The right of the States to secede from the Union, then and now.

Monday – August 25,  2014

Posted by "Jerryd14 -The War – The Confederate Flag – Southern People and our History"

“Everyone should do all in his power to collect and disseminate the truth, in the hope that it may find a place in history and descend to posterity. History is not the relation of campaigns and battles and generals or other individuals, but that which shows the principles for which the South contended and which justified her struggle for those principles. ”
Robert E. Lee

“The flags of the Confederate States of America were very important and a matter of great pride to those citizens living in the Confederacy. They are also a matter of great pride for their descendants as part of their heritage and history.”
Winston Churchill

I am not particularly interested in seeing another war for Southern Independence, at least on most days, but I would not mind having California, Oregon, Washington, Colorado, Massachusetts, Illinois, New York, New Jersey, and one or two others go away, voluntarily would be my wish.

But I do want to gather some information, and to share some things that will open your eyes as to the legal and just ideas that the Southern states, and some non southern states had when deciding to secede. I say again and again, they were not only justified in seceding, but were within their legal rights in all manner to do so, and if money would have had no part in all this, Lincoln would not have been persuaded by big Northern money men to start a war and kill 600,000 human beings, Americans for his rich buds benefit. The Economy Man, the Economy.

So, I have collected some writings by others, who deserve all the effort and credit for their labor and research, I am just offering it to you to read, study, and be better informed, and one last thing I wish to impart to you, THE WAR FOR SOUTHERN INDEPENDENCE, SLAVERY WAS ONLY A PART AS WAS EVERY SINGLE ASPECT OF HOW TO RUN THE STATE IN QUESTION, SECESSION WAS TO RELIEVE OURSELVES FROM THE NORTHERN FEDERAL GOVERNMENTS CONSTANT MEDDLING, CONTROLS THAT THEY WERE NOT GRANTED UNDER THE CONSTITUTION AND ARE NOT GRANTED TODAY. WE WERE THEN OVER TAXED, OVER CONTROLLED, HATED AND FOR THE MOST PART, DESPISED BY THE MAJORITY OF THE  HEATHEN UNCHRISTIAN NORTHERNERS. SO WE SHOULD HAVE SECEDED, AND I AM HAPPY TO REPORT, WE DID. Now, some of the attached writings, commentaries, may be confusing, but overall they do give a light in so far as to some, only some few thoughts on secession. Folks, this was a BIG DEAL, very complex, today we think of a bugle call and a cannon blast as if it was one big fun time, no it was deep, hard heart felt opinions, hardheaded people, hot headed people, on all sides, it was a mess, BUT, as for me, I feel that the states should have been allowed to do as they wished as far as secession went.    Thank you my brave and noble Southern ancestors, now on to the articles.

The Right to Secede
by Joseph Sobran

How can the federal government be prevented from usurping powers that the Constitution doesn’t grant to it? It’s an alarming fact that few Americans ask this question anymore.

Our ultimate defense against the federal government is the right of secession. Yes, most people assume that the Civil War settled that. But superior force proves nothing. If there was a right of secession before that war, it should be just as valid now. It wasn’t negated because Northern munitions factories were more efficient than Southern ones.

Among the Founding Fathers there was no doubt. The United States had just seceded from the British Empire, exercising the right of the people to “alter or abolish” — by force, if necessary — a despotic government. The Declaration of Independence is the most famous act of secession in our history, though modern rhetoric makes “secession” sound somehow different from, and more sinister than, claiming independence.

The original 13 states formed a “Confederation,” under which each state retained its “sovereignty, freedom, and independence.” The Constitution didn’t change this; each sovereign state was free to reject the Constitution. The new powers of the federal government were “granted” and “delegated” by the states, which implies that the states were prior and superior to the federal government.

Even in The Federalist, the brilliant propaganda papers for ratification of the Constitution (largely written by Alexander Hamilton and James Madison), the United States are constantly referred to as “the Confederacy” and “a confederate republic,” as opposed to a single “consolidated” or monolithic state. Members of a “confederacy” are by definition free to withdraw from it.

Hamilton and Madison hoped secession would never happen, but they never denied that it was a right and a practical possibility. They envisioned the people taking arms against the federal government if it exceeded its delegated powers or invaded their rights, and they admitted that this would be justified. Secession, including the resort to arms, was the final remedy against tyranny. (This is the real point of the Second Amendment.)

Strictly speaking, the states would not be “rebelling,” since they were sovereign; in the Framers’ view, a tyrannical government would be rebelling against the states and the people, who by defending themselves would merely exercise the paramount political “principle of self-preservation.”

The Constitution itself is silent on the subject, but since secession was an established right, it didn’t have to be reaffirmed. More telling still, even the bitterest opponents of the Constitution never accused it of denying the right of secession. Three states ratified the Constitution with the provision that they could later secede if they chose; the other ten states accepted this condition as valid.

Early in the nineteenth century, some Northerners favored secession to spare their states the ignominy of union with the slave states. Later, others who wanted to remain in the Union recognized the right of the South to secede; Abraham Lincoln had many of them arrested as “traitors.” According to his ideology, an entire state could be guilty of “treason” and “rebellion.” The Constitution recognizes no such possibility.

Long before he ran for president, Lincoln himself had twice affirmed the right of secession and even armed revolution. His scruples changed when he came to power. Only a few weeks after taking office, he wrote an order for the arrest of Chief Justice Roger Taney, who had attacked his unconstitutional suspension of habeas corpus. His most recent biographer has said that during Lincoln’s administration there were “greater infringements on individual liberties than in any other period in American history.”

As a practical matter, the Civil War established the supremacy of the federal government over the formerly sovereign states. The states lost any power of resisting the federal government’s usurpations, and the long decline toward a totally consolidated central government began.

By 1973, the federal government was so powerful that the U.S. Supreme Court could insult the Constitution by striking down the abortion laws of all 50 states; and there was nothing the states, long since robbed of the right to secede, could do about it. That outrage was made possible by Lincoln’s triumphant war against the states, which was really his dark victory over the Constitution he was sworn to preserve.

South Carolina Declaration of Causes of Secession

Convention of South Carolina
December 20, 1860


The People of the State of South Carolina, in Convention assembled, on the 26th day of April, A.D. 1852, declared that the frequent violations of the Constitution of the United States, by the Federal Government, and its encroachments upon the reserved rights of the States, fully justified this State in then withdrawing from the Federal Union; but in deference to the opinions and wishes of the other slaveholding States, she forbore at that time to exercise this right. Since that time, these encroachments have continued to increase, and further forbearance ceases to be a virtue.

And now the State of South Carolina having resumed her separate and equal place among nations, deems it due to herself, to the remaining United States of America, and to the nations of the world, that she should declare the immediate causes which have led to this act.

In the year 1765, that portion of the British Empire embracing Great Britain, undertook to make laws for the government of that portion composed of the thirteen American Colonies. A struggle for the right of self-government ensued, which resulted, on the 4th of July, 1776, in a Declaration, by the Colonies, “that they are, and of right ought to be, FREE AND INDEPENDENT STATES; and that, as free and independent States, they have full power to levy war, conclude peace, contract alliances, establish commerce, and to do all other acts and things which independent States may of right do.”

They further solemnly declared that whenever any “form of government becomes destructive of the ends for which it was established, it is the right of the people to alter or abolish it, and to institute a new government.” Deeming the Government of Great Britain to have become destructive of these ends, they declared that the Colonies “are absolved from all allegiance to the British Crown, and that all political connection between them and the State of Great Britain is, and ought to be, totally dissolved.”

In pursuance of this Declaration of Independence, each of the thirteen States proceeded to exercise its separate sovereignty; adopted for itself a Constitution, and appointed officers for the administration of government in all its departments — Legislative, Executive and Judicial. For purposes of defense, they united their arms and their counsels; and, in 1778, they entered into a League known as the Articles of Confederation, whereby they agreed to entrust the administration of their external relations to a common agent, known as the Congress of the United States, expressly declaring in the first article, “that each State retains its sovereignty, freedom and independence, and every power, jurisdiction and right which is not, by this Confederation, expressly delegated to the United States in Congress assembled.”

Under this Confederation the War of the Revolution was carried on, and on the 3d September, 1783, the contest ended, and a definite Treaty was signed by Great Britain, in which she acknowledged the Independence of the Colonies in the following terms:

“Article 1.– His Britannic Majesty acknowledges the said United States, viz: New Hampshire, Massachusetts Bay, Rhode Island and Providence Plantations, Connecticut, New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Delaware, Maryland, Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina and Georgia, to be FREE, SOVEREIGN AND INDEPENDENT STATES; that he treats with them as such; and for himself, his heirs and successors, relinquishes all claims to the government, propriety and territorial rights of the same and every part thereof.”

Thus were established the two great principles asserted by the Colonies, namely: the right of a State to govern itself; and the right of a people to abolish a Government when it becomes destructive of the ends for which it was instituted. And concurrent with the establishment of these principles, was the fact, that each Colony became and was recognized by the mother Country as a FREE, SOVEREIGN AND INDEPENDENT STATE.

In 1787, Deputies were appointed by the States to revise the Articles of Confederation, and on 17th September, 1787, these Deputies recommended, for the adoption of the states, the Articles of Union, known as the Constitution of the United States.

The parties to whom this Constitution was submitted, were the several sovereign States; they were to agree or disagree, and when nine of them agreed, the compact was to take effect among those concurring; and the General Government, as the common agent, was then invested with their authority.

