If the South Hadn't Seceded

By Bernstein, R. B. | Newsweek, March 8, 2013 | Go to article overview

If the South Hadn't Seceded


Bernstein, R. B., Newsweek


Byline: R.B. Bernstein

A historical what-if with lessons for today.

Americans are watching, with frustration and resentment, the politics of obstruction convulsing the nation's capital. Since the inauguration of President Obama in 2009, congressional Republicans have blocked many initiatives, programs, and appointments, with the sequestration crisis the latest act in the drama. The bitterness generated by these tactics has poisoned the wells of politics throughout the United States.

While enduring this politics of obstruction, we have thronged to the nation's movie theaters to watch Steven Spielberg's Lincoln. This remarkable film portrays the nation's 16th president, as he struggled to bring the Civil War to a victorious close while seeking approval, by the House of Representatives, of a constitutional amendment abolishing slavery. Historians disagree about the movie's treatment of history, but Lincoln does an impressive job of capturing the complicated, contentious political world of 1865.

Lincoln is part of the nation's oddly quiet commemoration of the sesquicentennial of the Civil War. We still struggle with how to understand the war, the history that it made, and its consequences for posterity. One question that is not generally addressed, however, has to do with the decision by 11 Southern states to vote to leave the Union in 1860-61. What if those states had pursued a different strategy?

For decades before the Civil War, controversies over slavery roiled American politics. Any issue involving slavery, directly or indirectly, threatened to agitate the Union and its government. Disputes over forming new states and whether they would be free or slave were particularly bitter, as they could shape the future of the Union and of slavery within the Union. Threats of secession and disunion hung over all such disputes. To anxious slave-state politicians, the election in 1860 of Lincoln as president meant a radical shift of federal policy away from protecting slavery to restricting it and even moving against it where constitutionally possible. To them, secession seemed the only answer.

Suppose instead that Southern politicians had decided not to leave the Union but to stay and fight--in the halls of Congress. Suppose that they had pursued a politics of obstruction, a political counterpart of trench warfare--blocking every measure, stalling every policy, jamming the works of government to prevent even appointments of federal postmasters in Southern states.

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