Alternate History: What If Lincoln Allowed Secession?

An exchange on my personal blog over yesterday’s post about Gettysburg swerved into a question which I imagine our history-minded readers would enjoy commenting on: What would things look like today if Lincoln had simply allowed the CSA to leave and recognized it as a separate country?

Given Lincolns character and beliefs, this seems almost impossible to imagine, but these sorts of alternative history exercises can be an interesting diversion, if only because they make us think about the interconnectedness of history. A few thoughts of my own:

One of the major questions there would, of course, be: Which CSA?

The deep south seceded immediately after Lincolns election, but the mid and upper south didn’t secede until after Lincoln responded to the attack on Fort Sumpter with a call for the states to raise militias.

Personally, I think you’d also have to imagine that a Union which let the South secede would probably have broken up further over the following 60 years. Once the precedent for peaceful secession was made, it would be an obvious answer to regional tensions between East and West, etc.

A final factor which shouldn’t be overlooked: If the CSA had been left independant, Wilson would clearly never have become president of the US — and the presidency of Wilson (who said his earliest memory was of huddling with his family in the steeple of his father’s Presbyterian church and watching the flames of Sherman’s army passing through Georgia) was one of the formative influences on the US in the 20th century and on the modern Democratic Party.

20 Responses to Alternate History: What If Lincoln Allowed Secession?

  1. Blackadder says:

    To a first approximation, my guess is that if the South had been allowed to split from the Union, the U.S. would look a lot more like Canada today, whereas the Confederacy would look like Argentina.

    I would also guess that you would have had several wars between the North and South in the 1860-1940 period, just as periodic wars were common in Europe during the time-frame.

  2. Pinky says:

    I don’t think the Civil War could have been avoided.

    In the 50 years leading up to the war, the South had gone from a position of accepting slavery as a necessary evil to embracing it as a positive good. They were overcompensating in defense of a position that they knew was wrong. It would have been intolerable for them to know that the nation to the north considered them morally inferior. Likewise, the Boston abolitionists would have found it unbearable to abandon the victims of Southern slavery.

    Southerners would be demanding compensation and/or return of slaves who were escaping along the underground railroad. There would have been raiding parties from the North violating the CSA’s sovereignty. There’d be trade disputes between the North and South, as well as disputes over trading partners. As both countries expanded westward, there’d be skirmishes. Basically, within 20 years of Lincoln’s election, there would have been too many opportunities for a shooting war to break out.

  3. Donald R. McClarey says:

    Two posts on the Civil War in a row Darwin. Soon you will join me as resident History nerd for the blog! 🙂

    Harry Turtledove has a series of novels positing the South winning the Civil War with a series of wars following which led to the North conquering the South in an alternate World War II.

    Allow secession to succeed once, and I agree with Darwin it would have come up again and again during times of national turbulence. I think we would have ended up with four or five weak Republics, frequent wars, hot and cold, between them, and a world confronting Communism and Fascism in the last century without a US to come to the rescue.

  4. Pinky says:

    California, Texas, Deseret, USA, CSA?

  5. Donald R. McClarey says:

    California Pinky I think would eventually have broken away and formed a Pacific Republic. There was actually some talk of doing this at the beginning of the Civil War, but nothing came of it. In Deseret, the Mormon relationship with the Lincoln administration was sour from the start, with the Mormon leadership lending virtually no assistance to the Union in the Civil War and openly predicting a Confederate victory. In the wake of the creation of the Confederate States, I can imagine the Mormons attempting to secede from the Union and requesting Confederate aid.

  6. Donald R. McClarey says:

    Texas would have stayed with the Confederacy initially, but in times of national stress, I could imagine cries within Texas for the Lone Star Republic to resume its independence prevailing. On what possible grounds could the leadership of the Confederacy object to a state seceding from it?

  7. Pinky says:

    If it hadn’t been for the Civil War, the Confederate states wouldn’t have been much more than independent governments. I could easily see Texas wandering off, paying club membership every year but functioning as a separate country.

  8. Mike Petrik says:

    Then there is this little brain twister that asks a similar question by tackling it a different way:

  9. Dale Price says:

    I wouldn’t be so sure the Confederacy would have been content with just the American south. Remember that pro-slavery arguments were very much behind demands to annex all of Mexico, Central America (William Walker’s abortive empire) and Cuba. Over time, an independent Confederacy might very well have pushed down to the Isthmus of Panama.

  10. Tito Edwards says:

    California would have invaded Baja to unite the two halves and possibly get into conflict with the British Empire over the Oregon territory.

    Texas would have eventually left the CSA and expand westward at Mexico’s expense and meet with California near what is now Phoenix.

    The CSA would have been weakened and split in two assuming that the CSA would have overran Mexico.

    The New England states would have been a “European Union” type creation (New England Union) with the Midwestern states as a New England Union protectorate.

    Deseret would be independent eventually.

    Mexico would have been splintered with Baja going to California. Arizona and New Mexico to Texas.

    The east coast would be a CSA protectorate with the west coast under California influence.

    Mexico City would be a rump city-state a la Central America.

  11. Donald R. McClarey says:

    “The New England states would have been a “European Union” type creation (New England Union) with the Midwestern states as a New England Union protectorate.”

    No way Tito! The Midwestern farm boys were the toughest troops for the Union during the Civil War. I rather think it more likely that New England would have ended up as a protectorate of the Midwest!

  12. Tito Edwards says:

    I’m sure the N.E.U. would allow for an Illinois Free State!


  13. Pinky says:

    Donald, you can only exert so much influence over the people who operate the ports. The Midwest had to be somewhat subservient to the Northeast.

    What I wonder is, if we didn’t make the Louisiana purchase, would there have been a Civil War?

  14. Donald R. McClarey says:

    “The Midwest had to be somewhat subservient to the Northeast.”

    Actually Pinky if 60,000 midwesterners could make Georgia howl, I think we could have made New York scream in a march to the sea! 🙂

  15. Centinel says:

    I do not know what would have happened, but I know what would not have happened. If there had been no war, 260,000 Southerners would not have been killed.

  16. Donald R. McClarey says:

    “If there had been no war, 260,000 Southerners would not have been killed.”

    And millions of Southerners would have remained chattel of other Southerners.

  17. dymphna says:

    Perhaps their would’ve been no Woodrow Wilson to get the US into WWI and eventually to WWII.

  18. Dean Clancy says:

    The CSA’s control of the Mississippi would have given it great leverage over the northern Midwest States, possibly inducing them eventually to secede from the USA, which in turn would have made the rump New England USA states quite vulnerable to annexation by either the CSA or Great Britain (Canada). For Lincoln and the Union, the war was thus, not just a struggle over the legal question of whether secession was constitutionally permissible, but also a more basic struggle for national survival.

  19. Paul Bergeron says:

    “And millions of Southerners would have remained chattel of other Southerners.”
    Instead, millions of Southerners have been aborted in the wombs of their mothers. The “Great Emancipator” owns this too.

  20. Donald R. McClarey says:

    Blaming Lincoln for Roe v. Wade? This is a parody of neo-Con (neo-Confederate) lunacy.

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