by Michael Liss
I have no purpose, directly or indirectly, to interfere with the institution of slavery in the States where it exists. I believe I have no lawful right to do so, and I have no inclination to do so. —Abraham Lincoln, First Inaugural Address, March 4, 1861
Did we need to have a Civil War? Couldn’t the two sides, geographically defined as they were, simply part before the shooting started? Did Lincoln intentionally choose war for any one of a variety of unworthy reasons that stopped short of necessity, including even something so mundane as a fear of losing face? Or was he faced with an intractable situation for which there was no simple, satisfactory answer—a type of political Trolley Problem?
These questions were suggested by the recent comments from a 3 Quarks Daily reader to a 2020 article by Thomas Wells. While I don’t agree with the premise of Lincoln’s “culpability,” it is an issue that has been continuously debated by historians and opinion writers almost from the moment South Carolina forces shelled Union soldiers led by Major Robert Anderson at Fort Sumter.
In fact, the debate raged both in public and behind closed doors even before the South Carolinians reduced the Fort on April 12-13, 1861. Depending on who does the telling, either Lincoln shrewdly baited the Confederates into firing on Fort Sumter, thus unifying much of the North for a shooting war, or belligerent South Carolina fired on Fort Sumter without good cause, thus unifying much of the North for a shooting war. If you are interested, I’d recommend James D. Randall’s discussion in his 1945 Lincoln The President, but, in either telling, at the end of the day, the war that followed Sumter was not inevitable, but the product of both sides’ choices. Read more »