The Election of 1860 and a Nation in Disarray


Warning: Undefined variable $num in /home/shroutdo/public_html/courses/wp-content/plugins/single-categories/single_categories.php on line 126

Warning: Undefined variable $posts_num in /home/shroutdo/public_html/courses/wp-content/plugins/single-categories/single_categories.php on line 127

In this section of The Rise of American Democracy, Wilentz discusses the events leading up to the election of 1860, the election itself, and the consequences of the crucial election.
One theme of this week’s readings that interested me was the South or Slaveholder’s increased confidence in secession or the threat of secession as the solution to nearly all political problems. For example, a movement in the late 1850s to reopen the slave trade attracted support from many prominent southern politicians. The politicians claimed that such an action would make slavery a much more efficient and profitable industry. However, Northern politicians and abolitionists rejected the idea of reopening the slave trade in America or satisfying the demand for a “federal slave code” in the United States. Unhappy Southern leaders like Barnwell Rhett and William Yancey began to declare that the South would secede from the Union if their desired legislation failed to be approved. In addition to issues like slave trade or the federal slave code, Southern politicians like Stephen A. Douglas were able to spread the belief that the South would secede if Abraham Lincoln won the Presidential election of 1860. Although the South did not end up leaving the Union until Lincoln was elected, the constant threat of dissolving the nation posed by the South struck fear and uneasiness in Northern politicians and citizens for years.
Another aspect of the reading that grabbed my attention was the way Wilentz portrays Lincoln’s rise to political prominence and the events of the election of 1860. At first, Wilentz depicts Lincoln as a name merely thrown into the conversation for the Republican nomination in order to defeat the “tainted” Seward and his “loyal wire-puller” Weed (Wilentz, 431). However, he builds up Lincoln’s political savvy and ability as a public speaker and ultimately portrays him as a pristine presidential candidate. Wilentz also illustrated how Lincoln’s “brilliant” political strategy to win the Republican nomination had worked almost flawlessly. Also, Wilentz introduced Lincoln to the audience as a talented underdog with an outside shot of winning the nomination, but as the election heats up Wilentz frames Lincoln into an unstoppable political force destined for the White House.
Lastly, I would like to comment on the debate of whether or not the election of Abraham Lincoln as the 16th President of the United States directly contributed to the immediate succession of the South. Although my classmate WIROBERTSON would disagree, I believe that the actions of Southern politicians (like Stephen A. Douglas) spread the fear of a Lincoln dominated White House among pro-slavery Americans and was a main cause of Southern secession. Once it became inevitable to slaveholders that Lincoln would become president, Lincoln’s political opponents worked to foster a “plot to stage a coup d’etat in November or December”, which eventually resulted in the secession of South Carolina in 1860 (Wilentz, 433).

Is Secession “Legal?”


Warning: Undefined variable $num in /home/shroutdo/public_html/courses/wp-content/plugins/single-categories/single_categories.php on line 126

Warning: Undefined variable $posts_num in /home/shroutdo/public_html/courses/wp-content/plugins/single-categories/single_categories.php on line 127

In his final chapter, Wilentz discusses the various political ideas supporting secession. I think that we sometimes have the tendency to group all Southerners and secessionists together and not realize the political complexity of secession, so I’m glad that Wilentz addressed this in detail. However, ANBURTON pointed out the “debate between ‘the preservation of a traditional Southern heritage and states rights vs. the preservation of slavery’ as the main cause for secession,” but also asserted that they are “completely interconnected.” I agree with this, but would also like to look at the idea of secession itself.

The first group mentioned is the militant secessionists, or the fire-eaters.  Their stance was based on the idea that “secession was perfectly legal and represented nothing radical” (Wilentz 439).  They believed that when a state secedes, it is only exercising its right to act as a sovereign state, exactly as the states did when they signed the Constitution and formed the Union.  The only difference would be that the states are breaking away from the alliance with USA instead of Great Britain in order to form a different sovereign nation.  In a way, these secessionists were acting in defense of the Constitution.  They saw the Northern Republicans as the aggressors who violated the “original constitutional agreement that left slavery undisturbed” (439).

