On Friday, I published an article criticizing Ron Paul's suggestion in 2007 that the Civil War could have been avoided if Abraham Lincoln had simply decided to buy the slaves and release them. His rationale was that the tremendous costs of the Civil War, in dollars and lives, were unjustifiable when other countries -- for example, the British Empire -- had managed to abolish slavery relatively peacefully.
I argued that, though appealing, this solution was entirely unrealistic, particularly given that Lincoln actually did propose compensated emancipation on multiple occasions, only to be rejected by Southern leaders.
I challenged readers to explain how that or other alternatives to the Civil War might have worked, and more than 100 people responded. I disagreed with some arguments and was intrigued by others. Below are a few of the most common arguments that readers made, and my responses to them.
1. Other countries ended slavery without war, so why couldn't the United States do the same?
It is true, as many commenters pointed out, that other countries did not have to resort to a bloody civil war to end slavery. Several countries were able to abolish slavery through compensated emancipation, as Ron Paul suggested the United States should have done, while other countries simply waited until industrialization and changing social mores made slavery unsustainable. But to say that because this was possible in other countries, it must have been possible in the United States, is to compare apples and oranges. The situation in the U.S. was very different from the situations in other countries.
Let's compare the U.S. to the British Empire, because that is the example Paul used in his 2007 interview. The key difference is that slavery in the British Empire was mainly confined to colonies, such as the British West Indies, while slavery in the United States spanned half of the entire country. This is significant for two reasons.
First, the island colonies of the British Empire had little or no ability to resist the central government when it passed the Slavery Abolition Act of 1833. Essentially, the British government told the colonial slaveholders, We are going to buy your slaves from you, and you have to sell them to us -- and how could the slaveholders have refused? They had no political clout, and more importantly, they had no militaries. Compensated emancipation was possible because the colonies were so weak. But in the United States, Southern leaders and slave-owners had a great deal of political clout both in Congress and in public opinion, so they were perfectly able to reject Lincoln's compensated emancipation proposals. The Confederacy also had a military capable of fending off the federal government's attempts to force abolition.
Second, slavery was an integral part of the Southern economy in a way that it was not in the British Empire. The South feared that if slavery were abolished, the entire economy of the region would collapse, and because of that, they saw no incentive to give up their slaves, with or without federal compensation. This was not the case in the British colonies.
I acknowledge the slim possibility that slavery could have been abolished through compensated emancipation if Lincoln had kept trying, but I find it highly unlikely. The political and economic climate in the South was not conducive to the type of abolition strategy used by the British Empire and many other countries, and in fact, the South rejected compensated emancipation every time it was proposed.
2. Lincoln didn't end slavery.
This is true. The Emancipation Proclamation only freed slaves in the Confederacy; slaves in Union states were not freed until the 13th Amendment was ratified in 1865. I'm aware of this, but I don't believe it means the war was unnecessary. I find it simplistic to say that because Lincoln did not enter the war with the express goal of abolishing slavery, the war did not lead to the abolition of slavery.
One commenter wrote, Lincoln could not have freed the slaves and he did not free any. The slaves were freed by the 13th Amendment, which was passed by 3/4 of the states -- including some Reconstruction legislatures held at gunpoint. Up until then, slavery was recognized and protected by the Constitution. No president or Congress had any authority under the Constitution to eliminate slavery. It required a Constitutional amendment to do it. ... That is the method that needed to be followed to end slavery in the United States.
Well, yes, but this ignores the fact that the 13th Amendment was ratified in 1865 in large part because of the Civil War. The Civil War itself did not abolish slavery -- but without it, the 13th Amendment certainly would not have been ratified when it was. It would have happened years or, more likely, decades later.
For better or for worse, the war created a crisis so acute that it was impossible for Congress and the states to push it aside, postpone action or settle for halfway compromises. The first abolition bill was proposed in 1839 by John Quincy Adams, but after his effort failed, nobody made a similar proposal until 1863 -- after Lincoln had issued the Emancipation Proclamation. I do not accept the argument that these events are unrelated. The Civil War and the Emancipation Proclamation did not free the slaves directly, but they were driving forces behind the passage of the 13th Amendment.
3. The South should have been allowed to secede as a matter of states' rights, even if that meant the Union dissolved and slavery persisted in the Confederacy.
Was Lincoln's decision to fight the Civil War a violation of states' rights? Technically, yes, and I can understand how a libertarian would make this argument. As one commenter wrote, If you want to live in a democracy, you need to be willing to accept the consequences, including people voting themselves out of your 'voluntary' club.
