What should Lincoln better have done in 1861

Piedone

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Oct 8, 2020
Please excuse me for once again flooding the forum with another question -

yet there is a highly interesting debate going on about “what was in Lincoln’s - why couldn’t he just let the South secede” from which I really have learned a lot now - but as always (sigh)... this led me to just another question:

Could or should Lincoln have acted differently during his first weeks in office.
Had he a chance to avoid the war?
What would have been the best way for him to handle the emerging crisis?
 

John Winn

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I think he could have avoided a war but only by not fulfilling his duty as president and causing the dissolution of his country. Allowing secession (as it occurred - i.e. not by act of Congress) would have set a precedent and other unhappy states could have just walked off in the future and we'd end up like Europe.

I'll admit, though, that I do sometimes wonder if some kind of attempt at diplomacy might have been in order. I understand that he didn't want to recognize the Confederacy but my fantasy is always that just maybe those initial states could have eventually been convinced to come back had he tried talking to them. But maybe not.

In short, I think Lincoln was in the classic rock-hard place situation with a months-long crisis he inherited. It's too easy to criticize way after the events.
 

Piedone

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Hm...what do you think...

if he openly expressed his support for the Crittenden compromise as early as possible - would that have helped (yet could he do that? his party wouldn’t have been too happy about such a move guess....)?

Or could he have more clearly defined his ideas about concrete controversial issues eg how far Congress should be entitled to address slavery issues - eg if he expressed his belief that some restrictions should be introduced here.

Or would it have been helpful to do something of the former and at the same time proof greater resolution to proceed against secessionist tendencies eg with sacking officers early that tendered (or pondered to tender) their resignation and initiate court martial procedures?

I know he conferred directly with Jefferson Davis about Fort Sumter - would it have helped if he arranged a conference to hear what the South needed to stop secession? (Alas...I do not know if he had the authority to do it - or if Jefferson Davis would have been prepared to answer such a question...)
 

Jantzen64

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I apologize in advance if this amounts to thread-jacking (and will accept any guidance from the mods on this), and I do understand that you are asking the question in earnest, but I don't believe that questions like these - made in isolation - are conducive to fully understanding the circumstances that our country faced during these crucial months. To be clear, it is appropriate to assess Lincoln's statecraft - or lack thereof - during these months. But I think exploring this question is only useful when examining the other side of the coin, so to speak. What could leaders in the South (Confederacy or the Confederacy-leaning states) done better or differently to avert the situation? Rarely do I see this side of the question get raised.

In November 1860, Lincoln won the election. No allegations of "rigged system" or fraudulent result (except perhaps that Lincoln was not even on most ballots in the South). Yet, when did leaders of the South ever indicate that they accepted the results of that election and would try to work within the system as the minority party? Lincoln had made it clear that he was not going to challenge slavery within each individual state. Yet, the Cotton States seceded before Lincoln was even inaugurated. What could they have done differently? Could they have pledged their loyal support to Lincoln and then tried to work out compromises about slavery in the territories (or employed delaying tactics until the next election)? Could they have taken note that most of Europe had abolished slavery and so taken the lead on proposing some pathway for abolition in the States (e.g., compensated emancipation)? Could they have made some form of motion within Congress for multilateral secession - an agreed parting of the ways among the States? Of course they could have, but didn't.

Respectfully, questions like the one you pose (and again, I understand you are raising it in good faith) seem to me to hold Lincoln to a higher standard than Southern leaders; i.e., it's okay for Southern leaders to disregard the election and attempt to form their own country, while Lincoln - who just won the election based on a clearly articulated platform - somehow has to act like he lost and compromise on that platform as a condition of peace, unity, etc., and without any guarantee that South will engage as a loyal minority? This seems to me to be a "heads I win, tails you lose type of scenario." So, while there may be some things he could have/should have done better, let's not forget that Lincoln was reacting to conscious decision by at least the Cotton States to separate from the Union on the basis of losing a democratically-held election.
 

