Chapter 4 Preface
“Perhaps no decade in the history of the United States has been so filled with tense and crucial moments as the ten years leading to the Civil War, and closely connected with the majority of these crises was the problem of slavery,” writes Robert William Fogel in his book Without Consent or Contract: The Rise and Fall of American Slavery. In the 1850s, the divisive debate over slavery came to a climax as it became entwined with a variety of different events and social forces.
The discovery of gold in California and the acquisition of new southwestern territories after the Mexican War in 1848 greatly spurred the westward movement. Slaveholding and abolitionist interests deadlocked over the question of whether slavery should be permitted in the new territories. The result was the Compromise of 1850, under which California was admitted as a free state; the question of whether to allow slavery in the territories of New Mexico, Nevada, Arizona, and Utah was deferred until they applied for statehood; and a tougher Fugitive Slave Law was passed. Southerners warned that they would remain in the Union only if the compromise was honored in the North. However, to the anger of Southerners, militant abolitionists rescued many Northern runaways that the new law mandated be sent back to slavery in the South.
The 1852 publication of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, a popular novel that condemned slavery, further split the nation, and whatever semblance...
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Popular Sovereignty over Slavery Divides the Nation
Mr. President, and Gentlemen of the Convention:
If we could first know where we are, and whither we are tending, we could better judge what to do, and how to do it. We are now far into the fifth year, since a policy was initiated with the avowed object, and confident promise, of putting an end to slavery agitation. Under the operation of that policy, that agitation has not only not ceased, but has constantly augmented. In my opinion, it will not cease, until a crisis shall have been reached and passed. “A house divided against itself cannot stand.” I believe this government cannot endure permanently half slave and half free. I do not expect the Union to be dissolved—I do not expect the house to fall—but I do expect it will cease to be divided. It will become all one thing, or all the other. Either the opponents of slavery will arrest the further spread of it, and place it where the public mind shall rest in the belief that it is in the course of ultimate extinction; or its advocates will push it forward, till it shall become alike lawful in all the States, old as well as new—North as well as South.
Have we no tendency to the latter condition?
Let any one who doubts, carefully contemplate that now almost complete legal combination—piece of machinery, so to speak— compounded of the Nebraska doctrine, and the Dred Scott decision. Let him consider not only what work the machinery is adapted to do, and how well...
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Popular Sovereignty Should Decide Slavery
Iregard the great principle of popular sovereignty, as having been vindicated and made triumphant in this land, as a permanent rule of public policy in the organization of Territories and the admission of new States. Illinois took her position upon this principle many years ago. . . .
The People Must Decide
I deny the right of Congress to force a slaveholding State upon an unwilling people. I deny their right to force a free State upon an unwilling people. I deny their right to force a good thing upon a people who are unwilling to receive it. The great principle is the right of every community to judge and decide for itself, whether a thing is right or wrong, whether it would be good or evil for them to adopt it; and the right of free action, the right of free thought, the right of free judgment upon the question is dearer to every true American than any other under a free government. . . . It is no answer to this argument to say that slavery is an evil, and hence should not be tolerated. You must allow the people to decide for themselves whether it is a good or an evil. You allow them to decide for themselves whether they desire a Maine liquor law or not; you allow them to decide for themselves what kind of common schools they will have; what system of banking they will adopt, or whether they will adopt any at all; you allow them to decide for themselves the relations between husband and wife, parent and child, guardian and ward; in fact,...
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Freeing the Slaves Should Be the Primary War Aim
I do not intrude to tell you—for you must know already— that a great proportion of those who triumphed in your election, and of all who desire the unqualified suppression of the rebellion now desolating our country, are sorely disappointed and deeply pained by the policy you seem to be pursuing with regard to the slaves of Rebels. I write only to set succinctly and unmistakably before you what we require, what we think we have a right to expect, and of what we complain.
