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What If There Was No Civil War?

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.

By David Howard Davis
September 8, 2017

The turmoil over removing Confederate statues has torn the country apart and fueled riots. To quote the author William Faulkner about the South, “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.” But what if there had been no Civil War?

It is time for a little alternative history, imagining different politics in the 19th century. The Civil War was the greatest tragedy America ever suffered. Total casualties were over one million for a population of 30 million. Two hundred thousand died in combat and well over that number died of disease. Half a million were wounded, many suffering amputations. Direct costs to the Union were $6 billion and to the Confederacy, $2 billion (in 19th century figures. The present equivalent is many trillion dollars).

The South was destroyed with farms ravished, cities burned and railroads torn up. Former slaves suffered greatly. One-in-four died from combat, disease and starvation. They never got the “forty acres and a mule” that General Sherman had promised. Without land reform, the freedmen were condemned to generations of poverty. Voting protection and innovative programs like the Freedman’s Bureau ended in 1877.

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Imagine a different scenario — emancipation without war. In 1794, the Revolutionary French government abolished slavery, although this was later repealed and permanent abolition did not occur until 1848. Spain ended slavery at home and in its empire (with exceptions) in 1811. When the Latin American countries won their independence, they abolished slavery. Great Britain ended slavery everywhere in its empire in 1833. In 1888, Brazil was the last big country to abolish slavery. Northern states abolished slavery in the early part of the century. This illustrates peaceful abolition was possible, indeed the norm. Moreover, this often occurred without compensating the owners.

The next task is to lay out a political scenario on how this could be done. From 1849 to 1861, the United States had a series of lackluster presidents: Zachary Taylor, Millard Fillmore, Franklin Pierce and James Buchanan. Three were Northerners with Southern sympathies and one was a Southerner with Southern sympathy. What was needed was a Southerner with Northern sympathy, sort of a preternatural Lyndon Johnson. Even at the last moment, had Lincoln lost the 1860 election to Stephen Douglas, a compromise might have been crafted.

The United States had a further problem of a Congress that was gridlocked about slavery that overwhelmed its decisions about the settlement of the West and a trans-continental railway. It needed a Congressional Budget Office benefit cost analysis pointing out a million deaths and billions in costs was less good than a program of emancipation.

Having indulged in an alternative history about the peaceful emancipation, we can now speculate on the progressive Republican platform of 1860 that could have been enacted promptly. First was the Homestead Act that opened the Midwest and Great Plains to farming and ranching. (This could have been combined with land for former slaves.) Second was the trans-continental railway, which connected the Pacific and the Atlantic and opened the Midwest and the Great Plains. Additional land grants spurred other lines like the Santa Fe and the Northern Pacific. Third was the Morrill Act funding state colleges teaching agriculture and mechanical engineering. It also set a pattern of Federal grants to the states. To these we can add the Freedmen’s Bureau, an early example of a 20th century style social agency offering housing, poor relief, legal aid and education.


Author: Davis frequently taught a course on the presidency at the University of Toledo. Email him at [email protected].

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