Adams starts this chapter with his usual mendacity: “The Civil War has also been called ‘Lincoln’s war.’ Modern historians have been compelled to acknowledge that it was a war Lincoln could have avoided or ended at his will. It was Lincoln who made the call to arms–depriving the Congress of its constitutional responsibilities to make that fateful decision.” [p. 61]
I’ve also seen it called “Davis’ War,” “The War of the Slaveholders’ Rebellion,” and a number of other names. Big deal. And how were modern historians “compelled to acknowledge” that it was possible to avoid the war by a cowardly shirking of his constitutional duties and that it was possible to end the war by a cowardly, dishonorable surrender? Davis also could have avoided a war by not firing on Fort Sumter. Davis could have ended the war at his will by surrendering at any time. And as shown previously, the Supreme Court sustained Lincoln’s action in the Prize Cases decision.
Adams claims, “Without the strong support from the Wall Street class and the merchants and men of commerce, especially in New York City, Lincoln could not have gone to war against the South. Indeed, his first inaugural address could have been written by Northern businessmen.” [p. 61] Well, Adams, without the support of the farm boys who volunteered, the mechanics who volunteered, the firemen who volunteered, and the clerks who volunteered, Lincoln couldn’t have successfully defended the Union against the slave holders. So why couldn’t we say he served their interests? As to his First Inaugural, there isn’t much there that a businessman would have written.
Adams then contradicts himself. Previously he has portrayed Lincoln as a Machiavellian schemer. Now he says, “Lincoln was right when he later said that he did not cause the events of his time, but he was moved by them–by forces greater than he was. That is true.” [p. 61] So which is it, Adams?
Adams continues, “but it was not the force for abolition that moved him, nor was it God, even thought that seems to be a noble interpretation of his thinking. It seems to this historian that financial prosperity was the powerful force that moved the nation to war.” [p. 61] In the first place, Adams is the furthest thing from a historian, and his lying by claiming to be a historian is an insult to our intelligence. Secondly, preserving the Union was what moved him. Patriotism is what moved him. Adams conveniently leaves that out and creates for us the fallacy of the false choice.
Adams claims, “If, during March, both the Confederate and Federal congresses had not created a ‘war of the tariffs,’ the war over Sumter may never have occurred.” [p. 62] We’ve already discussed how Sumter occurred here, here, here, here, here, and here.
Adams says, “Before the ‘war of the tariffs’ in March 1861, the merchants, bankers, brokers, and investors in the North were all in favor of appeasing the South and allowing it to keep its ‘peculiar institution.’ Let the South have its way over slavery, if that is necessary to preserve the Union. but once it became clear, by mid-March, that a low tariff was in place at Southern ports to challenge Northern commerce and even undermine Northern business and trade, the policy of ‘preserving the Union’ then shifted from appeasing the slave owners to going to war.” [pp. 62-63] It’s true that many of the businessmen wanted a compromise, because for them war would be a bad thing. “But the battle for compromise was not lost until after a long and persistent struggle by its champions. The most ardent of them came from among those who keenly felt the economic impact of the secession movement and suffered most directly from the business panic which continued throughout the crisis period. It was a particularly wretched time for eastern merchants, who generally agreed that the commercial slump was as severe as the one following the panic of 1857. The shipowners, dry-goods dealers, and cotton exporters of New York, Boston, and Philadelphia felt a sharp decline in their rich southern trade; and many feared the loss of their southern investments variously estimated at from $150,000,000 to $300,000,000. The heavy dependence upon slave-state markets of a great cluster of northern mercantile interests was clearly demonstrated by the thousands of bankruptcies which occurred during the secession winter. Capitalists saw millions in paper values wiped out in the downward trend of stocks and bonds; the accompanying decline in New York real estate drove investors ‘well nigh out of their senses.’ ” [Kenneth M. Stampp, And the War Came: The North and the Secession Crisis, 1860-61, pp. 123-124]
And there was indeed a dust-up over the tariff differential. “By the time of Lincoln’s inauguration the revenue question had become the most exasperating menace to northern business. In February the Confederate Congress had re-enacted the Federal tariff of 1857 and provided that its rates would be levied upon goods purchased in the North after March 1. This act brought a rush of orders from the South during the last days of February, and northern merchants enjoyed a brisk trade. But by March this flurry of commercial activity had ceased, and business again became stagnant. Then the Yankee manufacturer suddenly found himself deprived of protection from his European competitors and forced to pay the same duties levied upon foreign goods in the southern market. The northern importer was at an even greater disadvantage. He saw that the southern tariff would ‘make goods imported into the Confederate states via the United States pay double duty,’ which was the equivalent of entirely forcing him out of this trade.” [Ibid., p. 231]
So Adams is correct about the effects on some businessmen and their reactions. His problem is that he wants us to believe that is what led to war. Adams leans very heavily on Philip Foner’s work in this chapter. That’s not a bad thing itself. However, the problem is the deceitful way he goes about it. For one thing, he leaves out the title of Foner’s work and gives us only the subtitle. The title is Business and Slavery: The New York Merchants and the Irrepressible Conflict. Instead, Adams only tells us the title is The New York Merchants and the Irrepressible Conflict, attempting to suppress all mention of the s-word.
