- Lincoln and the Decision for War: The Northern Response to Secession
"And the war came," Abraham Lincoln said in his second inaugural address in a phrase so typically pithy and eloquent that in 1950, Kenneth Stampp made it the title of his study of the secession winter. But why did the war come? While offering a variety of different answers, historians often have missed the basic issue: whether North and South went to war over slavery or state's rights, economic or cultural factors, the war was due to secession and the North's unwillingness to tolerate it. Russell McClintock makes that and many other useful points in this highly readable, thoroughly researched, and welcome narrative.
The story never becomes suspenseful—how it comes out is fairly well known—but organizing the story chronologically helps McClintock explain the evolving views of northerners, Republican and otherwise. Naturally, Lincoln is the key figure, and McClintock reminds us why: when others dallied with compromise, Lincoln held firm, influencing his party's response behind the scenes. By contrast, Senator William Henry Seward of New York—the leading Republican until Lincoln's ascent and in some minds afterward, a seeming radical with conservative inclinations, a backroom operator par excellence—angled [End Page 225] for compromise throughout the winter of 1860–61. Yet McClintock also shows how Lincoln spent part of the winter becoming party leader while Seward, even in ceding power, influenced Lincoln's thoughts and actions—the beginnings of a partnership that blossomed during the war—and other Republicans worked closely with Lincoln but resented their waning influence.
McClintock avoids the appealing trap of becoming so enamored with Lincoln that he ignores other players. He captures and analyzes James Buchanan's vacillation, Stephen Douglas's unionism and partisanship, Winfield Scott's political ineptitude, and the actions and problems of Major Robert Anderson, whose defense of Fort Sumter often obscures the long winter he spent in the middle of the crisis. Indeed, McClintock stresses that Sumter's defense, reinforcement, and symbolism became an issue well before Lincoln took office. McClintock credits Lincoln for how the outcome benefited the North—no battle for the fort took place until the hapless Buchanan left the White House, and the South fired the first shot, helping to crystallize northern support for a war against secession. This outcome occurred in part because "had he not kept the party leadership so consistently within the bounds of popularly accepted party ideals, the Republican organization could easily have collapsed around him . . ." (278–79). Lincoln kept party leaders aware of his thinking, created his Cabinet without splintering Republicans, and stood up strongly enough to the South before and after taking office to please hard-liners without unduly worrying conservative Republicans willing to countenance compromise.
McClintock's analysis is solid and command of the literature superb. But he might have given more credit to Seward and Charles Francis Adams—a representative from Massachusetts who, like the New Yorker, always was less radical and more cunning than he seemed. Their compromise efforts may have been more of a stalling tactic than indecision or a change in Republican principles. Seward's memorandum of April 1, 1861, may have been an offer to take over policymaking from Lincoln, but historians have debated what Seward was up to, and McClintock might have considered that debate. More crucially, the book delivers a little less than McClintock suggested in his introduction, which promised to focus primarily on Massachusetts, New York, and Illinois as key barometers of northern attitudes. His focus was indeed on the leaders from those states—and he waxes eloquently and correctly on the importance of political history and the need to study leaders.
But what northerners in those states and in general really thought still is open for research and analysis. Perhaps McClintock will dig in and find out. Lincoln and the Decision for War demonstrates his ability to gather a wealth [End Page 226] of material into a comprehensible analytical narrative. More remains to be...