Why Did Lincoln Go To War?

Abraham Lincoln ran for president as a known abolitionist. He was elected entirely by northern states – no southern state voted for him. Before he took office on March 1, 1861, the south had declared its secession.

The question is, why did Lincoln fight? He repeatedly said he fought to save the union, but did he really? What is so valuable about the union? Wasn’t he really fighting over the same issue that caused the south to secede – slavery? Didn’t he fight because he hoped to free the slaves in the south? Wasn’t that the only point of “preserving the union”?

If he fought against slavery, but said he fought to save the union, to whom was he speaking? My take is that abolitionism was a notion of the intellectuals, and didn’t have majority support in the north. He went to war as a principled stand against slavery, but sold it as a bid to save the union.

The Gettysburg Address tries (brilliantly) to tie together the saving of the union and the freeing of the slaves. He starts by harkening back to the founding fathers and their conception of liberty and dedication to the proposition that all men are created equal. This falls a bit flat, since they also recognized slavery in the constitution.

The crux of the speech is this: “Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation, or any nation so conceived and so dedicated, can long endure.” This one sentence gives the reason for the war. The rest of the speech is a memorial to the dead and an exhortation to continue the fight that they “shall not have died in vain.” Which, if you think about it, isn’t a good reason by itself. If they had died in a bad cause, keeping up the fight wouldn’t have been a good idea.

So the war was to preserve a nation conceived in liberty and dedicated to equality for all men. But this is merely an arbitrary conflation of two ideas. There was nothing inherent in a nation so conceived and so dedicated that made it unlikely to endure, or that led to the war. Part of the nation had slipped away from the ideas of liberty and equality (or you could say more accurately that they had failed to keep up with their evolution). But, Lincoln was fighting for those ideas – saving the union was merely a means to that end.

Why is this interesting? Only because I have heard it said that Lincoln didn’t fight to free the slaves but rather to save the union. This is usually accompanied by a quotation like, “I would save the Union. I would save it the shortest way under the Constitution. The sooner the national authority can be restored; the nearer the Union will be ‘the Union as it was.’”

A quote that reveals more about what Lincoln thought is, “You say you will not fight to free negroes. Some of them seem willing to fight for you; but, no matter. Fight you, then exclusively to save the Union.” Here, saving the union is explicitly a motivator for others.

Lincoln and the Civil War have been well-studied, and I doubt any of this is new, except to me. But, I have been thinking about Lincoln in the context of making a list of my heroes, and that list will be my next post.

Here are some Lincoln quotations. Here is the text of the Gettysburg Address.

3 Responses to “Why Did Lincoln Go To War?”

  1. Andy Says:

    Presumably – or not, perhaps? – you were thinking of the parallels between Lincoln’s war and Bush II’s ? No one believed Bush was going to war to deal with WMD, at least not in Europe.

    Bush’s constituency was certainly not “world opinion” (he was not elected by Englishmen {Scotsmen, Welshmen, Irishmen…} or Frenchmen or Germans) but those who got him elected.

    Posted today on my current view on what type of war Iraq currently is, finding an old comment I made about the Algerian war: whether this holds up I have no idea.

  2. Bob DeLong Says:

    I’ve thought recently about the Civil War, whether it needed to be fought. Interestingly, I had never questioned it before. But think: what if Gorbichev had taken Russia to war against Ukraine to preserv the Soviet Union. Can one imagine anything more hellish? But he would have been preserving the union… Then, what would have happened if the North had not fought the South but let them go their way: my guess is that slavery would have fallen of its own weight within 30 years; and that in fact the two halves would have rejoined eventually.

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