I. We require of you, as the first servant of the republic, charged especially and pre-eminently with this duty, that you EXECUTE THE LAWS. Most emphatically do we demand that such laws as have been recently enacted, which therefore may fairly be presumed to embody the public will and to be dictated by the present needs of the republic, and which, after due consideration, have received your personal sanction, shall by you be carried into full effect and that you publicly and decisively instruct your subordinates that such laws exist, that they are binding on all functionaries and citizens, and that they are to be obeyed to the letter.
II. We think you are strangely and disastrously remiss in the discharge of your official and imperative duty with regard to the emancipating provisions of the new Confiscation Act. Those provisions were designed to fight slavery with liberty. They prescribe that men loyal to the Union, and willing to shed...
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Preserving the Union Should Be the Primary War Aim
I have just read yours of the 19th, addressed to myself through the New York Tribune. If there be in it any statements or assumptions of fact which I may know to be erroneous, I do not now and here controvert them. If there be in it any inferences which I may believe to be falsely drawn, I do not now and here argue against them. If there be perceptible in it an impatient and dictatorial tone, I waive it in deference to an old friend, whose heart I have always supposed to be right.
As to the policy I “seem to be pursuing,” as you say, I have not meant to leave anyone in doubt.
The Union Must Be Saved
I would save the Union. I would save it the shortest way under the Constitution. The sooner the national authority can be restored, the nearer the Union will be “the Union as it was.” If there be those who would not save the Union unless they could at the same time save slavery, I do not agree with them. If there be those who would not save the Union unless they could at the same time destroy slavery, I do not agree with them. My paramount object in this struggle is to save the Union, and is not either to save or destroy slavery. If I could save the Union without freeing any slave, I would do it; and if I could save it by freeing all the slaves, I would do it; and if I could do it by freeing some and leaving others alone, I would also do that.
What I do...
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Slavery Would Have Been Abolished Without the Civil War
As an excuse for civil war, maintaining the State’s territorial integrity is bankrupt and reprehensible. Slavery’s elimination is the only morally worthy justification. The fact that abolition was an unintended consequence in no way gainsays [denies] the accomplishment. “The nineteenth century was preeminently the century of emancipations,” explains [historian] C. Vann Woodward. Small-scale emancipations began in the northern states during the previous century, and chattel slavery was not ended in coastal Kenya until 1907. But starting with the British colonies in 1833 and finishing with Brazil in 1888, over six million slaves achieved some kind of freedom in the Western Hemisphere. Four million were blacks in the United States. “The emancipation experience of the South,” Woodward concludes, “dwarfs all others in scale and magnitude.”
Yet this justification holds only if war was indeed necessary. No abolition was completely peaceful, but the United States and Haiti are just two among twenty-odd slave societies where violence predominated. The fact that emancipation overwhelmed such entrenched plantation economies as Cuba and Brazil suggests that slavery was politically moribund anyway. An ideological movement that had its meager roots in the eighteenth century eventually eliminated everywhere a labor system that had been ubiquitous throughout world civilizations for millennia. Historical speculations about an independent Confederacy...
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Slavery Would Have Continued Indefinitely Without the Civil War
For more than a century historians have been engaged in an intense debate about the causes of the Civil War. Although some scholars have held that slavery was the cause, others have developed complex analyses that draw distinctions between immediate and ultimate causes and that explore a variety of ways other than war that could have settled or at least contained the issue of slavery. They have also analyzed a wide range of economic, political, and cultural issues between the sections other than slavery that promoted antagonisms and that rival slavery (some believe they dominate it) as an explanation for the war. Among the most nagging of the moral questions to emerge from these debates is the one posed by David M. Potter, who, until his death in 1971, was one of the most respected historians of his generation.
In totaling up the balance sheet of the Civil War, Potter concluded: “Slavery was dead; secession was dead; and six hundred thousand men were dead.” So one soldier died for six slaves who were freed and for ten white Southerners who were kept in the Union. In the face of so bloody a war, a “person is entitled to wonder,” said Potter, “whether the Southerners could have been held and the slaves could not have been freed at a smaller per-capita cost.” When he posed this problem it was still widely believed that slavery was an economically moribund system and the proposition that economic forces would eventually have solved the...
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