Compromise and the Civil War

Speaking of Aristotelian causes, the 'four causes' approach makes better sense of John Kelly's remarks on the Civil War than the less-sophisticated approach that is mostly in evidence. One is supposed to affirm that the Civil War was caused, and only caused, by slavery. And of course that is true, in a way: formally and finally, and to a large degree materially, slavery shaped the tensions of the society in such a way that the war came to be because of it.

In terms of efficient causality (which, for moderns, is usually the only kind they talk about) one might still ask why the Civil War broke out in 1860 as opposed to 1850 or 1870. War had threatened before, and not arisen; it was prevented by a series of compromises. Thus, it is reasonable to assert that the war might not have occurred in 1860 if a compromise had been found. To put it another way, it is sensible to say that the failure to compromise caused (efficiently) the outbreak of war in 1860. That doesn't change the fact that the tensions over which the war was fought were themselves caused by slavery, or that slavery was the issue that had to be resolved.

Having said that, it is arguable that compromise was not desirable, even given the massive toll of the war. Avi Selk makes the argument:
...the truth is, the panicky months before the Civil War were full of attempts to compromise with the rebellious South.

The most popular proposal, by far, was a constitutional amendment that would have irreversibly immortalized slavery as a feature of the United States.

And although supporters of this compromise — up to and including Abraham Lincoln and most of Congress — did fail to pull it off, it wasn’t for lack of trying....

“No amendment shall be made to the Constitution which will authorize or give to Congress the power to abolish or interfere, within any State, with the domestic institutions thereof, including that of people held to labor or service by the laws of said State.”

But slaves were exactly what was meant. The amendment would have assuaged slave owners’ fears by forever forbidding the federal government from freeing them.

“It would be a formula for reuniting the country politically,” Crofts said, aimed not so much at hard-core secessionists in the Deep South but to convince people in “border” states such as Virginia that Lincoln had no designs on their slaves.

“Lincoln’s fingerprints are on this thing,” Crofts told The Post. Not only did he probably suggest its creation but he also spent the days leading up to his inauguration trying to rally Congress behind it.
This fails to give Lincoln adequate credit, I think. I do not see how such an amendment could have actually prevented a future amendment from abolishing slavery; one might have repealed the one amendment in the first article of a new amendment, whose second article abolished slavery. That being the case, the compromise was effectively free from Lincoln's perspective: he got the stability he wanted right then in return for nothing, as the bonds against abolishing slavery were illusory. Why not trade an immediate practical benefit (including the avoidance of a destructive and ruinous war) in exchange for nothing more than an illusion of restraint?

One might reply: because ending slavery as soon as possible was worth fighting the war. But that, too, fails to do justice to Lincoln. He knew a war might have to be fought; he could not have known that he would win it. It was just as likely, in 1860, that the Confederacy would have enshrined slavery as a permanent feature by effecting its independence than that it would ultimately fail to do so. The amendment could be repealed later; independence is much harder to repeal. Having lost a war to prevent it, they would have to fight and win another such war to eliminate it.

Lincoln might well have favored the amendment, given those odds. It was functionally free, eliminated none of his long-term options, and prevented a high immediate cost that had to be paid with no promise of success. It was the choice a statesman would probably make, given the options and what he could legitimately be said to know in the moment. We may be grateful that it did not work, but I don't think he can be damned for having favored the try.


Gringo said...

Coincidentally, I have been reading Mark Tooley's The Peace That Almost Was: The Forgotten Story of the 1861 Washington Peace Conference and the Final Attempt to Avert the Civil War.
Having family on both sides who lost their lives in the conflict, I have long been interested in the Civil War. My conclusion is that the conflict was inevitable.

For example, the Republicans - for the moment at least- were willing to let slavery be where it was. At the same time, Abraham Lincoln and the Republican Party were unequivocally opposed to the expansion of slavery. That did not sit well with many in the South, who viewed blocking the expansion of slavery as an attempt to eventually garner the votes for abolition.

douglas said...

I like to say that slavery was the underlying cause of the war, but not the immediate cause of the war. The problem most people having the argument seem to be having is that they play it as a zero sum game, when it's fully possible they're both right in a way.

I think you put the issue in order better than I've seen anywhere, Grim. Nicely done.

Ymar Sakar said...

Both Lincoln and Sherman were not the devils Southern tradition painted them as.

Lincoln's hands were tied, because the sin of slavery was against the very reason why the US Constitution was allowed to raise up this nation to begin with. It was against the divine laws given to Adam and Noah and Moses.

The South pissed off somebody mightier and stronger than some abolitionists or Kansas free soil settlers or Mormons getting cleansed from Missouri for being abolitionists.

An entire Divine Counsel. They forced the issue, using John Brown as their messenger and tool.

The judgment had to arrive, and that judgment was "kill each other off, both sides are guilty".

Ymar Sakar said...

Blood sacrifice was a noted Hebrew custom, because the life was in the blood and only blood could purify the hand or a divine space.

This is considered a divine land by some, not just Red Indians. Having slavery on this continent or this land, is considered mighty offensive to some powerful divine level entities or elohim.

They will give you about as much warning as they give us on Hollywood or as Noah gave the pre Flood world warning.

If humans still refuse to repent and do whatever they feel like doing, the Divine Punishment will come and usually it is in the form of "Everybody Die" until your Blood purifies the corruption on this land.

What was interesting about Lincoln is that he actually figured this out by the time of the Emancipation Proclamation.