Compromise and the Civil War

I wanted to share a few thoughts about John Kelly’s remarks on compromise and the Civil War.

The first thing to say is that Kelly’s view was the dominant historical narrative in the United States for the better part of a century. It overlapped with and was umbilically connected to the generally poor view of Reconstruction and the sympathetic view of Jim Crow ‘home rule’ in the South after Reconstruction. This view saw the outbreak of the Civil War as a failure of statecraft, self-serving and small-minded politicians taking a resolvable issue and escalating it to the point where the country was engulfed in four years of war.

Plenty of others have noted that this ‘inability to compromise’ or ‘resolvable conflict’ argument is historically inaccurate. But the wrongness of it goes deep into the country’s history, decades before the late 1850s. Indeed, it becomes more wrong as we move through the early 19th century.

During the Revolutionary period, the South had parity with the Northern colonies/states on many fronts. Even the terms of what counted as “south” and “north” were murkier than we think of them today. Delaware and Maryland were slave states, just as Virginia and the colonies to the south were. Many Southern elites in the revolutionary period were at least nominally critical of slavery, seeing it as an unjust but inevitable system. They saw it as a relic of the past and not the future. But that remained the case only so long as the future was pretty far in the future.

As views on slavery hardened, peace was kept by maintaining a balance of slave and free states. But the North grew rapidly in population and industrial capacity over the first half of the 19th century. As early as the 1820s and 1830s, the great ideologue of the South and the slave power was devising theories by which a demographically weaker South could protect slavery and white rule in a democratic, majoritarian political structure.

The premise of the ‘resolvable conflict’ historical narrative was always that slavery was in fact destined to end sometime in the late 19th century. More than a half million Americans died to accomplish something that might have happened by 1880 or 1890. That’s the argument. (The last major abolition in the western hemisphere was Brazil in 1888; Cuba was 1886.) The problem with this argument is that setting the stage for slavery to end sometime further off in the 19th century was precisely what led the South to rebel and try to form a new pro-slavery republic.

The key thing is that for decades before the Civil War national peace was secured by the North deferring to the South on slavery. It was not even really a matter of no compromise. The South demanded a right to dictate national policy when it came to slavery, period. To use our modern jargon, it was very much a ‘my way or the highway’ approach from the South and more so as time went on.  The South was generally allowed to dictate since the preservation of slavery was, in the nature of things, vastly more important to white Southerners than curtailing it was to white Northerners. It was one of many issues for the North. It was increasingly the overriding and singular issue in the South.

Maintaining this balance became increasingly difficult through the 1840s and 1850s as the country was repeatedly forced to confront the slavery issue with new states created out of territories west of the Mississippi River. It is important to remember that Southerners felt embattled not simply because of what was happening within the United States. Slavery was on the defensive all over the world. Slavery was abolished in the British Caribbean in 1833.

Besides its moral failing, which we so clearly recognize today, the Dred Scott decision was also a political failure for the Supreme Court. Chief Justice Roger Taney thought he would settle the slavery issue by effectively nationalizing the institution. For the North, this proved a step too far. It was perceived – not inaccurately – as the latest attempt by the South to insist that sectional peace was only possible if the South was allowed to dictate national policy on slavery. Slavery was demanding the right to operate freely in free states. This set in motion a political backlash that swept Congress in 1858 and the presidency in 1860.

It is critical to remember that the South seceded in 1861, not because of any move against slavery where it existed. Lincoln’s platform was simply to prevent the expansion of slavery into new territories and states. This fact has often been used to retrospectively diminish Lincoln’s status as ‘great emancipator’. But the South was right to see the writing on the wall. Mandating that all new states should be free states meant that national policy would be based on the superiority of free institutions over slave institutions. The federal government would no longer be neutral, let alone supportive of slavery, which in many ways it had been under Southern dominance. More concretely, new states without slavery would eventually overwhelm the 15 slave states and make federal action to end slavery possible. This would inevitably place slavery on the path to what contemporaries called ‘eventual extinction.’ How long that would take is a matter of historical speculation. But as I noted above, this was setting the stage for a peaceful or legislative end of the slave in the coming decades – precisely the outcome the ‘revolvable conflict’ school envisioned. But that was too much, enough to overthrow the government.

An even more critical driver of the South’s secession is tied to the structure of the electoral college. As I noted, for the first half of the 19th century, sectional peace was underwritten by allowing the South to dictate on the issue of slavery. More specifically, no party could hope to win the presidency without a solid political base in the South. Since the political class in the South was overwhelmingly (and eventually unanimously) in support of slavery, that meant no President who opposed slavery in any sense could ever be elected. But Lincoln won the presidency with only free states. This meant that the South’s ability to dictate national policy on slavery, at least at the presidential level, was at an end.

It would have taken a lot longer for things to change in the Senate. But that was enough to drive all but a handful of slave states into rebellion. The more embattled slavery became, the more the South demanded a right to dictate national policy on the issue. It was an issue on which the political class in the South could accept no compromise. That’s what triggered the Civil War.

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