Was it possible to save American democracy in 1860? What steps might have been taken to maintain unity? Why do you think these steps were not taken?

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What this question is really asking is whether steps could have been taken to prevent the southern states from seceding and to preserve the United States in 1860. This means that there would have been no Civil War. Certainly this would have been a desirable outcome, as over 600,000 Americans died fighting each other in the conflict.

It is important to realize, however, that numerous steps were taken to end the war in the decades leading up to it, but they were insufficient. The overriding concern that precipitated the war was the issue of slavery, and compromises over this issue went back as far as the writing of the Constitution. Until the 13th Amendment was passed after the Civil War, the US Constitution allowed slavery and even designated how slaves were to be counted for purposes of political representation.

As time passed, the country became more divided between northern states that favored the abolition of slavery and the southern states whose economies and social systems depended heavily upon slave labor. In the face of this growing controversy, the Missouri Compromise of 1820 was one attempt to keep the Union intact. As new states would enter the Union, the question would arise as to whether they should be slave states or free states. In this instance in 1820, Maine was admitted as a free state, Missouri would be a slave state, and slavery would be outlawed in the territories of the Louisiana Purchase. However, we can see that this compromise was dependent on the continued existence of slavery, which of course is an anti-democratic institution.

Another step was taken with the Compromise of 1850. California became a free state, and the issue of slavery in the new territories of New Mexico and Utah would be decided by popular vote. To appease southerners, a stricter Fugitive Slave Act was passed, requiring escaped slaves to be returned to their masters. This compromise too was unacceptable to a democracy, as it persisted in tolerating slavery.

By 1860, secession and civil war were all but inevitable. Several southern states had already threatened to secede if a Republican was chosen in the presidential election of 1860. That president turned out to be Abraham Lincoln. The scenarios to prevent war at this late date would have had to be radical in the extreme. For instance, Republicans could have withdrawn their candidate from the election, effectively ending the democratic process. The northern states could have capitulated and allowed slavery in the United States permanently, causing intense suffering to African Americans who were pressed into labor against their will, again ending democracy for all. On the other hand, southerners could have realized that history was against them, voluntarily accepted abolition, and set all the slaves free. At that stage of US history, none of those options were possible considering the social and political realities.

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