If only nine of the thirteen States had concurred, the other four would have remained as they then were — separate, sovereign States, independent of any of the provisions of the Constitution. In fact, two of the States did not accede to the Constitution until long after it had gone into operation among the other eleven; and during that interval, they each exercised the functions of an independent nation.

By this Constitution, certain duties were imposed upon the several States, and the exercise of certain of their powers was restrained, which necessarily implied their continued existence as sovereign States. But, to remove all doubt, an amendment was added, which declared that the powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the States, are reserved to the States, respectively, or to the people. On 23d May, 1788, South Carolina, by a Convention of her people, passed an Ordinance assenting to this Constitution, and afterwards altered her own Constitution, to conform herself to the obligations she had undertaken.

Thus was established, by compact between the States, a Government, with defined objects and powers, limited to the express words of the grant. This limitation left the whole remaining mass of power subject to the clause reserving it to the States or to the people, and rendered unnecessary any specification of reserved rights.

We hold that the Government thus established is subject to the two great principles asserted in the Declaration of Independence; and we hold further, that the mode of its formation subjects it to a third fundamental principle, namely: the law of compact. We maintain that in every compact between two or more parties the obligation is mutual; that the failure of one of the contracting parties, to perform a material part of the agreement, entirely releases the obligation of the other; and that where no arbiter is provided, each party is remitted to his own judgment to determine the fact of failure, with all its consequences.

In the present case, that fact is established with certainty. We assert, that fourteen of the States have deliberately refused for years past to fulfil their constitutional obligations, and we refer to their own Statutes for the proof.

The Constitution of the United States, in its 4th Article, provides as follows:

“No person held to service or labor in one State, under the laws thereof, escaping into another, shall, in consequence of any law or regulation therein, be discharged from such service or labor, but shall be delivered up, on claim of the party to whom such service or labor may be due.”

This stipulation was so material to the compact, that without it that compact would not have been made. The greater number of the contracting parties held slaves, and they had previously evinced their estimate of the value of such a stipulation by making it a condition in the Ordinance for the government of the territory ceded by Virginia, which now composes the States north of the Ohio river.

The same article of the Constitution stipulates also for rendition by the several States of fugitives from justice from the other States.

The General Government, as the common agent, passed laws to carry into effect these stipulations of the States. For many years these laws were executed. But an increasing hostility on the part of the non-slaveholding States to the Institution of Slavery has led to a disregard of their obligations, and the laws of the general government have ceased to effect the objects of the Constitution. The States of Maine, New Hampshire, Vermont, Massachusetts, Connecticut, Rhode Island, New York, Pennsylvania, Illinois, Indiana, Michigan, Wisconsin and Iowa, have enacted laws which either nullify the Acts of Congress or render useless any attempt to execute them. In many of these states the fugitive is discharged from service or labor claimed, and in none of them has the state government complied with the stipulation made in the Constitution. The State of New Jersey, at an early day, passed a law in conformity with her constitutional obligation; but the current of anti-slavery feeling has led her more recently to enact laws which render inoperative the remedies provided by her own law and by the laws of Congress. In the State of New York even the right of transit for a slave has been denied by her tribunals; and the States of Ohio and Iowa have refused to surrender to justice fugitives charged with murder, and with inciting servile insurrection in the State of Virginia. Thus the constitutional compact has been deliberately broken and disregarded by the non-slaveholding States, and the consequence follows that South Carolina is released from her obligation.

The ends for which this Constitution was framed are declared by itself to be “to form a more perfect union, establish justice, insure domestic tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general welfare, and secure the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity.”

These ends it endeavored to accomplish by a Federal Government, in which each State was recognized as an equal, and had separate control over its own institutions. The right of property in slaves was recognized by giving to free persons distinct political rights, by giving them the right to represent, and burthening them with direct taxes for three-fifths of their slaves; by authorizing the importation of slaves for twenty years; and by stipulating for the rendition of fugitives from labor.

We affirm that these ends for which this Government was instituted have been defeated, and the Government itself has been made destructive of them by the action of the non-slaveholding States. Those States have assumed the right of deciding upon the propriety of our domestic institutions; and have denied the rights of property established in fifteen of the States and recognized by the Constitution; they have denounced as sinful the institution of Slavery; they have permitted the open establishment among them of societies, whose avowed object is to disturb the peace and to eloign the property of the citizens of other States. They have encouraged and assisted thousands of our slaves to leave their homes; and those who remain, have been incited by emissaries, books and pictures to servile insurrection.

For twenty-five years this agitation has been steadily increasing, until it has now secured to its aid the power of the Common Government. Observing the forms of the Constitution, a sectional party has found within that article establishing the Executive Department, the means of subverting the Constitution itself. A geographical line has been drawn across the Union, and all the States north of that line have united in the election of a man to the high office of President of the United States whose opinions and purposes are hostile to slavery. He is to be entrusted with the administration of the Common Government, because he has declared that that “Government cannot endure permanently half slave, half free,” and that the public mind must rest in the belief that Slavery is in the course of ultimate extinction.

This sectional combination for the subversion of the Constitution, has been aided in some of the States by elevating to citizenship, persons, who, by the Supreme Law of the land, are incapable of becoming citizens; and their votes have been used to inaugurate a new policy, hostile to the South, and destructive of its peace and safety.

On the 4th March next, this party will take possession of the Government. It has announced, that the South shall be excluded from the common Territory; that the Judicial Tribunals shall be made sectional, and that a war must be waged against slavery until it shall cease throughout the United States.

The Guaranties of the Constitution will then no longer exist; the equal rights of the States will be lost. The slaveholding States will no longer have the power of self-government, or self-protection, and the Federal Government will have become their enemy.

Sectional interest and animosity will deepen the irritation, and all hope of remedy is rendered vain, by the fact that public opinion at the North has invested a great political error, with the sanctions of a more erroneous religious belief.

We, therefore, the people of South Carolina, by our delegates, in Convention assembled, appealing to the Supreme Judge of the world for the rectitude of our intentions, have solemnly declared that the union heretofore existing between this State and the other States of North America, is dissolved, and that the State of South Carolina has resumed her position among the nations of the world, as a separate and independent State; with full power to levy war, conclude peace, contract alliances, establish commerce, and to do all other acts and things which independent States may of right do.

Legal Justification of the South in Secession

           THE Southern States have shared the fate of all conquered peoples. The conquerors write their history. Power in the ascendant not only makes laws, but controls public opinion. This precedent should make the late Confederates the more anxious to keep before the public the facts of their history, that impartial writers may weigh and properly estimate them in making up the verdict of an unbiased posterity. Besides, as they have been the objects of persistent misrepresentation, and authentic records have been perverted to their prejudice, their descendants are liable to receive and hold opinions hostile and derogatory to their fathers.

    In this series of volumes, pertaining to the history of the Confederate States, all concerned wish to disclaim in advance any wish or purpose to reverse the arbitrament of war, to repeal the late amendments to the Constitution, to revive African slavery, or secession as a State right or remedy; or to organize any party, or cultivate an opinion, which, directly or indirectly, shall inculcate disloyalty to the Union, or affect the allegiance of citizens to the Federal government. Let it be stated, once for all, that this argument as to the right of the South to be protected in property in slaves and the exclusive right of a State to be the final judge of the powers of the general government and to apply suitable remedies, is based on the Constitution and the rights of the States as they existed in 1860. The amendments made, since that year, in Federal and State constitutions, put an entirely new and different phase on the subjects discussed, for these changes have expurgated slavery and secession from our institutions. Our sole object is to present the Southern side of the controversy as it existed in 1860 and to vindicate it from accusations and aspersions which are based on ignorance and injustice. As the South is habitually condemned and held criminal for seeking to perpetuate a great wrong, it is well to inquire and investigate who was responsible for the state of things which precipitated and prolonged the crisis of 1860-1865. If the act of secession cannot be justified the Southern people will be stigmatized as a brave and rash people deluded by bad men who attempted in an illegal and wicked manner to overthrow the Union. Painfully are we conscious of the disadvantages in any effort to vindicate the motives and principles and conduct of the Southern States and secure a rehearing and re-adjudication of a suit which seems to have been settled adversely by the tribunal of public opinion. We have a right to ask of our fellow citizens and of the world a patient and fair hearing while we present anew the grounds of our action. We challenge the closest scrutiny of facts and arguments, and if they cannot be disproved and refuted, justice and honesty demand a modification or reversal of the adverse judgment. Few writers seem to comprehend the underlying idea of secession, or the reasons for the establishment of the Southern Confederacy. Swayed by passion or political and sectional animosity, they ignore the primary facts in our origin as a government, the true principles of the Constitution, the flagrant nullifications of the Northern States; and, when they philosophize, conclusions are drawn from false premises and hence injustice is done. Too often, in the endeavor to narrate the deeds of and since the war, prejudiced and vicious statements as to character and motives have been accepted and acted on as verifiable or undeniable facts.

