Lincoln Should Have Allowed the South to Secede

This time of the year we used to celebrate Abraham Lincoln’s birthday. Too bad we no longer do so. For this would be an excellent historical moment to reflect on whether Lincoln’s decision to keep the country intact was right. Personally, I think he made an enormous blunder.

Few would support Lincoln’s decision if he were making it today. Few Americans support Russia’s current war against its secessionist states. No one believes Ottawa has the right to send the Canadian army in to stop Quebec from seceding.

If the South had been allowed to secede, both North and South could have benefited. The North would have evolved into a country with social and economic policies similar to those of Canada or northern European countries without the continuing drag of a large undeveloped and inefficient South. The South would have experienced the wrenching transition from a plantation economy based on slave labor to a manufacturing economy based on free labor. But after that transition, the South would have had a vibrant productive economy. As it was, after the Civil War, the South remained an economic backwater. For over a century the Southern economy depended on federal largesse. Southern states never had the incentive to nurture any significant local productive capacity.

If Lincoln had let the 11 Southern states leave, Southern blacks eventually would have won their freedom. They may have had to resort to arms, but few could argue that the level of violence would have approached the 600,000 lives lost in the Civil War.

Lincoln freed the slaves in 1863 but it wasn’t until the 1960s that blacks in the South actually gained the right to vote and not until the 1950s that they gained equal access to public facilities. Few could argue that blacks would have had to wait longer to achieve these elemental rights if they had had to struggle against an independent Confederacy.

Lincoln kept the nation together by force. And the white South has gotten its revenge on the North ever since. The South became a one party system. Southern Democrats held office for life. They controlled key congressional committees at a time when seniority meant everything. By 1968 Russell Baker in the New York Times could write, “The Congress of the United States consists of approximately 30 old men, most of whom are alive most of the time.”

So frustrated was he by a Southern Democrat dominated Congress that President Franklin Roosevelt seriously considered forming a third party. In 1948 Southern democrats walked out of the Democratic Party to support segregationist Strom Thurmond. Nine of the 18 Democrats returned as chairs of congressional committees in 1968 were from states carried by George Wallace.

Southern Democrats are the reason the United States, alone of all industrial nations, lacks universal health care. The South is the reason the United States has one of the lowest levels of social spending in the world. The South is the reason the War on Poverty died.

From the moment the Head Start program first helped poor blacks form their own preschools in Mississippi, the South declared war against the war against poverty.

In November 1994, the South moved from significant influence to domination. The old Confederacy now controls most powerful Congressional committees, this time as Republicans. A few days ago Mississippi Gov. Kirk Fordice boasted, “Mississippi is now cutting edge…Virtually every reform measure being discussed (by the Republican Congress) has either already been done in Mississippi or is in the process of being done in Mississippi).

For those readers unaware, Mississippi has among the worst and most poorly funded school systems in the country. It is the nation’s poorest state, offers the nation’s lowest level of welfare payments and has one of the highest rates of illegitimate births.

In Georgia, the dean of Kennesaw State College’s new business school announced, “The Kennesaws are where the cutting-edge ideas will be coming from.” Newt Gingrich hired as House historian an old friend from Kennesaw State, Christina Jeffrey. Then it was revealed that she had criticized a proposed curriculum to teach junior high school students about the Holocaust because of its lack of balance.

The Nazi point of view, however unpopular, is still a point of view and is not presented; nor is that of the Ku Klux Klan, she complained. Gingrich quickly jettisoned Jeffrey, but she returned home to a heroine’s welcome.

The House Rules Committee recently hung a large portrait of former Rep. Howard W. Smith in the hearing room. Smith ran the immensely powerful Rules Committee from 1955 to 1966. “(A) rabid segregationist blocking civil rights legislation at every turn” is how the New York Times described him. Rep. Joe Moakley of Massachusetts recalls that on one occasion Congressman Smith justified slavery on the grounds that the Roman and Egyptians had used slave to develop incomparable civilizations.

Is it a coincidence that as the South becomes the breeding place for new ideals, a best selling book appears that argues that blacks are genetically inferior to whites?

Much of the South has always believed that Abraham Lincoln was wrong. With the benefit of historical hindsight, the North might now arrive at the same conclusion.

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David Morris

David Morris is co-founder of the Institute for Local Self-Reliance and currently ILSR's distinguished fellow. His five non-fiction books range from an analysis of Chilean development to the future of electric power to the transformation of cities and neighborhoods.  For 14 years he was a regular columnist for the Saint Paul Pioneer Press. His essays on public policy have appeared in the New York TimesWall Street Journal, Washington PostSalonAlternetCommon Dreams, and the Huffington Post.