Answer Man

Why Lincoln plan to stop Civil War didn’t work

Q: I have long held a theory that the Civil War could have been avoided. I hold that the Union could have bought ALL the slaves, set them free, and not allowed any further imports. Some estimate the cost would have been the same (approximately $6 billion). Why was this not tried?

Joe Turner, of O’Fallon

A: To which Honest Abe would reply (in today’s vernacular): “Sorry, Joe. Been there. Tried that. Didn’t work. Nice thought, but as horrendous as it was, the Civil War became the only recourse.”

That’s right — although any halfway intelligent grade-school student can tell you that Lincoln issued the final Emancipation Proclamation on Jan. 1, 1863, I’m betting they (like me) still are seldom taught that the great president began proposing federally funded compensated emancipation more than a year before. The idea, however, drew a large Bronx cheer, and, even today, leading historians say the plan would have been unworkable.

Just months after hostilities broke out in April 1861, Lincoln decided to make Delaware a model for his plan to end slavery (and the war) by paying slaveholders. He figured it would be an easy first step because there were fewer than 1,800 slaves in Delaware. Yes, Delaware was part of the Union, but Lincoln hoped that if Delaware accepted his plan, Confederate states might jump on the bandwagon.

In early November 1861, Lincoln ran the idea past Delaware Rep. George Fisher, a slave owner himself. Fisher said he would support such a bill in the Delaware Legislature if the terms were attractive enough. Lincoln proposed $300 per slave, but Fisher countered with $500. Lincoln agreed, saying that compensated emancipation was the “cheapest and most humane way of ending this war and saving lives,” Fisher later recalled. Lincoln even wrote out the draft legislation, which began:

“Be it enacted by the State of Delaware that on condition the United States of America will ... pay to the said State of Delaware ... the sum of $719,200 in 31 equal annual installments, there shall be neither slavery nor involuntary servitude at any time after (Jan. 1, 1863) ...”

According to historian Allan Nevins, Fisher initially found support among his friends. But although he could have pushed it through the Delaware Senate, the state’s lower house opposed it for reasons that should sound all too familiar today.

“The opposition to Lincoln’s proposal of compensated emancipation was partly a question of party politics, for most Delaware Democrats looked at it as a Republican measure,” according to historian John Munroe in his “The History of Delaware.” “Some Delawareans viewed the proposal as an instance of federal interference with states rights .... Others said the proposal was financially unrealistic and oppressive ... Though Fisher argued that nine hundred thousand dollars was but the cost of one-half day of the war, the sum needed to free slaves in all the states seemed astronomical to his contemporaries.”

By early 1862, supporters of the bill abandoned it as hopeless, but Lincoln was unwilling to give up. According to historians, Lincoln even once personally offered $500 to a former Kentucky congressman who was demanding the return of one of his slaves who had found refuge in the Union army. The owner refused Lincoln’s offer, although the slave was never returned.

Then, in July 1862, Lincoln again threw out the idea at a meeting of representatives from all of the Union border states. He even requested Congress for money to fund his plan.

“Resolved that the United States ought to co-operate with any state which may adopt gradual abolishment of slavery, giving to such state pecuniary aid, to be used by such state in its discretion, to compensate for the inconveniences public and private, produced by such change of system,” the proposal began.

Most opposed the plan, but Fisher was one of seven who voiced their support in a July 15 letter:

“We are the more emboldened to assume this position from the fact, now become history, that the leaders of the Southern rebellion have offered to abolish slavery amongst them as a condition to foreign intervention in favor of their independence as a nation. If they can give up slavery to destroy the Union, we can surely ask our people to consider the question of Emancipation to save the Union.”

But Fisher was in deep political trouble back home. In a letter to Lincoln in August, Fisher lamented that his re-election chances in November were growing slimmer by the day because there were only 16,000 voters in the state and up to 1,000 who would probably back Fisher were now fighting in the Union army. He had won his previous election by a plurality of just 247 votes.

His fears turned out to be prophetic as he lost by 37 votes. Again like today, he blamed it on fear-mongering and outlandish claims by opponents who said he was a “blackhearted abolitionist who desired not only to steal all the negro slaves in Delaware from their masters but to elevate them above the white race, their former masters, and to compel by law the intermarriage of whites and blacks,” according to Harold Bell Hancock’s “Delaware During the Civil War: A Political History.”

His loss was a final nail in the coffin of compensated emancipation. On Sept. 22, 1862, five days after the Battle of Antietam, Lincoln issued his Preliminary Emancipation Proclamation. Today, most historians say Lincoln’s idea, while courageous and noble, had several fatal flaws. It asked plantation owners to give up a cheap source of labor. It was an infringement on states’ rights. Once freed, slaves would have been an economic burden for various governments, the Southern states feared. But some say the monetary cost would have bankrupted the U.S. They argue that while perhaps $300 or $400 a slave might have been possible, there was no guarantee that slaveholders would have settled for such a figure once word got out that the treasury was offering cold, hard cash for the nation’s 4 million slaves.

As a result, the Civil War went on another 30 bloody months.

Today’s trivia

In a 1902 stage version and 1910 movie of “The Wizard of Oz,” what replaced Toto, Dorothy’s faithful terrier?

Answer to Wednesday’s trivia: In 2007, Golf for Women magazine named Canadian songstress Anne Murray the world’s greatest female celebrity golfer thanks to her 11 handicap. She’ll turn 71 Monday.

Roger Schlueter: 618-239-2465, @RogerAnswer