A House Dividing
A House Dividing
Southern Expansionism. The Kansas-Nebraska controversy not only initiated a political realignment in the North but wrecked any chance to fulfill the primary ambition of the Pierce administration and many of its Southern supporters, the acquisition of Cuba. After initially looking benignly on “filibustering” expeditions through which Americans sought to foment revolution in Cuba, the beleaguered Pierce adopted a new policy in May 1854 threatening to prosecute violations of American neutrality laws. The administration then authorized a futile effort to buy the island, but when the minister to Spain, Pierre Soulé, and two other American diplomats issued the “Ostend Manifesto” declaring that the United States would be “justified in wresting it from Spain,” the president forced Soulé to resign. Meanwhile, other expeditions held out to Southerners the tantalizing prospect
of a slave-based empire extending through Central America. William Walker, a sometime physician, lawyer, and journalist, illustrated the restlessness that found an outlet in filibustering. Winning control of Nicaragua, Walker became a hero to Southerners by reinstituting slavery. He was soon overthrown, mainly because he clashed with Cornelius Vanderbilt’s interests in the development of interocean transportation, but when the federal government charged him with violation of neutrality laws a New Orleans jury refused to convict him. Walker’s downfall, like the failure of other expansionist initiatives, caused some supporters of slavery to conclude that a grander hemispheric destiny might await the South outside the United States.
John Brown’s Raid. Their desire for expansion frustrated, slaveholders soon found cause to ask whether they were safe within the Union. John Brown had contributed to the fray in Kansas, where he massacred five randomly chosen slaveholders in May 1856 in retaliation for the sack of the antislavery headquarters at Lawrence. Over the next three years he developed a plan to invade the South and lead an uprising of slaves. On 16 October 1859, he led a squad of eighteen men in an attack on the virtually undefended federal arsenal at Harpers Ferry, Virginia. The quixotic, mismanaged foray failed to mobilize a single slave, and a company of U.S. marines commanded by Col. Robert E. Lee easily captured Brown within thirty-six hours of his arrival at Harpers Ferry. Republican leaders like Abraham Lincoln, brushing aside Southern attempts to link Brown to the party, dismissed
the incident as an isolated, hapless venture by a man of questionable sanity. But even a poorly conducted investigation revealed evidence that Brown had been backed by a group of influential abolitionists called “the Secret Six,” including ministers Theodore Parker and Thomas Wentworth Higginson and humanitarian Samuel Gridley Howe. Perhaps even more galling to Southerners, Brown cultivated an image as a biblical martyr that captured the imagination of New England intellectuals. Ralph Waldo Emerson declared that Brown would “make the gallows as glorious as the cross.” William Dean Howells, soon to write a campaign biography for Lincoln, observed that “Brown has become an idea, a thousand times purer and better and loftier than the Republican idea.”
Democratic Schism. The election returns of 1858–1859 indicated that, barring a mistake, the Republican candidate would be in an excellent position to win the presidential election in 1860. That outcome was virtually assured by the final breakdown of the alliance between Southern Democrats and followers of Stephen A. Douglas that had been ruptured in the Lecompton controversy. Southerners eager to embarrass Douglas seized on the difficulty of reconciling his policy of popular sovereignty with the Dred Scott decision. In his debates with Lincoln, Douglas had maintained that even if the Constitution prohibited Congress from barring slavery in the federal territories, settlers could still exercise choice in the matter because they might decide not to enact the laws needed to enforce a system of slavery. This position became known as the Freeport Doctrine, after the Illinois town at which Douglas stated his position. Led by Sen. Jefferson Davis of Mississippi, Southerners attacked the Freeport Doctrine by arguing that settlers in the territories should not be able to circumvent constitutional protection for slavery and that Congress should therefore enact a federal slave code for the territories. At the Democratic National Convention in Charleston, South Carolina, in April 1860, Douglas supporters refused the demand to include a federal slave code in the party platform. Fifty delegates from the Deep South thereupon bolted the convention pursuant to a strategy organized by William Lowndes Yancey of Alabama. After the convention deadlocked on the nomination of Douglas, the party collapsed. Douglas’s supporters subsequently reassembled to nominate him for the presidency while anti-Douglas Southerners convened to nominate John C. Breckinridge of Kentucky.
