Wednesday 27 October 2010
A New Birth of Freedom
It will soon be the one hundred and fiftieth anniversary of arguably the most important presidential election in American history, that of November 6, 1860. It was an election that saw the triumph of Abraham Lincoln over the Democrats, divided between Stephen A. Douglas and John C Breckinridge, his main rivals.
Lincoln was standing for the Republicans, a relatively new force in American politics, to begin with a coalition of interests, the most important of which was the vestiges of the older Whig Party, rather than a coherent political entity in the strictest sense. But, so far as the Southern States were concerned, the interest that the Republicans represented most was hostility to slavery, their own ‘peculiar institution’. The election of Lincoln was therefore the preamble first to secession and then to Civil War.
After English history my greatest passion is for the history of the United States, a kind of second home to me. I’m particularly intrigued by the early part of the nation’s story, that between the Declaration of Independence in 1776 and the outbreak of the Civil War in 1861. It took the Civil War to test one crucial principle: that the United States was indeed a nation; that, in the final analysis, the Federal authority took precedence over State and sectional interests; that the Constitution could not be abandoned in the light of naked self-interest. If I can put this another way: before 1861 the United States itself was a coalition, an uneasy compromise structured around some stark contradictions. And there was no contradiction greater in a free nation than slavery.
The Preamble to the United States Constitution contains one of the most stirring declarations of principle ever written;
We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.
The problem was that the Union, as it stood, was anything but perfect. The free States of the North were in continual danger of clashing with the slave States of the South. Time and again particular problems were simply shovelled away, covered in uneasy compromises that simply postponed a reckoning to a future date. Though people in the North were uncomfortable with slavery the Abolitionist movement was no more than a vociferous minority. In other words, most Northerners could live with slavery provided it remained where it was. But the most divisive issue of all was caused by Western expansion, raising one vital question; were the new territories to be free or slave?
In 1854, in what was to be the greatest and worst compromise in the nation’s history, Congress passed the Kansas-Nebraska Act, the work of Senator Douglas, Lincoln’s rival in 1860, which opened up the vast areas west of the Mississippi, previously free soil, to the prospect of slavery. This was the cue for the emergence of the Republican Party, as I have said a coalition, one representing a range of anti-Nebraska interests, all the way from abolitionists on the one wing to racist free soilers on the other, people who wanted to stop all black settlement in the West.
Despite this, or perhaps because of it, Lincoln emerged not as a radical abolitionist candidate, which he most assuredly was not, Southern perceptions to the contrary, but as a trimmer, someone who was prepared to compromise, someone whose caution was likely to appeal to more conservative voters.
When the Republicans met in Chicago in the spring of 1860 to choose a nominee for the presidency Senator William H Seward, the former governor of New York City, was widely expected to be selected. But he was considered too radical, especially in the light of a speech he had given stressing that the struggle between free and slave societies was an ‘irrepressible conflict.’ Lincoln emerged instead, simply because he was able to combine moral radicalism, a principled opposition to slavery, with legal conservatism. Slavery would remain, in other words, but remain where it was.
As far as the ‘peculiar institution’ was concerned the election of Lincoln was not a complete disaster for the South. But the prospect of a ‘Black Republican’, a term widely used to describe members of the party, in the White House caused a widespread panic. One by one the slave States jumped from the ‘more perfect Union’, jumped, it has to be said, in ill-considered haste. South Carolina was the first to start the snowball of secession rolling, declaring that it had rejoined the free nations. James L. Petigru, one of the state’s most prominent jurists, remarked caustically that South Carolina was too small for a republic yet too large for a lunatic asylum.
He was not the sole voice of reason here. There were others, plantation owners among them, who argued for a wait and see policy. After all, the Republicans did not control Congress or the Supreme Court, notoriously conservative and favourable to Southern interests. Lincoln, moreover, was not an abolitionist. But the mood was against them. The whole of the lower South became one giant lunatic asylum. Secession was the first disaster; the firing on the Federal garrison at Fort Sumter in Charleston harbour, effectively a declaration of war, was the second.
But for this slavery may have survived in the South for perhaps another two or three decades, like Brazil, but I personally cannot conceive that the United States would have entered the twentieth century with the ‘peculiar institution’ still in place. In the end it was abolished by Lincoln, though not until the country was well into the Civil War. For him legal conservatism was indeed uppermost, holding to the principle that the Union was indivisible, that citizens did not have the right to withdraw and fire on other citizens simply because they did not like the outcome of an election, fairly fought and fairly won. Otherwise government of the people, by the people, for the people really would have the shortest lease on the face of the earth.