The assault on American history continues apace, with the further removal of Confederate monuments and symbols, and the expunging of anything relating to slavery or slaveholders. Mounting any defense against this cultural warfare has been next to impossible, because it would seem to demand justifying slavery. The same considerations prohibit any criticism of the Union cause in the Civil War, with all the horrendous violence and destruction of that conflict. If not desirable, this purgative violence was essential, and unavoidable.
Let me explain why we need to treat that view very skeptically indeed.
Most current historians of the era hold that slavery was so profitable and pervasive in Southern society that it was never going to go away of its own accord. The only way to finish it off was by force, and ultimately, that meant bringing on a war that killed some 750,000 Americans. To put that number in context, the United States in those four years lost about twice as many dead as have perished in the Syrian conflict (2011-). Given the relative population of the two societies then and now, the deathrate was comparable.
But an excellent case can be made that the war was unnecessary, not of course because slavery was in any way defensible, but because the slavery institution would have ended without military intervention. And ended quite soon, within a decade or two after it actually did. Yes, slavery was profitable, but profit depends on markets and trade, and the whole Southern economy was intimately bound up with larger global networks, which chiefly meant the British Empire. The British were the critical market for Southern cotton, and they were key investors.
Assume for the sake of argument that Southern secession had been achieved bloodlessly, so that the Confederacy obtained independence in 1861. The new country would have been effectively a dependency of Britain, although not a formal possession. There were plenty of analogies for such an arrangement. In several notionally independent states, mainly in the Americas, the British absolutely controlled the economies of resource-rich countries, but never bothered to annex them formally to avoid provoking a war with the U.S. over the Monroe Doctrine. That economic hegemony also involved substantial political and cultural dominance. Argentina and Uruguay were well-known parts of this “informal empire,” which persisted into the 1930’s.
But if the Confederacy held such a role, there is no conceivable way that the British could long have tolerated an alliance with slave societies. Antislavery sentiment was extremely strong in Britain, especially among the radical and Nonconformist groups who were at the heart of the Liberal Party, and whose influence was growing steadily in the 1860’s. That radicalism surged with every new evangelical revival. Perhaps not in 1861, but within a decade or two, the British government would have had no choice but to put overwhelming pressure on the CSA to end the slave system altogether. That would have meant some kind of phased abolition accompanied by compensation for owners, quite unlike the dramatic emancipation that followed Union victories in fact.
If the British had withdrawn their support, political and economic considerations alike mean that no other European nation could possibly have stepped into Britain’s role. The French abolished slavery in their possessions in 1848, and any alliance with slavery would have poisoned the country’s claims to lead the world of liberal modernity. The only other major economic power that might conceivably have taken Southern cotton would have been the rump of the United States, centered on New England, and in no mood whatever to accept slave-grown products.
No markets, no trade, no investment—and no cotton industry. Slavery in the Confederacy would simply have become unsustainable, just as it eventually did in Brazil by the 1880’s. If American slavery had somehow outlived Lincoln, it could not have survived Gladstone.
Avoiding civil war would have prevented the immense loss of life and destruction of communities that actually did occur. It might also have avoided the appalling grievances and hatred that so poisoned race relations in the South in the century after 1865.
I am suggesting a counterfactual scenario, which many historians reject as a way of arguing. Certainly, I can neither prove nor test my view. But equally, is not the current orthodoxy about the Civil War and slavery just as completely based on counterfactual, alternative history? What other historians are saying is that, if the Civil War had not occurred, then slavery would not have ended. Those historians are making what they consider to be logical deductions based on the historical context as they understand it.
I believe my approach is superior because mine, unlike theirs, takes account of the larger international setting. From that perspective, the Civil War was not a necessary catastrophe. It could and should have been avoided.