Lincoln's choice

Choose a pivotal historical event and ask, What if this had happened differently? How would history have unfolded after that? How would the society be different today? Inventing an alternate history can be an interesting way to take a closer look at a society. Consider the American Civil War, for example.

For most of the 1800s, the northern and southern regions of the United States had been locked in a bitter "culture war". Many issues were involved, but the thorniest was over whether treating human beings as property should be legal in the United States. In the southern region slavery was legal. The northern region had abolished it a few decades earlier.

The division grew even more rancorous as the United States expanded its territory westward. Southerners migrating to the West wanted to take their slaves with them. Northerners wanted slavery outlawed in the new territories. As each new state joined the Union, it could potentially swing the overall political balance on the question of abolition. No compromise seemed to work. Tension mounted.

When Abraham Lincoln, a Northerner who had taken a mildly abolitionist position during his campaign, was elected president by a slim margin of the popular vote, several Southern states immediately seceded from the United States to form a new nation called the Confederate States of America. Needless to say, the Confederate States quickly adopted a constitution that guaranteed the right to own slaves.

Contrary to what many people assume, the United States did not invade the Confederacy in order to "free the slaves." The American Civil War was fought over the question of secession, not slavery.

At the time of the secession, the United States had a population of about 22 million, while the Confederate States had about 5 million. Most of the industrial capacity was in the United States. The Confederacy was largely agricultural, with a pre-industrial infrastructure.

When the Southern states seceded, the United States faced an important decision. It could allow the Confederacy to go its own way, or it could invade the renegade states and force them back into the Union.

The United States was not willing to quietly part with what it considered to be its territory. An invasion of the Confederacy would have seemed unavoidable. Initially Lincoln claimed no intention of invading.

However, after a skirmish in which Confederate troops captured Fort Sumter in the Confederate state of South Carolina, Lincoln decided to call for Union troops to invade the Confederacy and recapture the fort. Several more Southern states seceded after that. The United States then began the war by blockading Confederate ports.

Lincoln had extraordinary rhetorical skills. He had a poet's ear for language. In an alternate history, he might have persuaded the people and politicians that it was wiser to let the South go in peace rather than to fight a bloody and ruinous war.

In real history, of course, Lincoln chose the military option, and in 1861, United States federal troops attacked the Confederacy. Under the mindset of Lincoln's time, that must have seemed an immensely difficult but necessary choice.

The reason given for attacking the Confederacy was to preserve the Union; that is, to establish that individual states would never have the right to withdraw from the United States.

That is a point worth emphasizing. Contrary to what many people assume, the United States did not invade the Confederacy in order to "free the slaves." In fact, Lincoln did not officially declare the Emancipation Proclamation until 1863, after the war had already been raging for over a year and a half. The American Civil War was fought over the question of secession, not slavery.

What if Lincoln had chosen not to attack the Confederate States?

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If the American Civil War had not been fought, the United States would have spared itself the huge cost in lives and resources caused by the war itself. The Civil War was the bloodiest war in history until the Great War began in Europe in 1914.

Without the war and reconstruction, the industrialization that was already underway in the United States might have proceeded more quickly. The United States might have overtaken Britain as the world's greatest economic power decades earlier than it actually did.

While the United States would probably have been better off, the Confederate States would have become a much different kind of country.

Similar to the haciendas or latifundios in Latin America, the plantations in the Confederate States allowed a small class of wealthy families to control the best land. As in Latin America, plantations pushed the majority of Southerners onto small marginal farms.

Slave labor made the plantations even more profitable and helped secure control over the land for the ruling families, who regarded themselves as an aristocracy whose scintillating existence justified the suffering of others.

In many ways, Latin America and the Confederacy had similar economies and social patterns. Is it unreasonable to think that if the Confederacy had remained separate from the United States, today it would be economically similar to Latin America? Would the Confederacy not have grown to be a kind of English-speaking, Baptist-dominated Latin American country?

