IX.4: Could America Have Avoided the Civil War?

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Could America Have Avoided the Civil War?

Two of the most horrific episodes in U.S. history were the abuse of Africans through slavery, and the widespread death and destruction of America’s Civil War.

We have no record of how many slaves died chained in ships lost at sea or at the hands of cruel masters. But there’s no doubt many were victims of such atrocities. On the other hand, we do know that almost as many Americans died in the Civil War as in all other wars throughout our history combined. And many more were maimed and dismembered. And then there were the unbelievable financial costs and destruction of property. So, it’s certainly meaningful to ask, “Could America have avoided the Civil War?”

I argue that the answer is “yes”. In addition, I argue that several more generations of Africans could have been spared from slavery. We know that, as the majority in Congress, the northern states laid a high tariff on European manufactured goods. They did this to to protect the sale of their own goods, while refusing to protect southern cotton sales. This allowed northern manufacturers to buy southern cotton cheaply, while selling their goods to southerners at inflated prices. Without that tariff, the South would have held far less resentment toward the Union. The Confederate President, Jefferson Davis, made this clear:

The people of the Southern states, whose almost exclusive occupation was agriculture, early perceived a tendency in the Northern states to render a common government subservient to their own purposes by imposing burdens on commerce as protection to their manufacturing and shipping interests. (Davis 1861)

But regardless of the other causes, we know that the main cause of the Civil War was slavery.

But in 1860, many – even many southerners – were disgusted with slavery. After all, the hypocrisy of white Americans calling for their own freedom from Great Britain while denying freedom to black slaves was all too obvious. (Hopkins 1776)

Support for the abolition of slavery was high in all the states, even in the south. But the slaveholders duped poor white southerners into believing that emancipation of the slaves would flood the labor market and put them out of work. Also, many poor southerners were so destitute that the color of their skin was their only “badge of honor”. So they fought for the institution of slavery to protect their pride. (Barney 1972, 4)

The six most famous founders – Benjamin Franklin, George Washington, John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison and Alexander Hamilton – all passionately believed that slavery was evil. That is, slavery had been pushed on their predecessors by the British king to enhance the exports of his empire. The three southerners in that group – Washington, Jefferson, and Madison – all inherited slaves, but by the time of their deaths freed those they believed could support themselves.

In the Lincoln-Douglas debates, Abraham Lincoln argued persuasively against slavery.

He showed that the writers of the U.S. Constitution intentionally designed that document to put slavery on the road to extinction. (Lincoln 1858)

The only reason Congress ignored the slavery issue from 1788 until 1861 was that political leaders had to get southern representatives to vote with them on other issues. And abolishing slavery was a non-starter for those southern representatives. (Wilentz 2005, 34)

Secession from the Union was highly unpopular in the South. In fact, there is evidence that the large plantation owners may have rigged the votes for secession. And many people in the south were surprised when their states voted to secede. (Wilentz 2005, 770-1)

A solution was actually found for how to abolish slavery without any cost to the state or to the slaveholders. So could America have avoided the Civil War?

In 1780, Pennsylvania passed a law that “children born of slave mothers” would be freed at the age of 28. (Blackburn [1988] 2000, 117)

Pennsylvania’s solution didn’t cost the state a single dime, because the state didn’t have to compensate the slaveholders. Furthermore, it didn’t cost the slaveholders either because a child born to a slave mother came to the mother’s owner at no cost, except for the cost of his upbringing. And the Pennsylvania law required the child to work off that cost before going free. This solution merely prevented the slaveholder from gaining a slave for free through birth.

If this law had been adopted in the 1780’s by the national Congress, everyone born into slavery would have soon been freed. And since the import of new slaves was prohibited after 1807, slavery would have totally disappeared long before the war in 1861. And that would mean that several more generations of black people would be spared from slavery.

Could America have avoided the Civil War? Do you agree that America could have spared more generations of black people from the horrors of slavery?

This site is for discussing how to improve our political system. It is NOT for discussing party politics or political figures. So if you have a non-partisan question or comment, feel free to leave it below.

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Barney, William. 1972. The Road to Secession. New York: Praeger Publishers.

Blackburn, Robin. [1988] 2000. The Overthrow of Colonial Slavery, 1776-1848. London: Verso.

Davis, Jefferson. 1861. “Message of Jefferson Davis to the Provisional Congress of the Confederate States of America”, from J.D. Richardson, Messages and Papers of Jefferson Davis and the Confederacy, Including Diplomatic Correspondence, 1861-1865. Causes of the Civil War. http://civilwarcauses.org/davis.htm (Accessed Feb. 20, 2019).

Hopkins, Samuel. 1776. “The Inconsistency of Slavery”. Positively History. https://positivelyhistory.weebly.com/the-inconsistency-of-slavery.html (Accessed Feb. 20, 2019).

Lincoln, Abraham. 1858. “The Lincoln-Douglas Debates 7th Debate Part II, Abraham Lincoln, Stephen Douglas, Alton, Illinois, October 15, 1858.” TeachingAmericanHistory.org. http://teachingamericanhistory.org/library/document/the-lincoln-douglas-debates-7th-debate-part-ii/ (Accessed Feb. 20, 2019).

Wilentz, Sean. 2005. The Rise of American Democracy. New York: W. W. Norton & Company.

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