Sunday, December 23, 2007

Historical Inevitability


Rene Tyree at wig-wags recently published a nice post on the inevitability on the Civil War. I commented there that I thought that some of the disagreement arose because of imprecision -- some are referring to actual war, other use "war" as a shorthand for secession or war: when did it become inevitable that some southern states would secede and not return to the Union in the foreseeable future without physical coercion.

Here are a couple of other thoughts.

It strikes me that in some ways discussion of inevitability is . . . well, perhaps the right word is "sterile." Unless you believe in predestination, human activities are by definition not inevitable until they occur -- we could all be wiped out by a comet ten minutes from now. It therefore seems to me that it is more productive to think about increasing probabilities. True, secession was not "inevitable" after the failure of the Democratic convention at Charleston, or even after Lincoln's election, but it was highly, highly likely.

Proponents of non-inevitability are, in effect, suggesting alternative series of events, and it seems to me the burden is on them to construct credible alternatives. For example, after the breakup of the Charleston convention and Lincoln's nomination, what plausible scenarios might have avoided Lincoln's election? After Lincoln's election, what plausible scenarios might have avoided the secessions of the Cotton South states?

This has the advantage of allowing us, the reader, to assess the writer's hypothesis. Do we really think that there was any substantial sentiment in the North to grant the concessions necessary to bolster conditional unionist sentiment in at least some deep south states (e.g., Georgia)? And what concessions would have been required, and when? By March 4, 1860, what, if anything, could the North have done to entice the deep south states to return?

I provide these questions only by way of example. One can ask the same sorts of questions with respect to earlier events -- the Lecompton crisis is a good one. Here, I think one could construct a highly plausible alternative. Had President Buchanan not given the Republican Party traction in 1857-58 by pigheadedly insisting on the admission of Kansas under the the Lecompton Constitution, it seems entirely possible to me that the crisis would have passed, Stephen Douglas would have become president in 1860, etc., etc. Conversely, secession may not have been inevitable after Lecompton, but it is certainly much more difficult to construct plausible alternative scenarios. In that sense, perhaps the late Professor Stampp was correct after all.

3 comments:

  1. Anonymous4:03 PM

    I would only note that those assuming secession and/or war was inevitable seem to assume that secession was popular in the South, and we know for a fact that this is not true.

    Secession certainly was not popular in the slaveholding states taken together as a whole. Nor was it popular in any of the non-confederate slave holding states (Delaware, Maryland, Kentucky, and Missouri), or in the border confederate states taken separately. Delaware, Maryland, Kentucky, Missouri, Virginia, North Carolina, Tennessee, and Arkansas had all explicitly considered and rejected secession prior to the events at Sumter.

    Finally, and most contentiously, secession wasn't even broadly popular in the deep South. Georgia and Louisiana may, I repeat may, well have been dragooned into secession by a manipulative minority. Texas certainly was. Etc...

    So I don't see how any of what occurred can be taken as inevitable. Given a fairly evenly divided electorate even in the deep south, and explicitly hostile opposition to secession elsewhere, it seems absurd to assume anything was inevitable.

    Had war been inevitable Edmund Ruffin could have waited comfortably at home rather than travel to South Carolina to initiate it.

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  2. John Maass2:28 PM

    I think calling an event such as the Civil War "inevitable" is amateurish. I don't mean this in a sniping way, but to show that it is not a serious look at history. It promotes a teleological view of history that is simply far too unsophisticated and "cookie cutter" for an accurate look at the past. Anyone can go back into the chronicle of the past and see lots of events and add them all up to "prove" that a subsequent event was inevitable or foreordained. Historians don't do this, or at least they shouldn't. There's far too much contingency in history to support such a claim (esp. in military history, but in other subfields as well.) Those who claim inevitability fall into the fallacy of "post hoc, ergo propter hoc," which is to say "after it, thus because of it."

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  3. Rob W.12:18 AM

    Does it matter to our study of history if someting was inevitable or not? Does it change our analysis? I think not.

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