What should Lincoln better have done in 1861

Piedone

Sergeant
Joined
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?
 

BuckeyeWarrior

Sergeant
Joined
Jan 1, 2020
Location
Ohio
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 . . . .
The letter the rebel representatives presented to the state department leaves no room for negotiation. They proclaim that the "confederacy" is a separate nation...period.

"In that communication Messrs. Forsyth and Crawford inform the secretary of State that they have been duly accredited by the Government of the Confederate States of America as commissioners to the Government of the United States, and they set forth the objects of their attendance at Washington. They observe that seven States of the American Union, in the exercise of a right inherent in every free people, have withdrawn, through conventions of their people, from the United States, reassumed the attributes of sovereign power, and formed a government of their own, and that those Confederate States now constitute an independent nation, de facto and de jure and possess a government perfect in all its parts, and fully endowed with all the means of self-support.'

Seward's response to them is exactly what Lincoln said during his inaugural.

"The Secretary of State frankly confesses that he understands the events which have recently occurred, and the condition of political affairs which actually exists in the part of the Union to which his attention has thus been directed, very differently from the aspect in which they are presented by Messrs Forsyth and crawford. He sees in them, not a rightful and accomplished revolution and an independent nation, with an established government, but rather a perversion of a temporary and partisan excitement to the inconsiderate purposes of an unjustifiable and unconstitutional aggression upon the rights and the authority vested in the Federal Government, and hitherto benignly exercised, as from their very nature they always must so be exercised, for the maintenance of the Union, the preservation of liberty, and the security, peace, welfare, happiness, and aggrandizement of the American people. The Secretary of State, therefore, avows to Messrs. Forsyth and Crawford that he looks patiently, but confidently, for the cure of evils which have resulted from proceedings so unnecessary, so unwise, so unusual, and so unnatural, not to irregular negotiations, having in view new and untried relations with agencies unknown to and acting in derogation of the Constitution and laws, but to regular and considerate action of the people of those States, in cooperation with their brethren in the other States, through the Congress of the United States, and such extraordinary conventions, if there shall be need thereof, as the Federal Constitution contemplates and authorizes to be assembled."

There is zero room for negotiation from those two starting points.
 
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 . . . .
The difference was at Hampton Roads both sides were recognized legally as belligerents which allowed representative to meet and discuss terms. In April 1861 neither "side" was yet recognized as a belligerent.
 

trice

Colonel
Joined
May 2, 2006
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) ?
Here is the essential problem:
  • Lincoln was willing to have unofficial talks, just unwilling to start by conceding the independence of the Confederacy
  • Davis insisted upon recognition of Confederate independence as the starting point of the talks.
For a view of the interaction of the Confederate commissioners and the State Department:
I would also like to think that talks could have accomplished something here. The problem is that Lincoln enters office with almost four months of aggressive, illegal acts by the States of this Confederacy on the books and an immediate demand that he recognize their independence before starting talks. It is hard to see what Lincoln can do when "the South" demands he surrender to start out.
 

Jantzen64

Corporal
Joined
Aug 10, 2019
The letter the rebel representatives presented to the state department leaves no room for negotiation. They proclaim that the "confederacy" is a separate nation...period.

"In that communication Messrs. Forsyth and Crawford inform the secretary of State that they have been duly accredited by the Government of the Confederate States of America as commissioners to the Government of the United States, and they set forth the objects of their attendance at Washington. They observe that seven States of the American Union, in the exercise of a right inherent in every free people, have withdrawn, through conventions of their people, from the United States, reassumed the attributes of sovereign power, and formed a government of their own, and that those Confederate States now constitute an independent nation, de facto and de jure and possess a government perfect in all its parts, and fully endowed with all the means of self-support.'

Seward's response to them is exactly what Lincoln said during his inaugural.

