The combination of financial depression resulting from the panic of 1857, the Supreme Court's Dred Scott ruling, and the crisis in Kansas loomed ominously over the Buchanan administration. In October 18.59, however, his presidency suffered another blow. John Brown, who had made the cause of anti-slavery his never-ending crusade, attempted to single-handedly purge slavery from Virginia. On 16 October, Brown and his small band of followers raided and seized the small government arsenal at Harpers Ferry. Virginia, in an attempt to arm the slaves and launch an insurrection against slaveholders. Two days later Robert E. Lee arrived, accompanied by a detachment of Marines. They surrounded the arsenal and either killed or wounded the vigilantes associated with Brown. Brown himself was captured, tried for treason, and hanged on 1 December.
Despite his failed attempt, Brown would be forever martyred for the anti-slavery cause. Republicans scurried to disassociate themselves from Brown's actions. Still, it became evident that Brown's scheme had been supported by a small group of Boston abolitionists, who came to be known as the
'Without shedding of blood the^e is no remission [of sin]' was John Brown's favorite biblical passage. It inspired him to seize the Federal Armory and Arsenal at Harpers Ferry. Virginia. >n mid-October 1859 and to launch a massive slave msurrection.The attempt failed and Brown met his fate on the gallows on 2 December in Charles Town.Virginia (Ann Ronan Picture Library i
Secret Six. Though not one of the six. abolitionist Wendell Phillips supported Brown, proclaiming, '[Virginia) is a pirate ship, and John Brown sails the sea a Lord High Admiral of the Almighty with his commission to sink every pirate he meets on Ciod's ocean of the nineteenth century.' Brown's attempt and the elevation of him for his sacrifice to the abolitionist cause incensed Southern whites.
In this rigid atmosphere of gridlock politics and rule-or-ruin attitudes came the election of 1860. Democrats convened in Charleston, South Carolina. Failing to win a majority of non-slaveholding Democrats to their side in the legislature, the Southern extremists chose instead to emphasize secession if a Republican were elected the next president. Led by William L. Yancy of Alabama, they boldly demanded that the party endorse the protection of slavery in the territories in its national platform. If their demand was rejected, they were prepared to leave the convention. The North's most popular Democratic candidate was Stephen A. Douglas, who, seeking to contend for Northern votes against the Republicans, rejected the slave platform. The Lower South delegates left the convention. In June, when the party reconvened in Baltimore, the regular Democrats finally nominated Douglas. Southern Democrats meanwhile nominated Kentucky slaveholder John C. Breckinridge and endorsed a platform that included a federal slave code.
As the fractured Democratic Party battled over its nomination for president, die-hard Whigs and Know Nothings (an anti-immigrant party) formed the Constitutional Union Party and nominated Tennessean John C. Bell for president. Bell was a life-long Whig and his party adopted a platform that pledged its support for the Union anil a love of the Constitution. The party appealed primarily to Upper South states, whose citizens simply wanted to avoid any conflict that would force them to choose between loyalty and locality.
The Republicans convened in May in Chicago and nominated Abraham Lincoln as
The pattern of voting between Lincoln and Breck'nndge reveals very closely the division between Union and Confederate governments Note that the slave states of Tennessee. Kentucky, and Virginia voted for Bell their presidential candidate. An ex-Whig who had been out of politics for more than a decade, and who had few enemies, Lincoln appeared the perfect choice. The Republicans endorsed a platform that focused on economic issues and promised a better future. By advocating its opposition to the spread of slavery in the territories, and supporting it in the states, the party leaders could avoid being dubbed the party of abolition. However, if a Republican won the White House, many Southerners concluded, it was simply a matter of time before the institution of slavery lost its constitutional support.
The election was a sectionalized contest between the North, which held a majority of the electoral votes and pitted Lincoln and Douglas against each other, and the South, which pitted Breckinridge against John Bell. Although Lincoln and Douglas accounted for nearly 90 percent of the vote in the North, in the South Douglas won only Missouri, anil Lincoln was not even on the ballot in 10 slave states. Breckinridge anil Bell received over 85 percent of the Southern popular vote and barely over 10 percent in the North. Significantly, however, the Constitutional Union candidate, Bell, carried only three Upper South states - Virginia, Kentucky, anil Tennessee. In the end, Lincoln received only 40 percent of the popular vote, but gained the North's 180 electoral votes. Still, the Republicans had not won control of either house of Congress. Shortly after the election, Republican editor and writer William Cullen Bryant boasted that 'the cause of justice anil liberty has triumphed,' and although the people of South Carolina were making such a fuss about the result, Bryant confided, 'I have not the least apprehension that anything serious will result from it.'
