ADVANCE PLACEMENT
AMERICAN HISTORY

ELECTION AND SECESSION

*In 1860 the Democrats were split.  Northern Democrats, hoping to preserve the Union by serving as a national party opposed to the sectional Republicans, supported Stephen Douglas.  Southern fire-eaters, however, despised him for opposing the Lecompton Constitution and for suggesting through the Freeport Doctrine that popular sovereignty might end up stopping the spread of slavery.

*At the Democratic Convention in Charleston, southern delegates walked out, effectively ending the convention before a candidate could be chosen.   Northern Democrats then met in Baltimore and nominated Stephen Douglas.  Feeling that their fellow Democrats had gone behind their back, Southern Democrats convened a rival convention in the same city, and nominated John C. Breckinridge of Kentucky, a future Confederate general.

*Another group, composed mostly of Southerners who wanted to save the Union, primarily old Whigs and Know-Nothings whose old parties were gone and who did not fit into the northern Republican Party, created the Constitutional Union Party hoping to elect a compromise candidate.  Also meeting in Baltimore, they chose John Bell of Tennessee, the state’s largest slaveowner.  They went through the country ringing bells and campaigning for Bell and for ‘the Union, the Constitution, and the Enforcement of the Laws,’ meaning the Fugitive Slave Law.

*Although William Seward had felt that 1856 was not a Republican year, many in his party felt that in 1860 their time had come.  At the Republican convention in Chicago, Seward, the most prominent member of the party, expected to be nominated.  However, his appeals to a ‘higher law’ had made him seem subversive, and his belief in abolition as opposed to simply being a free-soiler made him dangerous and excessively divisive, even for the Republicans.  Lincoln was definitely second choice, but he had few enemies in national politics, and was chosen on the third ballot.

*The Republican platform was containment of slavery, a protective tariff, protection of the rights of immigrants, a Pacific Railroad, internal improvements, and free homesteads.

*Southerners feared that the original baboon would try to end slavery immediately and without compensation.  In fact, Lincoln, although a free-soil man, was no abolitionist, and even near the end of the Civil War considered creating a fund to reimburse formers slave-owners for slaves when they were freed.  However, Lincoln’s reputation among Southerners was as a dangerous abolitionist who would steal their property.  Many threatened to leave the Union if Lincoln, a candidate purely for the North, was elected.  In fact, Lincoln was not even on the ballot of most Southern states in 1860.

*Lincoln won the election, although with less than 40% of the popular vote.
Lincoln 1,865,593 180
Douglas 1,382,713 12
Breckinridge 848,356 72
Bell 592,906 39
*If Douglas, Lincoln’s closes competitor for the popular vote, and either of the other two candidates’ totals were combined, they would have beaten Lincoln in the popular vote.  However, due to the distribution of electoral districts (see page 426), Lincoln would probably have won most of the North and thus the majority of the electoral votes even if all his opponents had combined their efforts and the success thereof into one party.  If they had really done so, things might have gone differently, but as it is, Lincoln won with a minority of the popular vote overall—the worst successful presidential campaign since that of John Quincy Adams in 1824.  Furthermore, he did it entirely through Northern support.  This showed the South that the numerical superiority of the North was such that the North would be able to bully the south whenever it wanted.

*Although almost no one in the South voted for Lincoln, this did not prove they hated the Union. Bell, Breckinridge, and definitely Douglas all supported the Union.  Each had run hoping to hold the nation together in his own way.  Furthermore, the South retained control of the Supreme Court for the moment, made up almost half the Senate, and were a sufficiently large part of the Union that any proposed amendment to the Constitution abolishing slavery would have been impossible to get ratified by ¾ of the states.  Still, the purely sectional victory of Lincoln which demonstrated the power of the North, the supposed the threat of his and his party’s anti-slavery, the generations of perceived slights and insults from the North, and economic concerns about the Republicans’ plan to raise the tariff, although the South paid more tariff bills and saw the revenue spent on Northern improvements (or so Southerners said) made Southerners, touchy by nature, and badly on edge after John Brown’s raid, certain that Lincoln or at least his party would one day attack them.
*Lincoln was elected in November 1860.  On 20 December, at 1.15 in the afternoon, South Carolina dissolved her bonds with the Union.  The rationale was that South Carolina had always been a free state and sovereign state, only allied with the other United States as long as it was mutually beneficial to do so.  With the election of Lincoln, it was obvious the North had turned against the South and, even if Lincoln did not have evil designs on the South, the next Republican president might.