A different group of secessionists fully embraced the illegality of secession, but they did not believe that this lessened their right to do so.  “Secession was a replay of the American Revolution, a new War of Southern Independence that aimed to vindicate, not repudiate, the struggles of the founding generation” (439).  Just as the colonists did not have the legal right to rebel from England, the Southerners also did not have this right.  Nevertheless, the American colonists rebelled successfully.  According to this view of secession, the Southerners shared the aims of their revolution with the colonists: to preserve their definition of liberty.

Even though they recognize its illegality, I see a much more legitimate justification for secession in the second, more moderate viewpoint.  The fire-eaters claim their rights as sovereign states, but to me it seems like they gave up a significant part of that sovereignty when the US switched from the Articles of Confederation to the Constitution with a more powerful federal government.  It would be more difficult to argue or prove their sovereignty to either the Northerners or Southern Unionists.  On the other hand, the colonies did rebel against England, so these secessionists have a similar success story at which to point.  It would be easier to convince fellow Southerners of the legitimacy of this cause.  Moral issues on slavery aside, I believe that either on the grounds of state sovereignty or right to revolution, individual states have the right to withdraw from the Union if its citizens deem it necessary, but that the idea of “a new War of Southern Independence” would be more successful at gathering public support for secession (439).

Lincoln and Secession


Warning: Undefined variable $num in /home/shroutdo/public_html/courses/wp-content/plugins/single-categories/single_categories.php on line 126

Warning: Undefined variable $posts_num in /home/shroutdo/public_html/courses/wp-content/plugins/single-categories/single_categories.php on line 127

In Chapter’s 23 and 24 of Wilentz’s The Rise of American Democracy, Wilentz spends a good deal of time characterizing Lincoln’s political and moral stance  specifically surrounding the issue of slavery.  And after reading Wilentz’s portrayal, I feel that my perception of Lincoln’s platform has changed.  Generally, Lincoln is portrayed as the figure head for the abolitionist movement, leading the charge against slavery.  However, as Wilentz explains in the end of Chapter 23 and throughout Chapter 24, Lincoln’s campaigning was different than his moral standing. Wilentz makes it very clear that Lincoln’s “hatred for slavery ran deep,”(Wilentz 413).  On the other hand, Lincoln realized that strong polarization to the abolitionist movement was not the best political move. So he instead simply stood for “a house divided against itself cannot stand,”(Wilentz 414, nomination address). The stance essentially stated that a divided nation is ultimately dysfunctional, which the majority of Americans understood through current political disputes. This brilliant political move quickly became very influential, not only because it divided the Democratic party, but it also gained support from some moderates.   I agree with SPEDWARDS post in that “Lincoln’s directness lead to a heightened public interest nation-wide,”  yet I propose that perhaps it also simultaneously deepened the divide between abolitionists and pro-slavery activists—the exact cause that Lincoln was trying to eradicate.  Because Lincoln advocated for a homogeneous position on slavery, the American people wanted their own position on slavery (for or against slavery) for the whole country.  The talk of an all free or all slave America could have sparked the seeds for secession from the Union, as Lincoln brought abolitionist perceptions with him into the presidency.  The perceived last effort by the southerners was secession.  I feel that Wilentz does not fully include the possibility of Lincoln’s campaign and political scheme, to deepen the divide between the North and South.

 

Election of 1860 and Secession


Warning: Undefined variable $num in /home/shroutdo/public_html/courses/wp-content/plugins/single-categories/single_categories.php on line 126

Warning: Undefined variable $posts_num in /home/shroutdo/public_html/courses/wp-content/plugins/single-categories/single_categories.php on line 127

The topic of slavery dominated politics during the mid-19th Century.  It divided social classes, political parties, and most importantly the North and the South.  Adamant on maintain slavery’s presence and expansion, Southerners repeatedly threatened seceding from the United States for decades.  Beginning in late 1860, shockingly soon after the election of Abraham Lincoln, this threat became a reality, as South Carolina seceded, and several other states soon followed suit. In this post I will attempt to answer ANBURTON’s question (http://sites.davidson.edu/his141/secession-becomes-a-reality/), “[Was] secession an inevitable result of the presidential turnover, or was it really due to Lincoln’s particular election?”  Also, I will explore the factors causing the South to secede.