    In deciding upon the rightness or wrongness of secession, in passing judgment upon the Confederate States, it is essential to proper conclusions that the condition of affairs in 1860 be understood and that clear and accurate notions be had of the nature and character of the Federal government and of the rights of the States under the constitutional compact. And here, at the threshold, one is confronted by dogmas which are substituted for principles, by preconceived opinions which are claimed to be historical verities, and by sentimentality which closes the avenues to the mind against logic and demonstration. To a student of our political and constitutional history it is strange how stubborn historical facts are quietly set aside and inferences and assumptions are used as postulates for huge governmental theories. These errors are studiously perpetuated, for in prescribed courses of reading in civics and history are books full of grossest misstatements teaching sectional opinions and latitudinous theories, while works which present opposite and sounder views are vigorously excluded. State rights is perhaps the best term, although not precise or definite in its signification, for suggesting the view of the Constitution and of Federal powers, as held by the Southern States. During the administration of General Washington, those who were in favor of protecting the reserved rights of the States against threatened or possible encroachment of the delegated powers assumed the name of the Republican party, but were often called the State Rights party.(*) There is no ultimate nor authoritative appeal

            (*) “In the great historic debate in the Senate in 1830, Robert Y. Hayne, of South Carolina, said that they assumed the name of Democratic Republicans in 1812. True to their political faith they have always been in favor of limitations of power, they have insisted that all powers. not delegated to the Federal government are reserved, and have been constantly struggling to preserve the fights of the States and to prevent them from being drawn into the vortex and swallowed up by one great consolidated government. As confirmatory of the statement that the South has been misrepresented and villified through ignorance, it may be said that, while school boys are familiar with Webster’s eloquent periods, few writers and politicians have read the more logical and unanswerable argument of Hayne.”

    for determining the political differences between the North and South except the Constitution, but some preliminary inquiries, answers to which will be suggestive and argumentative, may aid in understanding and interpreting that instrument.

   Our Constitution is not a mere temporary expedient. It exists in full force until changed by an explicit and authentic act, as prescribed by the instrument, and in its essential features is for all time, for it contains the fundamental principles of all good government, of all free representative institutions. Among these requisites, unalterable by changing conditions of society, are individual liberty, freedom of labor, of human development, rights of conscience, equality of the States, distribution of political powers into independent executive, legislative and judicial departments, and a careful restriction of those powers to public uses only, the healthy action of concurrent majorities, a careful safe-guarding that the power which makes the laws and the power which applies them shall not be in the same hands, and local self-government. The people are ultimately the source of all political power, and the powers delegated are in trust, alterable or terminable only in a legitimate and prescribed manner. Changes cannot be made to conform to a supposed moral sense, or to new environments, neither by the “fierce democracy,” nor by the action of a department, nor by a combination of all departments.

    To obtain a correct comprehension of the dignity and power of the States it is well to consider them as they emerged from their colonial condition, having waged a tedious and successful war against the mother country, having achieved separate independence and established a new form of government, a federal union of concurrent majorities, under a written constitution. The American colonies have not had sufficient importance ascribed to them for their agency in achieving civil and religious liberty; and, with their rights and powers as separate governments, as the potential forerunners of our constitutional, representative, federal republic. The institutions founded in this western world, in the essential elements o law and freedom, were far in advance of contemporary transatlantic institutions. The relations they sustained to one another and to the controlling English government, their large measure of local administration, must be clearly comprehended to do them justice for what they wrought out and to understand what character and power they preserved as States in the government of their creation under the Federal constitution. Their precise political condition prior to the Revolution cannot be obscured. The colonies were separate in the regulation of domestic concerns, in home affairs, but sustained a common relation to the British empire. The colonists were fellow subjects, owed allegiance to the same crown, had all the rights, privileges and liabilities of every other British subject.(*) The inhabitants of one colony owed no obedience to the laws, were not under the jurisdiction of any other colony; were under no civil obligation to bear arms or pay taxes, or in any wise to contribute to the support or defense of another, and were wholly distinct and separate from all others in political functions, in political rights, and in political duties. In so far as all the colonists were one people and had common rights, it was the result of their mutual relation to the same sovereign, of common dependence on the same head, and not any result of a relation between themselves.

            (*) Some of these principles are ably discussed by the Hon. Thomas F Bayard in an address, 7th of November, 1895, before the Edinburgh Philosophical Institution, the same paper which excited the partisan ire of the House of Representatives in 1896.

    There was neither alliance nor confederacy between the colonies.
    When hostilities between Great Britain and the colonies became imminent, because of adverse imperial legislation and the unlimited claim of the right of taxation, and united effort was obvious and imperative, to relieve themselves from the burdens and injustice of the laws and the claims of a distant government, the colonies, each acting for itself, and not conjointly with any other, sent deputies to a general congress, and when the body assembled each colony had a single vote, and on all questions of general concern they asserted and retained their equality. The Congresses of 1774, 1775 and 1776 were occasional and not permanent bodies, claimed no sovereign authority, had no true governmental powers, and seldom assumed to go beyond deliberation, advice and recommendation. When under stress of war and the danger of or impossibility of delay they acted as a de facto government, their acts were valid, had the force and effect of law only by subsequent confirmation or tacit acquiescence. The common oppressions and dangers were strong incentives to concert of action and to assent and submission to what was done for resistance to a common enemy. There never was any pretense of authority to act on individuals, and in all acts reference was had to the colonies, and never to the people, individually or as a nation.

    Virginia made a declaration on the 12th of June, 1776, renouncing her colonial dependence on Great Britain and separating herself forever from that kingdom. On the 29th of June, in the same year, she performed the highest function of independent sovereignty by adopting and ordaining a constitution, prescribing an oath of fealty and allegiance for all who might hold office under her authority, and that remained as the organic law of the Old Dominion until 1829.

    The Declaration of Independence, subsequently on the 4th of July, was an act of Congress declaring absolution of the colonies from allegiance to the crown and government of Great Britain and that they were “free and independent States.” The Congress which made this Declaration was appointed by the colonies in their separate and distinct capacity. They voted on its adoption in their separate character, each giving one vote by all its own representatives who acted in strict obedience to specific instructions from their respective colonies, and the members signed the Declaration in that way. The members had authority to act in the name of their own colony and not of any other, and were representatives only of the colony which appointed them. Judge Story, in his “Commentaries on the Constitution,” reasons upon this instrument as having the effect of making the colonies “one people,” merging their existence as separate communities into one nation. The Declaration of Independence is often quoted as an authoritative political document defining political rights and duties, as on a parity with the Constitution, and as binding parties and people and courts and States by its utterances. The platform of the Republican party in 1856 and 1860 affirms the principles of this Declaration to be essential to the preservation of our republican institutions, the Constitution and the rights of the States, when, in truth and in fact, its main and almost its sole object was to declare and justify the separation from, and the independence of, the British crown. In no sense was the paper or the act intended as a bill of rights, or to enunciate the fundamental principles of a republic, or to define the status of the colonies, except in their relation to the mother country. No true American will underrate the significance or the importance of the act of separation from a foreign empire, or hold otherwise than with the highest respect the reasons which our fathers gave in vindication of their momentous and courageous action. Refusing to be subject to the authority of the crown and the parliament was a heroic undertaking dictated by the loftiest patriotism and a genuine love of liberty. Putting into the minds and hearts of our ancestors more far reaching and prescient purposes than they possessed will not magnify their virtues nor enhance their merit. They met the issues presented with the sagacity of statesmen and were not guilty of the folly of propagandism of the French revolutionists, a few years later. The colonies being distinct and separate communities, with sovereignty vested in the British crown, when the tie which bound them to that sovereignty was severed, upon each colony respectively was devolved that sovereignty and each emerged from provincial dependence into an independent and sovereign State. A conclusive proof of the relation of the colonies to one another and to the revolutionary government is to be found in the recommendation in 1776 for the passing of laws for the punishment of treason, and it was declared that the crime should be considered as committed against the colonies individually and not against them all as united together. The joint expression of separate wills in reference to continued union with England expressed no opinion and suggested no action on the subject of a common government, or of forming a closer union. It completed the severance of the rapidly disuniting ties which bound to the government across the seas. Some of the colonies, prior to the 4th of July, had declared their independence and established State constitutions, and now all, by a more public and stronger and more effective affirmation, united in doing what had by some been separately resolved upon. Ceasing to be dependent communities involved no change in relations with one another beyond what was necessarily incident to separation from the parent country. The supremacy which had previously existed in Great Britain, separately over each colony and not jointly over all, having ceased, each became a free and independent State, taking to herself what applied to and over herself. The Declaration of Independence is not a form of government, not an enumeration of popular rights, not a compact between States, but was recognized in its fullest demands, when, in 1782, Great Britain acknowledged New Hampshire, Massachusetts, New York, South Carolina, Georgia and the other colonies to be “free, sovereign and independent States.”

    Stress is laid on the revolutionary government and on the Declaration of Independence by those who are anxious to establish the theory of a national or consolidated government, reducing the States to mere dependencies upon central power. As has been shown, the contention, derived from those sources, is without legal or historical foundation; but the temporary government, largely for war purposes, was superseded by the Articles of Confederation, which, because of the reluctance of the States to delegate their powers, did not become obligatory until 1781, as their ratification by all the States was a condition precedent to their having any binding force. These articles, in explicit terms, incapable of misinterpretation, declare that “each State retains its sovereignty, freedom and independence and every power, jurisdiction and right, which is not by this confederation expressly delegated to the United States in Congress assembled.” There can be no mistake here as to the reservation of entire freedom, entire independence, entire sovereignty. These were retained without qualification or limitation, and the use of the word “retains” is the clearest assertion that these unsurrendered prerogatives were possessed under the previous government.

    This historical review was not necessary except argumentatively as throwing light on the real facts, and as raising the strong presumption, to be rebutted only by irrefragable proof, that a state once sovereign has not voluntarily surrendered that ultimate supreme power of self-government or self-existence. While in a colonial condition the people of the several States were in no proper political sense a nation, or “one people;” by the declaration and the treaty of peace each State became a complete sovereignty within its own limits; the revolutionary government was a government of the States as such through Congress as the common agent, and by the Articles of Confederation each state expressly reserved its entire sovereignty and independence. In all this succession of history there was no trend to consolidation and the most conspicuous; feature was the jealous retention by the States of their separate sovereignty.

