In a series of posts written a number of years ago, I argued that slavery was a thriving institution in 1860 and that there was every reason to think that, but for the Civil War, it would have continued indefinitely, See Was Slavery on the Way Out in 1860? Was Slavery on the Way Out in 1860? II Was Slavery on the Way Out in 1860? III and Was Slavery on the Way Out in 1860? Prof. Freehling Says No!. I also made the same argument in a thread at Civil War Talk called (strangely enough) Was Slavery on the Way Out?
In the intervening years I have not run across any counter-arguments that have caused me to alter that opinion, and James Oakes' fine new book Freedom National: The Destruction of Slavery in the United States, 1861-1865 only reinforces that view. As Oakes describes it, on the eve of the secession crisis, Republicans optimistically expected that they would be able to set slavery on the path to extinction using a Freedom National-Slavery Local approach consisting of the following elements:
- Ban slavery from the territories and the District of Columbia (the former would require reversing Dred Scott).
- No admission of new slave states.
- Repeal the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850.
- "A number of Republicans also proposed that the federal government purchase and then emancipate all the slaves in the Border States."
- "The most radical Republicans" "would restore 'free speech' to the South" by reversing the Jacksonian era practice of permitting postmasters to refuse to deliver abolitionist mail directed to the slave states.
- Other radical Republicans wanted to regulate the domestic slave trade "by taxing every slave sold across state lines and outlawing the coastwise entirely."
Republicans expected this program to succeed because they were convinced that slavery was an economically backward relic:
Even shorn of its more radical elements, the basic Republican goal remained the same: Pressed down into the Gulf States, denied access to fresh western soils, and deprived of the life-giving support of federal power, slavery even in the cotton South would eventually become unprofitable, maybe even dangerous. Slavery's intrinsic weaknesses would become steadily more apparent. The blight of economic backwardness would spread across the South, its arrogant aristocracy would become ever more disdainful of democracy, and the slaves would become increasingly restless and insurrectionary. A homegrown antislavery movement would spring up within the slave states. It might take awhile, although most Republicans expected that abolition, accelerating over time, would be accomplished within a generation.
But the evidence suggests, I believe, that Republicans profoundly misunderstood and underestimated both the institution of slavery and the attitudes of white southerners. Slavery was not economically moribund, and southern whites, rich and poor alike, were deeply invested in it, as their tenacious defense of the institution, both during and the after the war, was to show. In light of these considerations, the Republican program was thin gruel indeed.
About the illustration, entitled The National Game. Three "Outs" and One "Run" (New York, Currier & Ives, 1860):
A pro-Lincoln satire, deposited for copyright weeks before the 1860 presidential election. The contest is portrayed as a baseball game in which Lincoln has defeated (left to right) John Bell, Stephen A. Douglas, and John C. Breckinridge. Lincoln (right) stands with his foot on "Home Base," advising the others, "Gentlemen, if any of you should ever take a hand in another match at this game, remember that you must have a good bat' and strike a fair ball' to make a clean score' & a home run.'" His "good bat" is actually a wooden rail labeled "Equal Rights and Free Territory." Lincoln wears a belt inscribed "Wide Awake Club." (See no. 1860-14 on the Wide-Awakes.) A skunk stands near the other candidates, signifying that they have been "skunk'd." Breckinridge (center), a Southern Democrat, holds his nose, saying, "I guess I'd better leave for Kentucky, for I smell something strong around here, and begin to think, that we are completely skunk'd.'" His bat is labeled "Slavery Extension" and his belt "Disunion Club." At far left John Bell of the Constitutional Union party observes, "It appears to me very singular that we three should strike foul' and be put out' while old Abe made such a good lick.' Bell's belt says "Union Club," and his bat "Fusion." Regular Democratic nominee Douglas replies, "That's because he had that confounded rail, to strike with, I thought our fusion would be a short stop' to his career." He grasps a bat labeled "Non Intervention."