I do think Lincoln’s election directly caused the immediate secession of the South.  This decision, however, seemed overly radical, especially considering Lincoln’s moderate nature.  Lincoln firmly believed that the spread of slavery needed to halt, but he never threatened altering the institution where it already existed.  In addition, he did not support radical abolitionists, such as John Brown (Fun Fact: Today is the 154th anniversary of his execution).  The South’s severe opposition to Lincoln struck me as greedy, as his election did not threaten slaveholders’ social structure at home, only their long-enjoyed national dominance in politics. The reaction also may have resulted from misinformation about Lincoln’s positions.  Other candidates certainly tried to damage Lincoln’s campaign by attributing radical ideals to him.  Furthermore, I suspected that fire-eaters manipulated the public into believing that Lincoln posed a direct threat to the entire institution of slavery.  The fact that southern fire-eaters enjoyed Lincoln’s victory provided evidence, “No less pleased, though, were the southern fire-eaters … southern militants took the next step toward creating their slaveholders’ republic” (Wilentz 434). Clearly the South made a regrettable decision by seceding from the Union.  Whether the reaction resulted from a greedy attempt to preserve widespread dominance, or from misinformation about Lincoln’s moderation, the election of Lincoln certainly ignited the amount of panic necessary to end in secession.

I really enjoyed and appreciated Wilentz’s coverage of the election of 1860 and secession.  I found his treatment of the topic thorough, interesting, and easy to follow.

Secession Becomes a Reality


Warning: Undefined variable $num in /home/shroutdo/public_html/courses/wp-content/plugins/single-categories/single_categories.php on line 126

Warning: Undefined variable $posts_num in /home/shroutdo/public_html/courses/wp-content/plugins/single-categories/single_categories.php on line 127

In today’s readings from Sean Wilentz’s The Rise of American Democracy, the “big bang” takes place… so to speak. On November 6, 1860, on the day of Lincoln’s election to power, all of the talks concerning secession finally come true, as South Carolina passes legislation to “strike back at the North and secede from the Union before Lincoln could take office” (Wilentz, 436). After years of tension between northern and southern states, failed compromises and extremist politicians, South Carolina has finally had enough and has left the Union. More states were to follow, as Wilentz writes that the “swiftness with which the rest of the Deep South followed suite was breathtaking” (Wilentz, 437), as Mississippi, Florida, Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana, Texas, Virginia, Arkansas, North Carolina and Tennessee all leave the Union by June 8, 1861. According to Wilentz, Lincoln’s rise to power “turned many  Deep South moderates and even erstwhile Unionists into secessionists” (Wilentz, 436), as the question was “not whether to secede but when and how” (Wilentz, 436). It shocks me that one president (whose party described themselves as a “white man’s party (Wilentz, 433) could inspire so much disagreement. It made me wonder whether secession was an inevitable result of the presidential turnover, or was it really due to Lincoln’s particular election?

What has always baffled me concerning secession is the debate between “the preservation of a traditional Southern heritage and states rights vs. the preservation of slavery” as the main cause for secession. Personally, I see the two issues being completely interconnected. Antebellum Southern culture (the culture the states so desperately wanted to preserve) was essentially a culture founded on and maintained by human bondage. When Wilentz discusses the South’s desire to “[leave] the Union to preserve their old institutions from a revolution [that] threatened to destroy their social system” (Wilentz, 439), the social system that the North was attempting to destroy and the South was trying to preserve was one where daily life was routed in and informed by slavery.

