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15.3: The Sectional Balance Becomes Undone

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    The last few years of the 1850s paved the way for the sectional breakdown that resulted in a civil war. Following the Mexican-American War, disunion seemed like an unlikely prospect even though North and South disagreed on the future of slavery. In the past, national leaders had managed to compromise on divisive issues like the tariff and the bank; most people expected them to do so when it came to slavery. Unfortunately, by the time James Buchanan took office in 1857, few people wanted to compromise. The new president also seemed unwilling or incapable of bringing the North and the South together. Southerners, who worried about Buchanan’s northern sympathies, found him disposed to accept their demands for federal support of the extension of slavery. Then a financial panic, the Dred Scott decision, and John Brown’s raid on Harper’s Ferry made tensions between proslavery and antislavery advocates worse. Finally, Abraham Lincoln emerged as a forceful speaker for the Republican Party as Buchanan tilted the Democratic Party further to the South.

    Northern and Southern Perspectives

    Northerners and southerners in the 1850s increasingly felt the need to defend their position on slavery, whether they opposed it or they favored it. Slavery drove the two sides apart, but not because either side had many moral concerns about the peculiar institution. Both sides saw their freedom at stake, namely, their freedom to the political and economic liberties they believed the Constitution guaranteed. Both sides saw themselves as fighting for liberty and for what they perceived to be the legacy of the American Revolution. They simply had very different viewpoints about what the Revolution had meant.

    Northerners believed a vast slave power conspiracy dominated national politics. Meanwhile, southerners saw an influential abolitionist element trying to eliminate slavery all over the country. Few people on either side fell into these extremist categories. But, northern and southern spokesmen felt compelled to criticize the other side and defend their position. As tensions mounted toward the end of the decade, people began to wonder if they could ever mend their differences. In 1858, William H. Seward outlined the notion of irrepressible conflict, in which the nation would have to choose to be all slave or all free. Northerners and southerners nonetheless did not necessarily think their differences would lead to a war.

    Northern Perspective

    Northerners increasingly turned to ideas about free labor to explain the benefits of their society. A free labor system in which employers paid workers wages led to economic growth. New Yorker William Evarts suggested that labor was “the source of all our wealth, of all our progress, of all our dignity and value.” The system also provided opportunity for social mobility. The goal for most northerners was not great wealth, but economic independence. If they worked hard enough, they could improve their lives and enter the ranks of the middle class. Pennsylvanian Thaddeus Stevens recorded how “the middling classes who own the soil, and work it with their hands are the main support of every free government.” In the nineteenth century, most northerners also believed progress came from developing the economy, increasing social mobility, and spreading democratic institutions.

    To the proponents of free labor, slavery robbed labor, both slave and free, of its dignity. Slavery denied workers social mobility. Since workers had no incentive, they became less productive. Economically speaking, they believed slavery led to mass poverty. However, northerners worried more about the effect a slave-based economy had on non-slaveholders than on slaves. They frequently commented on the lack of opportunity for poor whites to improve their social and economic standing. From the northern perspective, people born poor in the South remained poor. Northerners believed all the best qualities about a free labor society, such as hard work, frugality, and a spirit of industry, were lacking in the South. Many northerners, especially the Republicans, sought to create a free labor system in the South. They looked for government action to promote free labor; however, southern dominance of national political institutions, referred to sometimes as slave power, prevented that option.

    Southern Perspective

    Southerners found the criticism of their lifestyle unwarranted. They believed courtesy, hospitality, and chivalry were the hallmarks of their way of life. When antislavery advocates became more vocal in the 1830s, southerners began to highlight the positive nature of slavery. Thomas R. Dew, a professor at William and Mary, relied on biblical and historical evidence to suggest how slavery benefited the master and the slave. To justify why only blacks became slaves in the South, Dew suggested the institution helped Africans become more civilized. Moreover, enslaving blacks brought greater liberty and equality to whites. By the 1850s, southern theorists like George Fitzhugh focused even more on racial inferiority to justify slavery. Fitzhugh argued in favor of the paternalistic nature of slavery, noting that “He the Negro is but a grown up child, and must be governed as a child, not as a lunatic or criminal. The master occupies toward him the place of parent or guardian.”