    Source:  Confederate Military History, Vol. 1

Abraham Lincoln and Secession

Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division
Reference Number: LC-USZC2-2354
Featured Book

William C. Harris, Lincoln’s Rise to the Presidency
(University of Kansas, 2007)

Abraham Lincoln was demonized in the South long before he took office as President in 1861. During the four-way campaign in 1860, Lincoln was demonized as a black Republican whose election would split the Union. Historian Arthur Cole wrote: “Lincoln was pictured in many quarters not only as a black Republican but ‘as an Abolitionist; a fanatic of the John Brown type; the slave to one idea, who, in order to carry that out to its legitimate results, would override laws, constitutions, and compromises of every kind’, as a Robespierre ready to overturn the whole fabric of society.”1 Historian Michael Burlingame wrote that Lincoln told a Tennessee visitor in the secession winter that “to execute the laws is all that I shall attempt to do. This, however, I will do, no matter how much force may be required.”2

Lincoln tried to avoid adding fuel to the attacks on him. During the 1860 campaign, he refrained from making any policy pronouncements – for fear they would be misconstrued in both North and South. After the election, Lincoln told one journalist: “I know the justness of my intentions and the utter groundlessness of the pretended fears of the men who are filling the country with their clamor. If I go into the presidency, they will find me as I am on record – nothing less, nothing more. My declarations have been made to the world without reservation. They have been often repeated; and now, self-respect demands of me and of the party that has elected me that when threatened, I should be silent.”3 As far back as 1856, Mr. Lincoln had told a Republican convention in Illinois: “We say to the southern disunionists, we won’t go out of the Union, and you shan’t.”4

Southern failure to abide by majority rule was at the center of the secession crisis. “We have just carried on election on principles fairly stated to the people,” Lincoln wrote to New Hampshire Senator John Hale a week before Georgia acted. “Now we are told in advance, the government shall be broken up, unless we surrender to those we have beaten, before we take the offices. In this they are either attempting to play upon us, or they are in dead earnest. Either way, if we surrender, it is the end of us, and of the government. They will repeat the experiment upon us ad libitum….There is, in my judgment, but one compromise which would really settle ths slavery question, and that would be a prohibition against acquiring any more territory.”5

Lincoln was about to be bullied by the South and many in the South were unwilling to let him be president. Historian Walter A. McDougall wrote: “If the Republican had dismissed talk of secession as bluff, so had the southern Democrats discounted the chance that the bluff would be called. It was time for everyone to sober up, but since the Republicans were too busy toasting themselves, only some southerners did.”6 Historian Michael Burlingame wrote: “A few days after the election, Charles Francis Adams viewed Southern threats to secede as a means ‘to frighten Mr. Lincoln at the outset, and to compel him to declare himself in opposition to the principles of the party that has elected him.’ Adams confessed that he awaited the president-elect’s reaction ‘with some misgivings,’ for ‘the swarms that surround Mr Lincoln are by no means the best.’”7 The game of bluff had been going for more that a decade. The Compromise of 1850 had temporarily quieted the discord. Historian William E. Gienapp wrote: “Belief in the constitutional right of secession, which a growing number of Southerners endorsed after 1846, encouraged southern politicians to resort to political blackmail. Increasingly, they engaged in a dangerous game of brinkmanship, steadily escalating their demands on the North heedless of the consequences.”8

Response to the 1860 Election

Secessionists used the Lincoln victory as an excuse to act on a decade of threats to leave the Union. William E. Gienapp wrote: “Socially the agent of aristocracy, the Slave Power politically was the proponent of minority rule. In both its social pretensions and political principles, Republicans identified the Slave Power with values utterly repugnant to northern voters’ republican ideals….Control of the nation by ‘a mere handful of Southerners,’ contended a newspaper published in southern Illinois, represented the ‘paradox of republican government, in which a minority rules the majority.’” Gienapp wrote that after Abraham Lincoln’s election in 1860, “the northern majority possessed the power to which it was entitled. Yet southerners refused to accept the popular verdict…”9 When two northerners visited Richmond in July 1864, Jefferson Davis told them: “We seceded to rid ourselves of the rule of the majority…”10 Lincoln denied that right. As Lincoln would say in his First Inaugural Address: “I hold, that in contemplation of universal law, and of the Constitution, the Union of these States is perpetual. Perpetuity is implied, if not expressed, in the fundamental law of all national governments. It is safe to assert that no government proper, ever had a provision in its organic law for its own termination. Continue to execute all the express provisions of our national Constitution and the Union will endure forever – it being impossible to destroy it, except by some action not provided for in the instrument itself.”11

During this period, Mr. Lincoln was relentlessly upbeat about the Union and skeptical of secession. Journalist William H. Smith recalled: “On two…occasions during the campaign a delegation from Indiana visited Mr. Lincoln. He impressed them with the conviction that the Union must be preserved at all hazards. There was something tangible about him which made those who called on him feel that he possessed great reserve powers, and would be able to meet any contingency which might arise. His visitors always left him in more enthusiastic mood than they were when he arrived.”12 Mr. Lincoln believed there was a danger of self-fulfilling prophecies – too much attention had been given to southern complaints in the past. He also believed that southern self-interest would prevail, telling Ohio Republican Donn Piatt: “They wont give up the offices. Were it believed that vacant places could be had at the North Pole, the road there would be lined with dead Virginians.”13 But southern slaveholders were not be appeased with patronage. Historian James A. Rawley wrote: “By 1850, the Southern states shared a history of grievances against the North ranging from territorial restriction of slavery in fact and in intent; surging anti-slavery agitation; broad sanction of John Brown’s violence; an economic posture threatening southern interests; formation of a sectional party hostile to the South’s peculiar institution; and repeated Northern defiance of the Constitution in deed, as in the personal liberty laws, and in word, as in Seward’s ‘higher law’ doctrine and the Republican Party’s denunciation of the Supreme Court’s ‘new dogma’ of the Dred Scott decision.”14

Attorney Donn Piatt spent time with Mr. Lincoln in October and November 1860. He later wrote: “Mr. Lincoln did not believe, could not be made to believe, that the South meant secession and war. When I told him, subsequently to this conversation, at a dinner-table in Chicago, where the Hon. Hannibal Hamlin, General

[Robert] Schenck, and others were guests, that the Southern people were in dead earnest, meant war, and I doubted whether he would be inaugurated at Washington, he laughed and said the fall of pork at Cincinnati had affected me. I became somewhat irritated, and told him that in ninety days the land would be whitened with tents. He said in reply, ‘Well, we won’t jump that ditch until we come to it,’ and then, after a pause, he added, ‘I must run the machine as I find it.’ I take no credit to myself for this power of prophecy. I only said what every one acquainted with the Southern people knew, and the wonder is that Mr. Lincoln should have been so blind to the coming storm.”15

Although Abraham Lincoln understood the nature of southern antipathy to him and his principles, his comprehension of southern events and attitudes was flawed. He misread the South in late 1860 and early 1861 because he used the past as a prologue to the future. Historian William E. Gienapp noted that secessionists were gambling against the North: “They had little incentive to compromise or take a broad national view of matters, or even seek northern cooperation, for they could always leave the Union if their tactics led to political disaster.”16 Historian Russell McClintock wrote “that the secession crisis…began in direct response to the outcome of a national election, specifically to the triumph of a particular party. Thus it not only represented the breakdown of constitutional government…but was also intimately tied to the structure and operation of the antebellum party system.” 17 McClintock wrote: “Struggling to reconcile a wide disparity on the contentious question of force, the Democracy tried to united on a pro-compromise position and cast their rivals as fanatical warmongers. The Republicans, who had been universally deaf to Democrats’ pleas for ‘traditional,’ secession-neutral Jackson Day resolutions just two weeks earlier, now found themselves divided on the far weightier matter of a national compromise, to the point that some feared that conservative members might bolt and join the Democrats.”18

The Republican Party was young and untested. And Lincoln needed to maintain its unity if he was going to maintain the unity of the country. Historian Edward Conrad Smith wrote: “Lincoln’s own policy apparently developed slowly during the winter. Shortly after the election he determined to give the former democratic element of the Republican party a strong representation in his cabinet, with a view to uniting the North.”19 Historian Charles W. Ramsdell wrote that “support had come from a heterogeneous mass of voters and for a variety of reasons. The slavery issue, the drive for a protective tariff and internal improvements, the promise of free homesteads in the West, and disgust at the split among the Democrats had each played its part. Many voters had been persuaded that there was no real danger of a disruption of the Union in the event of his election. The secession of the border states had now thrown the former issues into the background and thrust to the front the question whether the government should, as Lincoln phrased it, ‘enforce the laws’ and in so doing bring on war with the newly formed Confederacy.”20 Although Mr. Lincoln saw the storm clouds approaching, he misjudged the seriousness of the threat. After all, he had spent only two years in Washington and had seldom been farther south than Kentucky. Civil War scholar Bruce Catton observed: “It may be that the mounting pressure for offices, the increasing evidence that there were many among the multitudes who wanted a political victory to bring tangible political rewards, made it hard for the man in Springfield to tell the difference between a revolutionary fervor and a simple political maneuver.”21

