Election Southern secession creation of the Confederacy

The opening scene of the crisis of 1860-61 took place in the autumn of 1859. On 16 October, John Brown and a small band of followers seized the federal arsenal at Harpers Ferry, Virginia, as part of a plan to gather slaves in a mountain stronghold, arm them and wage war on the South's slaveholders. Robert E. Lee and a detachment of United States Marines quickly suppressed the raiders, and Brown himself was tried, sentenced to die, and hanged. Comporting himself with dignity and courage at his trial and execution, Brown won the admiration of much of the North. As he went to the gallows, he handed one of his jailers a note that read, 'I John Brown am now quite certain that the crimes of this guilty, land: will never be purged away; but with Blood.' In the North, a number of newspapers praised Brown, church bells peeled his honor and other such demonstrations underscored that a substantial element of the northern public shared, at least to a degree, Brown's hatred of slavery.

White southerners, in contrast, reacted in horror at both Brown's actions and the northern response. Here was a man who had planned to incite a full-scale slave rebellion that would trigger a bloodbath and leave the South in chaos. Assurances from northern Democrats that they repudiated Brown's raid fell on deaf ears. White southerners equated Brown with abolitionists, abolitionists with Republicans, and Republicans with the whole North. A wave of near hysteria swept the South, the greatest since Nat Turner's rebellion some 30 years earlier. Slave patrols were increased, volunteer military companies drilled more seriously, and talk of secession mushroomed. William L. Yancey of Alabama, one of the extreme advocates of southern rights known as 'fire-eaters', used heightened fears of northern aggression to persuade his state's Democratic Party to instruct delegates

With his flowing beard and thick shock of hair, John Brown reminded many northern admirers of an Old Testament prophet. White southerners took a very different view of Brown, who stood among the most implacable and violent foes of slavery. Frederick Douglass, the famous black abolitionist, commented that Brown's 'will impressed all.' (Author's collection)

With his flowing beard and thick shock of hair, John Brown reminded many northern admirers of an Old Testament prophet. White southerners took a very different view of Brown, who stood among the most implacable and violent foes of slavery. Frederick Douglass, the famous black abolitionist, commented that Brown's 'will impressed all.' (Author's collection)

to the 1860 national convention to demand a plank calling for protection of slavery in all national territories. Other states of the Lower South (Florida, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, South Carolina and Texas) might be expected to follow Alabama's lead.

Election of Abraham Lincoln

The Democratic convention met in Charleston, South Carolina, in April 1860. A hotbed of secessionist sentiment, Charleston witnessed a contentious series of debates. Northern Democrats rejected a proposed platform that embodied Yancey's demands, several dozen southern delegates walked out and the convention adjourned without a nomination. The Democrats reconvened in Baltimore in mid-June, but failed again to agree on a platform. The regular Democrats, who comprised the majority of the party, ultimately nominated Senator Stephen A. Douglas of Illinois, a supporter of popular sovereignty, while southern rights Democrats selected slaveholder John C. Breckinridge of Kentucky to bear their standard. As the election approached, the Democratic Party, long the dominant force in American national politics, lay in a shambles.

The Republicans had met in Chicago in mid-May and chosen Abraham Lincoln as their presidential candidate. A moderate, Lincoln fully supported a platform that would prohibit slavery in the territories but accept the institution in states where it already existed. The platform further called for measures that expressed the mercantile, pro-business, free labor sentiments of many in the North.

A fourth candidate, nominated by voters calling themselves the Constitutional Union Party, also entered the field. He was John Bell, an old Whig from the state of Tennessee. Hoping to avoid the poisonous influence of issues related to slavery, the Constitutional Union Party based its campaign strictly on support of the Constitution, the laws of the United States and the sacred Union.

The election broke down into a contest between Lincoln and Douglas in the North and Breckinridge and Bell in the South. The Republicans did not appear on the ballot in ten slave states, and Bell and Breckinridge stood no chance of winning any of the free states. During the course of the campaign, many leaders from the Lower South threatened secession in the event of a Republican victory. Republicans responded that the South had postured about secession in the past, and they vowed not to give in to any southern demands. Outpolled by nearly a million popular votes, Lincoln and the Republicans achieved a decisive victory in the Electoral College, taking 180 votes to the other three candidates' 123. Lincoln did especially well in the upper sections of the North, where anti-slavery sentiment was strongest, polling about 60 percent of the votes. He managed a bare majority elsewhere in the North. Breckinridge carried the Lower South and four states of the Upper South. Bell won in Virginia, Kentucky and Tennessee. Douglas showed poorly, winning just 12 electoral votes in New Jersey and Missouri - which showed how sectionalism had ravaged the proud old Democratic Party.

Secession begins

Contrary to those who believed they were bluffing, secessionists in the Lower South moved quickly after Lincoln's election. South Carolina led the way, calling a convention that voted unanimously on 20 December 1860 to leave the Union. Over the next six weeks, following debates of varying intensity between those for and against secession, Mississippi (9 January 1861), Florida (10 January), Alabama (11 January), Georgia (19 January), Louisiana (26 January), and Texas (1 February) also seceded. The seven states created the Confederate States of America at a convention in Montgomery, Alabama, in February and March 1861. Adopting a constitution much like that of the United States but with explicit guarantees for slavery and stronger

provisions for state powers, the founders of the new nation selected Jefferson Davis of Mississippi and Alexander H. Stephens of Georgia as President and Vice-President respectively.

Davis and Stephens emphasized the centrality of slavery to the process of secession. In a speech delivered on 21 March 1861, Stephens averred that the Confederate constitution 'has put at rest forever all the agitating question relating to our peculiar institutions - African slavery as it exists among us - the proper status of the negro in our form of civilization. This was the immediate cause of the lateruptureand present revolution.' Five weeks later, Davis observed in a message to the Confederate Congress that slave labour 'was and is indispensable' to southern economic progress. 'With interests of such

South Carolina had threatened secession more than once prior to the crisis of 1860, most recently in response to the Compromise of 1850. Many northerners believed that secessionist talk in South Carolina after Lincoln's election amounted to mere posturing. This broadside sent a clear message that those who sought to take the state out of the Union had triumphed. (Library of Congress)

Jefferson Davis believed ardently in slavery and southern rights, but he was not a 'fire-eater\These qualities, together with his stature as a prominent United States senator made him an attractive figure to the delegates in Montgomery. Alabama. Although frequently compared unfavorably to Abraham Lincoln, Davis proved to be an able chief executive for the new slaveholding republic. He lacked Lincoln's genius with language, but dealt forcefully with the staggering challenge of simultaneously launching a nation and waging a war (Author's collection)

overwhelming magnitude imperiled,' added Davis, 'the people of the Southern States were driven by the conduct of the North to the adoption of some course of action to avert the danger with which they were openly menaced.'

The secession of the Lower South represented a gambling effort to protect the institution of slavery in the face of a striking defeat at the polls. Many slaveholders looked down the road and saw ever larger numbers of free states controlling both houses of Congress, Republican justices on the Supreme Court and a national government willing to tolerate or even encourage agitators such as John Brown.


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