    To the proponents of slavery, free labor did not benefit anyone. Alluding to the paternalistic nature of slavery, Virginian Edmond Ruffin suggested northern employers held their workers “under a much more stringent and cruel bondage, and in conditions of far greater…suffering than our negro slaves.” Slaves, moreover, did not have to worry about securing food, clothing, or shelter, since their masters provided those commodities. James Henry Hammond, basing his justification for slavery on the so-called mudsill theory, further suggested the benefits of slavery for southern whites. All societies had, he noted, a “mudsill class” or working class. In the South, slaves performed the menial and thankless tasks, leaving whites to pursue the fruits of civilization. In the North, the wage labor system meant whites performed the tasks of slaves and therefore had no real opportunity for advancement.

    Panic of 1857

    The debate between the North and the South intensified after a financial panic hit the nation in 1857. American exports of grain increased between 1854 and 1856 because of the Crimean War in Europe. When the war ended, the market slumped. The war also pushed investors in Europe to sell off their American stocks and bonds. Both developments hurt the American economy. For much of the decade, economic growth caused a rise in western land prices, the overextension of the railroads, and risky loans by banks. When grain exports declined and European investment stopped, American banks began to fail. By the end of the year, hundreds of thousands of northern workers lost their jobs. Relief efforts helped the jobless to survive the winter and prevent a much-feared class war. By spring, the economy was on its way to recovery.

    Southerners for the most part escaped the economic downturn. So, they boasted about the superiority of the plantation economy. Many even suggested cotton saved the North from financial ruin. Frustrated northerners blamed the South, with its constant demand for low tariffs, for the crisis. After the panic, a coalition of northern Republicans and Democrats pushed for an increase in the tariff, as well as land grant measures for farmers, the railroads, and colleges, to help prevent future economic problems. Southern obstruction of these efforts only made the sectional tensions worse. Southerners saw the measures as a way to promote a federallybacked antislavery agenda; northerners, on the other hand, saw the slave power conspiracy at work.

    Crisis Continues

    As northerners and southerners staked their claim to the Revolution’s legacy, the dispute about the future of slavery in the United States continued. The Supreme Court, under the leadership of Roger B. Taney, decided to step into the debate on the rights of slaves and slaveholders. Moreover, questions about Kansas’s proposed statehood continued to affect territorial authorities and national leaders. The sectional tensions also provided politicians with new challenges and opportunities, as evidenced by Abraham Lincoln’s reentry into politics as a Republican after the Kansas-Nebraska Act. In 1858, Lincoln challenged Stephen Douglas to a series of debates before the fall elections. He hoped to win a Republican majority in the state legislature in order to secure a position in the U.S. Senate.

    Dred Scott Decision

    In 1846, Dred Scott sued for his freedom after his master Dr. John Emerson died. White friends encouraged Scott to file the suit because his master had taken him to live for a significant period in the free state of Illinois and the free territory of Wisconsin in the 1830s before returning to Missouri. Scott, his wife Harriet, and their daughter claimed residing in free territory made them free. Scott initially won freedom for his family in the Missouri courts. But on appeal, the Missouri Supreme Court reversed the decision. The court had previously awarded slaves their freedom in similar cases. Scott’s lawyers therefore took his suit to the federal courts. In 1854, the Missouri district court agreed to hear the case and subsequently upheld the decision to return the family to slavery.

    The U.S. Supreme Court agreed to hear the case in 1856. Chief Justice Roger B. Taney hoped their decision in the case would be the final word on the constitutionality of the institution of slavery. The justices decided to delay their ruling until after the presidential election. According to James McPherson, the Court had three questions to answer in their decision. One, did Scott have the right to sue in federal court; in other words, was he a U.S. citizen? Two, did residence in a free territory for almost four years make him free? Three, did Congress have the authority to bar slavery in any territory; in other words, was the Missouri Compromise constitutional? Before James Buchanan’s inauguration, a majority of the Court seemed inclined to rule that Missouri law determined Scott’s status as a slave and to say nothing more.

