Former President Donald Trump thinks history could have been different, if only Abraham Lincoln had read The Art of the Deal. “The Civil War was so fascinating, so horrible,” he said last weekend. “So many mistakes were made. See, there was something I think could have been negotiated, to be honest with you. I think you could have negotiated that. All the people died, so many people died. You know, that was the disaster.”
As if the cake even needed icing, Trump added: “Abraham Lincoln, of course, if he negotiated it, you probably wouldn’t even know who Abraham Lincoln was.”
As these things go, the once and perhaps future president’s detractors piled on — most notably historians, who scored his statement as a monument to ignorance. James Grossman, the executive director of the American Historical Association, noted that the Southern states’ “declarations of secession explicitly state that the seceding states were leaving the Union to maintain [slavery] and because many northern states were refusing to return escapees from that regime. This could not be ‘negotiated.’” David Blight, a Yale professor and leading historian of the Civil War and Reconstruction, agreed, calling Trump’s statement “historically ignorant.”
Longtime readers, hold onto your hats. I’m going to do something that even I never imagined. I’m going to agree with Donald Trump. Sort of.
Set aside, for a moment, the awful moral and humanistic implications of Trump’s wish that Lincoln had bargained away the freedom of four million enslaved people for a tenuous peace. Also, the risible implication that he, Donald Trump, could have managed the secession crisis better than Lincoln.
All of that notwithstanding, compromise was possible, and a lot of respectable voices in 1860 and 1861 called for it. Some historians — small in number, but still reputable — have made a similar case over the years.
The awfulness in Trump’s argument isn’t that it’s wrong. It’s that it might be right. To understand how, it’s important first to assess the compromise that was on the table — an option that Lincoln rejected — and the catastrophic counterfactual history that might have followed had he in fact taken the deal.
Free states and slave states had been striking compromises over slavery — devils’ bargains, really — since before there even were states.
The three-fifths compromise over congressional apportionment, along with an agreement to permit the international slave trade until 1808, were central to the Constitution’s adoption. Later, the Missouri Compromise of 1820 drew an artificial line across the Louisiana Purchase territories, demarcating slave and free land and establishing a precedent for admitting one free state for every slave state, and vice versa. And the Compromise of 1850, a byzantine set of gives and takes, determined how to deal with the vast territories the U.S. had amassed during the Mexican American War: California entered the Union as a free state, but the citizens of other former Mexican territories were left to make their own determinations about slavery. Congress abolished the slave trade, but not slavery, in Washington, D.C., and created a more stringent fugitive slave law. Inasmuch as the compromise created a pathway to organize the former Mexican territories and temporarily settled the slavery question, it was a success.
It was never tenable in the long term, but Southerners and their Northern Democratic allies blew the floor out in 1854 when they rammed the Kansas Nebraska Act through Congress, allowing the citizens of those two territories (both products of the Louisiana Purchase) to decide for themselves whether to permit slavery, and thereby abrogating the decades-old Missouri Compromise. To add insult to injury, the pro-slavery forces made a mockery of “popular sovereignty” by deploying widespread fraud and violence to prevent Kansas’ anti-slavery majority from adopting a free state constitution.
Such was the state of affairs when Abraham Lincoln became the first Republican candidate to win the presidency in 1860, on a limited yet, for its time, controversial platform dedicated to stopping slavery’s further spread in the territories. Lincoln won the election with a plurality just shy of 40 percent of all votes cast, but a commanding majority of 180 votes in the Electoral College. By 1860, a majority of Northern voters was ready to draw a line in the sand.
But what line, exactly? The moment the South threatened disunion, many antislavery politicians who should have been basking in victory instead got wobbly in the knees. As early as the day before the election, a prominent New England merchant and politician beseeched Lincoln to stake out a compromise — “to reassure the men honestly alarmed.” John Nicolay, the president-elect’s secretary, would long remember that his boss “bluntly replied” that there “are no such men. … This is the same old trick by which the South breaks down every Northern victory. Even if I were personally willing to barter away the moral principle involved in this contest, for the commercial gain of a new submission to the South, I would go to Washington without the countenance of the men who supported me and were my friends before the election.”
Throughout the winter, special House and Senate committees convened to explore potential compromises. Simultaneously, a group of veteran political leaders gathered in Washington as an unofficial “peace convention” to consider a range of measures intended to appease the Deep South. One proposal, offered by the Kentucky Sen. John Crittenden, would have extended the Missouri Compromise line across the continent and protected the institution of slavery in perpetuity through an irrevocable constitutional amendment; another would have required the Northern states to abrogate their “personal liberty laws,” meant to protect free Black Americans from capture under the provisions of the Fugitive Slave Act.
But Lincoln held firm. “The tug has to come,” he privately told several congressmen, “and better now, than any time hereafter.” Even if the states threatening secession were in earnest, he wanted Republicans to hold firm. “We have just carried an election on principles fairly stated to the people. Now we are told in advance, the government shall be broken up, unless we surrender to those we have beaten, before we take the offices. In this they are attempting to play upon us, or they are in dead earnest. Either way, if we surrender, it is the very end of us, and of the government.”
It was a refrain that he sounded for anyone who would listen. “Give them personal liberty bills, and they will pull in the slack, hold on, and insist on the border-state compromise,” he told Sen. Charles Sumner. “Give them that, they’ll again pull in the slack and demand Crittenden’s compromise. That pulled in, they will want all that South Carolina asks. … By no act or complicity of mine shall the Republican party become a mere sucked egg, all shell and no principle in it.”
