By Mel Barger 


From 1861 to 1865, some of the worst savagery ever staged on Earth took place in North America.   When it ended more than 620 thousand men were dead and many thousands more were blinded, crippled, disfigured, and otherwise maimed and injured.  Towns and homes had been burned, railroads had been torn up, crops had been destroyed, and forests had been ravaged.   Had a visitor from Outer Space witnessed this tragedy, he could only have assumed that millions of people in the United States had somehow gone temporarily insane.

Yet this horrible Civil War period has been consistently glorified as a time when the nation managed to abolish the curse of slavery and preserve a Union that had been fragmenting.  The prime actors in this tragedy have been deified like Abraham Lincoln or somewhat demonized like Jefferson Davis, while the battles and other events have been continuously exalted in print and on screen.  It’s likely, for example, that more books have been published relating to the Civil War than any event in American history.

In view of the romance and excitement built around the Civil War, it is almost heretical to ask if it was necessary.   Were there political actions that could have prevented the war while achieving the goal of abolishing slavery and maintaining the Union?  Would it have been possible to find a peaceful solution that would have headed off war and met the fundamental aims of the different constituencies involved in the conflict? 

Indeed there was.  In fact, a plan for a peaceful solution to the slavery question had already been successfully carried out more than twenty years before the Civil War erupted.  If studied carefully and followed by all participants, it could have freed every slave long before the Thirteenth Amendment became law in 1865.

The successful plan was the British Emancipation Act of 1833---a major piece of legislation which emancipated 800 thousand black slaves in the West Indies and effectively ended slavery in that part of the British Empire.  Though the act had its dissenters and critics, it was successful in achieving its purpose without a single shot being fired.  It stands as a rebuke to the bloody conflict that some think was necessary for ending slavery in the U.S.  It is also a sobering lesson for Americans who may feel that our democracy has usually been superior in practice to that of Great Britain, which never had a real Constitution.

But there were two important elements in the passage of the British Emancipation Act which were missing in the drive for abolition in the U.S.  Had these elements been present, the U.S. could have found a peaceful solution to a terrible dilemma that had troubled the country from its very beginning.

The first element missing from the American scene in the years immediately leading to the Civil War was a climate of  reason and good will.  Long before the onset of the actual fighting, a heated war of words and emotions was raging between the South and the militant abolitionists of the North.  By the 1850s, it had reached such a pitch in the U.S. Congress that at one point an abolitionist Senator, Charles Sumner, was beaten almost to death by a Southern House member wielding a cane. 

But in Britain, reason and good sense prevailed in the years before 1833.  This was largely because the British abolitionist movement was led by William Wilberforce, whose anti-slavery convictions  had grown out of his conversion to evangelical Christianity in 1785.  As a member of Parliament, he had spearheaded the successful drive to abolish the African slave trade in 1807 and later worked, with his allies, for the Emancipation Act which was finally passed a month after his death in 1833.  Wilberforce has consistently been remembered as a good man who was highly esteemed in his time and won the admiration even of his opponents.  Though adamantly opposed to slavery and its evils, he was a man of reason and good will and attracted allies in the same mold.

Perhaps because of Wilberforce’s influence, British Abolition had a second element which helped assure a peaceful solution:  This was compensation for the slave owners.

Requiring a planned public expenditure of 20 million pounds sterling, this helped win the support of influential people including those with interests in the West Indies.  It was fairly generous, though some believed the amount given per slave was only about half the real market value.  Compensated abolition helped assure passage of the measure and probably prevented it from being delayed or killed altogether.  Accounts about the Act don’t reveal a great deal of bitter controversy about the payments, which seemed to have been accepted as reasonable and proper by most of the people involved.   In fact, the ailing Wilberforce even praised Parliament for its willingness to make such payments.  Three days before his death, he exclaimed, “Thank God that I should have lived to witness a day in which England is willing to give twenty millions sterling for the Abolition of Slavery!” 1

It is true that the slavery issue in the U.S. had more political problems than those faced in Britain.  American slavery had at one time been  national in scope.   While all the states had slavery when the Constitution was ratified, it was gradually abolished in the North on a state-by-state basis between 1794 and 1804.  The Quakers were credited for much of this success and in some cases there was also compensation for the owners. 2

But slavery was much more important to the economy in the American South, especially where gang labor was required.  But until the 1830s, complete abolitionism had little political standing, and great divides over the slavery issue were sidestepped by actions such as the Missouri Compromise of 1820-1821, when Missouri was admitted as a slave state about a year after Maine was admitted as a free state.  The compromise meant that one slave state would be admitted for every free state joining the Union, thus preserving a balance between slave and free states and assuring the South that it wouldn‘t be overwhelmed in Congress by the free states.  The Missouri Compromise had the effect of keeping the lid on the slavery issue, but it left the slaves in bondage and meant that future generations would have to face the matter more honestly.  The sad truth is that Northerners as well as people in the South saw some benefits in slavery that produced cheap cotton and sugar. 

