Would the United States still have slavery if the South had not seceded in 1861? Part I: Shouldn’t the North have seceded from the Union instead of the South?

Burton Weltman

Conventional histories invariably portray the secession of the South from the Union as an almost inevitable response to Abraham Lincoln’s election as President in 1860.  In fact, there was a stronger argument for the North to secede in 1861 and very little reason for the South to do so.

The decade of the 1850’s was an almost complete disaster from the point of view of anti-slavery northerners, starting with what they saw as an infamous appeasement of the South in the so-called Compromise of 1850 and ending with a complete abdication to slavery in the Dred Scott Case of 1857.  As a result of these laws and legal decisions, anti-slavery northerners felt that no one, white or black, was safe from enslavement and no place would be free from slavery.

The Compromise of 1850 both expanded the territory within which slavery could legally exist and contained a Fugitive Slave Act.  This Act provided that anyone could be accused by a slave-catcher of being a fugitive slave and then had to prove that he or she was not a slave.  If the person could not present this proof, he or she could be taken away as a slave.  Since many “black” slaves were the product of sexual relations between white masters and slave women, many “blacks” had complexions that were as light, and even lighter, than those of “whites.”  As a result, a free white person could be accused of being an escaped black slave and if the person could not prove that he or she was not a slave, the person could be taken away as a slave.

The safeguards provided in the Fugitive Slave Act against mistakenly identifying a freeman as a slave were not very safe.  If someone was accused of being a fugitive slave, the person had the right to a hearing in which the person could try to prove that he or she was not a slave.  Those hearings were not, however, conducted in a regular court with a judge but in front of a special United States Commissioner who would be paid five dollars for each case in which a person was found to be a freeman and ten dollars for every case in which a person was found to be a slave.  As such, the system encouraged Commissioners to find that people were slaves.

Finally, under the Fugitive Slave Act, every northern free person was required to help capture fugitive slaves, and was thereby required to be a participant in and a supporter of the slave system.  The law made every northerner a servant of southern slave owners for purposes of keeping the southerners’ slaves in captivity.

The Compromise of 1850 was seen by anti-slavery northerners as the subjugation of the North by the South.  In subjecting white people to the possibility of being taken as fugitive slaves, and making every northerner an accomplice in the slave system, the law was seen by northerners, even by many who were not against slavery, as an incursion of the slave system into the North.

If the Compromise of 1850 represented an incursion of slavery into the free states, the Dred Scott decision of 1857 represented an invasion of slavery into the North and an end to freedom in the United States.  In striking down the Missouri Compromise and holding as a matter of constitutional law that a person may take his property, including his slave property, anywhere in the United States, the Supreme Court effectively held that there was no such thing as a free state.

If, as the Supreme Court held, a southern slave owner could take his slaves into a northern “free” state and retain title and control of them as slaves, then slavery was seemingly legal and protected by the Constitution everywhere in the United States.  In sum, the United States was a slave country in its entirety and only a Constitutional amendment overturning the Dred Scott decision could change the situation.

While the election of Lincoln as President in 1860 was a victory for anti-slavery advocates, it was a hollow victory that could have had no effect on the status of slavery in the country and that provided no hope whatsoever that slavery could be limited in the country let alone eliminated.

Lincoln got only some 40% of the votes in the election of 1860, almost all from the North.  The other 60% of  the votes were divided among three other pro-slavery candidates.  Since Lincoln’s Republican Party was a regional party that was strong only in the North, there was little hope that it could become a national party that could influence slavery politics in the country as a whole.

The South had a big advantage in national politics because under the Constitution each slave was counted as three-fifths of a person for purposes of allocating members of the House of Representatives and presidential votes in the Electoral College.  Under this system, eight of the first fifteen presidents of the United States were from the South and the others were essentially elected by the South.  Five of the nine Supreme Court Justices during the 1850’s were southerners which meant that the Constitution was firmly controlled by proponents of slavery.  Despite Lincoln’s election, there was no reason to believe that this would change.

In any case, a Constitutional amendment affecting slavery seemed foreclosed forever.  A Constitutional amendment must be approved by 2/3 of the House and the Senate and by 3/4 of the states.  Congress in 1860 was about evenly divided between pro-slavery and anti-slavery advocates.  This gave no hope of getting the 2/3 majorities in both the House and the Senate needed for proposing a Constitutional amendment affecting slavery.  Even more important, there were thirty-four states in the United States in 1861 of which fifteen were slave states.  There was no way that a Constitutional amendment limiting or eliminating slavery was going to be approved by 3/4 of the states in 1861 or at any time thereafter.

In the face of these facts, influential anti-slavery northerners such as William Lloyd Garrison, Wendell Phillips, Theodore Parker, Horace Greely and Ralph Waldo Emerson called for the separation of the North from the South in order for the North to escape what they saw as the stranglehold of “The Slave Power” over the United States.

So why didn’t the North secede?  There were probably a combination of reasons.  One reason was patriotism  — the belief in American’s preeminent role in bringing peace, prosperity, liberty and democracy to the world — of which there was an upsurge in the North during the mid-nineteenth century before the Civil War.