*President Buchanan did nothing.

*In the long period between Lincoln’s election and his inauguration, six more states seceded.  In January, Mississippi, Florida, Alabama, Georgia, and Louisiana left the Union (in that order), and in February, Texas did so as well.

*Meeting in Montgomery, Alabama, in February 1861, representatives of these states created a provisional constitution and government for the Confederate States of America.  Jefferson Davis of Mississippi, hero of Buena Vista, former Congressman, Senator, and Secretary of War, was chosen as the provisional President and a provisional Constitution was created based on that of the United States.

*President Buchanan did nothing.  Although some opponents of secession wished ‘oh, for one hour of Jackson,’ many Northerners did not feel it was either morally correct, legally proper, or personally appealing to keep the South in the Union by force.  If nothing else, invading the seceding states or threatening to do so might anger other states enough that they might leave as well.  Buchanan himself, legalistic to the end said that the Constitution as he understood it was a permanent document and the states had no right to leave.  However, said he, the Presidency did not have the power to stop the South by force of arms.  Had Buchanan acted then despite this debate there might not have been a war or, if there had been, it might have been quick and relatively painless.  On the other hand, the US had a very small army, and might have been easy to hold off.

*President Buchanan did nothing.  Some of his advisors and many other Americans wanted to compromise.  A young Kentuckian named James Henry Crittenden suggested a compromise to keep both sides happy, he hoped.  He suggested that the Missouri Compromise line be extended west until it hit California, a free state.  Any territories in existence or thereafter acquired by the Federal government north of that line would be free and anything south of it slave.  When a territory was ready to join the Union, it could then decide, through popular sovereignty, whether to be slave or free.  Northerners did not approve, because if the Crittenden Compromise passed, Southerners would turn south and try to exploit or conquer much of Central America of the Caribbean islands.  Southerners, in turn, resented it because it kept slavery out of many territories, and it seemed likely the first step in the process of wiping out slavery by creating areas habitually unaccustomed to it.

*Lincoln rejected the Crittenden Compromise.  He was willing to use force to bring the South back into line, as long as he could make the South look like the aggressor.

*The Deep South left the Union for many reasons.  Economic issues were important—the South was one of the largest importers and exporters of goods, and slaves were valuable property.  The South felt threatened by such things as the rebellion at Harper’s Ferry and Nat Turner’s attempt back in 1831.  The failure to comply with—indeed, the wilful violation of—the Fugitive Slave Act was a constant insult to Southerners, as was Northern treatment of John Brown the traitor as a martyr.  Cotton was so profitable that Southerners began to feel that they could make it on their own, and no longer needed the North, which passed tariffs and other laws Southerners claims were meant to hurt them.

*The Deep South, and soon four other southern states, had declared independence from a tyrant seeking to illegally change their way of life.  Lincoln soon forced the South into an attack on federal property, and the War for Southern Independence had begun.

*Ostensibly the war would be about states’ rights, tariffs, and the expansion of slavery.  In a deeper sense, the disagreement over these issues was caused by the different systems (slave labour and free labour) of the South and North.  Slavery was always an economic threat to both northern factory owners and northern factory workers, especially once Southerners began using slaves in factories in the South.  Some even blame politics over all else—either the Jacksonian two-party system failed because it was torn apart over slavery, or it succeeded so well that slavery was the only thing left to fight for.  Alternately, the South may have read too many novels by Sir Walter Scott.  Regardless of the reason, two ways of life would go to war with one another in American between 1861 and 1865, killing 2% of the population in the process.

BACK TO SYLLABUS



This page last updated 13 November, 2003.