"The Secretary of State frankly confesses that he understands the events which have recently occurred, and the condition of political affairs which actually exists in the part of the Union to which his attention has thus been directed, very differently from the aspect in which they are presented by Messrs Forsyth and crawford. He sees in them, not a rightful and accomplished revolution and an independent nation, with an established government, but rather a perversion of a temporary and partisan excitement to the inconsiderate purposes of an unjustifiable and unconstitutional aggression upon the rights and the authority vested in the Federal Government, and hitherto benignly exercised, as from their very nature they always must so be exercised, for the maintenance of the Union, the preservation of liberty, and the security, peace, welfare, happiness, and aggrandizement of the American people. The Secretary of State, therefore, avows to Messrs. Forsyth and Crawford that he looks patiently, but confidently, for the cure of evils which have resulted from proceedings so unnecessary, so unwise, so unusual, and so unnatural, not to irregular negotiations, having in view new and untried relations with agencies unknown to and acting in derogation of the Constitution and laws, but to regular and considerate action of the people of those States, in cooperation with their brethren in the other States, through the Congress of the United States, and such extraordinary conventions, if there shall be need thereof, as the Federal Constitution contemplates and authorizes to be assembled."

There is zero room for negotiation from those two starting points.
I found it interesting that, in explaining their view of the current status of the Confederacy, the language used in the introductory letter accompanying the commissioners is more evocative of the natural right of rebellion than the legal right of secession:
Seven States of the late Federal Union, having in the exercise of the inherent right of every free people to change or reform their political institutions, and through conventions of their people withdrawn from the United States and reassumed the attributes of sovereign power delegated to it, have formed a government of their own. The Confederate States constitute an independent nation, de facto and de jure, and possess a government perfect in all its parts, and endowed with all the means of self-support.

Not sure if I am reading too much into this or if it was consciously intended to blunt the anticipated "there is no such thing as secession" argument of the Lincoln/Seward.
 

John Winn

Major
Joined
Mar 13, 2014
Location
State of Jefferson
Here is the essential problem:
  • Lincoln was willing to have unofficial talks, just unwilling to start by conceding the independence of the Confederacy
  • Davis insisted upon recognition of Confederate independence as the starting point of the talks.
For a view of the interaction of the Confederate commissioners and the State Department:
I would also like to think that talks could have accomplished something here. The problem is that Lincoln enters office with almost four months of aggressive, illegal acts by the States of this Confederacy on the books and an immediate demand that he recognize their independence before starting talks. It is hard to see what Lincoln can do when "the South" demands he surrender to start out.
Yeah - pretty much it. Like I said, the idea of negotiations of some sort is a 'fantasy' of mine. Sometimes things work out in ways we wouldn't anticipate. Given that we're looking back on things I just wonder if, somehow, it might have happened differently (i.e. in some way that now doesn't seem likely or possible, given that we know what actually happened; remember they didn't know as they went along).
 

jackt62

Captain
Joined
Jul 28, 2015
Location
New York City
Traveling to Richmond after his inauguration and speaking before the Virginia legislature would have been helpful. It would have given him the lay of the land politically and alleviated some mistaken beliefs on both sides.
Not clear on that timing or what were the "mistaken beliefs." Lincoln was inaugurated on March 4, 1861 yet Virginia's delegates did not vote for secession until April 17th. In any case, Lincoln did not waver from his declared hands off policy towards slavery in states where it already existed, a policy that was clearly spelled out in the Republican Party platform of 1860, and in Lincoln's own statements before and after his inauguration. Lincoln's 1st inaugural address also set forth the policy of his new administration, which among other things, offered again that slavery pledge, called secession illegal, and vowed to preserve, protect, and defend federal installations if met by force.
 
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trice

Colonel
Joined
May 2, 2006
Yeah - pretty much it. Like I said, the idea of negotiations of some sort is a 'fantasy' of mine. Sometimes things work out in ways we wouldn't anticipate. Given that we're looking back on things I just wonder if, somehow, it might have happened differently (i.e. in some way that now doesn't seem likely or possible, given that we know what actually happened; remember they didn't know as they went along).
Given the anguish of the Civil War, I really wish I could propose a way it could have been avoided (by Lincoln, by anyone). I just can't figure out what Lincoln could reasonably have done in March of 1861 to resolve this smoldering mess short of war.
 