One of the critical changes came in the early 1830s with the formation of the American Anti-Slavery Society and its Declaration of Sentiments, written by William Lloyd Garrison.  Though professing non-violence in opposing slavery, the Sentiments were uncompromising in stating that “no compensation should be given to the planters emancipating their slaves; Because it would be a surrender of the great fundamental principle, that man cannot hold property in man; Because slavery is a crime, and therefore is not an article to be sold; Because the holders of slaves are not the just proprietors of what they claim...” 3

This uncompromising statement of principle by Garrison would help shape the future direction of abolitionism, because he proved to be one of the most influential persons in the movement.  His fiercely outspoken publication, The Liberator,  became the voice of Northern abolitionism and also created opposing reactions in the South.  Garrison’s moral principles were  sound and few persons of conscience could challenge his belief that chattel slavery was an evil that had to be eliminated if America was ever to achieve real freedom for every person.  He deserves his rightful place as the leading advocate of slave liberation.  There is no question that in demanding total abolition he occupied the moral high ground.

But there was one serious problem with Garrison’s program that was almost certain to block any peaceful solution as the slavery controversy began to intensify in the late 1840s.  By branding the Southern slave owners as criminals and adamantly opposing compensation, he was not only precluding any hope of successful negotiation with them but was also threatening to take away much of their wealth.  The men Garrison demonized included Southern members of Congress and would have included George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, and Andrew Jackson.  Jefferson Davis, a U.S. senator from Mississippi and later president of the Confederacy, also owned more than 100 slaves.

Garrison’s wholesale denunciation of slave owners as a group suggests that he had a second purpose along with his desire to liberate the slaves:  Besides refusing to compensate slave owners,  he wanted to condemn and humiliate them as evildoers and criminals.  And as the abolition movement grew, he acquired allies who thought the same way.  Along the way, their resentment and contempt came to be directed towards the entire South as well as the privileged individuals who owned slaves.

This was the argument of Frank L. Owsley, in a 1941 revisionist article about the fundamental causes of the Civil War.  According to  Owsley, the anti-slavery crusade was also a crusade against the Southern people.  “For over three decades this attack upon slavery and the entire structure of southern society down to the custom of eating corn bread and turnip greens grew in volume and violence...“ he wrote  “One has to seek in the unrestrained and furious invective of the present totalitarians to find a near parallel to the language that the abolitionists and their political fellow travelers used in denouncing the South and its way of life.”  According to Owsley, neither Hitler’s Dr. Goebbels nor Stalin’s propaganda agents “have as yet been able to plumb the depths of vulgarity and obscenity reached and maintained by George Bourne, Stephen Foster, Wendell Phillips, Charles Sumner, and other abolitionists of note...All crimes were laid at the door of these (Southern) people: they were kidnappers, manstealers, pimps, robbers, assassins, freebooters, much more ’despicable than the common horse thief.’  He added: “Neither time nor good taste permits any real analysis of this torrent of coarse abuse; but let it be said again that nothing equal to it has been encountered in the language of insult used between nations today---even those at war with one another.

“This crusade against the South has often been brushed aside as the work of a few unbalanced fanatics,” Owsley contined.  “Such is not the case at all.  The genuine abolitionists were few in number in the beginning; but just as radicalism today has touched so many of the intellectuals of the East, so did abolitionism touch the intellectuals of the East and of the North generally.  So did it touch the moral and political leaders.  The effects upon the minds of those millions who did not consider themselves abolitionists were profound.  In time the average Northerner accepted in whole or in part the abolitionist picture of Southern people:  they became monsters and their children were not children but young monsters.  Such a state of mind is fertile soil for war.”(emphasis added). 4

Far from solving the slavery dilemma, these attacks from Northern abolitionists were creating angry reactions as well as fear in Southern people.  While slavery was the key issue, the dilemma spilled over to become a sectional rivalry between the North and the South.  This was intensified because Southerners already felt dominated and oppressed by the growing wealth and power of the North.  As the 1850s unfolded, the anger in both sections of the country became so heated that a major break became almost inevitable.  

Today, we would agree without hesitancy that no person should own another as property.  But Southern planters had a much different view and their slave property was legally held in the 15 states where they lived.  Most of them were certain to resist any political action that would deprive them of their property.  Yet there was also some guilt about slavery and a few slave owners manumitted their slaves or allowed them to earn their freedom.  Indeed, in 1830 there were about 700 thousand free blacks in the U, S. and about two million slaves.