Just before secession, one of the most interesting characters we have run into so far over the entire course has easily been John Brown, a radical abolitionist who attempted to achieve abolition by any means necessary. Although he failed, I agree with ALKAROUT where Brown opened the door for possibilities of more organized forms of insurrection against slavery. What amazes me is the impact one figure (and relatively small raid) had on the South’s relationship with the North, with “new funds for military preparations and expressed solidarity with their sister slaveholding states” (Wilentz, 426) emerging in the immediate aftermath of Brown’s defeat and how. Many southerners saw it impossible to live in in a country under a government where Brown was considered a Christian martyr, as they considered his actions to be dangerous and unjust. Had a violent Southern rebellion be led against Northern abolitionists, it would have most likely been condemned by the government.

Leading up to Secession


Warning: Undefined variable $num in /home/shroutdo/public_html/courses/wp-content/plugins/single-categories/single_categories.php on line 126

Warning: Undefined variable $posts_num in /home/shroutdo/public_html/courses/wp-content/plugins/single-categories/single_categories.php on line 127

Many events took part in factoring into the decision for South Carolina so secede from the Union. Of course they had been upset for quite some time with the abolitionists in the north and they were starting to feel that few if not no northerners could be trusted to hold represent them as president. They were shocked to see how far some northerners would go to see abolition when John Brown took hostage a federal armory. He had hoped to have many more people join him, especially other major figures like Frederick Douglass who firmly said no and it would be foolish to take the armory. Brown also intended to rally slaves as he went through to fight for him, but they were not very interested. Finally John Brown gave up after a day and half and was captured by Robert E. Lee. Just before his execution he wrote out his final prophecy and that was that the US was a guilty land and its crimes “will never be purged away; but with Blood.” (424) His words struck a large amount of the population who saw that maybe he war right and that a war was imminent. I think that Brown solidified the possibility of war in citizens’ heads. Many thought that it might occur, but Brown’s violent actions and his prophecy surely convinced a large amount of Americans that secession and war was in the future.

The final major event that lead to secession was the election of Abraham Lincoln into office. This election was very hard fought and caused the Democratic party to split in two, forming Northern and Southern branches. I think if anyone other than a pro-slavery president was elected, the South would surely secede. And that is exactly what happened when Lincoln was elected. ROMANGONE raises a good point regarding the fact that even though some Southern Democrats were divided on certain issues, they all stood together in opposition of Lincoln. Within the same month of Lincoln’s election South Carolina had seceded, closely followed by many other states who would go on to form the confederacy. I think that Lincoln’s election was the tipping point of the road to secession. It was as though the idea of secession had been brewing for so long and with the 1860 election, the South finally snapped. There were many events on the road to secession, but none more important than the election of Abraham Lincoln.

A Torn America


Warning: Undefined variable $num in /home/shroutdo/public_html/courses/wp-content/plugins/single-categories/single_categories.php on line 126

Warning: Undefined variable $posts_num in /home/shroutdo/public_html/courses/wp-content/plugins/single-categories/single_categories.php on line 127

Very few singular events have occurred in in America’s 200+ years of being a country that have a defined a generation, but the Civil War is one of them. Historians have gone as far back as the founding of the country to explain the events that triggered the war. Throughout their childhood children hear that slavery caused the war, or that it was a war for states rights, or even in very southern states that this was “A War of Northern Aggression” but no matter how you put it the true start to the war was the Secession of the south. Its the factors that lead up to this event which Willentz discusses in the reading.

Tension had been growing in the country especially regarding slave politics. Lincoln’s election marked the growth of the Republican party, especially in the north. But this didn’t sit so well in the South. Although the Southern Democrats were divided they stood together in opposition to Lincoln. They saw Lincoln’s election as “the North’s embrace of John Brown” (Willentz 434) who was a radical who had, in 1859, led a raid on an armory supported by a group of radical slaves. Although he failed he later went on to write from jail in a manner that gathered support for his cause and in turn for abolitionists. This angered the southerners to say the least and talk of secession began to circulate. “Angry Southerners now asked…whether the South could any longer “live under a government, a majority of whose subjects or citizens regard John Brown as a martyr and a Christian hero” (Willentz 425)

Although the South was angry they did not stand together all the time. As seen in this post many non-slaveholders opposed secession while others wanted to secede right away. But an important thing to note is that there was very little support for Lincoln in the South. He didn’t win any states in the election and although there were those who didn’t want secession right away most people in the south were opposed to the ideals on Lincoln and supported the states rights and slavery claims of the Secessionist states.