Economics was another reason.  Southern and northern economies were intertwined.  Southern cotton fed northern mills and northern food crops fed southern slaves.  Cotton was also the major American export which paid for goods imported from Europe.

Another reason was democratic idealism which Lincoln articulated in his Gettysburg Address: the desire to prove that democracy could work and endure.  The prevailing opinion in Europe at that time was that democracy could not last, that democratic countries would inevitably descend into factional and sectional conflicts and eventually fall apart.  Northerners needed to prove that theory was wrong.

Still another reason was geopolitical.  If the North seceded and the slave South became a separate nation, the South would likely become a dependency and ally of England.  That would leave the North surrounded by English Canada and a South dependent on England.  Since the United States and England were not on friendly terms — the United States had tried to stir up Canadian rebels for independence during the 1830’s and had engaged in a vehement dispute with England over the boundaries of the Pacific Northwest during the 1840’s — this was not a desirable prospect.

Finally, there were those who did not want to run away from the fight over slavery and thereby leave the southern slaves in the lurch.

Who do you think they had the better of the argument?  Should the North have seceded in 1861?

What do you think?

This issue is discussed at greater length with citations and quotations in the chapter entitled “Choice #9: The Coming of the Civil War: Why Didn’t the North Secede and Why Did the South?” of my recently published book Was the American Revolution a Mistake? Reaching Students and Reinforcing Patriotism through Teaching History as Choice (AuthorHouse, 2013).

How might things have been worse if the American Revolution had not happened?

Burton Weltman

There are many ways in which things might have been worse for Americans in the past and in the present if the Revolution had not occurred.  Our federal Constitution for example, which is one of the wonders of world history, is a consequence of the Revolution, even if it was not the sort of government that was originally intended by the Founding Fathers when they made the Revolution.  The following are just a few examples of things that might have been different and different for the worse if there had been no Revolution.  You are probably able to come up with other and maybe better examples. 

1. If the Revolution had not occurred, might democracy have developed more slowly in America?  Political democracy might have developed more slowly without the Revolution.  The democratic right of all white men to vote developed some thirty to fifty years later in England and in the other English-speaking British colonies than in the United States.  The earlier development of democracy for men in the United States was a direct outcome of the struggle for democratic rights that began during the Revolution.  It was part of the revolution within the Revolution.  That is, while the revolutionaries as a whole were fighting for American independence from England, there were democratic American revolutionaries struggling against aristocratic American revolutionaries for the right to vote and control the new government.

At the time of the Revolution, suffrage was limited to white men with substantial property and/or income.  These property and income requirements were gradually abolished in the various states during and after the Revolution so that by the 1820’s, there was universal suffrage for white men.  These rights did not emerge in England and her other English-speaking colonies until the mid to late nineteenth century.

2. If the Revolution had not occurred, might religious freedom have developed more slowly and less surely in America?  Freedom of religion developed more slowly in England and in her other English-speaking colonies than it did in the United States.  Religious tests for political office and other public purposes were abandoned almost immediately in America after the Revolution, and Massachusetts in the 1830’s was the last holdout state to abandon a state-sponsored church.  The British gradually abandoned religious tests and restrictions during the course of the nineteenth century but the Anglican Church remains the official Church of England to the present day.  The Anglican Church ceased to be the official church of Canada in 1832, Australia in 1836 and New Zealand in 1840.

3. If the Revolution had not occurred, might women’s rights have developed more slowly in America?  Women’s rights developed somewhat more slowly in England but somewhat more quickly in the other English-speaking colonies than in the United States.  As such, it may be a tossup whether women might have fared better or worse in the United States if there was no Revolution and America had remained for longer as a colony  In New Zealand, women gained the right to vote in national elections in 1893.  In Australia, it was 1902.  In Canada, it was 1921 just as it was in the United States.  In England, it was 1928.

In general, women’s rights in these countries developed more quickly in less settled territories in which sexist customs were not so well-established and in which women had opportunities to break new ground, both literally and figuratively.  In the United States, women’s rights developed particularly quickly in the western territories and states as they were settled by European-Americans.  This might not have happened in the same way if there was no Revolution.

What do you think?

Would it have been better for the American colonists and would it be better for us today if the American Revolution had not happened?

Burton Weltman

This is a highly speculative question that raises a lot of “What if?” possibilities.  Even though there can be no definitive answer to this kind of question, it is the sort of question that we regularly ask in our daily lives.  Would it have been better if I had taken a different route on my way driving home?  Should I have said “No” to that second helping of desert?  We almost cannot help ourselves in asking such questions.  It seems part of human nature.

It is also common sense.  “What if?” is the sort of question that leaders and organizations  regularly ask about their decisions and actions.  A businessperson evaluating an advertising campaign, a politician evaluating an election campaign, an army general evaluating a military campaign, all of them wondering if better results could have been achieved with a different course of action, are asking “What if?” questions.  And this is, in turn, the sort of question we ought to ask about historical events.