Lincoln though his best policy was patient, quiet firmness. Journalist Henry Villard wrote: “Mr. Lincoln is above bulling and bearing. Although conservative in his intentions, and anxious to render constitutional justice to all sections of the country, he is possessed of too much nobleness and sense of duty to quail before threats and lawlessness. He knows well enough that the first step backward on his part, or that of his supporters, will be followed by a corresponding advance on the part of the cotton rebels, and he knows that for every inch yielded, a foot will be demanded.’”22 Mr. Lincoln thought silence was the best retardant for inflamed passions. He refused to make public statements that many urged him to give. In response to such a request from New York businessman George T. M. Davis, Mr. Lincoln wrote in late October 1860: “What is it I could say which would quiet alarm? Is it that no interference by the government, with slaves or slavery within the states, is intended? I have said this so often already, that a repetition of it but mockery, bearing an appearance of weakness, and cowardice, which perhaps should be avoided. Why do not uneasy men read what I have already said? and what our platform says? If they will not read, or heed, then [these?], would they read, or heed, a repetition of them? Of course the declaration that there is no intention to interfere with slaves or slavery, in the states, with all that is fairly implied in such declaration, is true; and I should have no objection to make, and repeat the declaration a thousand times, if there were danger of encouraging bold bad men to believe they are dealing with one who can be scared into anything.”23 Mr. Lincoln believed that the public statements he had made between 1854 and 1860 should be a sufficient guide to his intentions. He continued that taciturn policy as president-elect, despite great pressure to issue a public statement that would pacify the South and prevent the secession of southern states.

The president understood the dangers that any public pronouncement would entail. Shortly after the 1860 presidential election, Mr. Lincoln talked to one visitor about yielding to the worries of Southerners: “It is the trick by which the South breaks down every northern man. I would go to Washington without the support of the men who supported me and were my friends before election. I would be as powerless as a block of buckeye wood. The honest man (you are talking of honest men) will look at our platform and what I have said. There they will find everything I could now say or which they would ask me to say. All I could say would be but repetition. Having told them all these things ten times already, would they believe the eleventh declaration? Let us be practical. There are many general terms afloat, such as ‘conservatism,’ ‘enforcement of the irrepressible conflict at the point of the bayonet,’ ‘hostility to the South,’ and so forth – all of which mean nothing without definition. What then could I say to allay their fears, if they will not define what particular act or acts they fear from me or my friends?”24 Nevertheless, Lincoln tried to disseminate his position to friends. Historian Michael Burlingame wrote: “Lincoln also used journalists to broadcast his views. From November to February, Henry Villard of the New York Herald and Cincinnati Commercial reported almost daily from Springfield, often describing the opinion of “Springfield” or “the men at the capitol,’ which doubtless reflected the president-elect’s thinking.”25

An election having been held, Lincoln did not believe that it could be annulled by secession. Lincoln told visitors that “it was sometimes better for a man to pay a debt he did not owe, or to lose a demand which was a just one, than to go to law about it; but then, in compromising our difficulties, he would regret to see the victors put in the attitude of the vanquished, and the vanquished in the place of the victors. He would not contribute to any such compromise as that.”26 Lincoln’s attitude toward compromise was summed up by his law partner: “Away – off-begone! If the nation wants to back down, let it – not I.”27 The South’s persistent threats to dissolve the Union had become a fixture of American politics; those threats had not materialized, ergo, those would not materialize. In surveying southern newspapers, historian Arthur C. Cole wrote: “The election of Lincoln ‘means all the insult for the present and all the injury for the future that such an act can do’, proclaimed the Wilmington, North Carolina, Daily Journal. The Atlanta Confederacy predicted that, while Lincoln’s administration would be conservative for twenty-four months, it would insidiously be ‘coiling its slimy folds around our dearest rights and patriarchal interest’; the Montgomery Southern Confederacy proclaimed the danger that the Republicans would in four short years ‘inflict a moral sting upon slavery’ from which it would never recover. ‘The Southern States will not tamely submit to be governed by a party that declares eternal war on their constitutional rights’, announced the Raleigh Press of November 9.”28 Lincoln scholar Harry V. Jaffa wrote that “Southern opinion laid great weight upon the doctrine that secession by each state, deratifying its membership in the Union by the same procedures as had ratified it, was sanctioned by the Constitution.”29

Both sides were maneuveuring for the loyalty of southern unionists. Historian Craig L. Symonds wrote:”Lincoln’s goal had been to pursue a policy of quiet firmness in the hope of preserving the loyalty of the border states and buy time for the rebellious states to appreciate their foolishness.”30 Lincoln believed that there were influential Unionists and there were – like his friend Alexander H. Stephens of Georgia – but they were steam-rolled by more passionate secessionists, especially in the cotton South. Historian Daniel Walker Howe wrote: “After Lincoln’s election, Stephens and the handful of Unionist Democrats in Georgia found themselves together, willy-nilly, with old Whigs in trying to prevent secession. Throughout the South, wherever the Whig party remained a vital force, there opposition to secession could be effective.”31 But the ties of statehood proved greater than the tradition of nationalism for even old Whigs like Stephens, who found themselves unable to control events. Momentum favored secession. Historian William Link wrote: “Lincoln’s election…dealt a stunning blow to [southern] moderates, who feared unleashed sectional extremism. A week after the election, one moderate described a crisis that would soon bring the secession of the Lower South and the ‘awful calamity of civil war.’” Link wrote: “Most Virginia Unionists favored defending the Union only if Lincoln renounced coercion of seceding states.”32 Historian Sean Wilentz noted that “although the border-state Unionists included a large number of nonplanters – who, in places, even expressed antislavery opinions – their leaders came out of the same elite of comfortable slaveholders who dominated politics throughout the South. For these upper South gentlemen, secession, far from a necessity, looked suicidal for slavery, handing the northern Republicans the grounds for destroying the institution even where it existed. The Union, they believed, gave infinitely greater protection to slavery than some fancied and untested new confederacy….If their hostility to secession obstructed the spread of disunionism, their allegiance to the Union extended only so far as it would preserve, protect, defend, and extend the slaveholders’ democracy.”33

Mr. Lincoln had more faith in southern loyalists than events and people would justify. The President-elect was highly skeptical of the success of secession, but reluctant to talk about it and even more reluctant to change his positions. He wrote a correspondent urging him to speak out: “I am not at liberty to shift my ground – that is out of the question. If I thought a repetition would do any good I would make it. But my judgment is it would do positive harm. The secessionists, per se believing they had alarmed me, would clamor all the louder.”34 Mr. Lincoln told Ohio’s Don Piatt: “If our Southern friends are right in their claim, the framers of the Government carefully planned the rot that now threatens their work with destruction. If one State has the right to withdraw at will, certainly a majority have the right, and we have the result given us of the States being able to force out one State. That is logical.”35

Lincoln did allow occasional glimpses into his thinking in talks with Springfield visitors – comments that newspapers reported. In November, he was reported as saying: “I know the justness of my intentions and the utter groundlessness of the pretended fears of the men who are filling the country with their clamor. If I go into the presidency, they will find me as I am on record – nothing less, nothing more. My declarations have been made to the world without reservation. They have been often repeated; and now, self-respect demands of me and of the party that has elected me that when threatened, I should be silent.”36 Lincoln told some Kentuckians that southern secessionists had no special excuse for their action other than “the naked desire to go out of the Union.”37 Lincoln was not about to give them an excuse. He told a Mississippi visitor that “if the southern states concluded upon a contingent secession, that is, upon awaiting aggressive acts on the part of his administration, they would never go out of the Union.”38

In December 1860, Lincoln reportedly said: “I think, from all I can learn, that things have reached their worst point in the South, and they are likely to mend in the future. If it be true, as reported, that the South Carolinians do not intend to resist the collection of the revenue, after they ordain secession, there need be no collision with the federal government. The Union may still be maintained. The greatest inconvenience will arrive from the want of federal courts; as with the present feeling, judges, marshals, and other officers could not be obtained.”39 Mr. Lincoln tried to calm the worries of visitors to Springfield. In January 1861, he told one Pennsylvania visitor who asked him about southern secession: “I do not think they will. A number from different sections of the South pass through here daily, and all that call appear pleasant and seem to go away apparently satisfied, and if they only give me an opportunity, I will convince them that I do not wish to interfere with them in any way, but protect them in everything that they are entitled to. But if they do, the question will be and it must be settled, come what may.”40 The President-elect was very conscious of the oath he would take at his inauguration. Lincoln told a New York visitor “that he did not quite like to hear southern journals and southern speakers insisting that there must be no ‘coercion’; that while he had no disposition to coerce anybody, yet, after he had taken an oath to execute the laws, he should not care to see them violated.”41

At the end of November 1861, Mr. Lincoln launched a trial balloon in the form of language he composed for Illinois Senator Lyman Trumbull to read during a speech in Springfield at which President-Elect Lincoln would be in attendance: “I have labored in, and for, the Republican organization with entire confidence that whenever it shall be in power, each and all of the States will be left in as complete control of their own affairs respectively, and at as perfect liberty to choose, and employ, their own means of protecting property, and preserving peace and order within their respective limits, as they have ever been under any administration. Those who have voted for Mr. Lincoln, have expected, and still expect this; and they would not have voted for him had they expected otherwise. I regard it as extremely fortunate for the peace of the whole country, that this point, upon which the Republicans have been so long, and so persistently misrepresented, is now to be brought to a practical test, and placed beyond the possibility of doubt. Disunionists per se, are now in hot haste to get out of the Union, precisely because they perceive they can not, much longer, maintain apprehension among the Southern people that their homes, and firesides, and lives, are to be endangered by the action of the Federal Government. With such:”‘Now, or never’ is the maxim.” He added: “I am rather glad of this military preparation in the South. It will enable the people the more easily to suppress any uprisings there, which their misrepresentations of purposes may have encouraged.”42

