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A what-if that would have changed the world

A successful secession by the Confederacy would have altered the course of history for all nations, not just the United States, author Roger L. Ransom says.

Published August 12, 2005

In his new book, The Confederate States of America: What Might Have Been (W.W. Norton), Roger L. Ransom, who has been fascinated by the Civil War since he was in high school, presents a plausible scenario for a Southern victory.

Ranson, who teaches history and economics at the University of California at Riverside, also speculates persuasively on the challenges that would have faced a victorious South.

In the final chapter he demonstrates the truth of Abraham Lincoln's 1861 assertion that the outcome of the Civil War would affect not just "the fate of these United States," but "the whole family of man."

He talked about his Southern scenario in a recent phone interview:

Q: How could the Confederacy have won the Civil War?

If the war had gone better in the West, and if (Gen. Robert E.) Lee had avoided defeat at Gettysburg, the Confederates could have fought to a stalemate until the elections of 1864, when dissatisfied Northern voters would have elected a new president who would have been willing to negotiate an end to the war.

Then what?

The Confederate States of America would have drawn up a constitution patterned on the U.S. Constitution with one obvious difference: The Confederate constitution would have explicitly defined slaves as property.

What would have happened to slavery if the South became independent?

One of the ironies of the war is that the Confederacy probably would have emancipated their slaves by the end of the century. Declining cotton prices, combined with growing political pressure from other nations, would have made Southern slave owners open to the idea of a compensated emancipation scheme in which the government in Richmond would reimburse them for the loss of their property. However, ex-slaves would have remained a subservient class of laborers, and the segregation would have been far more oppressive. Remember, the 13th, 14th and 15th amendments of the U.S. Constitution, which provided the legal foundation for the civil rights movement, would have been conspicuously absent from the Confederate constitution.

Also, it is hard to imagine the United States would have welcomed a stream of black refugees from the C.S.A. Blacks in the Confederacy would therefore have remained trapped in a caste system based on race, with no hope of escape. The freed slaves benefited enormously from the Northern victory in the Civil War.

Would the existence of the C.S.A. have been such a bad thing for the United States?

Assuming that the United States and the Confederacy had managed to hammer out a peace treaty in 1865, I present three possible scenarios. In the most optimistic scenario, King Cotton would continue to reign supreme, and the slave republic would prosper. This scenario is unlikely because the cotton boom of the 1850s was not likely to continue indefinitely. In the most pessimistic scenario, cotton prices would fall due to competition from other countries, and the slave system would become a millstone pulling down any long-term growth and development of the Confederate economy.

In the third scenario, which I call the emancipation scenario, the leaders of the Confederacy recognize that slavery has become a huge liability, and they abolish it, possibly as early as the 1880s, thereby opening the way for more balanced economic development. In all three scenarios, the Confederate economy would do well enough. Whites in the victorious Confederacy would almost certainly be better off than they were after losing the Civil War, even though African-Americans would have been much worse off.

Would the C.S.A. have been a good neighbor?

I doubt the C.S.A. would be viewed as a "good neighbor." At a time when the Mississippi River was a vital shipping route, the prospect of having the Confederacy control that waterway would be unnerving to the United States, to say the least. The C.S.A. might also have tried to seize northern Mexico to establish a presence on the Pacific coast. There would be political rivalries as the C.S.A. and the U.S. sought to exert their influence throughout the Western Hemisphere. Because the North was growing much faster than the South, the Confederacy would have sought long-term alliances with Britain and France, two countries that championed the War of Southern Independence.

So the existence of the C.S.A. would have affected international relations?

It would have had a profound effect on the Western Hemisphere. If the South had won its independence, the ability of the United States to enforce the Monroe Doctrine, which effectively discouraged European involvement in the Western Hemisphere, would be seriously compromised. For example, in 1864, France had established a puppet regime in Mexico. The French withdrew only after the Union victory in the Civil War.

What if the Confederacy had been Mexico's neighbor?

Confederate leaders might have been quite comfortable with a European ally controlling Mexico, and that might have encouraged other European powers to challenge the Monroe Doctrine.

What would have happened in the 20th century?

What really changed the world in the 20th century was World War I. In my book I describe a scenario in which the United States and the Confederate States of America end up on different sides in that conflict. The United States, caught in a vise between a British colony to the north and the Confederacy to the south, would have felt as xenophobic as Germany, and that would have created a natural link between the two nations. The Confederacy would have sided with their old allies, Britain and France. An outbreak of a general war in Europe would quickly spread to the New World.

Some people think that the Civil War was not worth fighting, and that the secession of the Southern states would not have been such a bad thing. I think those people forget that the South of today is a far different world from the South of 1861. Southerners in 1861 wanted to establish a nation based on cotton and slavery.

It is hard for me to see how that would be a "good thing." Abraham Lincoln was convinced that it would be a disaster if the South seceded. I think he was right.

[Last modified August 11, 2005, 08:56:11]

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