No, Lincoln Did Not Start the Civil War

The other night I was watching the Daily Show with guest Judge Andrew Napolitano.  The subject was the Civil War and his new book which claims that the Civil War was all Lincoln’s fault.  But was it?

First, and before going any further, you’ll want to watch (and read the transcript here) Jon Stewart inviting 3 actual history professors on the show to debate the issue with Judge Napolitano on the history and, frankly, Napolitano is outmatched (remember he isn’t a historian—which is why he shouldn’t even be writing books on the subject anyway because he gets so much wrong and substitutes rumor for fact; but see for yourself the many false claims he states and how the professors deal with it).

But most glaringly obvious is that Judge Napolitano seems to think that (1) Lincoln tricked the South to fire on Fort Sumter, which is itself silly, but he also (2) doesn’t seem to have any clue about what happened prior to Fort Sumter, and (3) why it is important.

You see, Fort Sumter was only the straw that broke the camel’s back. In fact, Southern militia and Federal troops were squaring off before Sumter even took place.  To assume that Sumter was the start is to assume that the actions against the Federal soldiers there happened ex nihilo, which is crap.  There are always preceding causes and in this instance they were violent.

During the elections in 1860, while Abraham Lincoln was winning the majority in states across the country (in Pennsylvania he had won by 70,000 votes), Florida residents hung his effigy.  The Republican Party, with Lincoln as its nominee, ran on a policy of change; its stated platform was to cease any and all expansions of the slave-trade (which it deemed rightly as a criminal act against humanity) and he won the favor of many abolitionists.  While he had beaten Douglas by nearly 500,000 votes, many in the South were unhappy with their election loss and its implications.

At the time of these elections, Southern newspapers instigated hostilities.  The Charleston Mercury printed an essay wherein it was stated, “The issue before this country is the extinction of slavery. … The Southern States are now in the crisis of their fate; and, if we read aright the signs of the times, nothing is needed for our deliverance, but that the ball of revolution be set in motion.” (Nov. 3, 1860) Within two months, rebels would move to siege all Federal forts from the Southern states and remove all garrisons from the region.  In December, the amassed rebels in the states of South Carolina and Florida would fire the first shots of the conflict which would become known as the American Civil War.

At Fort Pickens Florida, southern militia attempted to siege the Federal troops and shots were exchanged to no avail–in January of 1861, four months before the Battle of Fort Sumter.  The garrison there was one of the few in Florida to successfully repel the assaults from attacking secessionists—and this is prior to the start of the war proper.  This is important because it demonstrates that some parts of the south had already committed an act of reason against the United States.  These are not words to be taken lightly.

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Pre-war tensions and a discussion of the conflict at Fort Pickens, from THE NEW YORK TIMES, January 21, 1861; as seen on rarenewspapers.com

When the Constitution was being debated, the key issue is whether states would hold onto their sovereign status or whether once they signed onto the Federal document, they would be bound by the singular governing body.  Indeed, the most important issue concerning sovereignty seems to have been the matter of slavery or quelling slave uprisings—if the Southern states joined the Federal government, would they be compelled to abandon the practice?  Would federal troops or local militia be responsible for putting down uprisings and revolts?  These questions frightened many wealthy slave owners.  Ultimately, however, when the Articles of Confederation failed, the sovereignty of states died with it when they affixed their legislation to the Constitution.

You see, it is not the states that are sovereign in the Constitution–anyone who claims that is actually thinking of the Articles of Confederation—the preamble does not begin with ‘We the States…’.  It is ‘We the People’; we individually are sovereign, a concept that is known as ‘popular sovereignty’.  The states do not hold central authority over the Federal government, we—the people—do.  As legal scholar Akhil Reed Amar noted, quoting Madison, the Constitution was meant to fix “the abuses committed within the individual states … by interested or misguided majorities.”

By laying siege to federal forts and garrisons, the secessionists were holding the country hostage.  They would shoot at incoming supply ships, they would threaten war if anyone attempted to reinforce strongholds in the South—these are not the actions of a peaceful government.  These are aggressively violent acts that will inevitably lead to war.  Sabre-rattling aside, the second that the Southern states voted to leave the Union they were already breaking the law, already treasonous, and through that situation were already committing an act that had no other consequence but a bloody and tragic one.

And their reasons were about the most vile and detestable institution this government had ever deemed to support—slavery.  That must not be forgotten—the issue wasn’t about anything but slavery and their desire to maintain it.  The notion that slavery was on its way out is, as was discussed in the debate above on the Daily Show, completely ridiculous.

Was Lincoln the perpetrator of the Civil War?  No. The only way to arrive at that conclusion is to ignore tomes of overwhelming evidence and accept only those fragmented bits of data, taken out of context, that destroy the very nature of competent historical investigation. But even if Lincoln were the cause of it, who would stand and say that such a war was not justified?  And one cannot pretend that Lincoln acted against the will of the people; many noble men volunteered to serve.  We dishonor their sacrifice if we presume that they died in some vain quest for federal power rather than out of will to fight for what is right and moral and good.

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