The Governor of California has joked about building a wall all the way around his state if Donald Trump becomes president of the other 49. Secession would not be a joke had it not been given an undeserved bad name. It would not have that bad name but for our universal acceptance of imperialism and of an overly simplistic history of the U.S. Civil War.
Slavery in the U.S. South was widespread through World War II, Jim Crow through the 1960s, mass incarceration through the current day, and bitterness over the Civil War for the foreseeable future. Had the U.S. avoided civil war through a compromise that restricted slavery to existing slave states, or even through a compromise that allowed its possible expansion, or through simply allowing states to secede without war, the net result might have been good or bad. A few things are certain. The bitterness over the war would not exist, the 700,000 killed and many more injured and the incredible destruction of burned cities and fields would not have happened, and war would not have been glorified during the childhoods of the generation that would launch global U.S. imperialism at the dawn of the 20th century.
Very likely, in addition, slavery would have ended more quickly and more thoroughly than it did. Of course, that cannot be stated with certainty. But a nation half-slave, half-free that sought to work through problems without war would have very likely ended slavery through some form of compensated emancipation fairly quickly, bringing up the rear in a global process of liberation. Two or more smaller nations that sought to avoid war would have very likely also put an end to slavery in the one or more nations maintaining it, in part because of international and economic forces and the absence of a fugitive slave law, but also because smaller nations, all else equal, have an easier time achieving democracy. If we had smaller nations on this continent now, or if we were to choose to in the future, we would see the ability of people to bring popular pressure to bear on the governments soar.
Of course, it’s anything but an easy moral question whether 4 million people should be left enslaved another moment, or whether a nation should launch a war that might benefit them, though in the end it actually brought very limited and short-lived gains along with 700,000 killed and numerous disastrous results for decades to come. Not only are the results known only after the war, but the moral question has been invented after the war. Many in the North did not want a war to free slaves. A draft had to finally be created, as in the South as well, to compel people to kill and die. And those in power in Washington, including President-elect Lincoln, did not want war to free the slaves, only to prevent the expansion of slavery westward. When the South would not agree to restricting slavery to its current boundaries, Northern decision makers chose to launch a war over “union” — preferring slaughter to permitting the South, or some part of it, to leave.
Mark Tooley has published a book called The Peace That Almost Was: The Forgotten Story of the 1861 Washington Peace Conference and the Final Attempt to Avert the Civil War. It may remain a forgotten story for at least four reasons that leap out at me. First, Tooley adds in so much gossip-column fluff on clothes and parties and families and churches that it’s almost physically impossible to make it through his book if you’re looking only for what happened at the conference; this is truly a shame in a culture that already considers peace boring and war exciting. Second, Tooley concludes that the war was “inevitable” anyway, so why should you care? (And why did he give his book the title he did?) Third, Tooley almost completely overlooks the possibility that was most open to the North, namely allowing the South to leave in peace. Fourth, if you look into the details and consider how easily peace might have been chosen instead of war, you may feel a bit of discomfort in your mind. You may come up against the fact that many nations did end slavery without a civil war, and then have to start questioning whether in fact lots of other wars have also been “inevitable.”
A strong case could be made that the peace conference was begun too late. Seven states had already seceded. A conference on peaceful secession before secession, or a conference on a slavery compromise before secession, would have been easier. Oh and, by the way, the entire topic of the conference was slavery, not some other vague cause of “states rights” or anything of the sort. Nonetheless, the conference had numerous chances to reach an agreement, and in the end did reach an agreement — which Congress tossed aside in favor of war, and which Congress was assisted in tossing aside by some members of the peace conference who quickly badmouthed what they had done and opted for war. Among the latter was former U.S. President John Tyler who had chaired the peace conference before returning to Virginia and denouncing it.
Under consideration at the conference was not primarily slavery in the slave states, and certainly not ending it through compensated emancipation, as would be done in Washington, D.C., and numerous foreign countries. At issue was principally the expansion of slavery into the expanding western empire. Both sides insisted on imperial expansion to such an extent that it was truly beyond debate. If they’d been somehow made content with the current size of the country, that too could have resolved the dispute and averted war. So, in that peculiar sense, the Civil War was a war of empire. Delegates from both Northern and Southern states (quite a crowd of former senators and justices and the like) tended also to assume that their choices were either union or war, not peaceful division. A greater willingness to accept peaceful separation could also have averted war.
Michigan, Minnesota, and Wisconsin sent no delegates. William Lloyd Garrison urged the desirability of war. Peace conference delegate Roger Baldwin of Connecticut advocated no compromise with slavery. Some Southern delegates urged no compromise with freedom, even while whining about threats to their own rights and comforts without a thought for those of the people enslaved in their states. The peace conference dragged on unpeacefully for 19 days, with Congress and the states holding their breath and holding off on actions.
Delegate Reverdy Johnson of Maryland made a case for compromise to both sides, urging the North to accept the deal of the old Missouri Compromise as preferable to the Dred Scott decision’s ruling that slavery could spread north of latitude 36°30′. Southern delegates were intent on not just preserving slavery but expanding it westward. President-elect Lincoln met with the peace conference and made clear that he would never stand for that and would prefer war; he would leave slavery alone where it existed but never allow it to expand.
After all variety of proposals were heard and rejected, ultimately a compromise was reached by the peace conference that reinstated the Missouri Compromise, required a majority of slave-state senators to approve of new territory, prohibited Congressional interference with slavery, banned the importation of enslaved people from abroad, and affirmed fugitive slave laws but also allowed for compensation paid to an owner to make an escaped slave free. Arguably this final agreement and other proposals that were rejected all propped up slavery more than simply allowing secession would have. The Senate and House quickly took up the peace conference agreement and rejected it. This was a Congress now missing any representatives from eight states, another reason why acting sooner might have succeeded.
During the course of the conference, some hints at another possible course were heard. General Winfield Scott said that dividing the country into four countries would be a “lesser evil” than war. Senator Salmon Chase of Ohio said, “The thing to be done is to let the South go.” Former Massachusetts Governor George Boutwell said that the union should be kept free of slavery or not kept. (But he warned ominously that the South could try to annex Mexico and other land, and block the North’s expansion to the Pacific. Again, it was all about empire.) Former New York Congressman Francis Granger raised the example of letting the South go as an act too cruel to be considered (so beneficial, apparently, was union with the North). George Summers of Virginia proposed a new nation of the border states, letting the Deep South and New England do their own things.
Victory, and thereby top praise in the history books, went to those who wanted war, including those who opposed slavery, those who demanded “union,” and those who insisted on expanding slavery far and wide.
But when secession is proposed in the future, we should not be rash in rejecting it. If the North had let the South go way back when, both countries might be much better off today. If, after the Civil War, someone had been able to turn the clock back four years, the North might have been very willing to let the South go. The South might also have been very willing to give up slavery, or at least its expansion westward, without the insanity and horror of a war. Secession may be an improvement on what we’ve got now. There are only so many immigrants Canada is going to take.