Strengthening Constitutional Self-Government

No Left Turns

The Civil War & Lincoln

Lincoln's First Inaugural

Today is the 150th anniversary of Abraham Lincoln's first inaugural address and of what may be the clearest and most powerful argument against secession and for the perpetuity of our Union ever delivered by an American statesman.   

I also bring your attention, again, to this project and note today's entry in it.   Reading that entry, one cannot help but feel some measure of the horrible apprehension that must have been coursing through Lincoln's veins as he set out in these uncharted and dangerous waters.  It is useful to recall immortal words like this on their anniversary, but it is so much better to recall them--as we now so readily can--in their proper context. 

Discussions - 4 Comments

Let's keep in mind the bicenetennial of Jefferson's First Inaugural, among other things for its devotion to a simple republicanism and a reasonable majority.

210th of TJ's First Inaugural, sorry.

I encourage everyone to go read Walter Russell Meade's March 5th contribution to the Long Recall. It is quite simply one of the most brilliant explications of the motivations leading up to secession that I have ever read.

As Thucydides said, wars start because not of what men necessarily say, but because of what they fear. I think Meade is spot on in saying that eventually it might have been the North that seceded from the United States, and not the South. I think this sentiment quite clearly explains why the fighting spirit of the North bloomed so quickly once Fort Sumter was fired upon--and why that spirit was sustained across four bloody years.

In my view the North as a mass obviously did not view slavery as the plain "force for good" the South did (abolition at the state level in the North having occurred in the years after the Revolution); and if outright national abolition may not have been the aim of a majority by 1860, a desire to have no actual participation in slavery probably was. There is a tremendous difference between wanting to go end something and being forced to be an active participant in its continuance.

Thus, my supposition is that among other things, the Fugitive Slave Law--enforced in the North however grudgingly--may have caused more resentment than anything else, and caused the South's ultimate downfall. For the North probably got tired in the decade before the war of the South demanding absolute fealty to any principle of the rule of law that favored "the Peculiar Institution" while not minding violence on their own side if support of slavery demanded it ("Bloody Kansas"). Thus when the Southerners blew off that same principle of the rule of law with secession, the North was only waiting for a legitimate excuse. The South gave it with Fort Sumter.

Basically, in my view, Northern willingness in 1861 to take up arms was reached because the North didn't like something (on a moral level); the majority really didn't want to go on a crusade about it; but neither did they want to have any part of helping it live. In short, on slavery, they wanted to be left in peace and to not have to call it a moral good. But there is more.

Being an age of manhood, they did not want to be bullied about (especially by a gentry class widely viewed in the North as spoiled brats who were never given the rod when they needed it). It was an age where the greatest ne'er-do-well could claim he was "equal to any man". The North, however, was willing to tolerate some things from the grandees of the South in the service of a higher cause: the idea of showing the world that self-governance could work.

Remember, the failed revolutions of 1848 were living memory. Continental Europe was still a morass of unchanging despotism to varying degrees, and even England was not exactly possessing a true representative form of government. Then there is the issue of the relatively new (40-60 years old) egalitarian Jacksonian culture of the U.S. (both North and South) when compared to that of hierarchical Europe. Many Northerners--especially in the Northwest--lived in places that had been founded by parents or grandparents. In short, they knew that what they had was neither ancient nor guaranteed to last forever. They were thus custodians of a trust. This was the mystic chord that Lincoln was able to tap into, and why the Gettysburg Address resonated with that generation.

If one thinks about it should be clear--the North knew a higher issue was at stake and was willing to put up with a lot in the decades before 1860 in order to prove that both the idea of a republic and the idea of an egalitarian culture (both concepts under fire in Europe) could in fact succeed. When the South proved it would not reciprocate on the crucial principle of obeying the results of elections (and hence threatened that idea of republicanism, as well as egalitarianism in some respects), I think in the minds of Northerners all bargains became off--they had accepted their political losses in the past, the South could too.

Thus, I argue that all that was needed for a resort to arms was the legitimate excuse. Absent that, the North might still have not acted. But emotionally, I think the North was primed to fight if the right conditions were met, for I think they were tired of being pushed around, especially over an issue of such moral dubiousness as slavery. They just needed the first punch to be thrown (it also being an age of honor, and the North being somewhat less pugnacious in character than the South).

The South threw that first punch with Fort Sumter. Emotionally, I think that attack turned out to be one demand too many that the North take the short end of the stick with no recompense or consideration. The wind having been sown in the 1850s by a demand that laws and elections favoring the South be followed scrupulously or else, the whirlwind was reaped.

This entire discussion is a pertinent lesson for our own times, and for all times, for Republics now and forever. Men will not accept double standards indefinitely, and the side that demands they do may one day overreach in a way that repays them tenfold, especially if they are a minority of the population.

As a further thought--I think the North would have declared war on any nation that fired on one of its forts. After all, the U.S. had enough scrapes with England in the years between 1861 and the War of 1812 to prove the point (Maine, Nootka Sound, "54-40 or fight"). And Mexico found out the hard way that Americans would seize on a attack as a casus belli if an attack was proffered.

So I think that part of the thinking behind the 1861 Northern war spirit may also have been the following: "Well, my Southern friends, perhaps we would have been happy to have let you go in peace, but you see that fort was jointly owned by both of us--North and South--and we hadn't yet come to terms on who was going to get to own it and what was going to be paid for it (because we both paid for it). Perhaps we never would have reached an agreement, but that is a different story. But here is the deal. You claim to be an independent country. Well, fine. But when independent countries fire on the flag of other independent counties, especially if it be, like ours, a nation and people which by no means are their inferiors, those infringing countries need to expect certain logical things to happen. Namely, war. We wouldn't tolerate the most powerful nation in the world firing on our flag, we didn't take gruff from them in 1812, and we sure as h_ll will not tolerate taking any from you either...War it is."

I've long thought that the decisive battle of the Civil War was not Antietam, Gettysburg, Vicksburg, or the taking of Atlanta--but Major Anderson's bloodless transfer of his men from Fort Moultrie to Fort Sumter. For it determined the war would be fought by a unified North if only the South would fire the first shot.

Perhaps a war would have come later if Fort Sumter had been secured by the Carolinians before Major Anderson got there--it possibly would have. But there are no guarantees it would have been a unified fight by the North.

I think it probably would have been a unified fight, for the South would have done something stupid regarding escaping slaves that would have provoked a Northern backlash. It was an age of manhood, after all. But we don't know for certain what would have happened because that history didn't happen. I am very sure it probably would not have been the war that would have ended Southern independence. It probably would have been more of a border fight like the War of 1812--probably bloody, vicious, but not necessarily decisive. Maybe a lot like the wars of post-Spanish colonialism in South America. But once again, it is a historical counter-factual, so we just don't know.

What we do know is that after Fort Sumter the Union division largely disappeared for a while--and that it was ever after a minority that wanted nothing but peace.

And thus, the South lost because at the end of the day it did not know what Sun Tzu knew--know thy enemy and know thyself, and though you fight a hundred battles, you will always be victorious. Too many in the South did not believe in the toughness and resolution of the North, and lost because of the contempt they held for their fellow Americans.

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