The Election of Lincoln. William Henry Seward of New York was the best-known Republican in the country and the leading contender for the Republican nomination when the convention met in Chicago in May 1860. Salmon P. Chase of Ohio, a leader in the organization of the party since the Kansas-Nebraska controversy, was also a strong candidate. The nomination eventually went, however, to Abraham Lincoln, who had little national experience but had established himself as the leading Republican in the potentially pivotal state of Illinois. Apart from his western background and his fine showing in the race against Douglas, Lincoln’s chief qualification for the campaign was that he did not have anywhere near as many enemies as Seward and Chase had made in their more-active careers. Both were considered more radical than Lincoln on slavery issues, which in Chase’s case was an accurate reputation. Seward was also despised by anti-Catholic voters whom Republicans quietly sought to attract while continuing to build their strong support among Protestant immigrants from Germany. Following the nominations, the most remarkable feature of the political contest was the campaign of Douglas, who declared himself the only national candidate in the race. Lincoln did not appear on ballots in the South, and Breckinridge was not a contender in the North. John Bell of Tennessee, running on the Constitutional Union ticket, was nominally a national candidate but in fact appealed almost solely to planters who had formerly supported the Whigs. Not implausibly regarding his candidacy as the last hope of the Union, Douglas conducted an exhausting speaking tour throughout the North, South, and West. His efforts were in vain, however; he won only 12 percent of the popular vote in the slaveholding states. Meanwhile, although Lincoln’s popular plurality represented only 39 percent of the national vote, he would have had a clear majority of electoral votes even if his opponents’ totals were combined.
Secession of the Lower South. South Carolina radicals, recalling that the attempt to coordinate action among Southern states had forestalled any prospect for disunion during the controversy over the Compromise of 1850, moved swiftly to secede from the Union without awaiting a program of cooperation. Immediately after the November election the South Carolina legislature called for a convention to consider secession. On 20 December the convention by a vote of 169-0 adopted an ordinance declaring that all connections between South Carolina and the United States were dissolved. Mississippi, Florida, Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana, and Texas soon followed suit, as the South Carolinians had hoped. The arrangements by which the voting public expressed its opinions on secession varied from state to state. Especially in Georgia, Louisiana, and Alabama, however, a significant minority expressed reservations about the decision. To the opponents of secession, it was not at all clear that the newly elected Lincoln administration would be able to pose a serious threat to slavery or even hold together the Republican coalition of former Whigs and former Democrats. But immediate state-by-state secession had effectively undercut the best tactic of Southern moderates, a call for cooperative action among slave-holding states that would result in a delay during which cooler heads might prevail. Cooperation was no longer a synonym for Unionist delay; it now meant participation in the Confederate States of America, which held a constitutional convention in Montgomery, Alabama, and elected Jefferson Davis to the presidency.
Failure of Compromise. The states of the upper South, which did not secede upon the election of Lincoln, led efforts to find a compromise solution to the situation. The most important proposal came from John Crittenden of Kentucky, who occupied the Senate seat once held by Henry Clay. The so-called Crittenden Compromise called for a constitutional amendment protecting slavery in the states where it already existed, a constitutional amendment prohibiting slavery in any federal territories north of 36° 30’ latitude, and constitutional protection for slavery south of 36° 30’ latitude. This proposal and other initiatives failed partly because, unlike the situation at the time of the Missouri Compromise, the Nullification crisis, and the Compromise of 1850, secession was not a legislative issue. Congress could not pass a law that would bring the Southern states back into the Union, as it had passed compromise laws in the previous crises. More fundamentally, however, compromise did not work because neither side supported it strongly. Lincoln endorsed a constitutional amendment protecting slavery in the states where it already existed, but the Republicans would not accept slavery in any part of the federal territory—particularly if that federal territory might come to include eventual acquisition of Cuba or the Central American areas that expansionists coveted.