Wealthy families would have sent their children abroad to be educated in elite schools, while the rest of the population would have lived in poverty and religious superstition. In the South, a philosophy of aristocracy prevailed, asserting that a society is superior overall if its wealthiest people are allowed to flourish at the expense the rest of society, and if the interests of the wealthy take highest priority.

Would the Confederacy not have grown to be a kind of English-speaking, Baptist-dominated Latin American country?

Southern aristocrats saw no value in building a strong middle class where citizens could prosper based on achievement. Ordinary citizens of the Confederacy would have been relatively impoverished farmhands with little chance for education or travel. Any progressive movement to build a prosperous, secular middle class in the Confederate States would have challenged the grip of the oligarchy, and the oligarchy would have resolutely squelched it.

Paradoxically, ordinary working people in the South have always resisted organized labor, even during times when labor unions would clearly have benefited them. Ordinary Southerners have consistently rejected any policy that would challenge the special advantages of an oligarchical ruling class. No doubt that would also have been true in the Confederacy if it had existed in the 20th century.

The Confederacy would probably have industrialized even more slowly than it actually did. Had it been a separate nation, industrialization might not have begun in earnest until the 1960s and 1970s, at the time when maquiladora factories were being built in Mexico to take advantage of cheap labor and lenient laws. The maquiladora factories might have been built along the Ohio River instead of the Rio Grande.

Oil reserves in Texas, Oklahoma, and Louisiana would have made the Confederate States an oil-exporting nation, but petroleum production in the Confederacy would have been owned by only a few people, and only they would have directly benefited from it. Wealth from petroleum would probably not have benefited society as a whole, as it does today in Norway, for example.

Another point worth mentioning is that during the 1930s, the government of the Confederate States would likely have been sympathetic toward the fascism and white supremacism of the Nazi Party in Germany.

The Confederate States would conceivably have joined the Axis during the Second World War, providing a base for the German military. The United States and Canada might then have been forced to fight on a bitter North American front against the Confederate States and Germany, with German missiles raining upon Philadelphia, New York, and Washington just as they rained upon London during the Blitz.

During the 1930s, the government of the Confederate States would likely have been sympathetic toward the fascism and white supremacism of the Nazi Party in Germany.

Had Lincoln chosen not to invade the Confederacy, the greatest losers would clearly have been African Americans.

Farm automation would have continued to displace slave labor on plantations, as it had already been doing before the 1860s, but perhaps more gradually. Although slavery in the Confederate States likely would have all but disappeared by the beginning of the 20th century, the government of the Confederate States would probably have used every means available to subjugate its African-ancestral population, including fierce apartheid laws.

In fact, apartheid laws were in force anyway until the 1960s, when the U.S. federal government finally began to intervene. The Confederacy would probably have been more repressive had it remained independent, and that conceivably might have led to a more radical change earlier than what actually happened.

In any case, facing the constant threat of an uprising, the Confederate ruling class would probably have enacted a police state during the 20th century, similar to the one that existed in South Africa. The police state would have given free rein to terrorist organizations such as the Ku Klux Klan to crush any resistance at the community level.

Just as in South Africa, real liberation for African Americans might not have come until later in the 20th century.

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Had the Confederacy been left to go its own way, the United States might have become more like Canada. It might now be less oligarchical, less militaristic, and less Christian fundamentalist than it is today. As in Canada, more emphasis might now be placed on upholding civic responsibility.

Beginning in Britain and Europe about 300 years ago, the question at the heart of much political debate has been whether power should be based on lineage or on merit. The Confederacy favored aristocracy. In Benjamin Franklin's America, meritocracy had a stronger foothold.

Societies based on promotion by merit have generally been more open, prosperous, and dynamic than societies based on aristocracy. In light of recent political trends that have given Southern voters more power, it's clear that the United States still has not fully settled the question of aristocracy versus meritocracy.

Michael Webb, February, 2006

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