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Civil War Delayed Part I

Civil War Delayed is a series written by Rosemary Jenkins that presents an alternate future had the U.S. Civil War not been fought in 1861. This is the first of six essays. Click here to read the first essay. Click here to read the second essay. Click here to read the third essay. Click here to read the fourth essay. Click here to read the fifth essay. Click here to read the sixth essay.

If the American Civil War had not been fought in 1861 but was postponed through compromise into the twentieth century (or never happened at all), the consequences could have been enormous. Perhaps the entire history of the Western World since the mid-19th century would have been significantly altered. How true it has been that even minor changes in policy (some by accident or vacillation) have changed the course of human events. Doubtless, the timing of any major war, like the American Civil War, in the scheme of things could have a great impact on the subsequent sequence of historical occurrences.

Delaying the outbreak of the War between the States could have resulted in at least three major responses:

(1) If slave labor had been extended to all or most non-agricultural pursuits and proved to be profitable, free labor might have succumbed to Marxian Socialist views in the United States and produced a socialist or even proto-communist revolution.

(2) Europe, by the second half of the nineteenth century, had abandoned any involvement in slave institutions. (England, in particular was, after all, a leader as far back as the American Revolution in ending the slave trade and slaveholdings. In fact, the enslaved were offered freedom if they joined the British in the American Revolutionary War and would later be offered a place to live as free people with full rights in such places as Nova Scotia, England, and Sierra Leone.) It was morally repugnant to Europeans that the last vestiges of slavery in the Western World were being flaunted in their faces by American Southerners who adamantly and vigorously defended the institution. Thus, regardless of the sympathy of some in the aristocracy toward slavery, the commoners would have exerted pressure on the various European governments to bring about an economic embargo on our slave nation, if not go even further and force the severance of political relations with the rather disunited states of America.

(3) With the outbreak of World War I, a pragmatic South might have taken the opportunity to secede, having by that time experienced oppressive psycho-sociological, economic, and political pressures from home and abroad. The Federal Government would have been faced with fighting on two fronts--domestic and foreign. This situation might have necessitated a Union withdrawal from the World War in order to concentrate on maintaining a united America. Although the United States did not enter the War until 1917, it did play an instrumental role in helping the Allies win the war. If we had not stayed in the War until the end (or joined the War at all), there might not have been a misguided and ill-conceived Versailles Treaty whose effects led directly to the rise of the Third Reich and Hitler.

The United Fruit Company attempted to (and often did) acquire Central American farm land and essentially forced the laborers to work for pennies. These nations to this day have not forgotten or forgiven these threats to their independence and freedom.

From the outset of United States history, America has been flooded with extraordinarily critical compromises. Before the Constitution could be ratified, the Three-Fifths Compromise (by which for every five slaves, three would be counted for congressional representation while the privileges of citizenship would continue to be withheld from them) was inserted to appease the South. At the same time, the American Confederation (under our first Constitution) scored a major victory for the North through the Northwest Ordinance which held that slavery in that territory would be prohibited.

Many other compromises were made from the outset, one of which regarded abolishing slavery from the beginning. The Southern colonies threatened not to ratify the Constitution (which happened many different times regarding a variety of issues) if abolition were included. The end of slave trade, however, was included, with termination by 1808 (although even that practice was broken all too many times before the Emancipation Proclamation and the end of the Civil War).

Slavery as a profitable economic system was waning by the close of the eighteenth century. However, with the invention of the cotton gin in 1793 (patent 1794) by Eli Whitney, the institution of slavery was rejuvenated. Before that year, slaves were, in the main, employed in domestic duties. With the invention, they would be engaged in gang labor, cultivating and harvesting the crops on the plantations. Where once the question of slavery in the territories was of little import, the successful utilization of the cotton gin made it a more pressing question and appealing issue.

It should be noted here that Whitney never made a cent on his invention because others replicated the invention before he could patent it. However, he subsequently invented the milling machine which introduced the concept of interchangeable parts and, consequently, the factory system was born in the North (which did not require slave labor). As a consequence, the South was "relegated" to a primarily agricultural system that did require at that point in time the continuation of and dependence on slave labor.

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1820 (the year of the Missouri Compromise) marked the beginning of sectional conflict between North and South with its concomitant striving for resolution and reconciliation. The Missouri Compromise saw both Maine and Missouri admitted as states to the Union--free and slave respectively--which maintained at that time a balance between slave and free states. It further decreed that all territory above the 36º 30' line (the southern boundary of Missouri) would be forever free. In reality, the only state to be admitted as a slave state after that time was Arkansas.

