Friday, June 04th, 2010 | Author:

What if:

  • Abraham Lincoln, like James Buchanan before him, said of the South, “As sovereign States, they, and they alone, are responsible before God and the world for the slavery existing among them.”
  • Lincoln decided that “preserving the Union” was not worth the cost in blood.
  • Congress legitimized secession and officially recognized the Confederacy.
  • The Confederate States of America still existed today.

United States map of 1861

I know.  This is an odd subject, even for me, but you can blame it on Rand Paul.  Or rather, you can blame it on an article by Sheldon Richman that was stirred by Rand Paul’s comments on the Civil Rights Act:

Why assume that legislation was the only way to stop segregation and today is the only thing preventing resegregation? We can easily imagine scenarios in which private nonviolent action could pressure bigots into changing their racial policies.

But we don’t need to imagine it. We can consult history. Lunch counters throughout the South were integrating years – years! – before the civil rights bill was passed. It happened not out of the goodness of the racists’ hearts – they had to be dragged, metaphorically, kicking and screaming. It was the result of an effective nongovernment social movement.

Starting in Greensboro, North Carolina, in 1960, lunch counters throughout the South began to be desegregated through direct but peaceful confrontation – sit-ins – staged by courageous students and others who refused to accept humiliating second-class citizenship. Four years before the Civil Rights Act passed, lunch counters in downtown Nashville were integrated within four months of the launch of the Nashville Student Movement’s sit-in campaign.

Students were beaten and jailed, but they won the day, Gandhi-style, by shaming the bigots with their simple request to be served like anyone else. The sit-ins then sparked sympathy boycotts of department stores nationwide. The campaign wasn’t easy, but people seized control of their own lives, shook their communities, and sent shockwaves through the country. State and city governments were far slower to respond.

Could not slavery have been abolished using the same methods?  Britain accomplished this without war, largely influenced by a boycott of  sugar.

An anti-sugar pamphlet by William Fox was published in 1791; it ran to 25 editions and sold 70,000 copies in four months. Spurred on by pamphlets and posters, by 1792, about 400,000 people in Britain were boycotting slave-grown sugar. Some people managed without, others used sugar from the East Indies, where it was produced by free labour.

Grocers reported sugar sales dropping by over a third, in several parts of the country, over just a few months. During a two-year period, the sale of sugar from India increased ten-fold (see Adam Hochschild: Bury the chains). James Wright, a Quaker and merchant of Haverhill, Suffolk, advertised in the General Evening Post on March 6th, 1792, to his customers that he would no longer be selling sugar.  He declared:

“…..Being Impressed with a sense of the unparalleled suffering of our fellow creatures, the African slaves in the West India Islands…..with an apprehension, that while I am dealer in that article, which appears to be principal support of the slave trade, I am encouraging slavery, I take this method of  informing my customer that I mean to discontinue selling the article of sugar when I have disposed of the stock  I have on hand, till I can procure it  through channels less contaminated, more unconnected with slavery, less polluted with human blood……”

(A full copy of this article can be read here)

Citizen actions like these could well have pressured the south to ultimately ban slavery at the state level without killing about 618,000 Americans in war.  Compare that to American casualties in WWI (53, 402), WWII (291,557), and Vietnam (47, 424), and then imagine the impact it had on the citizenry.  Look at the economic disruption as well, and it seems that other less-costly solutions to slavery could have been found.

And if they had, and two American governments existed?  We can’t know the outcome, of course, but it seems to me there would be some important advantages.

First, states rights would have been upheld, limiting the role of the federal governments.

Second, dividing the country in two would, by simple mathematics, have reduced the power of those governments.

Third, two governments would have provided some healthy competition, as people decided where they wanted to live.

Fourth, all those confederate rebels could openly fly their flags.  :)

I know this “what if?” is a little off the beaten path, but I’d be interested in your thoughts.

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2 Responses
  1. Rebecca says:

    I am a firm believer in the rights of states according to the 10th amendment. The amendments passed during the Civil War altered our country like nothing else before it.

  2. Rico says:

    It seems that the union would have continued the industrial revolution while the confederacy remained dependent on agriculture and slave labor. Since the west coast was anti-slavery, their industry and resources would belong to the union, as well. Without reconstruction, I don’t see how the south could have retooled to compete with the union in the long haul. Eventually, they would have to give up slavery (as the rest of the world wouldn’t have traded with them by the 20th century). It seems they would likely have petitioned the union to let them back in…or suffer the fate of Mexico.