April 7, 2024

America has been blessed with some leaders of great nobility and vision. Washington and Lincoln stand out. Lincoln almost godlike in his depth of character and wisdom. It’s especially remarkable that such a fraught moment in our history brought forth a Lincoln rather than some exploitative demagogue (like you-know-who). Summoning our better angels rather than our demons.

Lincoln’s guiding light was saving the union. He once said that if that entailed ending slavery, he’d do it; if it required keeping slavery, he’d do that. His Gettysburg address cast the Civil War as fighting for democracy, the union being equated with democracy.

But was that really true?

Southern states had precipitated matters by seceding. “Let them go in peace,” some Northerners were saying. But not many, and it doesn’t seem Lincoln seriously considered it. Yet couldn’t “government of the people, by the people, for the people” have endured in a smaller union?

America’s South is, in many ways, a different country. That was certainly true before the Civil War, and remained so long after (as a Faulkner reader would know). More lately it seemed the South was finally normalizing, getting with the program, exemplified by removal of Confederate monuments. Yet look how much sturm und drang accompanied that.

And look at politics. Many Southern whites vote Republican because they see Democrats as the party of Blacks. Still not truly accepting their being countrymen; still, in the depths of their psyches, fighting the Civil War.

And if the eleven Confederate states had not been bludgeoned back into the union, America would be a different country. Dare I say a better one? Persistent southern mentalities are obstacles to progress along a waterfront of issues. Guns, to name one. Absent those eleven gun-loving states, we’d have long since enacted sane firearms laws, and gun violence would not be such a curse.

So maybe losing the South would have been good riddance. The rest of America going onward just fine, nicer and more enlightened. With far more manpower and productivity, we’d still have grown into an industrial, economic, and geopolitical superpower.

Of course it’s a truism that history can hinge on small contingencies, and the Civil War was a big one. Without it, today’s whole world would be different. Yet it’s hard to see it being worse.

Historian MacKinlay Kantor wrote a 1961 book, If the South Had Won the Civil War. (My ex-partner was fascinated by the notion; after she left, I finally found a copy, and sent it to her.) Kantor imagined the victorious Confederacy eventually evolving toward convergence with the USA, and reuniting. That seems over-optimistic.

A separate South would have been an economic backwater left on its own to grapple with its slavery problem. Not a pretty picture. The last nation to abolish slavery was Brazil, in 1888. How long could the CSA have sustained it? How much bloodshed would have eventuated? What would race relations there have looked like afterwards? Jim Crow and the KKK give some idea, but unrestrained by the U.S. federal government and Constitution.

Meantime, back to voting, would a 39-state America today be afflicted by Trump? He’d have no chance of winning. In fact his very name would be no more than a reality-TV footnote. While in today’s actual world he threatens the America of “better angels” that Lincoln idealized.

Something Lincoln could hardly have foreseen. But perhaps, in the long view of history, his stopping Southern secession was a tragic mistake. With the Trumpian chickens coming home to roost only a century-and-a-half later.