Historian Maury Klein wrote that Lincoln’s words were “intended as a gesture to sooth public fears, but some northern papers denounced it as proof that Lincoln planned to abandon Republican principles, while southern editors held it up as a declaration of war on the South.”43 The incident convinced the president-elect that his best and safest posture was silence. Klein noted that Mr. Lincoln wrote New York Times editor Henry J. Raymond a few days later: “I now think we have a demonstration in favor of my view. On the 20th. inst. Senator Trumbull made a short speech which I suppose you have both seen and approved. Has a single newspaper, heretofore against us, urged that speech [upon its readers] with a purpose to quiet public anxiety? Not one, so far as I know. On the contrary the Boston Courier, and its class, hold me responsible for the speech, and endeavor to inflame the North with the belief that it foreshadows an abandonment of Republican ground by the incoming administration; while the Washington Constitution, and its class hold the same speech up to the South as an open declaration of war against them.” Mr. Lincoln continued: “This is just as I expected, and just what would happen with any declaration I could make. These political fiends are not half sick enough yet. ‘Party malice’ and not ‘public good’ possesses them entirely. ‘They seek a sign, and no sign shall be given them.’ At least such is my present feeling and purpose.”44

President-elect Lincoln’s Silence

Mr. Lincoln’s maintained his policy of self-imposed silence, writing one Connecticut correspondent who urged him to speak out: “I could say nothing which I have not already said, and which is in print, and open for the inspection of all. To press a repetition of this upon those who have listened, is useless; to press it upon those who have refused to listen, and still refuse, would be wanting in self-respect, and would have an appearance of sycophancy and timidity, which would excite the contempt of good men, and encourage bad ones to clamor the more loudly.”45 Historian Susan-Mary Grant wrote: “Although in his private correspondence his shock at events was palpable, his public utterances tended to downplay the seriousness of the situation, especially in those speeches he made en route to Washington for his inauguration.”46

Mr. Lincoln’s thinking on December 13,1861 was reported by his secretary: “The very existence of a general and national government implies the legal (power), right and duty of maintaining its own integrity. This, if not expressed, is at least implied in the Constitution. The right of a state to secede is not an open or debatable question. It was fully discussed in Jackson’s time and denied not only by him, but by the vote of Congress. It is the duty of a president to execute the laws and maintain the existing government. He cannot entertain any proposition for dissolution or dismemberment. He was not elected for any such purpose. As a matter of theoretical speculation it is probably true that if the people, with whom the whole question rests, should become tired of the present government, they might change it in the manner prescribed by the Constitution.”47

Optimism, discipline and rejection of any compromise on extension of slavery were the tools Mr. Lincoln brandished. Still, historian Albert D. Kirwan wrote that Lincoln “apparently thought that the average southerner could distinguish between Lincoln’s own philosophy on the slavery question and that of abolitionists like William Lloyd Garrison….He also seemed to think that secession was largely talk on the part of a few hotheads, and would be easily put down by an overwhelming Unionist sentiment in the South. The Upper South he believed so steadfast that there was patently no danger of secession there. If there were, the border states would smother the sentiment.”48 President-elect Lincoln continued to believe disciplined silence was his best policy as he prepared to leave Springfield for Washington in early February. Secretaries John G. Nicolay and John Hay wrote: “Now that secession was proclaimed in every Cotton State, his simple logic rose about minor considerations to the peril and the protection of the nation, to the assault on and the defense of the Constitution. He saw but the ominous cloud of civil war in front, and the patriotic faith and enthusiasm of the people behind.”49 Historian Kenneth M. Stampp wrote: “Lincoln’s reaction to the secession movement during the weeks before he left Springfield was revealed only in fragments, in fleeting glimpses through the screen which generally concealed his thoughts. Several times he exposed himself a little by sending advice in private letters to Republican leaders, or by suddenly blurting out some significant observation while conversing with friends. On rare occasions a newspaper reporter would elicit an incisive comment from him.” These glimpses according to Stampp, revealed that Mr. Lincoln “shared or merely reflected the views of most Northerners, for he was being guided by and not controlling public opinion. Always he was careful to keep abreast of popular currents by listening to reports from his many visitors and by watching the trends in the northern press.”50

Historian Edward Conrad Smith wrote that Lincoln “was extremely careful to make no statement in advance of his assuming the reins of the government that could be construed by the secessionists to their advantage.” Smith wrote: “There is nothing in the published writings of Lincoln which manifests the slightest wavering on the question of maintaining the Union. Everything he wrote indicates that he had a positive policy, even to the extent of going to war as a last resort.”51 Lincoln wrote one southern editor: “Please pardon me for suggestion that if the papers, like yours, which heretofore have persistently garbled, and misrepresented what I have said, will now fully and fairly place it before their readers, there can be no further misunderstanding.”52Historian Michael Burlingame wrote: “Lincoln’s unwillingness to make a public declaration may have been a mistake. Such a document might have allayed fears in the Upper South and Border States and predisposed them to remain in the Union when hostilities broke out. But it might also have wrecked the Republican coalition and doomed his administration to failure before it began.”53

Attempts at Compromise

Lincoln needed to deal with both the public and the private turmoil in the nation. The anxiety was particularly acute in Washington. “The second session of the Thirty-seventh Congress convened on the first Monday of December, 1860. The Senators and Representatives of the rebellious States were no longer with us. The rumblings of treason, deep and significant, were everywhere heard. What was to be the outcome no one could tell,” recalled Illinois Congressman Elihu B. Washburne. “The loyal members of both Senate and House were closely organized to concert measures to meet the appalling emergencies that confronted them. It was determined that each House should appoint one of its members to form a committee to watch the current of events and discover as far as possible the intentions of the rebels. The committee of ‘Public Safety,’ as it might be called, was a small one, only two members, Governor [James] Grimes, the Senator from Iowa, on the part of the Senate, and myself on the part of the House. Clothed with full powers, we at once put ourselves in communications with General Scott, the head of the army, with headquarters at Washington, and Chief of Police [John] Kennedy, of New York City, a loyal and true man…He at once sent us some of his most skillful and trusted detectives; and earnestly, loyally, and courageously they went to work to unravel the plots and schemes set on foot to destroy us.”54

Mr. Lincoln counseled Republican members of Congress against any compromise which would undermine the principles and platform of the Republican party. In mid-December 1860, President-elect Lincoln wrote Illinois Congressman William Kellogg to “entertain no proposition for a compromise in regard to the extension of slavery – that if this were done – the work achieved by the late election would all have to be done over again.”55 The president-elect’s unwillingness to compromise pleased many Republicans but annoyed others. Compromise would have been difficult regardless of Lincoln’s position against extension of slavery in the West. “Unwillingness by Republicans and Breckinridge Democrats to yield on the territorial question, ten years of sectional stress, miscalculation on both sides, all this made compromise a formidable undertaking,” wrote historian James A. Rawley.56

Compromise, Lincoln understood, was a slippery slope. In early 1861, Lincoln told a visitor: “By no act or complicity of mine shall the Republican party become a mere sucked egg, all shell or no principle in it.”57 Lincoln Scholar Harold Holzer wrote: “Lincoln described the situation more succinctly than any of his self-appointed advisors. Assuring his visitor that ‘he looks with contempt on the whole pack of compromisers,’ he bluntly declared that ‘he did not wish to pay for being inaugurated.’”58 Historian Michael Burlingame wrote: “Lincoln’s firmness was rooted in a profound self-respect that forbade knuckling under to what he perceived as extortionate bullying.”59 Lincoln wrote William H. Seward in late January: “I say now…as I have all the while said, that on the territorial question – that is, the question of extending slavery under the national auspices, – I am inflexible. I am for no compromise which assists or permits the extension of the institution on soil owned by the nation.”60 On the other hand wrote historian Russell McClintock, “Lincoln’s chief means of encouraging Southern unionism lay in giving his future secretary of state [Seward] free rein in Washington – to a point.”61 Historian Michael Burlingame wrote: “Dominating Congress that winter, Seward maneuvered desperately to keep the Union from breaking apart before Lincoln’s inauguration. The senator viewed himself as a well-informed realist who must somehow save the nation from fire-eaters in the Deep South and naive stiff-back Republicans like Lincoln who failed to understand the gravity of the crisis.”62

Mr. Lincoln understood that the national situation was deteriorating and that President James Buchanan was doing little to halt the country’s dissolution: “Every hour adds to the difficulties I am called upon to meet, and the present administration does nothing to check the tendency toward dissolution. I, who have been called to meet this awful responsibility, am compelled to remain here, doing nothing to avert it or lessen its force when it comes to.”63 Nevertheless, President-elect Lincoln did not want to rush to Washington, telling a reporter: “I don’t want to go before the middle of February, because I expect they will drive me insane after I get there, and I want to keep tolerably sane, at least until after inauguration.”64 Lincoln Scholar Harold Holzer wrote: “Discarding his longtime Whiggish belief in congressional supremacy, Lincoln forcefully interjected himself into the congressional debate….he made his views clear in a series of remarkably tough letters to key allies on Capitol Hill, which he knew would be widely shared with other Republicans.”65

Facing secession, Mr. Lincoln did not want a strictly northern administration but neither did he want to abandon his principles in search of southern cabinet members. In most states of the South he hadn’t even appeared as a ballot option for voters in 1860. His circle of southern political acquaintances was small. Historian Arthur Cole wrote that “Lincoln was anxious to give Southerners adequate consideration for appointments under the new régime. He was willing to give at least one Southerner who had opposed his election a place in the cabinet, and, as he informed Seward, he preferred one who had a bona fide ‘living position in the South’ to one from the border states or one who had a record of long service in Washington. He tendered a cabinet appointment to John A. Gilmer, of North Carolina, in whom he placed considerable confidence as a Union man.”66 Historian Nelson D. Lankford described John Gilmer: “A bluff, powerfully built congressman from Greensboro, North Carolina, he had a round face, a kindly smile, and an appealing ability as a speaker to captivate his listeners, even bring them to tears.”67 Gilmer, however, was not interested in a Cabinet appointment and Mr. Lincoln was not interested in appointing a southerner who did not share his views.