    Screenshot (275).png
    Figure \(\PageIndex{1}\): Dred Scott | In 1858, the Supreme Court issued a decision in the Dred Scott v. Sandford case. Scott claimed his residence in a free territory made him free. The court declared blacks could not be citizens of the United States, residence in a free territory did not make a slave free, and Congress had no authority to bar slavery in the territories artist: Unknown Source: Library of Congress

    However, Roger B. Taney encouraged his fellow southerners to issue a decision in order to put the matter of slavery in the territories to rest. Taney, a native of Maryland, had long wanted to write this decision; he had waited for years for the right opportunity to protect the southern way of life. The chief justice also knew the southern majority on the Court would need one northerner to go along as well. So, one of the southern justices asked the president-elect to put pressure on one of the northern justices. Whatever Buchanan felt about the impropriety of such a move, he shared with Taney a desire to settle the issue. He knew how poisonous the debate about slavery could be to his administration. Buchanan, in his inaugural address, suggested that the issue of the extension of slavery belonged with the Supreme Court, not Congress.

    Two days after the inauguration, the Court issued its ruling in Dred Scott v. Sandford. Speaking for the majority, Taney declared Scott had no standing to sue in federal court because blacks could not be citizens of the United States. Technically, the decision should have ended there since, as once he declared Scott a non-citizen, nothing else mattered. However, Taney decided to address the remaining issues before the court in order to settle portions of the ongoing slavery debate. The chief justice said that residence in free territory did not make a slave free once he or she returned to slave territory. He further indicated that the Constitution upheld slavery because it protected private property and slaves were a form of property. Finally, he said Congress had no authority to bar slavery in the territories, making the Missouri Compromise unconstitutional.

    According to Vernon Burton, “The Dred Scott ruling was pure joy for southerners.” Not only did the decision grant them protection for their human property, but also it confirmed their right to take slaves anywhere in the country. In other words, slavery was a national institution; the distinction between slave and free states no longer existed. After the decision, northerners could only destroy slavery through a constitutional amendment, and no southerner expected that to happen. The South also delighted in the idea that the decision would crush the hated Republican Party. Republicans, however, refused to accept Taney’s decision.

    Republican papers lambasted the ruling. The Cleveland Leader called it “villainously false,” and the New York Tribune said it had “as much moral weight…the majority of those congregated in any Washington bar-room.” Moreover, Republicans argued the decision was not binding because it addressed matters not before the court, a practice known as obiter dictum. Northern legislatures with Republican majorities responded by passing laws reaffirming the citizenship of their black residents. The decision additionally gave many northern Democrats pause. It occurred to them that Taney also undermined popular sovereignty because the chief justice indicated voters could not exclude slavery from a territory. The decision hurt the Democrats more than the Republicans, especially in light of what happened in Kansas.

    Whatever Roger B. Taney hoped to accomplish with his ruling, he certainly did not remove the question of slavery from politics. The decision in Dred Scott v. Sandford only made the sectional divide greater. From the northern perspective, everything they feared about southern slave power seemed to be coming true. From the southern perspective, the decision secured them from the onslaught of northern abolitionists and preserved the institution of slavery.

    Kansas Again…

    Before the presidential election of 1856, Franklin Pierce sent John W. Geary to Kansas as the new governor, since Wilson Shannon proved unable to end the conflict. Geary managed to quell the violence before the election, but the peace did not last. Looking at the election returns of 1856, southerners believed they needed more slave territory in order to prevent a Republican victory in 1860. They set their sights on Kansas, where the proslavery legislature still controlled the territory, even though the Free Soilers had a commanding majority in population. To maintain the peace, Geary asked the proslavery legislature to revise the antislavery acts. In response, the legislature made plans to revise the state constitution but indicated they would not seek a statewide referendum on the changes. Geary, shocked by their audacity, resigned his position.

    After the Dred Scott decision, James Buchanan persuaded Mississippian Robert J. Walker to become governor of Kansas. The president asked him to oversee an orderly drafting of a constitution, which the people had an opportunity to vote on. Surprisingly, Walker had no real desire to see Kansas become a slave state. He encouraged the slaveholders to submit the Lecompton Constitution to the people for a vote, but they refused and sent the constitution to Congress, along with their petition for statehood. Walker then journeyed to Washington to consult with Buchanan and explain the situation, especially since the president told him to secure a referendum. Buchanan, facing pressure from his proslavery advisers, refused to accept that the majority of people in Kansas wanted to become a free state. Instead of rejecting the Lecompton Constitution, Buchanan asked Congress to admit Kansas as a slave state based on the provisions of the Dred Scott decision. At the time, the president firmly believed opposing the South would lead to secession.

