What If Lincoln Had Let the South Go? A Counterfactual Thought Experiment

Although Americans are justly proud of the heroic way President Lincoln kept the South in the United States, it is interesting to speculate on what would the nation look like today if he had let the rebels secede from the Union? Think of this as a thought experiment that attempts to explore an alternate path of US development.

The first difference would be that the lives of many millions of men who died in the Civil War would be spared.

Yes, the Southern slaves would not have been freed. But how much longer could slavery persist after seeing the North free their slaves and with the nation modernizing in the Industrial Age that was taking off then?

The major difference would be to divide the United States into two very different nations stressing very different values. The “Northern States of America” (NSA) would likely have been distinguished by their adherence to democratic ideals of community, human welfare, and the role of government, much like the Democratic Party today. The “Southern States of America” (SSA) would have valued the right of property, free markets, and limited government, like the Republican Party. These 2 cultures may not be quite so neatly divided, but please bear with me as I use this distinction to make an important point.

The two nations could have worked together on common issues, possibly, and they might have fought occasionally, but they could have co-existed rather nicely out of necessity.

The interesting question is, how would the paths taken by the NSA and the SSA have taken these nations in different directions and to different places?

The NSA could have created a more equitable and just society that works together well. They probably would have taken better care of women, the young, and other needy groups, and they would have addressed the climate change crisis. Favoring the use of government to pursue these goals, would the NSA have grown over controlled by Federal regulations and mounting debt, as conservatives warn? Or would they learn to temper the need for control to allow enterprise to thrive?

The SSA would have thrived economically for some time with cheap slave labor, and they likely would have been inventive in their freedom to be entrepreneurial with minimal government restrictions.  The social costs of this laissez-faire capitalism would likely have fomented slave rebellions, and social decay would have taken a heavy toll.  With no interest in dealing with climate change, the South would likely have become near uninhabitable due to drought, sea level rise, and extreme weather.

There are other paths that could be explored, but I suggest this little thought experiment illustrates the perils of ignoring the concerns of either the left or the right wings of politics. Both positions alone would lead to extremism, and they need each other to provide balance and tempered policy. When we become tired of the endless debate, the specter of either an extreme NSA or SSA would be a valuable lesson to remember.

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