In this blog entry, I am going to suggest a few possible ways in which things might have been better if the Revolution had not occurred and the colonies had, instead, gradually attained their independence as did the other English-speaking British colonies.  In my next blog entry, I will suggest ways in which things might have been worse if the Revolution had not occurred.  These issues are discussed at greater length in my book Was the American Revolution a Mistake? Reaching Students and Reinforcing Patriotism through Teaching History as Choice (AuthorHouse, 2013).

1.  If the Revolution had not occurred, might there have been an earlier and peaceful ending to slavery?  The British ended slavery in England during the early 1770’s and then peaceably ended slavery within the rest of their empire during the 1830’s.  If the American colonies had remained part of the British empire through the early nineteenth century, slavery could have been ended in what became the United States some thirty years earlier than it was, and without a vicious civil war that is still being fought to some extent to the present day.

While Southern whites were willing in the 1860’s to try their luck in a war against the North to save slavery, it is less likely that they would have been willing to go up against both the North and Great Britain during the 1830’s.  In fact, many Southerners supported the American Revolution because they were afraid of the growing anti-slavery movement in England during the 1770’s and they wanted to distance themselves from English abolitionism.  Although it is possible that if the American colonies were still owned by England in the nineteenth century, the English would not have been so quick to abolish slavery.  But it appears that the English overrode economic considerations in abolishing slavery when they did, so that they might have abolished slavery in their empire even if they still owned the American colonies.

2. If the Revolution had not occurred, might there have been a more peaceful relationship between European Americans and Native Americans?  The British imposed on their European settlers in America a policy of gradual settlement which included some respect for the rights and needs of Native Americans, and discouraged European settlers from illegally grabbing land from Indians which might incite violent clashes.  One of the reasons many American colonists supported the Revolution was to get away from the policy of gradual settlement of land west of the Appalachian Mountains that England had imposed on the colonies after the end of the French and Indian War in 1763.

As a result of the British policy of gradual settlement, Europeans settled in Canada for the most part peaceably during the nineteenth century and meshed European and Native American settlements without any significant wars.  As a consequence of the American Revolution, European Americans were allowed to pursue an aggressive settlement policy and they conducted an almost continuous series of genocidal wars against Native Americans from the 1770’s through the 1890’s.  White people repeatedly encroached on areas ostensibly guaranteed by treaty to Indians, provoking a violent reaction by the Indians, and then an overwhelmingly violent counter-reaction by the United States government.  This cycle of genocidal violence might have been avoided if the Revolution had not occurred.

3. If the Revolution had not occurred, might there have been a more peaceful relationship between America and the rest of the world?  The United States has been almost continuously involved in wars and military engagements from the American Revolution to the present day.  There have been major wars such as the War of 1812, the Mexican War, the Civil War, the Spanish-American War, World War I, World War II, the Korean War, the Vietnam War, two Wars in Iraq, and the Afghanistan War.

In addition, there were the relatively minor wars against the Tripoli pirates and the undeclared war against France in the 1790’s; and military interventions in Japan and China during the nineteenth century.  There were also the bloody war against the Philippines’ independence, a long series of military interventions in Latin America, and several military interventions in the Middle East during the twentieth century.  And, of course, there was the almost continuous series of Indian wars in America during the nineteenth century.

Many of these wars were preemptive strikes like the Revolution.  The Revolution seemingly established a pattern of Americans trying to solve problems through military action and, in particular, of trying to avoid violence through engaging in violence, which hasn’t seemed to work very well.  We seemingly came out of the Revolution as a war-like peace-loving people who have repeatedly tried to end war through wars.  If the Loyalists had prevailed during the 1770’s, maybe a pattern of solving problems through negotiations might have been established instead.

4. If the Revolution had not occurred, might Americans have developed a more effective political system?  During the nineteenth century, the English and their English-speaking colonies (Canada, Australia, and New Zealand) developed political systems based on competition between pro-government conservative parties and pro-government liberal parties.  Although conservatives and liberals have regularly disagreed on many issues, both the conservative parties and the liberal parties have historically been in favor of relying heavily on the government to solve social problems and promote the general welfare of their countries.

This type of political system, in which both liberals and conservatives see government as the solution to social problems, exists to the present day in every industrial democracy other than the United States, where the major conservative party, the Republican Party, has developed an anti-government ideology in which government itself is seen as the primary social problem.

Having a major and sometimes ruling party that is anti-government makes efficient and effective government difficult (How can people who hate government effectively run the government?), polarizes the American political system (How can two parties compromise when they start from such different premises about government?), and leaves the United States with a lower level of social services than any other industrial democracy (Systems of social security, minimum wages, and welfare provisions for the poor, all of which were and still largely are opposed by American conservatives, were actually first established in Europe by conservatives.)

With a longer tutelage under British rule, the United States might have developed a political system similar to that of England and the other industrial democracies, and we might have a more effective system in which the conservative party is not opposed to the government it seeks to control.

What do you think?