    Southerners who wanted a victory in Kansas believed they could win approval of the Lecompton Constitution, since the Democrats controlled Congress and they controlled the Democratic Party. At the same time, enough recognized the risk of their plan and encouraged the Kansas legislature to put the constitution to vote. What seemed like a major concession proved nothing more than a face-saving device. Voters could choose from a constitution with slavery or a constitution with no slavery that protected slave property in Kansas forever. Free Soil residents called it the “great swindle,” and criticism of the South’s malfeasance mounted in the North. Walker resigned when he realized that Buchanan no longer supported a fair referendum in Kansas.

    Many northern Democrats opposed admitting Kansas as a slave state because it was not what the people wanted. Stephen Douglas met with Buchanan in December and pled with him not to support the Lecompton Constitution; otherwise, he would have to oppose the president in Congress. Buchanan apparently told Douglas to “remember that no Democrat ever yet differed from an administration of his own choice without being crushed.” In spite of the threat, Douglas knew he had to stand up to Buchanan over Kansas. If he did not, his future political career would be quite short since he staked his political reputation on the validity of popular sovereignty. Douglas worked with Republicans to defeat the Lecompton Constitution. Then the Kansans held two separate elections; one where only the proslavery forces voted, and one where only the antislavery forces voted. These elections made it apparent that the Free Soilers held a two-to-one majority and northerners could not accept Kansas as a slave state. In the wake of the vote, Kansas once again descended into violence.

    Lincoln-Douglas Debates

    Into the 1850s, Illinois was one of the most southern-like northern states because so many southerners migrated there early in the century. Southern folkways pervaded the lower part of the state. Moreover, it had been a stronghold for the Democratic Party. Most residents, especially in the more rural regions of the state, loathed the idea of an active government. From the 1830s to the 1850s, the Democrats usually held a majority in the state legislature, and the state consistently voted Democrat for president. However, the debates on slavery by the mid-decade allowed the newlyformed Republican Party to gain some ground among Illinois voters. In 1858, the Republicans very much wanted to secure a seat in the U.S. Senate. If they could win a majority in the state legislature, then they could replace Stephen Douglas with someone opposed to slavery. Abraham Lincoln hoped the Republicans would choose him. Douglas, of course, looked for ways to prevent that outcome.

    Kentucky-born Abraham Lincoln moved to Indiana as a boy and to central Illinois as a young man. Lincoln decided not to become a farmer like his father. He wanted to find work more in tune with the modern capitalist world, so he worked as a storekeeper, surveyor, and lawyer. By the 1840s, Lincoln was prosperous and respectable. Given his views about the market economy, Lincoln found his political beliefs more in line with the Whigs than the Democrats. Eric Foner asserts that Lincoln “saw government as an active force in promoting opportunity and advancement.” Although the Democrats dominated Illinois, Lincoln served four terms in the state legislature and one term in the U.S. House of Representatives. In the early 1850s, he returned to his law practice. However, the Kansas-Nebraska Act reinvigorated his desire to run for office.

    With the Whigs in decline, Lincoln eventually found a home in the Republican Party. In a series of speeches in late 1854, Lincoln called slavery a “monstrous injustice” and suggested that slavery undermined “the very fundamental principles of civil liberty.” While he admonished slavery, Lincoln was no abolitionist. Like many Republicans, he had moderate racial views. He opposed human bondage, but he also opposed political or social equality for blacks. To Lincoln, slavery threatened the human ability to succeed; it robbed individuals of the freedom to better their condition. Thus, like other Republicans, he believed in free labor principles. His public pronouncements against slavery helped him win a seat in the state legislature in 1854. However, he resigned that seat so he could seek election to the U.S. Senate. The state legislature did not award Lincoln the position. His failure pushed him more toward the Republican Party as he cast his eye on Stephen Douglas’s seat in 1858.

    As Douglas looked toward the elections in Illinois in 1858, he knew that, in order to retain his spot in the Senate, he needed to stand up to the president’s policy on the Lecompton Constitution. He purposely broke with Buchanan and precipitated a sectional divide in the Democratic Party because he needed to come across as anti-southern to Illinois voters. He also tried to reach out to Republican voters, but he failed to win the Republicans over. Rather, when party leaders met in June, they criticized popular sovereignty and Dred Scott. Moreover, they publicly supported Lincoln for the U.S. Senate seat, which parties did not normally do until after the state elections. In support of his campaign, Lincoln noted, “A house divided against itself cannot stand…this government cannot endure, permanently, half slave and half free. I do not expect the Union to be dissolved…but I do expect it will cease to be divided.” In other words, Lincoln asked the voters of Illinois to decide whether to support freedom or to support slavery.

