The Surprising and Alarming Origins of the Civil War
Abolitionist John Brown’s 1859 attack on Harpers Ferry provided bloody evidence of fanatical Southern sentiment. His execution made abolitionists a martyr. But Lincoln took a reasonable tone even at that: “Old John Brown was executed for treason against a state,” he said. “We can’t argue with it, even if he agreed with us that slavery was wrong. It can’t excuse violence, bloodshed and betrayal. It wouldn’t do him any good so that he can believe himself to be true.
In the 1860 election, Southern Democrats attempted to portray Lincoln as an extremist who advocated the unconstitutional abolition of slavery by the executive branch. Lincoln said, and the record showed, that he only opposed the expansion of slavery as a means of holding the nation together, although he personally opposed the slavery.
Nevertheless, slave-owning Southerners threatened to secede if the Republicans won the election in order to intimidate undecided voters. Lincoln mocked this threat, comparing it to a highwayman who “holds a gun to my ear and mutters between his teeth, ‘Rise up and deliver, or I’ll kill you, and then you’ll be a murderer!’ ‘ It was illogical. but it wasn’t a bluff. They believed that the election was a matter of life or death. This created the psychological preconditions for civil war.
Less than a week after Lincoln won the presidency, South Carolina senators resigned their seats as their state legislature approved funds to raise 10,000 troops. They refused to recognize Lincoln’s legitimacy. This was soon followed by the Georgian legislature voting to earmark $1 million for the purchase of firearms and artillery.
The response from lame Democratic Chairman James Buchanan was to blame the Republicans. In his last December message to Congress, Buchanan denounced “the intemperate interference of northerners in the question of slavery.” His attempts at appeasement did not work.
The week before Christmas, a secession convention in South Carolina voted unanimously to leave the United States. On December 30, the federal arsenal in Charleston was seized by local forces. In January, emboldened by this action, Mississippi, Florida, Alabama, Georgia and Louisiana seceded from the Union at closed partisan conventions, refusing to put the issue to a popular vote.
On February 18, former United States Senator from Mississippi, Jefferson Davis, was inaugurated President of the Confederate States of America in Montgomery, Alabama, with an alternative constitution that explicitly invoked both God and slavery. Vice President Alexander Stephens of Georgia candidly declared that “the cornerstone of their new government rests upon the great truth that the Negro is not equal to the white man.” Contrary to the promise of the Declaration of Independence, the Confederacy was based on the idea that all men were not created equal.
Two weeks later, Lincoln delivered his inaugural address in Washington under threat of assassination and insurrection. He tried to appeal to the common bonds between his disgruntled compatriots and gave the world a taste of the poetry of democracy in his closing sentences: “We are not enemies, but friends. We must not be enemies. Although passion may have put a strain on it, it must not sever our bonds of affection. The mystical chords of memory, which stretch from every battlefield and every patriot’s grave to every living heart and every hearthstone throughout this vast land, will still swell the Union chorus, as they will again be touched, as surely as they will be, by the best angels of our nature.”