BIRTH OF A NATION
Henry Timrod noted in the subtitle of his “Eth-nogenesis” that it was written during the first meeting of the Confederate Congress in Montgomery, Alabama. The poem expresses lyrically some of the economic, proslavery, and imperialist strands of the secessionist movement.
Hath not the morning dawned with added light?
And shall not evening call another star
Out of the infinite regions of the night,
To mark this day in Heaven? At last we are
A nation among nations; and the world
Shall soon behold in many a distant port
Another flag unfurled!
But let our fears—if fears we have—be still,
And turn us to the future! Could we climb
Some mighty Alp, and view the coming time,
The rapturous sight would fill
Our eyes with happy tears!
Nor only for the glories which the years
Shall bring us; not for lands from sea to sea,
And wealth, and power, and peace, though these shall be;
But for the distant peoples we shall bless,
And the hushed murmurs of a world’s distress;
For to give labor to the poor,
The whole sad planet o’er,
And save from want and crime the humblest door,
Is one among the many ends for which
God makes us great and rich!
The hour perchance is not yet wholly ripe
When all shall own it, but the type
Whereby we shall be known in every land
Is that vast gulf which lips our Southern strand,
And through the cold, untempered ocean pours
Its genial streams, that far off Arctic shores
May sometimes catch upon the softened breeze
Strange tropic warmth and hints of summer seas.
Crisis at Fort Sumter. As secession progressed, Southern states closed federal courts, prepared to replace the United States mails, and asserted sovereignty over military bases throughout the South. James Buchanan, who remained in office until 4 March 1861, did little to stop this process beyond declaring secession illegal. When Lincoln came to office, he learned that there were two major federal military outposts left in the South: Fort Pickens near Pensacola, Florida, and Fort Sumter in the harbor of Charleston, South Carolina. The besieged garrison at Fort Sumter was quickly running out of food, which forced Lincoln to decide whether to surrender the federal presence in the cradle of secession or to try to reinforce or at least bring supplies to the soldiers. Secretary of State William Henry Seward urged Lincoln to retreat from Fort Sumter and to make a symbolic stand by reinforcing Fort Pickens. He warned that an outbreak of hostilities at Fort Sumter would drive the states of the upper South into the Confederacy and dramatically increase the chances for a lasting division. Seward argued that the seven states of the lower South could eventually be coaxed back into the Union; if combined with some or all of the other eight slaveholding states, they would have the resources to sustain themselves independently and perhaps even to resist an attempt to restore the Union by force.
Decision. Establishing that he, not the better-known and more experienced Seward, would be the head of the administration, Lincoln decided to send supplies to the garrison at Fort Sumter. Upon receiving notice of this intention before the belated arrival of the delivery ships, which also carried reinforcements, Jefferson Davis ordered the Confederate commander in Charleston to bombard Fort Sumter. Opening fire on 12 April 1861, the Confederate forces destroyed the fortress in a day and forced the federal garrison to surrender. The Confederate flag replaced the United States flag at the military installation on 14 April. The next day, Lincoln called for seventy-five thousand volunteers to suppress the rebellion. As Seward had predicted, this announcement sparked a powerful secession movement in the upper South. Virginia, Tennessee, North Carolina, and Arkansas soon left the Union. These states dramatically strengthened the Confederacy by sharply increasing the white population available to fight, the supply of food and livestock, and the capacity for industrial production.
Daniel W. Crofts, Reluctant Confederates: Upper South Unionists in the Secession Crisis (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1989);
David Potter, The Impending Crisis, 1848–1861 (New York: Harper & Row, 1976).