A few readers think Im writing with tongue in cheek when I propose secession. Well, though I see the humor of it, Im not exactly joking. I know its unlikely to happen, for the time being, but the idea has value as a thought-experiment. It can help free our minds of the illusion that the present political status quo was, and is, inevitable.
In history, few things are inevitable. Or rather, they become inevitable only after a certain point. At the moment when Soviet tanks rolled into Central Europe in 1945, Soviet rule became inevitable. It hadnt been inevitable a year earlier.
The defeat of secession was by no means inevitable in 1860. The North was deeply divided over whether to accept it, to compromise, or to go to war. Lincoln himself, though he flatly denied the right of secession, was undecided about how to cope with it. His tragic decision to attack South Carolina after it seized Fort Sumter drove the wavering border states, including crucial Virginia, to join the Confederacy.
Lincoln thought secession could be suppressed quickly. He miscalculated terribly. The result of his decision was a long war, spilling an ocean of blood; and though it eventually saved the Union, after a fashion, it did so in a way he never intended. He had meant to save the Union as of old, as he often put it, with a limited federal government and slavery intact. But the consequences, as in a Shakespearean tragedy, were the opposite of what he had aimed for. The Federal Government became powerful enough to overwhelm the states North as well as South, as the North discovered too late and he was forced, against his will, to issue the Emancipation Proclamation, signaling the end of slavery in America.
The historian James McPherson praises Lincoln for achieving the Second American Revolution. But Lincoln would not have coveted or welcomed such praise. The essence of tragic action, according to the great Shakespeare commentator A.C. Bradley, is that men may start a course of events but can neither calculate nor control it. That exactly describes what Lincoln did when he chose to oppose secession with military force, whatever the cost. And the cost proved incommensurate to the very purposes that impelled him to make that choice.
We tend to forget the sheer instability of the situation Lincoln faced in the spring of 1861. Different choices would have borne different results, for better or worse. Everything was contingent on how he decided to react to the Southern challenge. He made what proved the most fatal, and bloody, choice available, with results neither he nor anyone else could have predicted results that continue even now.
History judges Lincoln kindly because one of those results was the end of slavery. But Lincoln was against sudden emancipation; he wanted gradual emancipation, with slaveowners compensated and ex-slaves resettled outside the United States. The course of the war, however, gave him no choice; after two years, the end of slavery on other terms became inevitable. He could no longer postpone it.
One of the many ironies of history is that Lincoln now gets credit, verging on sanctification, for doing what he never wanted to do and for producing a political system so radically different from the one he hoped to preserve. If, as he said at Gettysburg, the Civil War was a test of whether the original American system the new nation of 1776 could long endure, it failed the test.
At one time, our present situation would have seemed not only improbable but nearly impossible anything but inevitable. We are here, and we are what we are, not because of inexorable fate, but because of countless decisions, errors, accidents, and contingencies that combined to produce a world nobody had dreamed of. It might have been inconceivably different.
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