29thWisCoG

Corporal
Joined
Apr 12, 2021
Traveling to Richmond after his inauguration and speaking before the Virginia legislature would have been helpful. It would have given him the lay of the land politically and alleviated some mistaken beliefs on both sides.
I agree... Lincoln did meet with Col. Baldwin, a Virginia unionist, in early April 1861, but it was a private meeting and nothing came of it, much better to have gone to Richmond to meet with the state legislature.
 

John Winn

Major
Joined
Mar 13, 2014
Location
State of Jefferson
Given the anguish of the Civil War, I really wish I could propose a way it could have been avoided (by Lincoln, by anyone). I just can't figure out what Lincoln could reasonably have done in March of 1861 to resolve this smoldering mess short of war.
I agree. I can't really see how it could have gone otherwise (other than to just accept the division of the country and recognize the right to unilaterally secede). Given the cost, though, the fantasy of a 'maybe' creeps in sometimes. While I don't support some things Lincoln did I cannot see how he could have done otherwise regarding the immediate problem of the rebellion and think he had no other good choice as president. It's lonely at the top.
 

wausaubob

Colonel
Joined
Apr 4, 2017
Location
Denver, CO
Given the anguish of the Civil War, I really wish I could propose a way it could have been avoided (by Lincoln, by anyone). I just can't figure out what Lincoln could reasonably have done in March of 1861 to resolve this smoldering mess short of war.
Some type of coercion was coming. The only play available was to slow down secession in the middle 8 states. He achieved a good result in Kentucky, and the populist wing of the southern Democratic party, represented by Andrew Johnson helped in Tennessee. The outcome was fairly contested in Virginia. Any better result there is merely a matter of speculation.
Missouri and the west swung in behind Lincoln and British policy was mostly neutral. Those were significant positive results early in the war.
 

Piedone

Sergeant
Joined
Oct 8, 2020
The letter the rebel representatives presented to the state department leaves no room for negotiation. They proclaim that the "confederacy" is a separate nation...period. ....
Seward's response to them is exactly what Lincoln said during his inaugural.
Of course it‘s crystal clear that Seward could not accept them as representatives of a foreign government...well....
but don‘t you all think that one could find other ways to express it -
Seward‘s reaction sounds rather blunt (at least to me) - and it‘s before Fort Sumter.

Wouldn‘t that have been an occasion
1) to of course demonstrate some rigour regarding secession (which Seward did) -
2) but also to present an offer that both sides could get an understanding eg with compensated long-term emancipation or the proposal of a conference or at least to express some conviction that a peaceful solution should be possible
(because Seward‘s answer leaves absolutely no room whatsoever for anything but giving up or war)

I know I know...the Confederates maybe wouldn‘t have accepted something like that...
but Seward could not know for sure.

Of course we could say „why should any legitimate government deal with rebels THAT sympathetically“
(especially as many of the secessionists were everything but sympathetically to the government) -

but... well...was not everything better than war....?
 

BuckeyeWarrior

Sergeant
Joined
Jan 1, 2020
Location
Ohio
Of course it‘s crystal clear that Seward could not accept them as representatives of a foreign government...well....
but don‘t you all think that one could find other ways to express it -
Seward‘s reaction sounds rather blunt (at least to me) - and it‘s before Fort Sumter.

Wouldn‘t that have been an occasion
1) to of course demonstrate some rigour regarding secession (which Seward did) -
2) but also to present an offer that both sides could get an understanding eg with compensated long-term emancipation or the proposal of a conference or at least to express some conviction that a peaceful solution should be possible
(because Seward‘s answer leaves absolutely no room whatsoever for anything but giving up or war)

I know I know...the Confederates maybe wouldn‘t have accepted something like that...
but Seward could not know for sure.

Of course we could say „why should any legitimate government deal with rebels THAT sympathetically“
(especially as many of the secessionists were everything but sympathetically to the government) -

but... well...was not everything better than war....?
No, not everything was better than war. Allowing America to be split apart would not be better than war. Allowing slavery to expand would not be better than war. There are probably more things that would not have been better than war.

