Discussion in 'Civil War History - General Discussion' started by gem, Nov 7, 2018.
What Was Lincoln's Best Option to Deal With States in Rebellion?
Best option? To follow the Constitution and his oath of office, which he did.
Try diplomacy. The Confederates tried to talk. It makes Lincoln look highly intransigent that he refused to respond.
There was no diplomacy alternative. The seceded states were either independent or they were not. Yes/no, black/white, 100/0, however you want to describe it, there was no middle ground, no give-a-little, get-a-little option on the fundamental issue.
IF the United States recognized southern independence, then they could negotiate details like trade and access to the territories.
If the United States did not recognize southern independence, there was nothing to negotiate.
Oh good grief, Lincoln has just time enough to find out where the potties are in the White House before a bunch of uppity slaveholders shows up with an ultimatum from a pretend government. About the time he gets the bed covers comfortable, said pretend government starts a war.
I don't see why negotiation couldn't have been tried. Lincoln didn't have to recognize the secessionists as a country; just talk to them to see if war could be avoided. Police and our government often negotiate with people we don't accept as acting legally. The only real risk would have been that the Confederacy could have used the negotiation time to further prepare to fight but, then, so could have Lincoln. I don't really think another month or so would have made any real difference.
As to what might get negotiated, well, just maybe Lincoln could have convinced at least one or two states to return or perhaps could have convinced them to attempt secession in some legally-accepted manner instead of unilaterally. In the end, I'm not so sure that just letting them go - but demanding payment for seized federal property - might have been the best option. I think that in time most of the seceded states would have come back to the fold and a terrible war that affected the country for a century afterward could have been avoided. Slavery would have continued but that might have happened anyway (e.g. some type of treaty) and wasn't really being directly challenged early on.
Allowing the seceding states to leave would have been a difficult decision and certainly would have brought Lincoln's constitutional duties into question, but a number of things he did to fight the rebellion did that, too. Maybe just accepting that, for the immediate future anyway, the Union was broken and trying to mend the fences over time would have been a better path (although certainly not a good one). Fighting a war of attrition and laying waste to a large percentage of the country to forcefully "preserve" the Union is a bit like our Vietnam notion of destroying the village in order to "save" it.
In the end I don't criticize Lincoln for choosing the route he took but, judging from afar and with knowledge Lincoln didn't have I often do think some attempt at talk therapy would have been worth a try. Frankly, I don't think states like South Carolina would have come to any agreement other than "leave us alone" but, as I said, one or two might have changed their minds. I also think Lincoln might have done better than try and mount a ground invasion across the border states but that's another thread.
The problem is that Lincoln has no effective political power to start a war. The North was politically divided and the States remaining in the Union was unlikely to provide the blood and treasure for a war. Diplomacy, really? The initial diplomatic initiative from the Secessionists was an ultimatum and that is Davis's only objective. Lincoln has no legal path to secession.
The only way out was Davis attacking.
Good points, IMHO Dealing diplomatically with an honor-based society is problematic, In theory, a very good option for the Secessionists is delay, delay, delay get more united, but they had that choice and did not take it. The problem as I see it is simply that the initiative from the get-go is with the secessionists, they have a wide range of options while Lincoln has few resupplying 2 forts is about all he has. Lincoln plays a waiting game and it works.
In this deliberations, remember it takes two to tango. The South is united and has a lot of political and military experience vs Lincoln's almost nil.
According to the secessionists he did. They were the ones who insisted that Lincoln recognize them as an independent country before they would negotiate.
Diplomacy should have been given a much better effort. IMO it was Lincoln's biggest failure. I'm not sure what he could have done but he was the president and he should have made it the largest priority in order to avoid a war that cost 650,000 lives.
It's been a while since I've read about the negotiation thing but I'll accept for now that what you say is correct. I still think Lincoln might have found some way to reach out, if only to some of the states. I don't know how he'd have done that but that it could have been accomplished isn't so far fetched. In the end, if none of the states were willing to negotiate then it doesn't happen and Lincoln does what he has to do to suppress the rebellion militarily (or just lets them go and tries a different diplomatic, long-term strategy).
Lincoln had very few options. The one thing he positively could not do is "let them go," and recognize southern independence. He had no right or authority to do so.
The problem with diplomacy is that they would have to agree from the start what they were negotiating about. The Confederates were not going to negotiate anything until their independence was recognized ... and, again, Lincoln could not do that. Compromise simply was not possible. Each side had one absolutely non-negotiable point, based on southern independence; and one side or the other would have to surrender that point before any meaningful talks could occur.
Any diplomacy had to have taken place before secession. Once S.C. declared secession, the die was cast
Lincoln did all that he could do during those first few weeks of his presidency, and, all things considered, he did it well.
As is often the case, this overlooks the fact that Lincoln did discuss the crisis with prominent Southerners acting in an unofficial capacity and permitted his Secretary of State, Seward, to conduct discussions through an intermediary, Justice Campbell.
We can't know for sure how negotiations would have gone, what they would have looked like, or if they ever would have borne fruit. I'm not learned enough to offer a deep and complex suggestion for how things could have gone. But it's hard to imagine that four years of armed conflict in response to southern secession was the best of all possible worlds scenario.
Participants in every argument assume the 'rosiest' outcome. it's human nature. Certainly, neither Lincoln, his cabinet nor any of the rebel leaders expected "four years of armed conflict".
I know this is the generally accepted view and understand that Lincoln thought it his duty to suppress the rebellion right away. But I'll play Devil's advocate a little more and note that the president in office when the first secession took place was of the opinion (if memory serves me correctly) that he didn't have any authority to suppress said rebellion and I don't remember reading about Congress or the people at large demanding that he take military action (again, correct me if I'm wrong). And I don't see anything in the Constitution that says the president has a duty to maintain the Union.
So, Lincoln obviously thought he had such a duty and most these days agree that a president has such a duty but then things are a lot different today so maybe he could have concluded that he didn't have a duty or the authority to use military action against a state. I certainly could see that many would have thought that the case (and that was one constitutional question at least challenged in the day).
Obviously, Lincoln couldn't have negotiated before the initial secession as he wasn't in office and, of course, that would have been the best time to try and avoid the whole thing but that ain't what happened. Again, I don't criticize Lincoln for doing what he did and recognize that his options were limited and all of them likely to be very painful but it just seems to me - in my comfy position of today and knowing how it all went down - that maybe avoiding a disastrous war that really didn't bind the Union back together (took Reconstruction and Jim Crow years to do that), killed an incredible percentage of the population, and left a huge piece of the country physically and economically devastated would have been best even if the Union was split.
It may be very easy for us today to look upon the Civil War as a disaster with no real benefit- particularly if one is white.
But one has to at least consider how the break-up might have influenced history. Certainly at the time, many saw it as the end of the 'American experiment', proof to all that people are incapable of governing themselves. Since the rebellion was unsuccessful we'll never know whether they were right.
It's not so much the president having the duty to maintain the Union, but that he had no authority to allow its dismantling, much less to "recognize" the seceded states' independence. I just don't see what he could, rightfully and meaningfully done besides what he did.
As to whether those four years of suffering, bloodshed, and destruction were "worth it." That's another debate altogether. In one sense, it wasn't worth the tears of one orphaned child. On the other hand, it brought about the ending of legal slavery in America, for all time -- in that sense it may have been a bargain price.
I agree with the observation that the CSA was horribly incompetent at diplomatic efforts.
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