But the problem was that slavery was an intrenched institution within a country that continuously strove to achieve a delicate balance of political constituencies.  The fragile marriage of states made by the Constitution was becoming increasingly difficult to maintain, though skilled leaders, both North and South, worked to keep it from unraveling.  But abolitionist sentiment grew strongly in the North in the 1950s as the Republican Party formed in 1854 with a strong antislavery tone and such issues as the Fugitive Slave Act and the landmark Dred Scott decision inflamed abolitionists.  Feelings had become so strong that by 1858 Abraham Lincoln’s famous “A House Divided” speech, though delivered only in Springfield, Illinois, gained national attention.  Lincoln, while not taking an abolitionist stance, made it clear that he didn’t believe the government could exist “half slave and half free.”   Though he would later campaign only on a platform opposing the extension of slavery to new states, passions had become so heated by 1858 that his later election to the presidency became a signal for secession in the South. 

In the meantime, the mad terrorist John Brown, who had already murdered innocent people in Kansas, was readying plans for what became the attack on the Federal arsenal in Harpers Ferry, Virginia, on Oct. 16, 1859.  His main purpose was to launch a slave insurrection,  something that was never far from Southern fears.  He was supported by a group of prominent easterners who became known as The Secret Six---highly respectable men who deplored violence in most cases but thought it right to support terrorism in a just cause.  Ironically enough, the murderous Brown was also praised by Henry David Thoreau, whose essay on “Civil Disobedience” would someday influence the non-violent protests of the 20th century! 5 When John Brown’s raid on Harper’s Ferry failed and resulted in his execution by hanging on Dec. 2, 1859, people throughout the North mourned his death and transformed him into a martyr.  But in the South, Brown was seen as a wild fanatic who wanted to launch a slave insurrection that would lead to the annihilation of whites.

The time for a peaceful solution to the dilemma had almost passed when Abraham Lincoln was elected president in 1860.  Lincoln was conciliatory towards the South and strenuously insisted that he would not seek the abolition of slavery, though he was firmly on record as opposing its extension.  This did not satisfy the South, and he had hardly taken office in 1861 when the bombardment of Fort Sumter began, and the nation’s most horrible war had started.

There will probably always debates about what path Lincoln should have taken when confronted with Southern secession.  There are reasons to believe that he could have limited the secession to seven states if he had shown early restraint in using military force.    His response, however, was to call for 75 thousand troops to put down what he saw as a rebellion.  At that point, he obviously didn’t understand how strong the Southern reaction would be or how fierce the Confederate armies would be in battle.  There would be no quick victory, and with both sides believing in the righteousness of their cause, the conflict took on an existence of its own and dragged on for four bloody years.  While the North had a vastly superior advantage in manpower and supplies, the South was able to counter this with strong defenses and expert generalship.  It really wasn’t until late 1864 that Lincoln could be assured of eventual victory, and by that time hundreds of thousands had perished, mostly men in their teens and twenties.  Had such a horror been foreseen when the war was launched in 1861, it’s doubtful that anybody, North or South, would have supported going ahead with it.  The entire war consisted of a succession of blunders and miscalculations on both sides, exacting a terrible price in blood and treasure.

The positive outcome of the Union victory was that it gave force to the abolition of slavery, which became illegal in all states with the passage of  the Thirteenth Amendment in early 1865.  It also saved the Union, but in a way that should never be recommended if any future secession occurs.  Some Southerners, with good reason, still call the Civil War “the War of Northern Aggression.” 

Since we can’t return to those days of yesteryear, what benefit is there in discussing the Civil War and suggesting how it might have been avoided?  The benefit is in studying what was really a horrible mistake and taking steps to avoid such disasters in the future. 

The wrong turning that led to war may have started in 1833 with the sentiments of the Abolition movement.  William Lloyd Garrison was entirely correct in seeking total abolition; in fact, that should have been the single goal of the movement.  But far from opposing compensated abolition, Garrison and his allies should have advocated it, using the British example and William Wilberforce’s views as a guide.  Instead of demonizing and attacking the Southern slave owners, they should have opened negotiations with them about the best way to end chattel slavery.  Many slave owners might have been unwilling even to discuss such a plan, but there are good reasons to believe that many others would have welcomed it, for various reasons.  One practical advantage of emancipation for the South, for example, would have been increased strength in the House of Representatives, since slaves were counted only on a three-fifths basis.  A second advantage is that compensation would have given slave owners the capital needed to finance employment of the ex-slaves under different and better terms. 