    Lincoln also challenged Douglas to a series of debates so he could expose the failings of his opponent’s position on slavery. Douglas agreed to seven meetings so he could do likewise. Lincoln focused his attention on how, during his career, Douglas had undermined the intentions of the Founding Fathers by supporting an extension of slavery into the territories. He forced Douglas to reconcile popular sovereignty with Dred Scott. In the Freeport Doctrine, named for the town where the second debate occurred, Douglas suggested residents of a territory could bar slavery by enacting “local police regulations,” a position he had made public several times before. Contemporaries argued the Freeport Doctrine helped drive a wedge in the Democratic Party. However, both James McPherson and Eric Foner point out that Douglas’s position on the Lecompton Constitution already caused a rift.

    Meanwhile, Douglas exploited the race issue by labeling Lincoln a “Black Republican” and by telling voters about how free blacks such as Frederick Douglass were campaigning on his behalf. He further argued it was a “monstrous heresy” to suggest the Founding Fathers intended to make blacks citizens with equal rights. Finally, only those who believed in black equality would vote for Lincoln. Countering the race issue became of major importance for Lincoln. In the fourth debate he said, “I will say then that I am not…in favor of bringing about in anyway the social and political equality of the white and black races…I am as much as any other man in favor of having the superior position assigned to the white race.” At the same time, he continued to argue against the dehumanization of blacks.

    Douglas managed to retain his seat in the Senate. However, Republicans did quite well in the elections. Had the state apportionment actually reflected the growth of the northern districts, Lincoln might have won. Nevertheless, Douglas reinforced his position as the leader of the northern Democrats. Still, Lincoln gained a great deal from the 1858 campaign. The debates highlighted the differences between Democrats and Republicans in the North. They also catapulted Lincoln into the national spotlight. Finally, they showed that Lincoln was more than up to the challenge of taking on Douglas in the presidential election of 1860.

    Road to Secession

    By 1859, James Buchanan knew the issue of slavery had ruined his administration. Although he had hoped a Supreme Court ruling could quiet concerns about slavery, the Dred Scott decision poisoned the political atmosphere and ensured the next presidential election would focus on the future of slavery. The Lincoln-Douglas debates deepened the national division over slavery. But nothing proved more inflammatory than John Brown’s attempt to foment a widespread southern slave rebellion with his attack on Harper’s Ferry. As the election of 1860 approached, the Democratic Party stood as one of the few remaining national institutions. It too proved unable to maintain unity in the face of the slavery debate as it split into three factions. This division presented an opportunity for the Republican Party to win the presidency, which they did with the nomination of Lincoln. The election of a purely sectional party prompted South Carolina and six other states from the Lower South to secede from the Union.

    Brown’s Raid on Harper’s Ferry

    In the years following his attack on proslavery forces at Pottawatomie Creek, John Brown’s devotion to the antislavery cause grew. While traveling around the North to raise funds for the Free Soil effort in Kansas, Brown developed a scheme to launch a guerilla attack against slavery. With a small band of men, both black and white, he planned to attack the federal arsenal at Harper’s Ferry, Virginia, where the Potomac and the Shenandoah Rivers meet. With the arsenal secure, Brown’s forces would move southward to incite slaves to rebel against their masters with the weapons from the arsenal. In 1858, he approached several abolitionists for financial support for the raid. The “Secret Six” agreed to help him purchase weapons.

    Meanwhile, Brown looked for recruits, especially free blacks, to join his mission. In August, he approached Frederick Douglass about participating in the raid. Douglass, like many other black abolitionists, had concluded that slaves would only truly be free if they fought for their own emancipation. Brown reportedly told Douglass, “When I strike, the bees will begin to swarm, and I shall need you to help hive them.” Whatever Douglass thought about the use of violence, he said no because the plan seemed suicidal. Although many of his recruits never showed up, Brown decided to proceed anyway. He had twenty-two men: five blacks and seventeen whites, including three of his sons; with these men, he would launch his war against slavery.

