(Disclaimer: These are my thoughts, backed up by my studies and observations of the Civil War and its ramifications)
A conversation came up in my presence that made me both incensed and thoughtful. The general premise of the discussion dealt with the notion that it would have been better that the Civil War never took place, given that the institution of slavery would have supposedly died on its own within thirty to forty years. One side of this discussion gave the point that for just a few extra decades, America would not have lost thousands of lives in the war and the outcome would have still been that slavery would no longer exist.
So, my first knee-jerk reaction was, “How can you say that it would have been acceptable to keep millions of people in bondage for another generation?” Of course, I am painfully shy and didn’t want to get into an argument, so I kept my mouth shut. I’ve long since accepted that for some people, it’s not worth the energy to try and make them change their minds, because they won’t.
But the discussion has stayed with me. Was it better to lose 620,000 lives and end slavery, or to save those lives but allow slavery to “die a natural death” and have no war at all?
Firstly, I don’t believe slavery would have “naturally” died off as soon as thirty or forty years. The argument for this estimation during the conversation was that other countries who still allowed slavery during the time of the Civil War eventually outlawed slavery in the 1880s or 1890s. I would argue that you can’t compare another country to the United States. The mentality of the people, the politics, and the economy can be completely different. Though slavery existed primarily in the south, the entire country benefited on an economic standpoint from the enslaved population. The distribution and exportation of commodities like cotton and sugar were dependent upon slavery. Given the strong feelings and the rooted necessity of slavery in the American economy and society, I doubt it would have ended so soon. The men who fought to preserve the institution were not likely to change their minds (like in my above point) within their lifetime, and the majority of these politicians would begin dying off in the early 1900s – up to the 1930s. Slavery, therefore, would have remained as strong and “important” as ever to Americans – especially in the south – well past the timeframe given in this conversation. The emergence of the Industrial Era might have shortened the necessity of slavery, but I don’t believe it would have been by much. The need for sharecroppers even after the war confirms that the need for slave labor would have still existed, even well into the 20th century.
The real killer of slavery would lay in the “movers and shakers” of the era, the abolitionists, who would lobby for the end of this unethical and inhumane practice. But it was the abolitionists and their cause that shaped the nature of the war from one that was mainly about states’ rights (which included the right to keep humans as property) into one about freeing the slaves.
Secondly, given that slavery might have continued for another fifty years (or more in my estimation), that meant at least one if not two more generations of enslaved peoples would have suffered and died in bondage. After reading the accounts from formerly enslaved people, this is absolutely unthinkable. I do not condone any situation where keeping another person against their will and profiting from their labor is a good thing. All human beings have an innate desire to be free and have some sense of self-sovereignty. No race or ethnic group on the planet was born, bred, or destined to be enslaved by another. I honestly don’t care if the plantation owners treated their slaves like family. There is evidence that slaves were well looked after, given certain limited freedoms, and provided with adequate food or medical treatment by their owners. But the fact that they own another person and use them to make a dollar is ethnically and morally wrong. To allow slavery to continue because “not all slavers were bad” is like saying “not all criminals are bad”. There are still bad apples in the barrel. Some slave owners did beat, rape, kill, and mistreat their slaves. Whether it’s the minority or not, allowing slavery to continue would have also allowed this barbarism and injustice to continue as well. Therefore, the suffering of countless enslaved persons would have been prolonged if the war had not put an end to it when it did.
Thirdly, while Reconstruction did not do what it was originally intended to do and in some ways made it much more difficult for newly freed African Americans in the south, this era and the years to follow it made a profound impression on the black population of the country. From this era came the parents and grandparents of individuals who would bring innovation and progress. If slavery had been allowed to continue, we may not have had the black politicians who made great strides toward equal rights. We wouldn’t have influential people such as Sarah Breedlove (Madam CJ Walker), who was born in 1867 on the Louisiana plantation her parents had been enslaved on and became the first African American woman millionaire. If the Civil War and the 13th Amendment hadn’t opened the door for her future, she would never have become a role model and businesswoman. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s great-grandfather was a slave on a plantation in Georgia. While King was born in 1929, who is to say that he wouldn’t have been born a slave if the war hadn’t ended the institution? The Emancipation Proclamation and the issuing of the 13th Amendment (for which we just recently celebrated the anniversary) allowed for this new wealth of untapped potential to rise up and enrich the country.
While I can understand the sentiment behind the other harmful ramifications of the Civil War, I don’t know if they can balance the consequences of never having the war at all. This flip-side is what caused me to think a little deeper and wonder if my knee-jerk reaction was correct.
In many ways, the society of the south still feels the echoes of the Civil War today, and it shows in the economy and later social upheaval caused by Jim Crow and stirred-up prejudices. The Black Lives Matter movement can trace its roots to the difficulties of adjusting to a new society where blacks should be equal and respected in all ways to the whites of the country. I myself have extremely racist people within my family and it hurts my heart to hear them speak the way they do. The Civil War and inciting this fast change (“jerking the steering wheel too hard”, so to speak) might have been like shaking the lion’s cage right before opening it. But I argue that it had to be done, otherwise it might not have happened when it needed to (albeit too late as well).
Back to the original discussion that the results of the war were not worth the 620,000 lives it destroyed. Just like there was so much potential in the enslaved population, there was potential in the men who died to free them – or own them. They might have been the next great politician, president, millionaire, scientist, inventor, etc. But again, parroting the Black Lives Matter ideal, one white life is no better or more valuable than one black life. And with approximately 3,953,762 slaves by 1860, I would like to think that losing 620,000 lives were worth freeing over six times as many slaves. That almost sounds heartless, I know. I would never wish death on anyone. But I would never wish slavery either. This, is where the conundrum lies.
I’m not trying to say that the war was a total picnic. It wasn’t. It was hell, but going through hell paved the way for progress. Not just within our society, but also in our economy, politics, international relations, and medical field. It just sucks that it took a war to do it. But I don’t think I could ever argue that the cost of war was not worth the freedom it brought to millions.