Some would take the interpretation of that line even further: The lawyer and soldier, William Walker, is infamous for expanding the concept of Manifest Destiny, relying liberally on the wording of the Missouri Compromise to promote invading nations like Mexico, Honduras, and Nicaragua to annex them as slave territory to the United States. Many Central American nations were in fear of Walker's plan to invade and annex them. The concept of the Banana Republic (not the clothing company) came just at the end of Reconstruction. Later, the United Fruit Company in 1899 merged with the Boston Fruit Company. The United Fruit Company attempted to (and often did) acquire Central American farm land and essentially forced the laborers to work for pennies. These nations to this day have not forgotten or forgiven these threats to their independence and freedom.

There were both threats and conciliatory measures advanced between 1820 and 1846. It was in 1847 that the Wilmot Proviso (sponsored by Pennsylvania Congressman David Wilmot during the Polk administration) was proposed which would forever have prohibited slavery in territory gained through the Mexican-American War (1846-1848). Southern states were able to block its passage (in the Southern-dominated Senate).

This tense situation set the scene for the Compromise of 1850. The key factor here was the steady expansion westward for America under the auspices of Manifest Destiny. Henry Clay (often called the Great Compromiser) outlined the plan which was finally accepted: California would come in as a free state; Utah and New Mexico would be admitted under popular sovereignty; the boundary between Texas and New Mexico would be settled while the Federal Government would assume the debt of the former, incurred during its war of independence during the Mexican-American War; and a more strict, though controversial, Fugitive Slave Act would be enacted. [The U. S. Constitution, ratified in 1788, included a clause regarding fugitive slaves. Not that many years afterward, Congress, bowing under pressure from the South, passed the first Fugitive Slave Act in 1793.]

Interestingly enough, controversies, such as this one over slavery, led to the creation of the Republican Party [preceded by the Whig Party in 1854 (and eventually--quite ironically--the Lincoln presidency]. The Wilmot controversy succeeded in arousing anger in the South, which realized the implications of the Proviso: slavery could not be extended to states or territories beyond the point where it already existed in 1840. The South was becoming more and more paranoid, feeling its position was constantly being threatened by its Northern "partners" in the Union.

Southern Congressmen were aware that there was really no compensation for the South in this Compromise and, hence, made it clear that if there were any infractions of the Fugitive Slave Act on the part of the North, the Compromise, for all intents and purposes, would be voided. Of course, from the time of its passage, the Fugitive Slave Act was violated, raising the ire of a majority of Southerners.

What is more, the Prigg Decision in 1842 by the U. S. Supreme Court declared that Northern officials no longer had to return runaway slaves or have any responsibility for returning them. All these conflicting decisions and acts only acted to confuse the issues over slavery and make unclear who had authority to do what. Anger simmered on both sides.

In the meantime, John C. Calhoun (rabidly pro-slavery, was from South Carolina and was Vice President under John Quincy Adams and Andrew Jackson) had put forward his proposal for an amendment to the Constitution which would guarantee protection for slavery wherever it existed, thereby giving the South at least a feeling of security and stability. However, this proposal was rejected out of hand and passed over in favor of the 1850 Compromise [introduced by Daniel Webster, Henry Clay, and Stephen A. Douglas--the same Douglas who later debated Lincoln for the Senate in the famous Lincoln-Douglas Debates (otherwise known as the Great Debates)].

The Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854 nullified the Missouri Compromise, allowing territories, when the time came, to be admitted under popular sovereignty (by which the authority of government lay in the body of the people who are the source of all political power--consider Amendment 10 to the Constitution). The bill was accepted with mixed feelings. Many Southern Democrats opposed popular sovereignty but were even more antagonistic toward the 1820 Compromise. Many Northern Democrats, conversely, favored popular sovereignty but also supported the Missouri Compromise.

At the same time, an enormously important Supreme Court decision was handed down in the Dred Scott Case. Chief Justice Taney not only declared that the Negro (term used at the time) slave was property without civil rights and that the enslaver could not, therefore, be deprived of "said property," but also noted that the enslaver could take the person(s) he or she enslaved anywhere, even into free territory without losing his ownership "privileges." Section 2, Clause 3 of Article IV of the Constitution served as a basis for Taney's decision about the right of enslavers to have people who fled enslavement returned to them. This action was a critical blow to those who believed that slavery had reached its natural limits and should not be extended beyond its existing location. The 1820 Compromise was thereby officially made null and void.

The continuous compromises postponed the time when North and South would be forced to take a stand. America, in the meantime, had been catapulted to the brink of war. Had a last proposal -- the Crittenden Compromise (introduced in the last weeks of 1860)--been accepted, war would again have been avoided instead of commencing in April of 1861. At this point, let us look into this proposal and see what might have occurred if it had taken effect.

Cesar Chavez Memorial

Rosemary Jenkins