Politics of Secession

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The politics surrounding the rapid secession of southern states seems at first to be fairly simple. The south wanted to protect the institution of slavery which they felt the north was attempting to eradicate from the United States. The fallout of Lincoln’s election as president, however reveals a level of complexity which is often overlooked in textbooks. For example, many non-slaveholders in the south were opposed to immediate secession and there was even division among secessionists about the best way to go about seceding from the union. Some radicals wanted to secede immediately while others wanted to give Lincoln’s moderate stance a chance. Clearly the south was not united, at least in the beginning, in secession. ┬áIt was surprising that the radical fire eaters were able to successfully manipulate the convention delegate elections of so many southern states to ensure that secession occurred. The explanation for this, one newspaper stated was in the “hopelessness of preserving the union,” which “made disunionists, since the election, of thousands of Conservative and Union men” (Wilentz 438). But even so, with the wide variety of opinions both in the north and the south, how was it that the fire-eaters were able to gain such great influence over the session of the southern states?

I also found Wilentz’s treatment of Lincoln interesting, because he emphasized the political side of Lincoln which is often left out in descriptions of him. Although he is often idealized today, Lincoln had to be politically savvy and moderate in order to function effectively during this highly divided period of American history. As Sylvia points out, despite the idealization of Lincoln as a moral political figure in our history, “he still had to be a politician” (http://sites.davidson.edu/his141/abraham-lincoln-the-final-straw-for-southerners/). Just like southern secessionists strove to appear more moderate in order to appease and win over moderates, especially in border states, so to did Lincoln have to remain moderate in his political stances.