On his 209th birthday it is perhaps appropriate to consider how the world would have changed if Abraham Lincoln had died young. Unlike many great figures in history, Lincoln did not matter in a historical sense until around the last decade of his life. Up to that time his political career had been mostly undistinguished and he had attracted little national notice. If he had died in 1855 his name would now be unknown except in the pages of the most comprehensive histories of Illinois in the middle of the Nineteenth Century. With his birth in the harsh conditions of a pioneer family, death was certainly not a stranger. His brother Thomas died before he was three days old. His mother died at the age of 34. His sister died at age 20 in childbirth. Lincoln came close to death when he was kicked by a horse in the head at 9 years of age in 1818. He was clubbed in the head during a robbery attempt in 1828. He contracted malaria in Illinois and had two bouts of it in 1830 and 1835. He suffered from bouts of depression and some of his friends feared on at least one occasion that he might try to commit suicide. Lincoln in 1838 may have published a poem, authorship is still debated, called The Suicide’s Soliloquy:
Here, where the lonely hooting owl
Sends forth his midnight moans,
Fierce wolves shall o’er my carcase growl,
Or buzzards pick my bones.
No fellow-man shall learn my fate,
Or where my ashes lie;
Unless by beasts drawn round their bait,
Or by the ravens’ cry.
Yes! I’ve resolved the deed to do,
And this the place to do it:
This heart I’ll rush a dagger through,
Though I in hell should rue it!
Hell! What is hell to one like me
Who pleasures never knew;
By friends consigned to misery,
By hope deserted too?
To ease me of this power to think,
That through my bosom raves,
I’ll headlong leap from hell’s high brink,
And wallow in its waves.
Though devils yell, and burning chains
May waken long regret;
Their frightful screams, and piercing pains,
Will help me to forget.
Yes! I’m prepared, through endless night,
To take that fiery berth!
Think not with tales of hell to fright
Me, who am damn’d on earth!
Sweet steel! come forth from your sheath,
And glist’ning, speak your powers;
Rip up the organs of my breath,
And draw my blood in showers!
I strike! It quivers in that heart
Which drives me to this end;
I draw and kiss the bloody dart,
My last—my only friend!
Lincoln was a remarkable man, and perhaps not the least remarkable feature about him is that he survived long enough to become a national figure and President.
Now let us assume that fate was not so kind, and Lincoln departed this Veil of Tears circa 1855 or earlier. What would have been different in 1860? The Democrats would still have been facing a party split. Southern Democrats were unwilling to support a nominee who was not a forthright no compromise advocate of slavery. The Northern Democrats, facing the rising Republican Party, realized this was political suicide and would still have rallied around Douglas as their political standard bearer. On the Republican side, Seward of New York would likely have won the nomination unless a dark horse moderate on the slavery issue had arisen. That of course is how Lincoln ultimately won the nomination, Republican party leaders viewing Seward as too radical on the slavery issue and potentially scaring away moderate Northerners and costing the Republicans their first win at the White House. However, in the absence of Lincoln, who was a moderate on slavery but who gained a good deal of support from abolitionists due to confronting Douglas on the slavery issue in the Lincoln-Douglas debates in 1858, I think it likely that Seward would have gained the nomination. Seward would have gone on almost certainly to win the general election, the Democrat split making a Republican victory in 1860 almost a foregone conclusion.
If Seward had been elected would the South have seceded? Almost certainly. Lincoln was largely an unknown quantity in the South while Seward had been in the anti-slavery vanguard for many years. Seward had been a devil figure in the South since his maiden speech in the Senate on March 11, 1850 with this passage:
I deem it established, then, that the Constitution does not recognize property in man, but leaves that question, as between the states, to the law of nature and of nations. That law, as expounded by Vattel, is founded on the reason of things. When God had created the earth, with its wonderful adaptations, He gave dominion over it to man, absolute human dominion. The title of that dominion, thus bestowed, would have been incomplete, if the lord of all terrestrial things could himself have been the property of his fellow- man.
With this appeal to natural law, Seward ever after in the South was viewed as an anti-slavery radical who regarded a higher law demanding freedom as putting the safeguards of the Constitution, that the South relied upon to protect their Peculiar Institution, as mere parchment barricades that could be breached instantly. Secession likely would have been swifter under a President Elect Seward than it was under a President Elect Lincoln.
This of course would have been immensely ironic since Seward was quite willing to give the South virtually everything it wanted to avoid secession historically in early 1861. Of course his vantage point would have been quite different as incoming President than as the incoming Secretary of State, but the urge to avert splitting the nation by surrender on the slavery issue would have been the same. Would it have worked? Almost certainly not. Lincoln gave half-hearted support to a Thirteenth Amendment that would have enshrined slavery in the Constitution and that had zero impact on the desire of the South to form the Confederacy. The South was not in a mood to accept anything short of independence.
Once compromise failed would Seward have fought to preserve the Union? Likely no. Seward historically was in favor of evacuating Fort Sumter. He also thought that starting a foreign war with France or England would cause the Confederates to rejoin the Union. That last idea was so divorced from reality, I suspect that Seward viewed a war to preserve the Union prior to the firing on Fort Sumter as being unthinkable. A President Seward may well have evacuated federal installations in the South and adopted a policy of watchful waiting to see if the South would have come back voluntarily. This policy would have ended in de facto recognition of the independence of the Confederacy, and probably a bitter civil war within the Republican party that would have led to Democrat victories at the polls in 1862 and 1864. There would have been many areas where a Confederate States and United States would have come into conflict, including territories in the West, the border states, runaway slaves and further efforts at foreign expansion by both countries, but they are beyond the scope of the present exercise in musing on alternate history. Thus we leave President Seward presiding over a rump United States and return to our reality.