In Over His Head: William J. Cooper’s Assessment of Lincoln’s Secession Crisis Role
- Ohio Valley History
- The Filson Historical Society and Cincinnati Museum Center
- Volume 12, Number 3, Fall 2012
- pp. 78-84
- View Citation
- Additional Information
78 OHIO VALLEY HISTORY Review Essay In Over His Head William J. Cooper’s Assessment of Lincoln’s Secession Crisis Role Daniel W. Crofts A braham Lincoln’s stock never has stood higher. Stephen Spielberg’s film, Lincoln, has gained wide acclaim because it squares with popular yearning. Modern Americans may not agree about much, but they do agree that slavery had to go, and they celebrate the leadership of a strongwilled president who was ready to use fair means or foul to finish the job. Spielberg focuses on the end of Lincoln’s presidency, when the Confederate South had forfeited constitutional safeguards for slavery. William J. Cooper, by contrast, revisits the five months between Lincoln’s election in November 1860 and the start of armed conflict in April 1861, a time when the slave system appeared impregnable. Cooper deplores the incoming president’s unwillingness to accept a Union-saving compromise and substantially exonerates his southern antagonists of responsibility for the resulting Civil War. In short, the movie and the book differ profoundly. But however controversial the book’s basic argument, readers must respect its careful research and appreciate its lucid writing. Cooper, the biographer of Jefferson Davis, is among the most accomplished southern historians of his generation.1 We Have the War Upon Us is no neo-Confederate polemic, even though it will attract attention from those who cling to the Lost Cause. Cooper finds Lincoln sadly ill-equipped to manage the situation he confronted as he prepared to take power. He knew too little about the South, especially the Deep South.2 In Lincoln’s view, most southern whites were “conservative Unionists” (74), not secessionists. He assumed that sensible southerners understood that he and the Republican Party had no design to harm them. Lincoln also had too much respect for the Republican Party’s “most fervent antislavery zealots, the hard-liners” (79). Rather than incur their displeasure, he blocked substantive compromise measures. In so doing, he showed greater concern for maintaining Republican Party unity than keeping the Union intact. “He acted,” Cooper contends , “like a partisan’s partisan, not the leader of a country” (79). And his stance likely involved more than partisanship; Lincoln shared the hard-liners’ “visceral hatred of slavery” (80). He and they hoped that the United States was destined, at least in the long run, to end the use of forced labor. DANIEL W. CROFTS FALL 2012 79 William J. Cooper. We Have the War Upon Us:The Onset of the Civil War, November 1860-April 1861. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2012. 352 pp. ISBN: 9781400042005 (cloth), $30.00. IN OVER HIS HEAD 80 OHIO VALLEY HISTORY What the country needed in 1860-61, Cooper thinks, was someone with the broad vision of Henry Clay, someone who could craft a Union-saving compromise and rally behind it a coalition of moderates from both North and South. Lincoln, Cooper argues, was not that person even though he had long admired Clay. Two other candidates stepped forward. Clay’s Kentucky heir, the aging former Whig John J. Crittenden, was the longest-serving member of the U.S. Senate. But his famed Crittenden Compromise foundered because Lincoln passed word to his Republican allies not to accept it. Lincoln also stymied his incoming secretary of state, William H. Seward, who understood sooner and better than Lincoln how dangerous the situation in the South had become. Seward tried to reach out to southern anti-secessionists, but Lincoln rendered Seward powerless to stop the disunion juggernaut. What should readers make of Cooper’s bold reinterpretation of the secession crisis? Plainly, his preference for compromise runs against modern grain. Americans today know that the Civil War ended slavery and saved the Union. If it accomplished such worthwhile objectives, as almost all now assume, then any compromise would have been futile and self-defeating. Today, we calculate that the outcome of the war justified its huge costs—far more lives lost than in any other American war. And we satisfy ourselves that the war was somehow inevitable, that it involved irreconcilables that never could have been compromised. At the heart of Cooper’s book lies the assumption that the Deep South...