Unlike most people on this board I am glad the war happened and gave us the results it did. In my opinion if the south had not rebelled our system of government would have allowed the slave holding states to block any emancipation efforts for many years. We may have had slaver in America all the way until the early 1900s...or even later. That would have been much worse than war and made a mockery of our Declaration of Independence.
 

BuckeyeWarrior

Sergeant
Joined
Jan 1, 2020
Location
Ohio
Absolutely -
but - please excuse me - that is not my point.
I am wondering if (theoretically) there would have been a chance to steer clear of all of that.
In my opinion the only way to avoid war would be to recognize the confederacy as a separate nation. If Lincoln did that it would set a precedent that a state can leave the union whenever they liked. As Buchanan said it would mean our nation is built on a foundation of sand.

It would also most likely result in future wars between the USA and CSA. It could also possibly lead to further break offs and even more countries forming that would result in more wars. Just like in Europe.
 
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NedBaldwin

Major
Joined
Feb 19, 2011
Location
California
...was not everything better than war....?
I feel there are two approaches to avoiding war:

Carrot -- offer them something appealing so they reconsider, hoping they will decide to give the Republicans a chance at governing with the hope that the benefits of the concessions outweigh the risks of war. This is the Crittenden compromise, Corwin amendment, etc approach. Lincoln tried some of this; it wasnt going to make them stop and IMHO embolded them.

Stick -- more firmly explain the secession is a no and that resistance to the law will be dealt with harshly (this is the Zach Taylor/Andrew Jackson approach); even point out that the New York legislature has already pledged whatever "aid in men and money " might be needed to put you down and it has 10x the free population of South Carolina, and if you chose to fight me you will lose the very thing you claim to be desperately defending, so smarten up and stop now before I bring the pain
 

wausaubob

Colonel
Joined
Apr 4, 2017
Location
Denver, CO
In my opinion the only way to avoid way would be to recognize the confederacy as a separate nation. If Lincoln did that it would set a precedent that a a state can leave the union whenever they liked. As Buchanan said it would mean our nation is built on a foundation of sand.

It would also most likely result in future wars between the USA and CSA. It could also possibly lead to further break offs and even more countries forming that would result in more wars. Just like in Europe.
There were options. Recognize the four Atlantic states were out of the union, and sue to get a court determination of the legality. Assert that the rest reverted to federal territory without proper state governments and take action to reassert federal control. Treat Texas as a special case and continue to negotiate with the Texans. Intervention in Texas would probably eventually be based on protecting the loyalist minority.
 

trice

Colonel
Joined
May 2, 2006
Of course it‘s crystal clear that Seward could not accept them as representatives of a foreign government...well....
but don‘t you all think that one could find other ways to express it -
Seward‘s reaction sounds rather blunt (at least to me) - and it‘s before Fort Sumter.

Wouldn‘t that have been an occasion
1) to of course demonstrate some rigour regarding secession (which Seward did) -
2) but also to present an offer that both sides could get an understanding eg with compensated long-term emancipation or the proposal of a conference or at least to express some conviction that a peaceful solution should be possible
(because Seward‘s answer leaves absolutely no room whatsoever for anything but giving up or war)

I know I know...the Confederates maybe wouldn‘t have accepted something like that...
but Seward could not know for sure.

Of course we could say „why should any legitimate government deal with rebels THAT sympathetically“
(especially as many of the secessionists were everything but sympathetically to the government) -

but... well...was not everything better than war....?
Seward did meet with them unofficially. Seward can be blamed for thinking he would get Lincoln to change his mind on some things and misleading the Southern commissioners -- but the Southern commissioners were also misleading Seward, more than happy to let him think things they knew would never happen. Neither side is really clean and honest in this.

In April, Lincoln pulled Seward up short, letting him know that the President was the boss, not the Secretary of State. Seward started backing away from the commissioners about April 5th and had ended his private discussions by April 8th.

Davis had set this up knowing that the US could not accept the papers he sent. He did something similar when he sent the commissioners to the 1865 Peace Conference -- giving them instructions that essentially prevented a deal from happening.
 
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