We have Lincoln wrong: Our greatest Lincoln historian explains his real Civil War motivations

Too often, we settle for the idea that Lincoln fought to save a mythical union. He really fought for opportunity

The United States has just concluded a five-year observance of the sesquicentennial of the Civil War. As in the past, most new books about the period have focused principally on matters military, reexamining the familiar major battles or offering new biographies of generals of the war. A few have explored new aspects of Lincoln’s life and presidency and the political conflicts immediately preceding and during the war.

For all the merits of these recent volumes, too few have provided satisfying answers to an essential question: why was the Civil War really fought? This subject still cries out for serious and informed exploration and analysis. The prevailing arguments—that the war occurred to preserve the American Union for its own sake, to defend or destroy slavery, or to expand or restrict federal authority—fall short because they do not embrace the full vision for the future held by those engaged in the conflict. The most illuminating way to begin this essential conversation is to focus on the commander in chief who chose war rather than cede the democracy to those who would divide it rather than recognize its legitimacy. That ever-compelling figure, of course, is Abraham Lincoln.

–SNIP– More than is often realized, the Civil War was fought not over the morality of slavery or the abstract sanctity of the American Union, but over what kind of economy the nation should have. It is difficult to grasp the degree to which the United States, on the eve of the Civil War, had truly evolved into what Lincoln called, quoting scripture, a “house divided”: virtually two separate nations based on very different economic structures. More than anything else, the secession crisis and the Civil War became a clash over expanding the economic and social system of either section. The question became: which economy and society would define the future of America as it migrated westward, that of the North or that of the South?

Excerpted from “A Just and Generous Nation: Abraham Lincoln and the Fight for American Opportunity” by Harold Holzer and Norton Garfinkle.