But when it comes to judging the Civil War based on libertarian principles, I don't think it's that simple. States' rights are a fundamental component of libertarianism, but so is individual liberty. In theory, both of these principles should be inviolable: the federal government should never infringe upon states' rights, and it should never infringe upon individual rights, either. But in practice, what happens when these two principles come into conflict? What happens when respecting states' rights (i.e., allowing the South to secede and form its own, slave-owning nation) conflicts with protecting individual liberty (i.e., refusing to accept slavery and working to end it as quickly as possible)? Do states have a right to infringe upon individual liberties? Which principle is more important?
This is not an easy question. Personally, I think individual liberty is more important than states' rights, and I would rather have the government limit states' rights than have it accept slavery. I am sure many people, Ron Paul supporters or not, would argue otherwise. Here is some food for thought, though: Paul has actually addressed this very question to some extent with the issue of abortion. He has said that he wants Roe v. Wade overturned and the responsibility of enforcing abortion laws left up to the states, but he has also said that he supports a federal constitutional amendment that would define life as beginning at conception, thus giving embryos and fetuses legal protection under the 14th Amendment and outlawing abortion. One might call that a violation of states' rights, but Paul seems to be arguing that, in this particular case, the need to protect individual liberty (that is, to protect the unborn) outweighs states'-rights concerns. Might the same reasoning have applied when it came to abolishing slavery?
4. The Civil War was unnecessary because the invention of the cotton gin would have ended slavery.
In a word, no.
Several commenters made arguments like this one: The cotton gin was on the verge of making the slaves an expensive and unnecessary part of the South. It simply would not be in the South's economic interest to maintain expensive slaves when 'automation' could do the work a lot cheaper. These commenters are confusing industrialization, which did lead to the abolition of slavery in many countries, with the invention of the cotton gin, which was a huge contributor to the growth of slavery in the South.
In 1790, the first federal census showed 697,897 slaves in the United States. By 1810, the number of slaves had increased to 1.2 million. This 70 percent increase can be attributed in very large part to Eli Whitney's invention of the cotton gin in 1793. Before 1793, cotton was not particularly profitable. It was a necessary fabric, and so slaves were needed to pick it and to remove the seeds, but they were not able to do so in large quantities. The cotton gin changed that. Now that a machine could remove the seeds from raw cotton, the industry became tremendously profitable -- and that meant plantation owners needed more slaves to pick more cotton to be put through the gin and sold. The slave population shot up, and the institution of slavery became entrenched in a way it had not been before.
Cotton was now a crucial part of the Southern economy, and so the slaves who picked the cotton became a crucial part of the economy, too. This, PBS explains, made it much more difficult for slaves to purchase their freedom or obtain it through the good will of their masters. It was for this reason that the South refused to sell its slaves to the government, and it is for that reason that the Civil War could not have been avoided through compensated emancipation, as it was in the British Empire and as Ron Paul suggested.
5. The Civil War was unnecessary because industrialization and changing social mores would have ended slavery.
This was the most common response I received, and also the most compelling. I don't think there is any denying that slavery would have ended eventually without the Civil War, the same way, as one commenter put it, as it was ended everywhere else in the world: through the evolution/advancement of human civilization and morality. At some point, yes, industrialization and the increasing automation of tasks would have made slavery economically inefficient, and the South would gradually have come to accept abolition. This is, of course, what happened in many other countries.
However, there is still the question of how long it would have taken for slavery to end this way. Many commenters said -- rather cavalierly, in my view -- that without the Civil War, slavery would still have ended within a few decades. One e-mail I received said, I firmly believe slavery would have been abolished peacefully from around 1880-1920s. I don't dispute that, but I also don't think another 15 to 60+ years of slavery is something to take lightly.
I don't take the Civil War lightly, either. The costs were horrific, and if it could have been avoided and slavery abolished peacefully within a similar timeframe, then absolutely it should have been avoided. But I believe that without the war, it would have been a matter of decades -- not years -- before industrialization brought an end to slavery. The country was on a long path toward inevitable abolition, but I emphasize long -- it was not in any way on the verge of peaceful abolition, nor was slavery abolishing itself, as one commenter asserted. I can't in good conscience say it would have been all right to let slavery continue for several more decades before it burned out.
I'm happy to debate any of these points further. Just e-mail me at m.astor [at] ibtimes [dot] com.