Such arguments would only have caused further indignation in William Lloyd Garrison because his rage and condemnation of the slave owners was almost without bounds.   He called for immediate and total emancipation without considering what practical steps might be necessary to achieve it.  Though he had gone to England and met William Wilberforce, he apparently considered Britain’s compensated emancipation plan a kind of sell-out to slave interests, though Wilberforce had praised it.  Garrison did approve of an action to purchase legal freedom for Frederick Douglass, the escaped slave who became prominent in the abolition movement.  There was some irony in accepting this for Douglass but not seeing it as a possible solution to the national dilemma.

Even if Garrison had changed his mind and endorsed a national plan for compensated abolition,  its passage would have involved a long political review and struggle, just as it did in England.  It’s likely that there would have been strong objections to the cost of compensated abolition.  States which no longer had slavery might have resisted paying a share of the cost. There were also objections in northern states based on fears that complete emancipation would bring thousands of  ex-slaves into their markets to compete with white workers.   But these issues could have been hammered out in political debate, just as thousands of other issues have been handled in the same way.  That’s why we have legislators in the first place---they are supposed to work out peaceful solutions to problems without resorting to violence.

What about the wellbeing of the former slaves?  This came up continuously, and there were even fears that the slaves could not function in a free society.  But the real issue was human liberty.  The abolitionists would have fared better if they had concentrated on freedom first and faced these other issues following emancipation.  The sad truth is few people had fair and workable plans for helping the ex-slaves.  The various proposals for dealing with the ex-slaves only muddied the waters and probably blocked any real efforts towards peaceful emancipation.  Many people in power, both North and South, were more concerned about the future of the Southern labor supply after emancipation.  But it should have been easy for reasonable people to show that paid labor is more productive than slave labor and that there would still be workers for growing cotton and sugar cane.  The need for labor should also have been one argument against unjust and unworkable plans to recolonize the former slaves in Africa---a place where, in other times, Africans had captured their fellow blacks for sale as slaves!

With peaceful negotiations and corresponding political actions, it’s possible that American slavery could have been abolished by 1840.  This was about the time all of the British slaves in the West Indies became completely free as a result of the Emancipation Act. 5

An 1840 Emancipation  would have been excellent timing for the U.S., because the annexation of Texas in 1845 and terrritory acquired by the Mexican War brought new issues into the struggle between free and slave states.  This had the effect of creating new states and determining which would be slave and which would be free.  A later attempt to leave this question tothe individual states---thus ending the Missouri compromise---only raised further problems and resulted in violence in Kansas.     

While the abolitionists can be faulted for their harsh and vindictive attitudes toward the South, they deserve credit for facing the terrible dilemma of slavery that had festered too long in the American soul.  Lincoln, who favored compensated emancipation, believed that the entire country bore responsibility for the evils of slavery.  While some argue that America’s founding fathers had to compromise with slavery in order to forge a Union and ratify a Constitution, there was no way this so-called “peculiar institution” could be at all compatible with the Declaration of Independence and the Bill of Rights. It had to be abolished if American ideals were ever to be fully achieved in practice.  The failure to face and resolve the slavery issue at an earlier time, and in a reasonable way, created a witches’ brew of pride, fear and hatred that became the Civil War.  Such a war may have seemed necessary by 1861---but that was only because sectional pride and anger had passed the point of no return. 

We pay high tribute to the Civil War and its positive outcomes in total emancipation and holding the Union together. But with reason and good sense, it was also an evil that didn’t have to happen.  We will probably always honor William Lloyd Garrison as the agitator for emancipation and Abraham Lincoln as the politician who achieved it after a bloody struggle.  But it was the nation’s misfortune that we somehow didn’t have a William Wilberforce---who was both agitator and politician---to find a peaceful solution that worked.  


NOTES

1  Kevin C. Belmonte, Hero for Humanity (Navpress, Colorado Springs, CO, 2002) p. 325.

2 The peaceful, successful campaign to end slavery in the North is thoroughly presented in The First Emancipation, Arthur Zilversmit, 1967, The University of Chicago Press.

3 William Lloyd Garrison, Declaration of Sentiments of the American Anti-Slavery Society, published in The Antislavery Movement, (Greenhaven Press, San Diego, 2002,

p. 69.  

4  Frank L. Owsley, from  The Causes of the Civil War, Prentice-Hall, Englewood Cliffs, NJ, 1965, p. 23.  The article had previously been published in Journal of Southern History.

An account of Thoreau’s (and Emerson’s) meeting with Brown is in The Secret Six, by Otto Scott, Times Books, New York, 1979, pp. 235-236.  They were completely taken in by what they saw as his charm and noble character! 

6 Though passed in 1833, the British Emancipation Act had apprenticeship provisions that kept some of the slaves in partial bondage for another six years.