    On October 16, 1859, Brown and his raiders crossed from Maryland into Virginia. They quickly captured the arsenal. However, then things began to fall apart. Brown sent several men into the countryside to inform the slaves the time for a rebellion had come and to kidnap some prominent whites. The expected slave uprising never occurred. Local slaves might have wanted to rebel against their masters, but they would have been suspicious of any stranger supporting an insurrection. For all they knew, their owners could have been testing their loyalty. Moreover, word spread quickly to the white community of the impending attack. Local militia units converged on Harper’s Ferry; several raiders and locals died in the exchange of fire. On October 18, 1859, the U.S. marines, under the command of Colonel Robert E. Lee and Lieutenant J.E.B. Stuart, arrived on the scene. They stormed the firehouse where Brown and his troops retreated during the confrontation with the locals. The marines killed two of the raiders and captured the rest, including Brown.

    While Brown accomplished nothing he set out to do, his attack inflamed passions in both the South and the North. Southerners called for Brown’s blood. Even though the attack happened on federal property, he stood trial for treason, murder, and incitement of a slave insurrection before the end of the month in Virginia. The judge sentenced him to death after the jury returned a guilty verdict. Brown was executed in early December. Southerners also wanted an investigation into the rumors that prominent northerners funded the raid. They saw the attack as a clear sign of the lengths abolitionists would go to undermine the southern way of life. For some time after the incident, anyone in the South who did not support the maintenance of slavery faced a real risk of coming to a violent end. Southerners did take comfort in several things after the raid. One, no slave flocked to Brown’s cause. Two, slaveholders and non-slaveholders united to fight off the invaders. Three, the federal government defended slavery.

    The majority of northerners criticized John Brown’s raid, but his composure during his trial and when facing execution transformed public opinion. Brown, according to James McPherson, “understood his martyr role and cultivated it.” He refused to plead insanity and suggested he would forfeit his life to help end slavery. On the day of his execution, church bells tolled and guns fired salutes in his honor. Preachers gave eulogies emphasizing his martyrdom. People did not condone his tactics. Rather, they agreed the time had come to do more about southern power, as opposed to doing something about slavery.

    Democrats in the North condemned the incident in order to rebuild their ties with the South and to undermine support for the Republicans. They realized the distinction between thought and action did not impress most southerners; Stephen Douglas and others implied that Brown’s actions stemmed directly from Republican ideology. In response, leading Republicans, including William H. Seward and Abraham Lincoln, condemned Brown’s actions. Lincoln suggested that “John Brown was no Republican.” Without a doubt, Harper’s Ferry furthered the hostility between the North and the South. It also set the stage for the presidential election.

    Election of 1860

    In April 1860, the Democratic Party met in Charleston, South Carolina, home of the “fire-eaters,” or those who claimed they would die defending slavery. John Brown’s raid had convinced many southerners the time had come to draw a line in the burgeoning conflict; they no longer saw northern Democrats as their ally. In fact, a few southern delegates hoped for a Republican victory because then southerners would have to choose submission or secession. Meanwhile, northern delegates felt constantly under attack as proslavery speakers extolled the virtue of slavery throughout the city. Given these feelings, the gathering began with an auspicious start.

    Before choosing a candidate, party members had to agree on a party platform. Speaking for many southerners, Alabama’s William L. Yancey presented a proslavery platform to the convention delegates. It called for the nomination of a proslavery candidate. Furthermore, it demanded the adoption of a congressional slave code to protect slaveholders’ constitutional right to take their property to the territories. Speaking for many northerners, Stephen Douglas introduced an alternative platform. His platform supported the principle of popular sovereignty as well as respect for the Dred Scott decision. The platform committee leaned toward a proslavery platform; however, the delegates still had to vote. When Yancey linked the platform to the defense of southern honor, many delegates heartily cheered his assertion. Douglas’s supporters refused to yield.

    In the end, the party delegates adopted the northern platform. Northerners outnumbered southerners in the polling because the party based state delegations on population. At that point, many of the southerners walked out of the convention. The meeting adjourned because there were not enough members present to nominate a presidential candidate. Two months later, northern Democrats met in Baltimore, Maryland; southern Democrats met in Richmond, Virginia. The two groups conferred with each other but were unable to resolve their differences. The northern Democrats nominated Stephen Douglas. The southern Democrats nominated Kentucky’s John C. Breckenridge, who was the vice president at the time. A third group of Democrats, along with some former Whigs, formed the Constitutional Union Party in an attempt to throw the election to the House of Representatives. They nominated Tennessee’s John Bell.

