Wednesday, July 3, 2013

Rafuse on Lincoln & McClellan’s antebellum politics

On page 78 of McClellan's War, Rafuse quotes Lincoln in an 1854 speech to say, 'Much as I hate slavery, I would consent to the extension of it rather than see the Union dissolved.'

Rafuse goes on to write, "Lincoln's failure to obtain election to the U.S. Senate in 1855, however, led him to conclude that anti-Nebraska forces in Illinois would not accept leadership from a conservative Whig who remained open to any form of cooperation with slaveholders. Reluctantly, Lincoln abandoned the Whigs and joined the new Republican Party."

Then on page 79 Rafuse writes: "Upon joining the Republicans, a new argument began to appear in Lincoln's rhetoric that gained greater prominence in the aftermath of Dred Scott and the Lecompton controversy: that national policy must be directed toward the 'ultimate extinction' of slavery. Then, when the need arose to draw a clear line between himself and Douglas in 1858, Lincoln began to express his opposition to slavery's extension into the territories in moralistic terms. In his celebrated 'House Divided' speech and throughout the 1858 campaign, Lincoln made the morality of slavery the centerpiece of his appeal to Illinois voters."

"By embracing the Republicans, taking a 'no compromise' position on slavery's expansion, and arguing that opposition to slavery was a moral imperative, he had from McClellan's perspective abandoned the Whig tradition of moderation and compromise. . . ."

McClellan was a Douglas man and on page 82 we read, "Douglas took Southern threats seriously. Convinced the Union was in danger, he traveled to nearly every state in the Union urging voters to reject the voices of extremism and rally around his candidacy and the Union. After state elections held in October indicated a Republican victory was almost certain in November, he went South and pleaded with Southerners to accept Lincoln's election and warned them of the consequences if they should act on their threat to leave the Union. It was to no avail. After Lincoln's victory in November, seven states, led by South Carolina, would leave the Union."

Further down Rafuse writes, "Ever since Abraham Lincoln's election to the presidency triggered the secession of seven states from the Union, Americans have wondered why they could not resolve their differences over slavery peacefully in the 1860s. In twentieth-century scholarship, debate over the causes of the Civil War generally revolved around the question of whether the war was an 'irrepressible' conflict between irreconcilably different societies or, as argued by 'revisionist' historians, the work of a generation of 'blundering politicians' who created a needles war. Not surprisingly, the generation that fought the war also debated its causes. The lines of debate that dominated their thinking on this subject were established during the war and driven by the desire of each side for vindication. Northerners argued that the war was fought to defend republican institutions against a wicked rebellion; Southerners argued that they were defending their rights against Northern tyranny."

Comment: I frankly have not encountered Americans wondering "why they could not resolve their differences over slavery peacefully in the 1860s." Quite the contrary, the Americans I've encountered in discussions recently seem ready to fight the war all over again. For the last paragraph quoted above, Rafuse provides the following references:

"Historiography on the causes of the Civil War is discussed in Pressly, Americns Interpret Their Civil War. If the writings of the two leading contemporary scholars of the Middle Period, James M. McPherson and Eric Foner, are any indication, a Nationalist interpretation with a pro-Northern flavor is presently ascendant in contemporary scholarship. McPherson, Battle Cry of Freedom, 27-31, 37-41, 51-58, 89-103; . . . Foner, 'The Causes of the American Civil War: Recent Interpretations and New Directions,' and 'Politics, Ideology, and the Origins of the American Civil War,' in Foner, Politics and Ideology in the Age of the Civil War, 129-44."

I would be interested in finding out which historians are arguing that the Civil War was the work of "a generation of 'blundering politicians' who created a needless war," for perhaps those Historians could tell us what might have been done to prevent that war.

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