Sunday, June 14, 2009

Was the Civil War Inevitable? The Secession of South Carolina

In his excellent new blog, Thoughts, Essays and Musings on the Civil War, Bob poses the question “Given Lincoln’s election in 1860, was the Civil War avoidable?” I thought I’d put in my two cents.

Luckily, I wasn’t one of Bob’s students, because this is precisely the sort of question I have trouble with. Most of the problem is that I see too many questions or issues within the question: I get bogged down in an infinite regression. The question can’t be answered, for example, without first considering the question whether the secession of the southern states was inevitable as of November 1860. And that question can’t be answered without first considering whether the secession of any southern state was inevitable as of November 1860.

I also get tied up in knots because there are all sorts of intermediate issues or hypotheses that must be considered. For example, what if secession had succeeded elsewhere in the deep south, but conditional unionists had been successful in staving off immediate secession in Georgia, where the ultimate vote proved fairly close?

Finally, Bob’s question also gets me tangled up in issues relating to counterfactuals, for after all this is in effect an attempt to pose a counterfactual scenario. But, to be worthwhile, counterfactuals need to be plausible. Some counterfactuals I can dream up are plainly beyond the pale: South Carolina is struck by a massive plague; Lincoln endorses constitutional amendments granting the right to bring slaves into all the territories and outlawing all state personal liberty laws. But in closer cases, where do you draw the line between plausible and implausible?

Having reduced myself to utter confusion, let me start with what seems to be the easiest sub-question: was the secession of even a single state inevitable in November 1860? It’s very hard for me to imagine a scenario in which at least one state did not do so. But I can imagine events unfolding somewhat differently than they wound up doing.

In Secessionists Triumphant, for example, William Freehling tells a dramatic story of a fortuitous event that hastened the calling of the South Carolina secession convention (previously discussed here). After Lincoln’s election, the most radical South Carolinians pushed for a secession convention as soon as possible: December 17, 1860. They lost. On November 9, 1860 the South Carolina Senate endorsed a January 15, 1861 date by a vote of 44-1. This created the threat, radicals feared, that “the legislature’s timetable might well leave South Carolina deciding [on secession] last, so that the Lower South’s majority could drag the most fiery state into a southern convention, where an Upper South majority might rule.” At about the same time, South Carolina senator James Henry Hammond wrote a letter in which he counseled against immediate secession.

Luckily for the radicals, Hammond’s letter was suppressed and never became public. And then a chance event permitted them to rescue victory from the jaws of defeat. On the evening of November 9, 1860 a dinner was held in Charleston to celebrate the opening of a railroad link between that city and Savannah, Georgia. Radicals arranged to have several of the Georgia celebrants give speeches in which they declared themselves, and by extension Georgia, in favor of South Carolina’s immediate secession.

The crowd was electrified. The celebrants wired the legislature in Columbia to demand an immediate convention and advising that they were hiring a special train to send representatives to enforce the message. The emissaries arrived at 2:00 p.m. on November 10. To make a long story short, the wire, the emissaries, and the belief that Georgia stood behind her (reinforced by a rumor that Georgia Senator Robert Toombs had resigned) did the trick:
The smothering atmosphere engulfed Columbia after the transforming news from Charleston arrived. By 4:30 P.M. on Saturday, November 10, almost exactly twenty-four hours after the Senate had voted 44-1 for a January 15 convention (with elections for delegates on January 8), the House voted 117-0 for a December 17 convention (with elections for delegates on December 6). That evening, the Senate concurred 42-0. Two days later, the . . . [December 17] convention date sailed unanimously through all three readings in both houses.

Professor Freehling believes that secession and war remained probable even if the date of the South Carolina convention had not been moved up. Charleston radicals might have mounted a coup d’etat and taken the state out of the Union.
If illegal mobs failed to cancel a South Carolina legislature delay, a Mississippi convention might have seized the Separatist initiative . . .. Alternatively, a southern convention might have met and served Separatists ironically well. Uncompromising Lower South delegates might have stormed out in protest against Upper South compromising. Such an exodus would likely have led to a cooperative Lower South secession. . . . Or the Lower and Upper South might have agreed on demands for northern concessions that Lincoln would have rejected. A northern rejection of a southern convention’s ultimatum could have led to disunion as swiftly as did the Charleston and Savannah Railroad’s celebration. All in all, the chances for the nation to finish 1861 peacefully intact were very poor.

Nonetheless, Prof. Freehling cannot eliminate the possibility that delay might have averted secession:
Thus as South Carolina Separatists feared (and Cooperationists elsewhere hoped), several weeks of delay just might have dulled the first sting of Lincoln’s election, even in South Carolina and then in Mississippi too. Subsequently, a southern convention just might have settled for an overt act ultimatum: No secession now but automatic disunion hereafter, if Republicans secured a federal antislavery edict. Or perhaps a southern convention just might have insisted on northern concessions that President-elect Lincoln might have considered negotiable. Or perhaps an unexpected coincidence, akin to the accident of the railroad’s timing, might again have deflected history a little off course [true in theory, but this sort of speculation might be deemed to violate the rule against unreasonable counterfactuals, discussed above]. All humans know, or should know, that the fortuitous can somewhat deflect apparently remorseless trends at any time or place.

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