    The split in the Democratic Party presented an excellent opportunity for the Republican Party to secure victory. They met in Chicago, Illinois. To win, however, the party needed to build on their showing in 1856. Somewhat expecting to lose California, Oregon, and possibly New Jersey, they directed the most attention to Pennsylvania, Illinois, and Indiana. Therefore, party leaders worked to develop a platform that dealt with more than just slavery. They also set out to choose a nominee who could reach the widest range of northern voters. Few Republicans expected to have any presence in the South. With respect to the platform, the party retained their stance against the expansion of slavery but condemned John Brown’s raid. They also promoted free homesteads in the West, a protective tariff, and a transcontinental railroad. Moreover, they supported immigrant political rights in order to ward off any lingering concerns about their ties to the nativist movement.

    Screenshot (276).png
    Figure \(\PageIndex{2}\): Two Races in 1860 | Given the division over slavery, the presidential election disintegrated into two separate contests: Abraham Lincoln (top left) versus Stephen Douglas (top right) in the North and John Breckenridge (bottom left) versus John Bell (bottom right) in the South. Authors: Alexander Gardner (Lincoln), Mathew Brady (Douglas, Bell, & Breckenridge) Source: Library of Congress

    Most delegates knew the selection of a candidate was more important than the platform. The Republicans had a tough choice to make because they needed to find someone who could appeal to conservative and radical voters. Leading contenders for the nomination included Illinois’s Abraham Lincoln, Missouri’s Edward Bates, New York’s William H. Seward, Ohio’s Salmon P. Chase, and Pennsylvania’s Simon Cameron. Seward appeared strong going into voting. Nevertheless, some leaders hoped to nominate a candidate who could help the party in its weaker states. They knew the Republicans would carry New York regardless of whether the party nominated the state’s favorite son. Moreover, many voters linked Seward with the radical abolitionist sentiments because of his “Higher Law” speech. On the third ballot, Lincoln defeated Seward. Three things worked in Lincoln’s favor: party members saw him as a moderate, his humble origins gave him a good political personality, and he came from the crucial state of Illinois.

    The election disintegrated into two separate contests: Lincoln versus Douglas in the North and Breckinridge versus Bell in the South. Lincoln focused all of his efforts on the North; he did not even appear on the ballot in most southern states. Breckinridge, likewise, focused all of his attention on the South. Bell attempted to reach out to other unionists. Douglas broke with tradition and campaigned on his own behalf. He traveled all over the eastern part of the country before the election. In speech after speech, Douglas claimed only he could prevent disunion. Douglas’s effort, however, could not overcome the split in the Democratic Party, which guaranteed a Republican victory. Lincoln took all the free states except New Jersey, which he split with Douglas. Lincoln won just under 40 percent, which was only a plurality of the popular vote; combined, the opposition nevertheless could not stop him from winning the Electoral College.

    Screenshot (277).png
    Figure \(\PageIndex{3}\): Presidential Election Map, 1860 | Since the Democrats split, Abraham Lincoln, the Republican candidate, won the presidential election of 1860 with just under 40 percent of the popular vote. However, he took a majority of the Electoral College votes. Author: National Atlas of the United States Source: Wikimedia Commons

    Secession Crisis

    Before the 1860 election, southern leaders proclaimed disunion would follow if Lincoln won. William Yancey even toured the North in October. At his speaking engagements, he described how an end to slavery would destroy the southern way of life, even if the Republicans did not intend to abolish slavery where it already existed. Kentucky’s John J. Crittenden, a longtime unionist, echoed this sentiment. He noted many southerners concluded they had no choice but to secede if the Republicans triumphed. Many northerners, who had heard the threats before, discounted the possibility. Heeding them in the past only made the South more demanding. Buchanan won in 1856 because northern Democrats feared secession; his presidency led to the Dred Scott decision and the Lecompton Constitution. Some Republicans asked Lincoln to issue a statement to calm southern fears, but he chose not to. He reasoned little he might say would placate them.