Pat Answer

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As I have said many times before in the forum, there is really no compromise between two positions: (1) the CSA is an independent and sovereign nation and (2) states subject to the authority of the US federal government have unilaterally and illegally rebelled. The crisis of 1860-1861 in its simplest form is that secessionists were asking Lincoln to abdicate the authority to which he was asking them to submit. I stand in full agreement with @Jantzen64 that this is the true context in which the question should be discussed. It is easier to consider this or that decision in isolation when one has, as it were, already picked a side - as those who were facing the actual situation in 1861 had to. What is often lost is how locked the political situation was as a whole; for things not to come to blows eventually one side had to cave.
 

jackt62

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In his July 4, 1862 Message to Congress, Lincoln himself set forth his thinking in regards to the handling of the secession crisis:

"It was with the deepest regret that the Executive found the duty of employing the war power in defense of the Government forced upon him. He could but perform this duty or surrender the existence of the Government. No compromise by public servants could in this case be a cure; not that compromises are not often proper, but that no popular government can long survive a marked precedent that those who carry an election can only save the government from immediate destruction by giving up the main point upon which the people gave the election."

Doing anything less than attempting to preserve and protect the security of the few federal installations that had not been seized by the secessionist states, would have been an abrogation of Lincoln's oath of office.
 

Zack

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@John Winn makes a really good point here - the secession crisis had already been running for almost 3 months when Lincoln took office. South Carolina seceded on December 20 and Lincoln was inaugurated March 4.

And I think @Jantzen64 makes a really good point as well - Lincoln could try any diplomatic approach he liked; would Southern leaders even listen to him or take him seriously? It's hard to negotiate when the other side won't come to the table.
 

Piedone

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I apologize in advance if this amounts to thread-jacking (and will accept any guidance from the mods on this), and I do understand that you are asking the question in earnest, but I don't believe that questions like these - made in isolation - are conducive to fully understanding the circumstances that our country faced during these crucial months. ...
Thank you very much for your highly instructive answer. Of course that‘s everything but thread-jacking.
I am also also convinced that the people that denied Douglas the necessary majority for his nomination at Charleston were hell-bound to oppose any president that even touched the question of slavery.

The reason I was asking that question are the considerable loyalist tendencies in the Upper South that initially were able to prevent a shift of their states. They were rather rapidly swept away after Lincoln became president - and I am just wondering if he could have done anything to prevent that. I know that he tried hard to especially keep Virginia loyal but I wondered if he used appropriate methods or should have tried a different approach.

I deem it very improbable that the secession movement could have solidified that much if the border states and especially Virginia wouldn’t have joined. And even if they had carried secession of the Lower South in spite of Virginia and maybe even NC not joining their chances to succeed would have been at best negligible.
 

wausaubob

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Domestically, his first priorities were the defense of Washington, support of the w Virginia resistance to succession, and the support of Kentucky's neutrality. He could not have done it better. Playing for time was the best possible strategy.
The US would not have won the Civil War in the 1860's decade if the dominant world power of that era, Great Britain had intervened. Although the US was not a signatory to the Treaty of Paris, the US policy was to comply with international law. That was a major step towards keeping Great Britain neutral.
Firming up that attempt to comply with the requirements of a blockade, before Slidell and Mason could get to Europe, was masterful.
As for the secession crisis itself, there was nothing he could do. The cards had been dealt before he took office. That hand of cards was lost. All he could do was move on to the next step, which at the time seemed like some sort of limited war.
 

wausaubob

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The only thing that has ever looked possible was a thorough, and explicit program for how the Republicans would eventually eliminate slavery. He could not have compromised on the issue of territorial expansion of slavery. But he could have announced that the plan would include abolition in DC, modification of the Fugitive Slave Act, restarting regulation of the interstate slave trade, and supporting state action to abolish slavery, where the people favored that action. All of these things would take time. So there was no immediate plan for abolition, it would be done on a more gradual New Jersey type time table. He could have acknowledged that 10 years was too short a time, while still saying that there are men alive in 1861 that will see the end of slavery in the US in their lifetime. That probably would not have penetrated the information system of the deep south, but it might have slowed the wave of secession just a little in the middle 8 states.
 

jackt62

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While Lincoln could not compromise on the issue of expanding slavery into territories where it did not yet exist, Lincoln did promote his compensated emancipation plan, which in retrospect would have probably been the most sensible way to retain or bring back seceded states. Even after the outbreak of hostilities, Lincoln continued to champion his plan to the loyal slave states, in the hopes that a successful implementation of compensated emancipation would be a model for the southern states to return to the Union. Unfortunately (with the exception of the federal District of Columbia), none of the loyal states agreed with the idea of compensated emancipation.
 

Piedone

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, Lincoln did promote his compensated emancipation plan
Please excuse my probably dumb question: I always thought he offered that solution for the first time in 1862 - but from your answer I conclude he did it earlier. Am I right?
Do you know when and how he announced this proposal publicly (before 1862)?
 
