Often historians talking about the secession of southern states after Lincoln’s election to the presidency will stop to wonder just why it even happened. Not all the states were on board with secession after Lincoln’s win—the major southern states, including North Carolina and Virginia, were against it. There had been secession scares before, and most southerners believed the hysteria would blow over and they would go back to doing what they had always done: fighting for slavery in Congress and the courts. They had been very successful at this, and there was no reason to suppose that would change. In fact, with Lincoln in the White House and Republicans in the Congress, the south would have to fight harder and even more cleverly to protect and spread slavery, and that was a challenge most southern legislators were likely up for.
So the immediate secessions of the seven Lower South states was no guaranty at all that the rest of the south would go, and southern public opinion was divided, to say the least. So why did it happen? Why did the dominoes fall?
It’s a good question. In fact, it’s been pondered over in a completely different arena: World War I.
The similarities are striking: one nation declares war over an act of violence, the other side declares war back; a tense waiting period in which frantic diplomacy is employed to defuse the situation; the majority of the public against war, or at least neutral; and then the rest of the dominoes fall. Ever since the summer of 1914, people have been asking how this happened when it was so far from being inevitable and there was so much to lose on all sides by going to war.
I don’t have the answer, of course; I’m just noting, for the first time that I know of, the similarity of the two situations. I suppose there’s something always to be said for the human desire to act, and to react in kind. If one country or leader is violent, it/he can expect a violent reaction. And there’s always the need to be part of your group: if your ally declares war, you will likely follow suit, no matter what misgivings you have, because the relationship impacts your honor, your sense of yourself, and your public image. And then it’s just easy to go to war; when a situation is difficult, maybe impossible to untangle, you can always run a sword through it. Last, a declaration of war is a powerfully emotional moment that it is very easy to get swept up in: an unthinking, heady, exciting, join-or-die, shoot-now-and-ask-questions-later moment.
If anyone has a good idea of how to answer the question of 1861 and 1914, let us know!