Politics of Secession


Warning: Undefined variable $num in /home/shroutdo/public_html/courses/wp-content/plugins/single-categories/single_categories.php on line 126

Warning: Undefined variable $posts_num in /home/shroutdo/public_html/courses/wp-content/plugins/single-categories/single_categories.php on line 127

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.  It 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.

Wilentz Discusses the Inevitable Showdown


Warning: Undefined variable $num in /home/shroutdo/public_html/courses/wp-content/plugins/single-categories/single_categories.php on line 126

Warning: Undefined variable $posts_num in /home/shroutdo/public_html/courses/wp-content/plugins/single-categories/single_categories.php on line 127

In chapters 21 and 22, Wilentz discusses the inevitable fight over slavery between the pro-slavery southern Whigs, led by Henry Clay and John C. Calhoun, and the adamant abolitionists, led by John Taylor, during the compromise of 1850. After the victory over Mexico in the recent war and the gain of the California, New Mexico, and Texas territories, the debate of whether these new states would host slavery or not dominated the American political system. Newly inaugurated President Taylor wanted to be his own man, and attempted to create his own party of Taylor Republicans with strong feelings over slavery and territorial expansion. While the figureheads of the pro-slavery movement Clay and John C. Calhoun were fed up with the apparent northern aggression. Summarizing Wilentz on page 343, President Taylor wasn’t scared by the threat of southern secession, and it seems Calhoun wasn’t afraid to act on his promise. This unfaltering resolve on both sides of the fight, further fueled by the failed compromise of 1850, propelled the country into the Civil War.

Even though many thought that Whig-candidate Zachary Taylor would be an indecisive president, they never thought he would turn on his party entirely. Himself a slave owner, Taylor thought that “the southern insistence on slaveholders’ rights was a divisive conceit that might destroy; the Union in the name of legalistic abstractions.” (Wilentz 342) While he may have participated in slavery, Taylor believed that the issue over slavery was exaggerated by the wealthy plantation owners in the south and believed their puerile fighting would destroy the fundamental unity of the country. In his steadfast determination to show the “ultra-Whigs” (338) they were going to tear apart the Union, Taylor also showed that he wouldn’t back down from a fight. Although commendable, his aggressive stance only elevated the situation and forced the Whigs to act on their promise to secede.

Although I have repeatedly talked about how much I enjoy Wilentz’s depiction of Calhoun in my previous blog posts, I think the way he discusses Calhoun on page 345 is by far the most entertaining. He portrays, “The dying John C. Calhoun sat at his desk, wrapped in flannels, his eyes blazing from behind pale and hollowed cheeks.” Almost depicted as the archetype of the devil, Calhoun is shown as the symbol of unyielding pro-slavery. As Wilentz writes, “Calhoun blamed “sectional discord on Congress’s long-standing and systematic promotion of national legislation favorable to the North.” (345) Calhoun concluded that the oppression would end only if the North ceased its aggression and as Sherwood mentioned, perhaps the “slavocrats” felt backed into a corner and felt obligated to stand strong. Calhoun gave an ultimatum to Taylor and the abolitionists, “were California admitted as a free state, either under Taylor’s plan or Clay’s, the southern states could no longer ‘remain honorably and safely in the Union.’”

In nearing the start of the Civil War however, the 1850 compromise or other concessions like the Fugitive Slave Law couldn’t stop the inevitable conflict. The death of Calhoun on March 31, as Wilentz says, didn’t solve anything either. Rather, “the spirit of Calhounism lived on, in an even more radical disunionist form, picked up by a new generation of unswervingly pro-slavery Deep South Democrats.” (349) In his blog, Sherwood questioned whether the stubborn, inflexible positions either side was the best way to resolve the problem of slavery and defuse the situation. I would answer that the country was headed towards this conflict regardless. Even attempts of diplomacy, such as the attempted compromise measures or the Fugitive Slave Law concession, all failed and only delayed the unavoidable conflict.