My sin in the pongid world is to have asked whether, if the North had let the South go without war, slavery would have long persisted in the South. I can also ask whether, given the blood spilled in the War and the rapid turn away from Reconstruction, Lincoln was far-sighted, bloody-minded, or a bit of both.
Brazil abolished slavery without a war in 1888. In 1871, the “Free Womb” law passed, making all children of slave mothers free at birth. In 1885 the “Sexagenarian Law” passed, freeing all slaves when they reached 65, and in 1888 slavery was abolished in its entirety.
The U.S. Civil War started in 1861, and the official story was that it was being fought to preserve the Union, which continued to include slave states. Pressure for emancipation grew in the North, and in 1862-1863 Lincoln used his war powers to issue proclamations that declared slaves free in rebel States. It was part of a strategy, combined with blockade and the depredations of Sherman, among other things, to destroy the Southern economy.
If the Confederacy had simply been allowed to secede, where would the room to expand, apparently necessary to the slave system, have come from? Would slavery have been compatible with a more advanced technology? Would the South have evolved toward emancipation, as did Brazil? In fact, by 1876, white supremacy came roaring back, not seriously challenged until 3/4 of a century later.
The “what ifs” are all conjectural history, of course, but whatever the truth and whatever the real goal of the North’s war, the 600,000 dead and countless maimed was a very high price to pay, as was the unleashing of industrial-scale warfare. The carnage of the Civil War was unrivaled until the maniacal slaughter of World War I, fought, if one accepts the sanctimony of Woodrow Wilson, to “make the world safe for democracy,” but in fact opening the door to Bolshevism, fascism and Nazism.
Lincoln is justly remembered as larger than life, a fascinating and eloquent figure, whose victory opened the way to the modern, industrial United States, for good or ill. Southern nostalgia generally gives slavery the once-over-lightly. Was there another possible outcome?