On Compromise and the Coming of the Civil War

The essence of all politics is the art of compromise. The success or failure of a nation-state’s policy goals lies in the ability of its political actors–some of which may have vastly different interests–to negotiate and sometimes compromise on preferred ideals in the interest of crafting intelligent policy that promotes the greater good. Compromise, of course, doesn’t always lead to positive outcomes. As the philosopher Avishai Margalit beautifully argues in On Compromise and Rotten Compromises:

We very rarely attain what is first on our list of priorities, either as individuals or as collectives. We are forced by circumstances to settle for much less than what we aspire to. We compromise. We should, I believe, be judged by our compromises more than by our ideals and norms. Ideals may tell us something important about what we would like to be. But compromises tell us who we are. (5)

Superficially, it sounds silly to ask whether compromises are good or bad, much like asking whether bacteria are good or bad: we cannot live without bacteria, though sometimes we die because of bacteria. Yet that asymmetry makes the question about the goodness and the badness of bacteria, as well as those of compromise, worth asking. We have ten times as many bacteria in our bodies as we have cells, and many of those are vital for our existence. A small number of bacteria are pathologic and cause disease, and and with the proper treatment, we may get rid of them. Similarly, compromises are vital for social life, even though some compromises are pathogenic. We need antibiotics to resist pathogenic bacteria, and we need to actively resist rotten compromises that are lethal for the moral life of a body politic. (7)

This description captures one of the most fundamental quandaries of human existence: when should individuals and groups make compromises on ideals to accomplish an objective, and when is refusing to compromise the better option of the two? Studying history is a worthwhile endeavor for considering the ramifications of political compromise on the health of a nation-state and its people.

It was with this conception of compromise on my mind when I read historian Carole Emberton’s fine essay in the Washington Post and Caleb McDaniel’s in The Atlantic today on the breakdown of compromise efforts leading up to the Civil War. White northerners and southerners forged successful compromise efforts (at least in the minds of those seeking political union between the sections) on the issue of slavery from the beginning of the nation’s founding. As the country acquired new western territory through conquest and purchase in the years before the Civil War, debates continually sprang up about whether the institution of slavery would accompany the white American settlers moving westward. In hindsight, various compromise efforts like the 1820 Missouri Compromise, the Compromise of 1850, and others were really measures to appease the proslavery south, but they nonetheless allowed the Union to be maintained for nearly eighty years after its founding.

It’s worth asking students of the Civil War to consider how compromise over slavery was possible in 1850 but not in 1860. My answer would be that the Republican Party’s successful entrance into electoral politics changed the game. The Republicans explicitly organized as a party in 1854 on the principle that slavery should be banned in the western territories and left open for free labor (for some Republicans, this meant only free white labor). Although Abraham Lincoln acknowledged that Constitutionally speaking slavery could not be touched where it already existed in the south, his personal hatred of slavery was well-know and feared by proslavery fire-eaters who saw his election as a step towards federal governance dominated by northern anti-slavery convictions. In other words, an administration that was hostile to the south’s economic, political, and social interest in keeping African Americans enslaved.

President-elect Lincoln was willing to compromise to the extent that he offered support to the first proposed 13th Amendment guaranteeing the federal government’s protection of slavery in the states where it already existed, but he refused to compromise on the question of slavery’s westward expansion, drawing a line in the sand and arguing that he had been elected on the belief that the west should be for free labor. Compromising on this question would sacrifice the Republican Party’s core principle of existence. Likewise, many white Southern Democrats argued that talk of disunion could be mollified if the federal government passed legislation guaranteeing the right to bring their slave property west with them. They refused, however, to make any further compromises short of these new guarantees from the federal government. As Emberton argues, “it was slavery, and the refusal of Southern slaveholders to compromise on slavery, that launched the Civil War.”



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