Southern fears escalated beyond reasonable proportions, however, as many Southerners interpreted the results as a
victory for free labor and an end to slavery. Secession appeared the only alternative to protest the election. South Carolina, which had been embroiled in the nullification controversy some 30 years before, was the first to act, unanimously seceding from the Union on 20 December 1860. As Congress prepared to respond, six other Lower South states would also secede during the course of the next six weeks: Mississippi. Florida,
Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana, and Texas. Together the states organized the Confederate Slates of America at Montgomery, Alabama, in February 1861. They elected Mississippian Jefferson Davis and Georgian Alexander Stephens as president and vice-president respectively. Never before in American history had more work of such monumental significance been done in such little time. One Southern newspaper declared: 'The North and South are heterogeneous and we are better apart ... we are doomed if we proclaim not our political independence.'
Before Lincoln was even sworn in as president, these states adopted a constitution and charted a course for complete independence. By casting themselves as the revolutionaries, secessionists legitimized their actions and placed themselves in the role of the defenders of individual liberties. Secessionists effectively portrayed Republicans as symbols of threatening economic and social change, and greedy capitalists intent on forcing Southern whites into wage slavery. With Lincoln about to take office, Southerners adopted a constitution that not only protected slavery, but also allowed states more power than the Confederate government.
President James Buchanan meanwhile remained in office, content to believe that secession was illegitimate. He hoped that Congress would produce a compromise, but when none was forthcoming, he stood by as the seceded states seized federal forts that skirted the Southern coast from South Carolina to Texas. Although eight slave states still remained in the Union, they vowed to remain only as long as Lincoln guaranteed the protection of the institution where it existed and pledged not to invade the seceded states.
As Lincoln prepared to take office after four long and eventful months, he was willing to allow the stalemate to continue, hoping for a solution, perhaps a voluntary reunion, perhaps simply more time. Lincoln's inaugural speech placed responsibility for the crisis squarely on the shoulders of the Confederates. He made it clear that he intended to uphold his federal responsibilities by protecting federal property, 'but beyond what may be necessary for these objects,' he assured the Confederates, there will be no invasion.'
Although there were interpretive differences over just what the President would do, a crisis in Charleston. South Carolina, presented him with little time. One of the few remaining federal garrisons in the South. Fort Sumter, was in need of supplies or it would have to surrender in six weeks. Hoping to give as much time to the peace process as possible, Lincoln delayed making a decision about the fort. With time running out, however, he had to act not only to save the garrison but also to legitimize his leadership in the crisis. On 4 April, Lincoln, convinced that Major Robert Anderson's garrison could no longer hold out. decided to resupply Fort Sumter. While both Lincoln and Davis hoped to avoid being the aggressor in the crisis, Lincoln's determination now shifted the burden of decision to Jefferson Davis.
On 9 April, the Confederate President assembled his cabinet, which decided against allowing the fort to be supplied. With federal supplies on the way, Davis instructed Pierre G. T. Beauregard, commander of the Confederate forces in Charleston, to demand the surrender of the fort. When Anderson refused the ultimatum, Beauregard's Confederate batteries began shelling the fort early in the morning of 12 April. The bombardment lasted some 33 hours before Anderson capitulated. As the victors lowered the American flag, the Palmetto flag was raised in its place, signaling the shift in possession of the fort.
Tlu- showdown at Sumter prompted Lincoln to call for the loyal states to supply 75,000 militiamen to suppress the rebellion. As volunteers flocked to the recruiting stations throughout the North, residents in the Upper South, known as the border states, decided in favor of secession. Lincoln's call for volunteers, as Southerners interpreted it, had clearly violated his inaugural pledge, and the states of Virginia. Arkansas, North Carolina, and Tennessee protested this action by voting to join the Confederacy. The Confederate capital was moved to Richmond. The Union's loss of these states to the Confederacy complicated political attitudes, and residents were torn between conflicting loyalties. There appeared to be significant pockets of loyal support in the border states, particularly those in the west. The fact that Kentucky, the native state of both Lincoln and Davis, attempted to remain neutral revealed much about the complex interplay between loyalty and location. Most at stake were the vital resources and manpower of the states.
which could clearly tip the scales between victory and defeat.
With 11 slave states out of the Union, the American republic had succumbed to the fundamental conflict it had wrestled with since acquiring independence from lireat Britain. Clearly the ideological and political struggle to maintain the diverse cords of slave labor and free labor as well as states'
rights and federal supremacy had been weakened as they played out on a number of stages in the decades before the war. Now they had broken, and the Union would never be the same. "Civil War is freely accepted everywhere,' declared a Bostonian a week after the firing on Fort Sumter. Indeed it was and as Orrin Mortimer Stebbins, a Pennsylvania schoolteacher concluded, 'We live in an age of rebellion ... I can only say that I live for the Stars and Stripes, iinil for tliem I dm ready to die!!!' The four long years that followed would be evidence that the United States was in a defining period.
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