Would the United States be better off without the South? It is a question that is often asked by white progressives and centrists in other parts of the country, now that the Democrats have become a largely-Northern party while the former Confederacy has become the heartland of what was once Lincoln’s party. If the Confederacy had been allowed to secede, would what remained — let us call it the Rump USA — be a socially-liberal, civil libertarian, social-democratic paradise today?
Let us ignore, for a moment, the indifference by the white Americans who muse about this scenario to the fate of black Americans, who disproportionately reside in the South to this day, as well as to their fellow victims and sometime victimizers, the white Southern poor. Had they been permanently stranded outside the United States after 1861, neither group would have benefited from federal abolition of slavery, federal civil rights and voting rights legislation, or federally-subsidized economic development in the South.
Read Part IIPart II of “Without the South” covers the domestic side of things in Rump USA. Read it here »
Let us ignore, as well, the fact that the North-South divide in American politics vanishes in county-by-county maps of electoral returns. While the South overall is the most conservative region, county maps show that the most important divide everywhere in the U.S. is between “blue” progressive cities, on the one hand, and “red” conservative suburbs and rural areas.
But let’s ignore all of this and try to answer the question: would the remnant of the U.S. have been much better off, if the Confederate states had been allowed to secede? With a nod to the obligatory disclaimers about the uncertainty of counterfactual history, I think the answer is almost certainly no. In terms of both foreign and domestic policy, the U.S. probably would have been worse off in the last century-and-a-half with the Southern states on the other side of an international border.
To begin with, the successful secession of the Confederate States of America probably would not have been the last alteration of the map. Rather than be governed by Richmond, my home state of Texas might have seceded from the Confederacy and become an independent republic again, as it had been from 1836 to 1845. California might have broken off as well, and there might have been one or more English-speaking West Coast republics. If the disintegration had ended there, the territory of the Rump USA might have been limited to the Northeast, Mid-Atlantic and Midwest.
While the United States of America shrank, the Confederate States of America might well have expanded. For decades the Southern planter class had dreamed of incorporating Cuba, Puerto Rico and even northern Brazil into a “Golden Circle” — a slave plantation empire encircling the Gulf of Mexico and the Caribbean. For their part, many Anglo-Texans had coveted parts of northern Mexico. The expansion of the CSA to the south and of Texas to the southwest might well have been the outcome of successful Southern secession.
Even if it had not intervened to secure Confederate success, the British empire would have benefited from the break-away of the South. In the early and mid-19th century, most British and French leaders preferred a balance of power in North America to the regional hegemony of a continent-sized United States of America. In a Balkanized North America, the Rump USA might have been squeezed between Canada, a British protectorate, and the CSA, a British ally, and cut off from the Pacific coast, which might also have become a British imperial ally like the South. The British empire or its Confederate allies, not the post-Civil War United States, might have built and controlled an isthmian canal, taken over Spanish Cuba and Puerto Rico and the Philippines, and annexed Hawaii and other strategic islands in the Pacific.
The long-term effect on global history might have been profound. It was only the combination of the industrial power of the Midwest and a U.S. military disproportionately made up of white Southerners that allowed the U.S. in the 20th century to tip the balance in European power politics against Germany twice and the Soviet Union once.
It is easy to imagine Anglophile white Southerners enthusiastically joining the British in battles against German or Russian bids for European domination. Of course there might not have been such cataclysmic struggles, in an alternate history. But if there had been, would a Rump USA, far more industrialized than the independent, largely-agrarian South, have added its economic resources to such geopolitical campaigns?
Opposition to U.S. intervention in the two world wars and the Cold War was centered in three demographic groups in the Northern states: war-loathing Anglo-American descendants of Puritans in New England and the Midwest, Anglophobic German-Americans and Anglophobic Irish-Americans. All three isolationist-leaning groups would have been much larger as a share of the population in a Rump USA. The Northeastern internationalists who favored U.S. intervention in Europe might have been outnumbered, without Southern hawks as their Congressional allies in interventionist coalitions.
Moreover, if the British empire had earlier intervened militarily to secure Confederate independence, it seems unlikely that the Rump USA would have come to the rescue of Britain later — as the actual USA did, first indirectly by means of private or public loans and then directly, in 1914 and 1939. An isolationist, Anglophobic Rump USA might have taken a “pox on both your houses” attitude. Many of its inhabitants might even have cheered on Britain’s continental adversaries in the 20th century. The result might have been a world in which the dominant power by the 21st century was a continental European empire run by authoritarian militarists in Berlin or Moscow.
The basic norms of world order, too, would have been different in a world in which the South had seceded and the British empire was a greater world power than the Rump USA.
“The collapse and crack-up of the United States might well have convinced thoughtful people around the world that the republican nation-state was a failed experiment…”
Even if the Confederacy, out of deference to British sensibilities, had abolished formal chattel slavery, its leaders would have replaced it with other forms of coerced labor, like contract labor, debt servitude or convict labor, as the British empire did, following the abolition of slavery in its borders in the 1830s, and as the Southern states did, between Reconstruction and the Civil Rights Revolution. It was with good reason that British labor activists as well as British liberals like John Stuart Mill hoped that the Union would prevail in the Civil War and feared that Confederate success would strengthen the most reactionary members of the British ruling class.
Abraham Lincoln believed that the idea that a democratic republic based on human rights could work on a large scale would be discredited. That is the point of the Gettysburg Address: “Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation, or any nation so conceived and so dedicated, can long endure.”
Lincoln was right. Modern democracy on a large scale had failed repeatedly in France, the chaotic republics of Latin America, and much of Europe during the revolutions of 1848. Following these disastrous setbacks, the collapse and crack-up of the United States following a bitterly contested presidential election might well have convinced thoughtful people around the world that the republican nation-state was a failed experiment and that large territories could be held together only by authoritarian monarchy.
Without the United States, joined by the Soviet Union, to support the ideal of national self-determination in the 20th century, the organization of the world into a few giant empires rather than nearly two hundred states might well have continued. Even after World War II, Britain and France only reluctantly gave up their empires. Imperial Britain preferred ruling through puppet kings, like the ones it created and installed after World War I in the former Ottoman empire’s Arab territories in Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and Iraq. Even if some non-Western nations had preserved or gained their independence, like Japan in actual history they might have emulated the successful model of authoritarian monarchy and sought to create regional empires of their own.
The Rump USA, then, might have found itself shrunken and embedded in a Balkanized North America and a world carved up among authoritarian empires, if the South had been allowed to secede. A U.S. that rid itself of the troublesome South would have paid a very high price indeed. •
Maps courtesy of University of Texas at Austin, from the Cambridge Modern History Atlas, 1912 and Wikimedia Commons.