What Castro learned from Fort Sumter, and other lingering questions about the Civil War

Eight questions about the Civil War

3 minute read
As we commemorate the 150th anniversary of the Civil War, some questions are seldom if ever asked. For example:

1) Was the bloodiest war in our history really necessary? Slavery was abolished without violence throughout the Americas in all but two countries: the U.S. and Haiti. Yes, initially the war was about saving the Union— but is any "union" worth that many young lives?

In his First Inaugural, Lincoln stated that a married man and wife may separate, but that parts of a nation may not. Isn't the real strength of a marriage, or any nation, in its voluntary union? Isn't the right to separate— at any time— implicit in that strength?

2) Would William Lloyd Garrison's pre-emptive Northern Secession have worked? Having no use for a Constitution that protected and reinforced slavery, Garrison famously burned the document at an 1854 Anti-Slavery Society picnic. He wanted no union with slavery and argued that a separate Northern Republic would offer fugitive slaves a much closer haven than Canada, forcing major slave owners to move farther south….

"To hell with the South and its flawed Constitution," he might have argued. "We have it in our power to make this nation anew."

3) Did Benjamin Franklin blow it? America's not-yet-perfect Constitution was drafted in secret during the summer of 1787. Toms Jefferson and Paine, the two bright sparks of American secession from the British Empire, were out of the country at the time. Benjamin Franklin was very much in town, and he was urged to persuade the convention to address the issue of slavery, to deal with it then and there. But Franklin, although president of Pennsylvania's Society for the Abolition of Slavery, declined. Should he be held responsible for the Civil War?

4) Suppose the Confederates hadn't fired on Fort Sumter? Note that another well fortified Yankee fort has been maintained abroad, unwelcomed by the host nation, for more than 100 years. In all that time, the Cubans haven't fired on Fort Guantanamo, and consequently their communist government— anathema to Americans and to the Monroe Doctrine— has survived for more than half a century. Did the Cubans learn a useful lesson from our Civil War?

5) Where did the Confederate states themselves stand on the principle of secession? At one point during the Civil War, Governor Joseph Brown of Georgia— dismayed by the Jefferson Davis government's centralization and mandatory conscription, threatened to take his state out of the Confederacy. But where in the Confederate Constitution was secession allowed? And if the Confederacy's own constitution didn't allow secession, how could the Confederate states justify seceding from the Union?

6) Should John Brown be posthumously pardoned by the Commonwealth of Virginia, if not also by President Obama? The author and historian David Reynolds has argued persuasively that he should (New York Times, Dec. 1, 2009). Better still, as the Drexel University history professor Robert Zaller has suggested, why not pardon Virginia?

7) Had the war ended sooner (many thought it would be over in a few weeks) and had Lincoln lived, would the president — an avowed colonialist — have personally attended to the send-off of freed slaves to Panama?

8) Had Lincoln lived, would he have achieved a genuine North-South reconciliation, "with malice toward none," as opposed to Grant's harsh postwar Reconstruction? In that case, would we now have portraits of both Grant and Lee on the $50 bill?♦

To read a response by Dan Rottenberg, click here.
To read responses, click here.

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