Would the Northern electorate have stood for such a compromise to avert war? One will never know. The plan would have prevented slavery’s spread above the 36°30’ parallel and constituted a partial realization of the Republican party’s determination to keep the territories free of slavery. Had Lincoln and cabinet accepted the terms, it’s plausible that the nation might have accepted the outcome. Certainly some members of his cabinet were more conservative than he was, and even incoming Secretary of State William Seward, who was perceived at the time as a radical, grasped at straws for ways to avoid a civil war — even proposing that the U.S. provoke war with a European power to rally departing Southern states back to the national cause.
Events were fluid. And while historians hate counterfactuals, it’s not implausible to imagine a world in which Lincoln took the deal.
But Lincoln was no ordinary character, and by 1860 many Northerners agreed with him that the South could simply not be trusted. It was with some ease that he rebuffed Crittenden’s proposal.
But what if he hadn’t? Or, if you will: What if Donald J. Trump had been president-elect in 1860 instead? What might that have looked like?
In all likelihood, chattel slavery in North America would have persisted, even grown, well into the 20th century. Republican doctrine held that if slavery were prevented from spreading, it would die of its own accord. But this idea was always grounded in wishful thinking, and the Crittenden compromise would have extended the institution almost to the Pacific Ocean.
In real world history, the Civil War devastated the Confederate states. Not only were more than one-fifth of adult white men dead — most Southern wealth was invested in two things: enslaved people and land. The war resulted in the expropriation of the former, resulting in the overnight erasure of over $2 trillion of private wealth in current dollars, and the devastation of the latter. In the aftermath of fighting, an observer found the South “a desolated land. Every village and station we stopped at presented an array of ruined walls and chimneys standing useless and solitary.” Farmland was laid to waste, its value cut by half, while the animals needed to power agriculture had perished en masse: 29 percent of horses, 35 percent of swine and so on. Whatever real money once existed, mostly in the form of specie and bank notes, had been sunk into Confederate currency and debt. That, too, went up in smoke.
But how about counterfactual history — an alternate reality in which none of that happened? It’s easy to imagine the Southern economy humming along, fueled in large part by plantation slavery and aided as it ever was by Northern textile, manufacturing and commercial interests. It’s easy to imagine the South retaining a mixed agricultural economy, with upcountry counties that didn’t rely on enslaved labor continuing to thrive, producing crops other than cotton.
The North, too, would look different.
In real world history, the challenges of paying, feeding, clothing, arming and transporting two million soldiers and sailors dramatically catalyzed the Northern economy. To fund the Union war effort, Congress borrowed heavily and created the nation’s first uniform paper currency. The resulting expansion of the monetary supply spurred economic development throughout the North and the Northwest.
Further, Republicans enacted a sweeping legislative agenda that fundamentally transformed the country. They passed the Homestead Act, which bequeathed 160 acres of federal land to any western settler who lived for five years on his allotment and made requisite improvements to the land. They passed the Land-Grant College Act, which provided each state with 30,000 acres of federal land for each of its senators and congressmen; the states, in turn, were empowered to dispose of their grants and dedicate the sale proceeds to the establishment of state universities. Finally, Congress passed the Pacific Railroad Act, creating a transcontinental rail system that opened the “vast, trackless spaces” of the West (in Walt Whitman’s words) to settlement and economic development.”
In alternative history, none of this happened. Neither did the Reconstruction amendments, which fundamentally rewrote national citizenship and civil rights — not just for Black Americans, but for everyone.
How about slavery? Would it die out gradually? Unlikely. The only plausible program for gradual abolition was compensated emancipation, a scheme by which the government would pay slaveowners to emancipate their enslaved workers. White Southerners bitterly resisted that option. As late as mid-1862, Lincoln, who had already determined to issue the Emancipation Proclamation, pleaded with border state representatives to take such a deal, similar to the one Congress enacted in Washington that same year. “You cannot if you would, be blind to the signs of the times,” he implored. They didn’t care. They wanted to keep their slaves. In the end, they lost them to the tide of war, without a dime in compensation.
The world Donald Trump envisioned is both easy and awful to imagine: a world in which Lincoln and his cabinet agreed to the Crittenden compromise, slavery persisted into the 20th century — ending, perhaps, in violent revolution, or under global pressure — and the nation’s economic and political trajectory took a markedly different course. The U.S. would have remained an economic powerhouse, most likely, but much of the nation’s industrial development and urbanization would have been delayed by decades.
He’s hardly the only one to imagine it. In the 1920s, many scholars similarly wondered whether the war had been inevitable. Frank L. Owsley, a Southern-born scholar who spent most of his career at Vanderbilt, maintained that the Civil War was a “red herring” that Northerners had long used to deflect attention from the aggressive expansionism of their region’s industrial capital complex. Iowa-born Avery Craven, the most powerful proponent of this new tendency in historiography, argued that “a generation of well-meaning Americans … permitted their short-sighted politicians, their over-zealous editors, and their pious reformers to emotionalize real and potential differences and to conjure up distorted impressions of those who dwelt in other parts of the nation.” Craven was a committed Quaker who privately bemoaned that humans should ever “settle differences by shooting at each other.” To him, the Civil War was no different.
Like Craven, James G. Randall, a professor at the University of Illinois and the leading Lincoln scholar of the mid-20th century, held that a “blundering generation” of politicians unwittingly provoked a “great American tragedy [that] could have been avoided, supposing of course that something more of statesmanship, moderation, and understanding, and something less of professional patrioteering, slogan making, face-saving, political clamoring, and propaganda had existed on both sides.”
These ideas have fallen out of favor in the academy, but they still persist. Which takes us back to Trump.
It’s not that he’s wrong, per se, to envision a world in which Lincoln compromised and avoided the Civil War. It’s that he hasn’t considered what that world would have looked like.
Of course, there is a third possibility. Maybe he has considered what that world might have looked like, and he prefers the alternative history to the real one. That would be the worst of all options.
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