Abraham Lincoln and the Necessity of the Civil War

by | Jan 13, 2008

Was the Civil War was unnecessary and Lincoln "did this just to enhance and get rid of the original intent of the republic."?

One of the more minor Presidential candidates, Ron Paul (Representative from Texas), appeared last month on Meet the Press with Tim Russert. Aside from enunciating a rather incoherent jumble of ideas about what he would do in the horribly unlikely calamity of his being elected President, Mr. Paul enunciated a political heresy (and a historical heresy), which I wish to address here.

Below is the transcribed exchange which I will be referring to throughout my comments:

MR. RUSSERT: I was intrigued by your comments about Abe Lincoln. “According to Paul, Abe Lincoln should never have gone to war; there were better ways of getting rid of slavery.”

REP. PAUL: Absolutely. Six hundred thousand Americans died in a senseless civil war. No, he shouldn’t have gone, gone to war. He did this just to enhance and get rid of the original intent of the republic. I mean, it was the–that iron, iron fist..

MR. RUSSERT: We’d still have slavery.

REP. PAUL: Oh, come on, Tim. Slavery was phased out in every other country of the world. And the way I’m advising that it should have been done is do like the British empire did. You, you buy the slaves and release them. How much would that cost compared to killing 600,000 Americans and where it lingered for 100 years? I mean, the hatred and all that existed. So every other major country in the world got rid of slavery without a civil war. I mean, that doesn’t sound too radical to me. That sounds like a pretty reasonable approach.

After this exchange, Mr. Russert went on to make Mr. Paul look foolish on numerous other, more current, issues. First of all, Mr. Paul is not the originator of this idea, nor even its most eloquent expositor. He is, however, the one with the most prominent perch upon which to shout such ideas to a public that (given the state of education and the general historical knowledge of most people) might not know any better. I am not opposed to Mr. Paul’s candidacy as such, he would be no more harmful than any of the other incompetents (on both sides) currently running for office (nor am I pining for the entrance of any third-party incompetents like Mr. Bloomberg or Mr. Nader). To confront inevitable claims of partisan bias against poor little Mr. Paul, I simply have no horse in the presidential race so far and cannot say I shall have one anytime soon. If and when I do, I shall let you know who and why.

But to the “point,” Mr. Paul was so eager to make in his exchange with Mr. Russert, that the Civil War was unnecessary and that Lincoln “did this just to enhance and get rid of the original intent of the republic.” Kudos to Mr. Paul for correctly identifying the form of government which we live under, I am almost certain that all other candidates would improperly identify the government type they are endeavoring to lead. However, this is where the kudos must stop. Mr. Paul’s comments are uninformed historically, contradictory, and ultimately revealing of a greater weakness and danger which lies within the modern “Libertarian” movement.

Could Lincoln have pursued a policy of compensated and gradual emancipation?

Historically speaking, Mr. Paul is quite right in saying that the death of over 600,000 men in the Civil War was horrifically tragic. However, to say those deaths and the war in which they occurred were “unnecessary” is a quixotically ahistorical and perversely amoral observation. The parallel he attempts to make in response to Mr. Russert’s assertion that “We’d still have slavery,” that the United States could have and should have followed the lead of Great Britain by pursuing a path of compensated emancipation (where the government pays slave owners the price of the slaves, essentially buying them, and then freeing them, though the British example was far more complex taking decades to actually eliminate slavery). The could and should aspects of this are different questions. Whether the country should have pursued such a policy is irrelevant if it could not actually pursue such a policy.

So the question which needs to be answered is: whether the United States, in March 1861 when Lincoln became president, could have pursued a policy of compensated and gradual emancipation?

The answer historically speaking is not only an unequivocal “NO!!!” That answer comes not from Lincoln, who at his most radical before 1861 only ever suggested compensated gradual emancipation plus the subsidized emigration of the free blacks to colony somewhere, perhaps Africa, but from the people who attempted to destroy the government and inaugurated the war Mr. Paul excoriates as “unnecessary.”