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Compensated Emancipation was a well tested idea for eliminating slavery gradually.

"The British Empire enacted a policy of compensated emancipation (about 40%[3]) for its colonies in 1833, followed by France in 1848, Denmark, in 1849, and the Netherlands in 1863. Most South American and Caribbean nations emancipated slavery through compensated schemes in the 1850s and 1860s, while Brazil passed a plan for gradual, compensated emancipation in 1871, and Cuba followed in 1880 after having enacted freedom at birth a decade earlier....."
In the US "Northern states followed a course of gradual emancipation." ....

https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Com...d Missouri), for compensated emancipation.
 

jackt62

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Please excuse my probably dumb question: I always thought he offered that solution for the first time in 1862 - but from your answer I conclude he did it earlier. Am I right?
Do you know when and how he announced this proposal publicly (before 1862)?
While I don't have at my fingertips, the various speeches and writings of Lincoln dating certainly from his time as a US Representative in the 1840's, Lincoln was a fervent believer in the Constitutional property and state right guarantees that enabled slavery to exist. Lincoln long advocated his belief that the only way to overcome these "rights" to human property in a legal manner would be for either the federal or state governments to offer compensation to slaveowners, who would then willingly emancipate their slaves. Lincoln's approach (which was also combined with colonization of freed slaves) was publicly known but it was not until he assumed the Presidency was he able to offer specific plans for compensated emancipation, starting with the loyal state of Delaware.
 

wausaubob

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While I don't have at my fingertips, the various speeches and writings of Lincoln dating certainly from his time as a US Representative in the 1840's, Lincoln was a fervent believer in the Constitutional property and state right guarantees that enabled slavery to exist. Lincoln long advocated his belief that the only way to overcome these "rights" to human property in a legal manner would be for either the federal or state governments to offer compensation to slaveowners, who would then willingly emancipate their slaves. Lincoln's approach (which was also combined with colonization of freed slaves) was publicly known but it was not until he assumed the Presidency was he able to offer specific plans for compensated emancipation, starting with the loyal state of Delaware.
Colonization was unrealistic. The policy should have been that much of what followed slavery would be determined by the states.
Between the two extremes, a bloody slave revolt, and a race war extermination, the US policy should have been clear, law and order will prevail and the ex slaves will be a permanent part of the US.
 

BuckeyeWarrior

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There is absolutely nothing Lincoln could have done better. He handled the situation he was dealt with as well as anyone could. He stood firm on the well established principle that the constitution was not a compact of states but a creation of the people of America. He took no precipitate action and gave the southern states time to come to their senses. He clearly and firmly laid out his position in his first inaugural address. When he realized that the soldiers at Fort Sumter would soon run out of provisions and have to abandoned their position he sent a relief expedition and informed the governor of the states that is was coming.

What we had in this situation was an immovable object meeting an irresistible force. Lincoln rightly understood that unilateral secession was unconstitutional and nothing more than rebellion. He had numerous supreme court rulings on the nature of the constitution, precedents set by former Presidents, and the words of the father of the constitution, James Madison, to this effect.

The southern rebels had been deluded to believe in the compact theory of the constitution, in spite of the overwhelming evidence to the contrary.

The rebels would not abandon their incorrect view and Lincoln could not violate his oath. So the war came.
 

trice

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I think he could have avoided a war but only by not fulfilling his duty as president and causing the dissolution of his country. Allowing secession (as it occurred - i.e. not by act of Congress) would have set a precedent and other unhappy states could have just walked off in the future and we'd end up like Europe.

I'll admit, though, that I do sometimes wonder if some kind of attempt at diplomacy might have been in order. I understand that he didn't want to recognize the Confederacy but my fantasy is always that just maybe those initial states could have eventually been convinced to come back had he tried talking to them. But maybe not.

In short, I think Lincoln was in the classic rock-hard place situation with a months-long crisis he inherited. It's too easy to criticize way after the events.
There are real-world problems with talking to them officially.

Jeff Davis had sent his representatives with papers that could not be accepted. If Lincoln/Seward officially accept those documents and the men who carry them as representatives of this Confederate States of America, they declare secession an accomplished fact with those seven States already out of the Union and officially a sovereign nation. Lincoln and Seward were canny enough to realize that and avoid it.

Davis had his problems, but he was not a dummy. He knew what he was doing before he sent the representatives.

