Saturday, April 12, 2008

McClintock: "Lincoln and the Decision for War"

[Lincoln and the Decision for War: The Northern Response to Secession by Russell McClintock (University of North Carolina Press, 2008). Hardcover, notes, bibliography. Pages main/total: 292/400 ISBN: 978-0-8078-3188-5 $35]

Most studies of the critical period between Abraham Lincoln's election and the Confederate firing on Fort Sumter fail to adequately address the northern population's broad range of responses to the crisis. In his book Lincoln and the Decision for War, Russell McClintock seeks to address this deficiency, while at the same time examining the role of the American political structure (i.e. party system, patronage, partisanship) in shaping Lincoln's options and strategy. In this, the author is largely successful.

Beyond inheriting problems left over from Buchanan's administration, Lincoln's was beset by new concerns from multiple fronts. According to McClintock, the president was at least as concerned with maintaining Republican party unity as any of the questions at hand. Lincoln did his utmost to forestall defections and open clashes within the party, which was composed of radicals as well as ex-Whigs and former Democrats. By remaining largely silent on specific issues during the critical gelling period of his new administration, and divvying up patronage between both coercionist and conciliatory factions, Lincoln invested all factions into the maintenance of Republican party unity. He would concede small points, but would not budge on the issue that might be considered the cornerstone of the party platform, which was steadfast opposition to the extension of slavery into the territories. While McClintock spills much ink detailing the various compromise proposals (especially the activities of William Seward, cabinet member and most prominent leader of the compromise faction within the Republican party), it eventually became clear to everyone that competing influences mattered little, for the final decision rested with a single individual, the president.

Another delicate juggling act for Lincoln to perform was how to remain committed to the Republican platform while doing as little as possible to endanger unionist majorities in the states of the Upper South. Delay and inaction1, along with suppressing threatening rhetoric, kept these critical states within the union fold, until the Sumter crisis exploded. The author notes that Lincoln was very late in the game before finally learning that what Upper South unionists actually required in order to remain in the union, namely withdrawal from the two remaining contested military installations [Pickens and Sumter], was incompatible with his presidential duties as he saw them.

In order to keep his inquiry into the northern population's reaction to secession at a manageable level, McClintock narrows his area of research by selecting three regionally representative states, New York [Mid-Atlantic], Massachusetts [New England], and Illinois [Old Northwest]. Citing the American tradition of looking to their elected representatives and party managers to solve political problems, the author's study is largely of a top-down nature. While reactions of the rank and file of the body politic are not ignored, the views of politicians, newspaper editors, and other politically prominent individuals are what drive McClintock's analysis. The meager attention paid to the views of women, along with class and ethnic representation, may irk modern readers, but the author is more particularly concerned with contemporary realities of direct political influence and decision making. The broader social response is largely beyond the scope of the study. However, this selective concentration on the views of top down opinion leaders can weaken the author's basis for making broad generalizations2 about the northern population as a whole. For instance, McClintock's concluding arguments supporting the notion of a largely unified northern political front favoring war (at least during the emotionally charged period after the surrender of Fort Sumter) could be characterized by some observers as being more asserted than demonstrated.

Regardless, Lincoln and the Decision for War is a balanced and erudite examination of the secession crisis from the all too neglected northern political angle. Author Russell McClintock is at his best navigating the struggles of competing hard line and conciliatory factions within the nascent Republican party, as they vied for national influence and for determining the best way to preserve the union. His deeply researched study promotes fresh interpretations and insights that are deserving of a wide readership. The literature of the secession winter is appreciably richer for its existence. Highly recommended.


1 - I believe McClintock termed this period Lincoln's "masterly inactivity". However, the author also makes the thought provoking point that Lincoln's lengthy period of vacillation and indecision, often praised for its craft, was actually remarkably similar in nature to President Buchanan's much reviled handling of the crisis.
2 - As an example, while the bibliography is more than adequately impressive overall, the list of newspaper sources indicates a narrow, major urban center selection. There are only 13 total, with more than half devoted to Boston and New York City. The larger question is just how representative are these sources of the opinions and attitudes of the northern population as a whole.

1 comment:

  1. Drew,

    Sorry so late on this. I found McClintock's book far superior to Lankford's. Instead of asserting that things could have been done differently at different points as Lankford does, without saying what those options were, McClintock looks at what options were available and considered, and why they were ultimately rejected or not acted upon. McClintock also reveals Lincoln as a consumate party politician, not above lashing out in anger or distrust.

    Two thumbs up!


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