western territories also likely.

But how long would it be only two nations?

Once the principle of secession had been established, it is probable that the Confederacy would have splintered into additional nations: the Deep South vs the border states, for example. Pioneers with dreams of nationhood might claim western territories as independent nations, as Texas had done, arguing persuasively that its interests were peculiar to its settlers, far from Washington.

European nations would certainly strive for influence in the new nations, and perhaps seek colonial expansion in the west. Religious minority sects, like the Mormons, might seek to create their own nations, rather than accept statehood within a less united United States. The disputes which later divided the nation in subsequent years – such as a gold vs. silver standard which separated western agrarian debtor states from the industrial creditor northeast; or temperance; or whether to participate in foreign wars — might have impelled national schisms in movements for further secession.

The consequences for the future of the continent and the entire world would have been monumental and disastrous. The United States would not have been the power it has become in the world. The century of peace and prosperity we have known would not have happened. Wars would have been common, wealth and resources wasted in competition and expenditures for secure borders.

The surmise leads to the question of "Manifest Destiny," the ideology that the white Christian American was destined to control the continent for the good of mankind. The concept today has so many negative connotations that I blush to refer to it as legitimate ideology. But the fact is that the concept was widely cited as a rationale for westward expansion in the 19th century, and in fact has been traced to the very beginnings of American colonization in the 1600's.

The pejorative inference derives from the inherent and arrogant assumption of racial and religious superiority and the resultant genocide of Native American races that it engendered and sought to justify. It was not unanimously approved, either as an ideology or as a policy.

Occasional opposition came from those who opposed empire building through the subjection of other Peoples. Notably, both the proponents and opponents cited the same concerns: racial homogeneity.

The Whig Party, of which young Congressman Lincoln was a member, opposed the Mexican War as immoral and expansionist, and also opposed expansion of slavery into new territories, but they were a minority and the expansionists prevailed. The nation won the Mexican War, admitted Texas and California into the nation and committed to continental dominance. The project of the continental railroad was begun during the Civil War, impelling Lincoln’s longing to see California, and was completed in 1868.

But the irony of American continental expansion is that what sets our nation apart from other nationalist movements (such as those which unified Germany and Italy in the 1860's) is our diversity of races. Germany united Germanic Peoples in the various entities; and Italy united Italian speaking Catholic Peoples. Other nationalist attempts which have united – by force or agreement – diverse cultures, have failed to last. Yugoslavia, the Soviet Union are but two examples. Yet, the United States of America lasted, despite all its contradictions: a war conducted to defeat the right of its sovereign units to self-determination; the defeat of slavery followed by the genocide of the Indian race and the continuing discrimination against the freed slaves to the point of subjugation and degradation for a hundred years.

Lincoln, as a man of his century, was certainly aware of what fragmentation of the European continent had meant throughout the ages: interminable wars, poverty, class stratification, religious ferment, famines, plague, tyranny. For the United States to survive, to thrive and prosper, it was evident that it had to avoid that fate, and could insure success only by continental hegemony. That principle is something worth fighting a war to preserve, and if the nation so conceived is thought by its citizens as the last best hope for humanity, it's preservation becomes a moral imperative.

I suspect that my hypothesis can never be proved. Contemporary writings are of limited value for seeking true motivations because people of the time were unaware of the forces which are so clear to us in retrospective analysis. Their rationales given in their speeches and tracts in support of policies are framed in rhetoric which masks the underlying reasons which necessitated the policies. In other words, people who urged a continental nation were right for the wrong reasons.

Just as we fought World War I for the stated reason of "saving the world for democracy" and ending all wars, ignoring the more complex but logical rationale that it was not in our national interest for Germany to defeat France and England, to dominate Europe, I suspect that the true reasons for the Civil War and for continental nationhood were submerged beneath the historically morally justifiable cries against slavery and for the morally questionable claim of manifest destiny.

Of course, I may be entirely wrong. I may be interpreting the effects as the object of the policies, when in fact they may have been unforeseen and unintended happy accidents. Without the evidence of documentation that it was in the ken of people of the time, it is impossible to prove.

If Lincoln supported American expansion, why did he oppose the Mexican War?

Although the younger Lincoln opposed the Mexican War, adopting the Whig party’s stated rationale – immorality of imperialistic acquisitiveness, the underlying political objection was that the acquired territories were expected to be slave or slave friendly states. The compromise of post war admission of California as a non-slave state to balance Texas as a slave state eased those concerns for the time being, but ended the debate about continental settlement.

By the time Lincoln acceded to the presidency, the concept of a continental nation was beyond argument. As a westerner, Lincoln was well aware of the migration of thousands westward (after the gold strike of 1849) and the inevitability of statehood for the territories. During his presidency, he supported legislation establishing the land grant colleges, the continental railroad project, the Homestead Act, all of which were designed to empower the continental nation.

In the battle between Native Americans and settlers, Lincoln made a clear choice. In his twenties, he participated in the Black Hawk War, though the crew Lincoln commanded killed nothing but pigs and chickens, he later joked. As president, in 1862, Lincoln acted decisively to end an uprising of Dakota Sioux warriors, who killed hundreds of settlers in Minnesota. In the midst of the Civil War, he sent an army to quell the uprising, imprisoning many, approving the execution of almost 40 Native Americans. Some historians call this the largest mass execution in American history and others have noted that the Sioux atrocities against the settlers was the costliest act of "terrorism" in our history until the twin towers.

Western settlement was in Lincoln’s pioneer blood. His father had moved the family from Kentucky to Indiana. Lincoln thought of himself as an example of the American dream — the land of opportunity, permitting the ability to rise from poverty and illiteracy to wealth, position and power. As a young man he traveled the Mississippi. As a lawyer, he was immersed in lawsuits which involved the issues of the frontier: canals, bridges, railroads. As a politician he welcomed his label as a representative of the west.

When Lincoln was born, Jefferson was just ending his second term. Lincoln, the self-educated intellectual, was thoroughly versed in the struggles of the Founding Fathers to form the Union and to hammer out the contract known as the Constitution. Lincoln, the lawyer and politician, understood that the concept of "liberty" was central to the American experiment of self-government and fully accepted the notion that this nation was the best hope of mankind to be free.

How could such a man not have thought that preservation of this Union was a moral imperative?


  1. Wonderful post!

    BUT get rid of the first comment, clearly from some sort of spammer.

  2. Footnote: after posting, I discovered that when Lincoln was a child, the first books he read were the Bible (of course) and Aesop's Fables. He was fond of referring to the morals in speeches & argument. One he particularly liked was "The Lion And 3 Bulls."
    "Three bulls for a long time pastured together. A Lion lay in ambush in the hope of making them his prey, but was afraid to attack them while they kept together. Having at last by guileful speeches succeeded in separating them, he attacked them without fear as they fed alone, and feasted on them one by one at his own leisure."
    THE MORAL: "In Union there is strength."