The Secession Crisis, 1860-61

By Drew E. VandeCreek, Ph.D.

 

When the Republican Party stunned the nation and nominated Abraham Lincoln, largely unknown in the East, to run for the presidency, it pushed Illinois to the center of the sectional crisis. Lincoln won the nomination in part because he lacked the sworn enemies of well-known politicians such as New York's William Seward and Pennsylvania's Simon Cameron. His frontier upbringing also appealed to Old Whigs who heard echoes of 1840's successful "Log Cabin" campaign on behalf of William Henry Harrison. Lincoln had also attracted attention in political circles for his articulate challenge to Stephen Douglas in the 1858 Senate campaign. There Lincoln had articulated the Republican Party's platform in terms that appealed to the majority of the northern electorate.

 

Lincoln ardently opposed slavery's expansion in the West, believing that if confined, the peculiar institution would wither and die. Yet he also vocally defended slavery's right to exist in the South for its natural life. A firm believer in the Constitution's rule of law, Lincoln believed that the document guaranteed slaveholders' their property. Thus his position reflected most northerners' rejection of southern designs for the expansion of slavery, yet stopped short of radical abolitionists' calls for immediate emancipation. Although Lincoln ultimately believed that the "house divided" would shed the curse of human slavery and become "all free," he did not advocate any government action to hasten freedom's arrival.

 

Lincoln had also made it plain that he intended to preserve the Union. Lincoln's firm faith in the Constitution extended to its guarantee of the Union as well. While Lincoln did not seek to eradicate slavery in the South, he utterly rejected the idea of secession.

 

In the months following Lincoln's election, southern states seceded from the Union. Southern partisans had approached the election of 1860 as a litmus test in American political life. Lincoln's election could only mean that the people of the North had decided to trample slaveholders' rights. Only secession could address such a grave insult.

 

South Carolina led the way on December 20. Alabama, Georgia, Florida, Mississippi, Louisiana and Texas followed in succession. The Upper South states, led by Virginia, hesitated. As the Deep South states seceded, they seized forts and other federal installations within their borders. On February 18, the Confederacy inaugurated Jefferson Davis, a former military officer and United States Senator who had served in the Black Hawk War, as its president.

 

In his Inaugural Address of March 4, 1861, Lincoln rejected compromise with the South. The Charleston Mercury declared that "the Ourang-Outang at the White House" had sounded "the tocsin of battle" and the Richmond Dispatch concluded that the speech "inaugurates civil war." 1


1. David Herbert Donald, Lincoln (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1995) 284.