So the response of Lincoln's administration (not accepting the representatives officially, but having Seward meet with them unofficially) is about the best that could be expected or hoped for in the situation.

Seward -- obviously -- had not figured out yet that Seward was not President and that Lincoln was the boss and intended to act like the boss. Lincoln had to haul back on the reins and show Seward who was in charge. I understand the Southern representatives feeling abused, but it was Seward misrepresenting things, not Lincoln. In any case, the Southern representatives barely made a diplomatic effort. I think they were in Washington only a few days. It is only five weeks from Lincoln's inauguration day to the attack on Fort Sumter.

Lincoln felt -- like Buchanan before him -- that the President had no authority to recognize secession as a legal fact. Congress might, but the President could not in their view. With that as a starting point, the duty of the President becomes to maintain the Union first while perhaps facilitating negotiations between the supposedly seceding States and the Congress (no matter where that might lead).

It is certainly a rock-and-a-hard-place situation. Lincoln was trying to gain time while building a consensus. Davis, OTOH, saw that he needed to convince the Upper South to secede if the new Confederacy were to survive and thrive. He attempted persuasion (rhetoric, promises of political favor, vague hints of future consequences). Seeing a need for urgent action, he ordered the attack on Fort Sumter -- and the war began.
 

John Winn

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There are real-world problems with talking to them officially.

Jeff Davis had sent his representatives with papers that could not be accepted. If Lincoln/Seward officially accept those documents and the men who carry them as representatives of this Confederate States of America, they declare secession an accomplished fact with those seven States already out of the Union and officially a sovereign nation. Lincoln and Seward were canny enough to realize that and avoid it.

Davis had his problems, but he was not a dummy. He knew what he was doing before he sent the representatives.

So the response of Lincoln's administration (not accepting the representatives officially, but having Seward meet with them unofficially) is about the best that could be expected or hoped for in the situation.

Seward -- obviously -- had not figured out yet that Seward was not President and that Lincoln was the boss and intended to act like the boss. Lincoln had to haul back on the reins and show Seward who was in charge. I understand the Southern representatives feeling abused, but it was Seward misrepresenting things, not Lincoln. In any case, the Southern representatives barely made a diplomatic effort. I think they were in Washington only a few days. It is only five weeks from Lincoln's inauguration day to the attack on Fort Sumter.

Lincoln felt -- like Buchanan before him -- that the President had no authority to recognize secession as a legal fact. Congress might, but the President could not in their view. With that as a starting point, the duty of the President becomes to maintain the Union first while perhaps facilitating negotiations between the supposedly seceding States and the Congress (no matter where that might lead).

It is certainly a rock-and-a-hard-place situation. Lincoln was trying to gain time while building a consensus. Davis, OTOH, saw that he needed to convince the Upper South to secede if the new Confederacy were to survive and thrive. He attempted persuasion (rhetoric, promises of political favor, vague hints of future consequences). Seeing a need for urgent action, he ordered the attack on Fort Sumter -- and the war began.
Yes, certainly after the shooting at Ft. Sumter there was nothing else to do than what Lincoln did.

As for talking, I just sometimes wonder if unofficial talks might have somehow continued. I mean, the police talk to hostage takers without officially accepting what said offenders are doing. Anyway, it's just something I sometimes wonder about; might it have worked (before a Sumter-like event happened) ?
 

Jantzen64

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Yes, certainly after the shooting at Ft. Sumter there was nothing else to do than what Lincoln did.

As for talking, I just sometimes wonder if unofficial talks might have somehow continued. I mean, the police talk to hostage takers without officially accepting what said offenders are doing. Anyway, it's just something I sometimes wonder about; might it have worked (before a Sumter-like event happened) ?
In following up on last night's exchange, I ran across this memorandum submitted by the Confederate Commissioners who Davis authorized to meet with Lincoln around the time of the inauguration. https://avalon.law.yale.edu/19th_century/csa_m031561a.asp. It's an interesting read, and IMO it supports @Pat Answer's characterization of situation in terms of the battle line's being drawn at the time. Seward and Lincoln would not officially "meet" with them as it would recognize the legality of secession, and on the other side of the coin, they were insisting upon recognition of their status as as condition of those discussions. I understand the legal significance of these competing positions, but am not sure whether there would have been a work-around for this type of diplomatic impasse. Certainly the sides were able to meet at the Hampton Roads Peace Conference in 1865 . . . .
 
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