Albany editor Thurlow Weed, who favored conciliation, recalled “that Mr. Lincoln made me the bearer of his letter to Mr. Gilmer, with which I repaired to Washington. It being an open letter, Mr. Gilmer, after reading it attentively, entered into a frank conversation with me upon the subject which was exciting profound interest and anxiety in and out of Congress. He said that he entirely approved of the views of Mr. Lincoln on that question, and that he was gratified with the confidence reposed in him; but that before replying to it he deemed it proper to confer with members of Congress from Southern States, who, like himself, were opposed to secession. Soon afterward the ‘Border State proposition’ was rejected by the House of Representatives. Under these circumstances, hopeless of keeping North Carolina in the Union, Mr. Gilmer declined the offer of a seat of a seat in the cabinet.”68 In mid-December 1860, an editorial appeared in the Illinois State Journal, which has been attributed to Mr. Lincoln:

    “We see such frequent allusion to a supposed purpose on the part of Mr. Lincoln to call into his cabinet two or three Southern gentlemen, from the parties opposed to him politically, that we are prompted to ask a few question.”
    “First. Is it known that any such gentleman of character, would accept a place in the cabinet?”
    “Second. If yes, on what terms? Does he surrender to Mr. Lincoln, or Mr. Lincoln to him, on the political difference between them? Or do they enter upon the administration in open opposition to each other?”69

The southerner to whom Mr. Lincoln had the greatest affinity was Georgian Alexander H. Stephens, an old Whig congressional colleague who would become the Confederacy’s vice president in February 1861. After requesting a copy of a Stephens speech against secession delivered in early November 1860, Lincoln sought to reassure Stephens: “Do the people of the South really entertain fears that a Republican administration would, directly, or indirectly, interfere with their slaves, or with them, about their slaves? If they do, I wish to assure you, as once a friend, and still, I hope, not an enemy, that there is no cause for such fears. The South would be no more danger in this respect, than it was in the days of Washington. I suppose, however, this does not meet the case. You think slavery is right and ought to be extended; while we think it is wrong and ought to be restricted. That I suppose is the rub. It certainly is the only substantial difference between us.”70 On December 20, South Carolina seceded. It was soon joined by Alabama, Florida, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, South Carolina and Texas.

Representatives of the new “Confederate” states convened in Montgomery, Alabama on February 4, 1861 and inaugurated Jefferson Davis as president on February 18. When New York Republican leader Thurlow Weed visited Mr. Lincoln in late December, the President-elect told him: “I believe you can pretend to find but little, if any thing, in my speeches, about secession; but my opinion is that no state can, in any way lawfully, get out of the Union, without the consent of the others; and that it is the duty of the President, and other government functionaries, to run the machine as it is.”71 But, noted historian Bruce Catton, the South was right to be worried about Lincoln’s election because “the mere existence of a Federal administration hostile to slavery spelled eventual doom for the institution even though the doom might be delayed for a great many years.”72

Historian David M. Potter wrote that “it would be hazardous to conclude that a better understanding of the southern temper would have made him and certain other members of his party more amenable to compromise. Lincoln himself had predicted in 1858 that the sectional conflict would not subside until a crisis was ‘reached and passed.’ When the crisis actually arrived, he showed no disposition to back off. ‘The tug has to come,’ he declared, ‘and better now, than any time hereafter.’”73 Virginia Unionist John Minor Botts recalled being told in early April 1861: “Botts, I have always been an Old-line Henry-Clay Whig, and if your Southern people will let me alone, I will administer this government as nearly upon the principles that he would have administered it as it is possible for one man to follow in the path of another.”74

Mr. Lincoln was not completely out of touch with moderate southern opinion, but he did underestimate radical secessionists who out-maneuvered the unionists. “There is some justification for Lincoln’s optimism, even in retrospect, given the narrow margins by which secessionists triumphed in most states in the South,” wrote historian Potter. “But the election returns, so far as they can be analyzed, show that in a number of states the results were remarkably close.”75 Historian Michael Burlingame wrote: “Lincoln’s optimism rested not only on the information derived from visitors and newspapers but also on his interpretation of the election results.” 76 Historian Stephen B. Oates argued: “With the border states also threatening to secede, Lincoln seemed confused, incredulous, at what was happening to his country. He seemed not to understand how he appeared in southern eyes….He could not accept the possibility that his election to the presidency might cause the collapse of the very system which had enabled him to get there.”77 Meanwhile, Southern extremists exaggerated the threat that Lincoln’s election posed to their slaveholding society. Historian James M. McPherson noted: “Many Southerners feared not only Black Republicanism but “red” Republicanism as well. Proud of their stable, conservative social order, they viewed the Republican party as a political embodiment of all the ‘isms’ that afflicted Northern society.”78

Kentuckian Duff Green came to visit Mr. Lincoln in late December 1860. He reported to President James Buchanan that President-elect Lincoln “said that the real question at issue between the North and the South, was Slavery ‘propagandism’ and that upon that issue the republican party was opposed to the South and that he was with his own party; that he had been elected by that party and intended to sustain his party in good faith, but added that the question of the Amendments to the Constitution and the questions submitted by Mr. Crittenden, belonged to the people and States in legislatures or Conventions and that he would be inclined not only to acquiesce, but give full force and effect to their will thus expressed….”79 Historian David E. Woodward wrote that “The letter serves as an excellent example of the charged antebellum political environment, and its elusive journey demonstrates how difficult it was for Lincoln to make any statement or comment before his inauguration.”80 Earl Schencks Miers noted: “The visit to Springfield of Buchanan’s personal emissary, Duff Green, was so closely guarded that there was no immediate notice of it in the press. Again Mr. Lincoln called on Trumbull to guard his interest, enclosing a copy of a letter to Green.”81

The coming conflict was felt by Lincoln’s family. The day after Christmas, Joseph Gillespie asked the Lincoln boys what Santa Claus had brought them. Robert replied: “Papa received a Christmas gift in a letter.” Mr. Lincoln added: “[O]h, yes, Gillespie, I forgot to tell you that some kind friend in South Carolina sent me a printed copy of the ordinance they adopted a few days before Christmas, and I was telling Bob here…that it must have been intended for a Christmas gift.” Gillespie recalled: “I was silent, for I could see that he had been endeavoring to keep from his son a knowledge of his father’s danger, and that he sought to give the deed of a most malignant enemy the guise of a friendly act.”82 During this period resident-elect Lincoln even worried about the loyalty of Egypt, as southern Illinois was known. Lawyer Henry C. Whitney wrote: “I did a considerable ‘fetching and carrying’ for Mr. Lincoln during that gloomy winter; and as he was anxious to know definitely the conditions of politics in Egypt, I started from Chicago, on the night of December 23, 1860; and, ostensibly as a commercial traveler, commenced my researches at noon the next day at Lawrenceville.” Whitney concluded that southern Illinois was safe for the Union.83

Lincoln had to balance both pro-compromise and anti-compromise factions of the Republican Party. Historian Arthur Cole noted: “Following the election an even more conservative trend set in. Lincoln felt its pressure from the ranks of his own party as he made preparations to assume the reins of office. The New York Herald of December 4, 1860 rejoiced in the evidence that Republican leaders were ‘ready now for terms of compromise with the South, which every Republican a month ago would have scouted as degrading to the most servile Northern doughface’….Lincoln stood firmly against compromise on slavery extension; on the other hand, at a time when leaders of his party were trying to effect the admission of New Mexico as a free state, he did not ‘care much about New Mexico, if further extension were hedged against.’”84

Republicans had a diversity of opinions – depending on how high a priority they placed on the Union, slavery and business interests. Historian Daniel J. Ryan wrote: “If the general citizenship had knowledge of what Lincoln’s mental attitude…they would have been satisfied, but its publicity would have been disastrous. From his vantage ground at Springfield he was in full touch with the situation, which called for the exercise of the greatest wisdom as well as caution. Under the threats of secession he saw the influence of [Horace] Greeley’s appeal spreading through the North. It found a willing lodgment in two classes of his own party: the commercial element and pro-abolition Republicans. The former feared war, as destructive to trade and credits…The motive of the latter was hatred of slavery, which was stronger in their minds than love for the Union.”85 Northern businessmen worried about the loss of their profitable southern trade. David M. Potter wrote that “one may fairly infer that the Northern publicists who, for a brief time, bespoke the cause of voluntary dissolution, advocated it only as an alternative to compromise and not as a principle of action. When the choice lay between dissolution and war, all accepted armed conflict; some welcomed it.”86

Still, Mr. Lincoln remained optimistic, probably excessively so. A reporter for the Philadelphia Evening Bulletin met with President-elect Lincoln in late December 1860 at the Illinois State House. “At length one of the party [of the reporter’s friends] asked him if he had any news from the South. ‘No,’ he replied; ‘I have not yet read the dispatches of the morning papers. But,’ he added, ‘I think, from all I can learn, that things have reached their worst point in the South, and they are likely to mend in the future. If it be true, as reported, that the South Carolinians do not intend to resist the collection of the revenue, after they ordain secession, there need be no collision with the Federal Government. The Union may still be maintained. The greatest inconvenience will arise from the want of Federal courts; as with the present feeling, judges, marshals, and other officers could not be obtained.’ On this point Mr. Lincoln spoke at some length, regretting its difficulty, but adding that his mind was made up as to how it should be overcome. His tone and language were moderate, good-humored and friendly towards the South.”