    South Carolina voted to secede from the Union in December. For years, secessionists in the state had waited for the right moment to leave the Union. Lincoln’s victory allowed the separatists to triumph at the state’s secession convention. Mississippi, Florida, Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana, and Texas soon followed suit. In each of these states, the debate over secession hinged on when and how, as opposed to whether they should. The southerners who left the Union believed they had the legal right to do so. Secessionists, as Jefferson Davis put it, sought to defend the liberty their fathers and grandfathers fought for during the Revolution. They championed the idea of states’ rights, noting the federal government should never infringe on their right to own property or to take that property anywhere in the country. To encourage non-slaveholders to support secession, they also used the ideas of white supremacy. Slavery made all whites, even poor whites, superior to blacks.

    In February 1861, the seven seceded states met in Montgomery, Alabama to form the Confederate States of America. Four additional southern states, Virginia, North Carolina, Tennessee, and Arkansas, gave a warning to the federal government that if the government used force against the seceded states, then they too would leave the Union. Meanwhile, James Buchanan denied the southern states had the right to secede. He noted that “the Union shall be perpetual” and further suggested that preservation of the alliance trumped states’ rights. Nevertheless, he declared that the federal government had no authority to coerce a sovereign state. The president apparently hoped to encourage the two sides to compromise before he left office, since most northerners remained unsure as to the appropriate response to the southerners’ move.

    Before Lincoln’s inauguration, various individuals and groups worked on some form of compromise to end the crisis. Senator John J. Crittenden led one of the most important efforts. His plan called for a constitutional amendment, which would recognize slavery as existing in all territories south of the Missouri Compromise line, the 36°30’ line. The amendment would also guarantee that the federal government would not attempt to tamper with the institution of slavery in the future. However, the compromise required the support of the president-elect. Lincoln refused to support the plan because it contradicted one of the main principles of the Republican Party, which was to stop the further spread of slavery into the territories. The Crittenden Compromise went nowhere, nor did any of the other proposals to avoid disunion. Every suggestion required the North, or the Republicans, to make all the concessions. In early 1861, the Republicans would not submit. Thus, the nation waited for Lincoln’s inauguration on March 4, 1861 to see whether secession would lead to war.


    After James Buchanan took office, the United States continued down the road to disunion. While the country dealt with a financial crisis and the ongoing question of Kansas, the Supreme Court weighed in on the matter of slavery in the Dred Scott v. Sandford (1857) decision. Much to the delight of southerners, the Court asserted the right of slave owners to transport their slaves anywhere within the territories, whether that territory was free or permitted slavery. Likewise, the decision created a storm of protest in the northern states. The famous debates between Republican Abraham Lincoln and Democrat Stephen Douglas in 1858 as they vied for a position in the U.S. Senate deepened the national division over slavery. John Brown and his cohorts riveted national attention upon Harper’s Ferry with their failed attempt to foment a widespread southern slave rebellion in 1859.

    As the critical presidential election of 1860 approached, the Democratic Party stood as one of the few remaining national institutions. It too proved unable to maintain unity in the face of the slavery debate as it split into three factions after its convention in Charleston, South Carolina. This three-way division among Stephen Douglas, John Breckinridge, and John Bell presented the Republican Party an opportunity to win the presidency, which they did with the nomination of Abraham Lincoln. After Lincoln’s election, South Carolina, followed by six other southern states, seceded from the Union. In February 1861, these states met in Montgomery, Alabama, and formed the Confederate States of America, setting the stage for a civil war.

    Exercise \(\PageIndex{1}\)

    In the Dred Scott v. Sandford decision, the Supreme Court

    1. ruled that slaves who were taken to free states were free.
    2. ruled that slaves who escaped must be returned to their owners.
    3. stated that blacks did not have federal citizenship and could not bring suit in federal courts.
    4. declared the Missouri Compromise constitutional.


    Exercise \(\PageIndex{2}\)

    In the Kansas territory, the proposed Lecompton Constitution showed the dominance of the Free Soilers.

    1. True
    2. False


    Exercise \(\PageIndex{3}\)

    What significant event occurred at the 1860 Democratic Convention in Charleston?

    1. Southern delegates walked out.
    2. Northern delegates walked out.
    3. Delegates nominated Abraham Lincoln for the presidency.
    4. Delegates nominated Jefferson Davis for the presidency.


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