After decades of sectional conflict centered on the question of slavery, the 1860 presidential election appeared to many Americans on both sides of the Mason Dixon Line to represent a point of no return in the ongoing national debate over critical issues ranging from the first principles to territorial governance. Abraham Lincoln’s electoral victory on the Republican ticket was seen by some Southerners as the beginning of the end of their ability to determine the course of national politics, and the governments of South Carolina, Mississippi, Florida, Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana, and Texas responded by declaring their intention to secede from the Union during the winter of 1860–1861. Each of these states passed a resolution outlining the justifications for their action; as in the case of Mississippi, these tended to emphasize the centrality of slavery as an institution to the Southern way of life and to paint Northern policies as not only a political but an existential threat.
When Lincoln delivered his First Inaugural Address on March 4, 1861, he sought to alleviate such fears by promising Southerners their regional and state practices would be as safe under his administration as they ever had been. Nevertheless, he also spoke stirringly of the permanent nature of the Union, and promised to defend it against any and all efforts to dismantle it. Although the speech concluded with an invocation of political friendship, Southern leaders such as Vice President of the Confederate States of America (CSA) Alexander Stephens rejected Lincoln’s overtures on the grounds that the Union as it had existed could never be resumed. That government had been fundamentally flawed, Stephens argued, because it was founded upon the principle of human equality. Peace, were it to be achieved, he insisted, could come only at the expense of the Union and the principles of the Declaration of Independence (see his “Cornerstone Speech”).
The competing principles of North and South were not only the preserve of political leaders; they were deeply engrained in the culture of both areas as seen in the lyrics of the two “unofficial anthems” of the war: The Bonnie Blue Flag (CSA) and the Battle Cry of Freedom (USA) (Document E). Here, as in the political texts, competing understandings of liberty and rights emerge as justifications for the war.
National republican platform. Adopted by the National Republican Convention, held in Chicago, May 17, 1860. Chicago Press and Tribune Office, Chicago, Illinois, 1860.) Library of Congress, Rare Book and Special Collections Division, Alfred Whital Stern Collection of Lincolniana, https://goo.gl/LCbFpA.
Resolved, that we, the delegated representatives of the Republican electors of the United States in Convention assembled, in discharge of the duty we owe to our constituents and our country, unite in the following declarations:
- That the history of the nation during the last four years, has fully established the propriety and necessity of the organization and perpetuation of the Republican party, and that the causes which called it into existence are permanent in their nature, and now, more than ever before, demand its peaceful and constitutional triumph.
- That the maintenance of the principles promulgated in the Declaration of Independence and embodied in the Federal Constitution, “That all men are created equal; that they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights; that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness; that to secure these rights, governments are instituted among men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed,” is essential to the preservation of our Republican institutions; and that the Federal Constitution, the Rights of the States, and the Union of the States must and shall be preserved.
- That to the Union of the States this nation owes its unprecedented increase in population, its surprising development of material resources, its rapid augmentation of wealth, its happiness at home and its honor abroad; and we hold in abhorrence all schemes for disunion, come from whatever source they may. And we congratulate the country that no Republican member of Congress has uttered or countenanced the threats of disunion so often made by Democratic members, without rebuke and with applause from their political associates; and we denounce those threats of disunion, in case of a popular overthrow of their ascendency as denying the vital principles of a free government, and as an avowal of contemplated treason, which it is the imperative duty of an indignant people sternly to rebuke and forever silence.
- That the maintenance inviolate of the rights of the states, and especially the right of each state to order and control its own domestic institutions according to its own judgment exclusively, is essential to that balance of powers on which the perfection and endurance of our political fabric depends; and we denounce the lawless invasion by armed force of the soil of any state or territory, no matter under what pretext, as among the gravest of crimes. . . .
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- That the new dogma that the Constitution, of its own force, carries slavery into any or all of the territories of the United States, is a dangerous political heresy, at variance with the explicit provisions of that instrument itself, with contemporaneous exposition, and with legislative and judicial precedent; is revolutionary in its tendency, and subversive of the peace and harmony of the country.
- That the normal condition of all the territory of the United States is that of freedom: That, as our Republican fathers, when they had abolished slavery in all our national territory, ordained that “no persons should be deprived of life, liberty or property without due process of law,” it becomes our duty, by legislation, whenever such legislation is necessary, to maintain this provision of the Constitution against all attempts to violate it; and we deny the authority of Congress, of a territorial legislature, or of any individuals, to give legal existence to slavery in any territory of the United States.
- That we brand the recent reopening of the African slave trade, under the cover of our national flag, aided by perversions of judicial power, as a crime against humanity and a burning shame to our country and age; and we call upon Congress to take prompt and efficient measures for the total and final suppression of that execrable traffic.
- That in the recent vetoes, by their Federal Governors, of the acts of the legislatures of Kansas and Nebraska, prohibiting slavery in those territories, we find a practical illustration of the boasted Democratic principle of Non-Intervention and Popular Sovereignty, embodied in the Kansas-Nebraska Bill, and a demonstration of the deception and fraud involved therein. . . .
A. Was the Civil War a conflict over the nature of the Union, or a conflict over the future expansion and legitimacy of slavery as an institution within the Union? Are there other causes raised in the documents that seem equally (or perhaps even more) significant than either of these? How would you explain the Southern understanding of the Union and slavery? How would you explain the Northern understanding of the Union and slavery? Which issue seems more significant to which section? How would you assess the causes of the war on the balance; do they appear to be more about pragmatic policy considerations or philosophical conflicts?
B. How do the documents in the previous chapters hint at the developing issues that would lead to the Civil War? How is what the Southerners proposed in seceding different from what had been threatened in earlier conflicts between the states and the federal government?
C. How are the themes of this chapter rearticulated in later discussions of race and union in American history?