In order for any emancipation scheme to peacefully have worked it would either have required the people and leadership of the Southern states to concede that slavery was wrong and needed to be done away with (which they most emphatically did not, quite the reverse, by 1861 it was not a radical opinion in the South to claim that slavery was a “positive good”) or at least for them to accept the ability of the federal government to regulate the issue, even against their wishes (which they were even more emphatically against).

Lincoln and the Republicans did not even claim an ability to regulate slavery in the Southern states, merely an ability to prevent slavery from spreading into the territories. Lincoln was not even inaugurated into the presidency before the entire lower south “seceded” and Jefferson Davis was in “office” as President of the so-called “Confederate States of America.”

The spark with which the war began was not Lincoln marching an army into the South to restore order as certain of his predecessors would have most certainly done, but was the bombardment of a federal fort by the rebels. To have not responded at that moment with the use of force would have been to concede that the government did not have the right to govern and protect its own property, what sort of government would that have been? It would have been no government at all, and therein lies what Mr. Paul was most likely going for.

Regardless of how historically inept Mr. Paul’s claims are, they are in themselves contradictory. He says:

“Absolutely. Six hundred thousand Americans died in a senseless civil war. No, he shouldn’t have gone, gone to war. He did this just to enhance and get rid of the original intent of the republic.”

Moving on from the baseless assertion that the Civil War was “senseless,” what does Mr. Paul mean when he says that Lincoln went to war to “enhance and get rid of the original intent of the republic”? Perhaps he misspoke. Otherwise, this statement is a blatant contradiction, how could Lincoln wage war to enhance and simultaneously get rid of the original intent of the republic? But, more importantly, how could putting down a rebellion waged explicitly for the idea that slavery was a positive good and essential to the survival of liberty (if you don’t wish to take my word for this please read Alexander Stephens’ “cornerstone” speech, he was the Vice-President of the so-called “Confederate States of America”), be against the original intent of the republic?

Does Paul not believe the country was founded on the idea that all men were created equal? Does he not believe that all men have inalienable rights, among them to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness? These are what generally passes as the original intent of the republic.

How does crushing a rebellion dedicated to the exact opposite ideals and ending the great contradiction of the founding (slavery) constitute an assault on the republic? Lincoln exercised extraordinary powers as Commander-in-Chief during that rebellion, but he did not do anything which either had not been done in previous emergencies or threats of rebellion or which had not been suggested as possibilities by those who thought about what would happen in the case of rebellion in the years leading up to the Civil War. It must ultimately be remembered that he faced the greatest crisis the country has ever faced and that given what he might have done and what many people begged and demanded that he should do, Lincoln acted very moderately and was remarkably restrained particularly when one considers the history of republics and civil wars. Lincoln was no Cromwell, no Caesar, no Franco.

Mr. Paul has waged a campaign for the presidency (specifically the republican party nomination) based largely on his anomalous position among his competitors in fundamental opposition to the war in Iraq, the war on terrorism more broadly, and seemingly any and all wars or war-related enterprises. His latest comments on Lincoln and the Civil War merely underline his irrational assault on war and the use of force, even in self-defense or for the protection of liberty (American or any other apparently).

War is horrible and as General Sherman said, it is “hell,” but he knew and Lincoln knew an obvious fact of reality that apparently Mr. Paul, along with a dangerous amount of his fellow citizens, has forgotten. There are things even more horrible than war, like the loss of life and liberty, like slavery. If we are not to at least remember favorably the necessary, I would argue heroic, examples like those set down by our founding fathers and subsequent leaders who followed them into glory, then we truly are lost. With Mr. Paul at the helm, it would be a classic case of the blind leading the blind. Then we shall truly know hell.

Alexander Marriott is currently a graduate student of the early republic at Clark University in Worcester, MA. He earned his B.A. in history in 2004 from the University of Nevada - Las Vegas, where he was an Op-Ed columnist for the UNLV Rebel Yell. Marriott grew up in Chicago and lived in Saudi Arabia for four and a half years and has resided in Las Vegas since 1996.

The views expressed above represent those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of the editors and publishers of Capitalism Magazine. Capitalism Magazine sometimes publishes articles we disagree with because we think the article provides information, or a contrasting point of view, that may be of value to our readers.

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