Saturday, March 01, 2008

Lincoln and the Decision for War

Having recently completed Russell McClintock’s Lincoln and the Decision for War: The Northern Response to Secession (University of North Carolina Press 2008), I thought I’d provide a brief review.

To begin at the beginning, I fear that title, while perhaps accurate, conveys the wrong impression and may result in book’s intended audience avoiding it. When I first saw a reference to the book, the phrase “Lincoln and the Decision for War” led me to think that it might be a neo-Confederate polemic contending that that it was the North and Lincoln that foisted war on the innocent South.

In fact, the book is nothing of the sort. Following in the steps of Kenneth M. Stampp’s And The War Came: The North and the Secession Crisis (1950, paperback reprint 1970), the book is a meticulously researched and well written account of (as the second half of the title accurately summarizes) the response of the North to the threat, and then the reality, of secession by the seven deep south states during the period between Lincoln’s election and the call for volunteers in mid-April 1861.

In ten chapters, the book devotes roughly equal attention to each month to tell the story of the tortuous process by which the North and its leaders – and ultimately its new president – came to take the path they did. The text, almost sixty pages of endnotes (many of which contain additional discussion that should be read together with the text – if only they had been footnotes!), and a lengthy bibliography demonstrate that the author has mastered and incorporated a daunting amount of material, much of which consists of primary sources. The writing is clear, keeps the reader engaged, is never jarring, and gets out of the way, allowing the events to convey the drama and increasing tension that are inherent in the story.

The relationship between the northern public and its leaders is a theme that shapes the presentation of the book. In a representative democracy like the North, the views of the electorate influenced and placed broad limits on the actions of the public’s agents, elected politicians. At the same time, the electorate viewed secession as a political issue and naturally looked to its representatives for leadership to help explain the crisis and guide and channel opinion. Particularly during the confused early period, the public’s struggle to understand and formulate its responses to the crisis was hampered by the uncertain and conflicting signals given by the Buchanan administration, the public silence of the president-elect, and the absence of Congress (which did not convene until early December). Much of the earlier part of the book therefore focuses on the public, describing the range of its discordant and often contradictory reactions and opinions.

As the crisis wore on, however, the circle of decision makers contracted. Although state legislators made themselves heard, eyes increasingly turned to congressional leaders of both parties to form opinion and shape solutions, then more specifically to the Republicans and the incoming administration, including the seemingly hyperactive incoming Secretary of State, William Seward. But ultimately even Seward realized – to his great consternation – that the circle was reducing itself to a single point: the newly-elected president himself. Reflecting this reality, although the public does not disappear from view (indeed, the book notes and discusses the increasing pressure created by rising public impatience with inaction), the author correspondingly narrows and intensifies his focus -- until he pulls back at the end again to survey northern public reaction to the outcome of the decisions made by their representatives: war.

Another phenomenon that the author notes and watches carefully is the divergence of opinion within and without Washington City. Republicans outside the District (including a certain resident of Springfield, Illinois) were inclined to take a firmer stand against what they viewed as Southern threats and blackmail. As they arrived in Washington, however, northern legislators heard face-to-face the desperate pleas of border-state unionists for concessions seeking to hold their states in the Union. As the author puts it, “it was much easier to be resolute against compromise from a distance than it was when faced with the pleas of Southern unionists in Washington.”

Although the book devotes equal attention to the beginning and middle of the crisis, reader interest will inevitably focus on the figure who, in time, becomes the central character: Abraham Lincoln. Mr. McClintock (who is actually Dr. McClintock, having earned a Ph.D. in history from Clark University) paints a sympathetic but by no means iconographic portrait. Lincoln was neither Machiavellian schemer nor iconic father figure. He was uncertain to the point of paralysis and became frustrated and angry as he watched options being foreclosed by the passage of time. This plus inexperience and miscommunication threatened to turn the “administration’s first major decision” into “a comedy of errors.”

At the same time, the author gives Lincoln high marks in other respects. Lincoln refused to relinquish his authority to make the final decision to Seward (who is also portrayed sympathetically), General Winfield Scott (who comes across poorly), or anyone else. “[T]he remarkable representativeness of Lincoln’s views” and his determined search for options ultimately led him (albeit at virtually the last moment) to a course of action that “unif[ied] a polarized North behind a war that neither he nor they wanted.”

I do not pretend to be an expert in the literature, although I have now read the late Professor Stampp’s And the War Came and his essay “Lincoln and The Secession Crisis,” which may be found in his book of essays entitled The Imperiled Union: Essays on the Background of the Civil War (1980). However, I gather that the past seventy years or so have witnessed a wide range of views among historians about the decision that Lincoln reached, from Charles Ramsdell’s view (1937) that Lincoln cynically maneuvered the Confederates into firing the first shot to save his administration and the Republican Party, to James G. Randall (1940) and David M. Potter (1942), who argued that Lincoln’s policy was peaceful and designed to minimize the danger of war.

Mr. McClintock comes down between these extremes – somewhere close to Professor Stampp’s view that, while Lincoln never “intended deliberately to provoke a war,” he was willing “to risk one for the sake of the Union if the responsibility for aggression could be placed upon the South.” (1970 Preface to the Paperback Edition of And the War Came). Mr. McClintock concludes “that Lincoln acted as peacefully as he could given the political circumstances and own ideological constraints. He acted only when all other options that he was willing to consider – and that is the key phrase – were exhausted.”

Later in the same paragraph, Mr. McClintock perceptively notes that “[w]hether [Lincoln’s] strategy was devious simply depends on one’s perspective.” What is most valuable about Lincoln and the Decision for War, on this as with other issues (such as whether Seward was a “scheming, ambitious villain or a na├»ve idealist (or both)”), is that the author meticulously provides the facts and the underlying evidence that allow the reader to judge for himself and to reach his own conclusions. Mr. McClintock clearly sets forth, for example, what Lincoln knew and when he knew it, and correlates that with his actions directing the relief expedition. Where evidence is inconsistent or contradictory, Mr. McClintock (often in those detailed endnotes) examines the sources, explains the contradictions, and discusses the reasons why one version may be more accurate than the other.

My principal quibble (other than the title and my wish that the endnotes were footnotes) relates to the book’s treatment of the various compromise proposals (the Crittenden Plan, the border-state plan, etc.) that were flying around. The book describes them as they are proposed in the course of the story, but it is all too easy to get them confused and forget which is which. The book would have benefited from a chart that set out the elements of each plan side by side for easy reference – essentially the chart that appears as Table 8-1 in Daniel W. Crofts’s outstanding Reluctant Confederates: Upper South Unionists in the Secession Crisis (1989).

The first shots of the Civil War are usually shrouded in myth and partisanship. Defenders of the Confederacy paint Lincoln as a bloodthirsty warmonger. Advocates of the Union conflate secession and the commencement of the war itself -- as if the period between November 1860 and April 1861 did not exist -- and pretend that the North and Northern politicians had no choices to make. Readers who are prepared to put aside their preconceptions and take a hard look at the actual events of this critical period in our nation’s history should not hesitate to consult this fine book.


  1. Thanks for the reviews of these important books.
    Wish I had more time to read them.

  2. B,

    I reread this book carefully about a month ago. It's even better - and more highly recommended - than I remembered. Don't hesitate.

  3. Thanks for the thorough and perceptive discussion. Your view provides a structural framework for McClintock's detailed observations that I am not sure was in the original, but could profitably have been used by him to focus his narrative better.


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