Foner’s book delves into the attitudes and actions of New York businessmen during the secession crisis. He makes no attempt to say this is what led to war. Adams does that. Foner decisively demonstrates the complicity many New York businessmen had in the institution of slavery, and he talks about the virtual partnership several New York merchants had with southern slaveocrats. Foner’s book is meant to illuminate one facet of the United States in the secession crisis. Adams takes it far further than Foner went and far further than the evidence allows.
A government always has different interests trying to influence it. Certainly there were merchants and manufacturers who wanted their interests looked after. That doesn’t mean Lincoln bowed to their dictates. After spending a chapter declaring Lincoln a tyrant, a Caesar, a dictator with all power in his hands, Adams now portrays Lincoln as nothing more than a puppet for these merchants and manufacturers. Which is it, Adams?
Governments have a number of concerns they consider. For example, “Disunion would certainly destroy the Monroe Doctrine and open the Western Hemisphere once more to foreign intervention. Britain, France, and Spain would at once step in to re-establish or expand their imperial possessions, or to profit from the jealousies of rival American states. During the secession winter the northern press was filled with reports of foreign designs upon America. Early in April the Boston Journal published a sensational editorial entitled ‘The Gathering of the Vultures.’ It reported that Spain was already meddling in the affairs of the Dominican Republic, that France had been ‘stirred into activity by the prospects of our disintegration,’ and that Britain had dispatched a fleet to American waters. It was the secessionists, those ‘branded characters, lifting their hands against the government of their country,’ who were responsible ‘for the hovering of foreign fleets upon our coasts.’ ” [Kenneth M. Stampp, And the War Came: The North and the Secession Crisis, 1860-61, p. 245] Adams doesn’t want to tell you about that particular consideration.
“Late in January, 1861, an antislavery editor wrote excitedly about the events that seemed to be carrying North and South toward war. With a fierce joy he concluded, ‘One great and glorious result at least must follow–Slavery will surely die.’ Thus he touched upon another thread that was being woven into the fabric of the northern crusade. It was the likelihood that civil war would destroy the South’s ‘peculiar institution’ that caused many veterans of the antislavery movement to demand the enforcement of the laws.” [Ibid., p. 247] Stampp’s phrase, “thread that was being woven into the fabric of the northern crusade,” is eloquent and a perfect metaphor for the many different considerations the government, and Lincoln, had in resisting secession. Adams wants to focus on one and say that was the reason for the war, whereas the one thread he is focusing on isn’t the whole fabric, nor is it even the predominant thread in the fabric.
Adams claims, “Although the abolitionists were ready to support secession to sever the ties of the North from slavery, the moneymen, the merchants, the traders, the manufacturers–businessmen everywhere–were in favor of war in order to prevent secession and maintain one nation. No constitutional rhetoric or discussion, just hard-nosed economic reality–money.” [p. 70] Adams shows what a pitiful “scholar” he is. He thinks abolitionists all thought the same and businessmen all thought the same. He doesn’t want to think about there being a diversity of opinion among either. As we’ve seen, there were a number of abolitionists who pressed for the resistance to secession, believing it would eventually lead to the destruction of slavery. Likewise, there were other abolitionists who saw the blessing of secession being that slavery wouldn’t stain the US anymore. And there were still other abolitionists who held other views along the continuum between the extremes. Adams would have us take a simplistic view and believe each group spoke with one voice, and yet he still ignores, downplays, or tries to explain away the loudest voices in favor of his preconceived explanation.