He then went on to speak of the charges made by the South against the North, remarking that they were so indefinite that they could not be regarded as sound. If they were well defined they could be fairly and successfully met. But they are so vague that they cannot be long maintained by reasoning men even in the Southern States. Afterwards he spoke of the course pursued by certain Republican newspapers at the North, which I need not name, in replying to the threats of secession from Southern States, by saying, ‘Let them secede; we do not want them.’ This tone, he remarked, was having a bad effect in some of the border States, especially in Missouri, where there was danger that it might alienate some of the best friends of the cause, if it were persisted in. In Missouri and some other States, where Republicanism has just begun to grow, and where there is still a strong Pro-Slavery party to contend with, there can be no advantage in taunting and bantering the South.”87

Among the newspapers to which the New York Times referred was the New York Tribune, whose erratic editor Horace Greeley wanted to “let the erring sisters go in peace.”88 Northerners were not united against secession, noted historian Edward Lillie Pierce: “Greeley, appalled with the prospect of civil war with an uncertain issue,…treated secession as a revolutionary right, and discountenanced coercive measures for keeping the seceding States in the Union. Wendell Phillips, in a passionate harangue, affirmed the right of the slave States, ‘upon the principles of 1776,’ to decide the question of a separate government for themselves. Thurlow Weed, on the other hand, contemporaneously with Greeley’s prompt declaration, proposed to reach a peaceful issue in another way, – by acceding to the substance of the claims of the seceders.”89

President-elect Lincoln unhappily viewed the actions and inaction of Congress and the Buchanan Administration in Washington. After he won the 1860 election, President-elect Lincoln told fellow lawyer Joseph Gillespie: “Joe, I suppose you will never forget that trial down in Montgomery County, where the lawyer associated with you gave the whole case in his opening speech? I saw you signaling to him, but you couldn’t stop him. Now, that’s just the way with me and [President James] Buchanan. He is giving away the case, and I have nothing to say, and can’t stop him.”90 Another attorney, Henry Clay Whitney, indicated the pressure Mr. Lincoln was under. Whitney wrote: “Lincoln’s best friends besought him to quiet the public apprehension by saying – something. One of the most popular and honored men in Illinois – Joseph Gillespie – beseeched him, in the name of their old ‘Whig’ intimacy, to issue an address, setting forth pacific views, and upon Lincoln declining, burst forth in a flood of tears. Yet Lincoln was neither unadvised, nor insensible to the situation and its needs, as I happen in more than one way to know.”91

Mr. Lincoln counseled Republican members of Congress against any compromise which would undermine the principles and platform of the Republican party. In mid-December President-elect Lincoln wrote Illinois Congressman William Kellogg to “entertain no proposition for a compromise in regard to the extension of slavery – that if this were done – the work achieved by the late election would all have to be done over again.”92 His unwillingness to compromise pleased many Republicans but annoyed others.

Mr. Lincoln was naturally cautious, but especially so when where secession was concerned and he was unwilling to commit himself to a definitive course of action. Lincoln chronicler Melvin L. Hayes wrote: “Even aside from political expediency, Lincoln had a watch-and-wait attitude toward the divisive questions of the day. He liked to tell about the time during his service as a circuit lawyer, when he stopped at an inn in a torrential rain. He and other attorneys were glad to find a Methodist presiding elder there too, for he was familiar with the treacherous Fox River, which lay ahead. When asked about the stream, the clergyman said he had crossed it often and understood it well, ‘but I have one fixed rule regarding the Fox River: I never cross it till I reach it.’”93 Historian David E. Woodward wrote: “A number of people traveled to Springfield, Illinois, attempting to draw opinions from Lincoln. The historical record shows that he revealed few details during those four months. Lincoln remarked, “I could say nothing which I have not already said, and which is in print and accessible to the public.’ He wished neither to articulate unrealistic solutions nor hinder ongoing negotiations.’”94

On January 11, 1861, President-elect Lincoln wrote Pennsylvania Congressman James Hale: “Yours of the 6th is received. I answer it only because I fear you would misconstrue my silence. What is our present condition? We have just carried an election on principles fairly stated to the people. Now we are told in advance the Government shall be broken up unless we surrender to those we have beaten, before we take the offices. In this they are either attempting to play upon us or they are in dead earnest. Either way, if we surrender, it is the end of us and of the Government. They will repeat the experiment upon us ad libitum. A year will not pass till we shall have to take Cuba as a condition upon which they will stay in the Union. They now have the Constitution under which we have lived over seventy years, and acts of Congress of their own framing, with no prospect of their being changed; and they can never have a more shallow pretext for breaking up the Government, or extorting a compromise, than now. There is in my judgment but one compromise which would really settle the slavery question, and that would be a prohibition against acquiring any more territory.”95

The future president of the Confederacy had a different, even more belligerent attitude. On January 13, Mississippi Senator Jefferson Davis wrote the governor of South Carolina: “We are probably soon to be involved in that fiercest of human strife, a civil war. The temper of the Black Republicans is not to give us our rights in the Union or allow us to go peaceably out of it. If we had no other cause, this would be enough to justify secession at whatever hazard.”96 At the same time, a Texas correspondent for the New York Herald reported: “I do not know that I can find language sufficiently strong to express to you the unanimity and intensity of the feeling in this region in opposition to the perpetuation of the Union under the rule of President Lincoln and a black Republican administration.”97

Compromise Ruled Out

About a week later, Mr. Lincoln was quoted as saying: “I will suffer death before I will consent or will advise my friends to consent to any concession or compromise which looks like buying the privilege of taking possession of this government to which we have a constitutional right; because, whatever I might think of the merit of the various propositions before Congress, I should regard any concession in the face of menace the destruction of the government itself, and a consent on all hands that our systems shall be brought down to a level with the existing disorganized state of affairs in Mexico. But this thing will hereafter be as it is now, in the hands of the people; and if they desire to call a Convention to remove any grievances complained of, or to give new guarantees for the permanence of vested rights, it is not mine to oppose.” 98 Not all Republicans agreed with him. Historian Russell McClintock wrote that Republican “moderates disagreed over whether the unionist backlash could occur without Republican assistance. Some, like Seward and John Sherman, joined conservatives in the belief that Republican intransigence was crippling the Southern unionist effort; others, including Lincoln and Trumbull, agreed with the radicals that concessions would encourage secessionism and destroy the Republican Party.”99

In Mr. Lincoln’s view, southern secessionists rejected the fundamental basis of democracy. Historian Michael F. Holt wrote: “Without question, the most persistent theme in secessionist rhetoric was not the danger of the abolition of restriction of black slavery, but the infamy and degradation of submitting to the rule of a Republican majority.” Holt noted that “secessionist rhetoric had much less resonance among the residents of the upper South, and they rejected the demands to join their sister states to the south. They did not perceive Lincoln’s victory as the end of republicanism, but as the product of its normal workings.” Holt argued that “while residents of the upper South were as emphatically opposed to Republican programs as other Southerners, they had much more confidence that the new administration could be checked by Congress and vanquished at future elections when their majorities would fade away.”100

While white northern and southern politicians were deliberating – and seceding, slaves were also evaluating the changed political landscape and southerners were frightened. Historian William A. Link wrote: “Abraham Lincoln’s election pushed the struggle between slaves and slaveholders to a new level of intensity. Convinced that invaders were conspiring to foster insurrection, masters feared that outside forces were undermining their social system. Slaves challenging masters was nothing new; for many generations, bondspeople had opposed master’s authority. What was different about the rush of events after November 1860 was how the collapsing national political system aroused slaves to new opportunities and challenged and excited slaveholders’ sensibilities about the instability of the political-constitutional system. Secession represented a logical measure of self-protection that flowed directly from deteriorating master-slave relationships, increased slave restiveness, and the possibility of northern intervention. The same was true across much of the Deep South during late 1860 and early 1861.”101

Lincoln’s tools to handle the situation were limited. He had no executive experience, no experience in the Cabinet and only a single term as a member of Congress. He was a demon in the South and a question mark in the North. Historian Kenneth M. Stamp wrote: “It took a deep faith in the talents of the ‘citizen class of people’ to nourish even the hope that Lincoln might be able to cope with the national crisis. The new President could not rely upon his national prestige, for he had little of that….Nor could he capitalize upon the experience gathered from long participation in national politics, for that too was lacking.” Stampp noted: “His strength could come from nowhere but within himself: from his native shrewdness, his instinctive feeling for trends in public opinion, above all, from his capacity for growth. The secession movement tested the sufficiency of these qualities and gave him his first real training in statecraft.”102

President-elect Lincoln understood that he must show his mettle. He would not compromise on the key issue of the expansion of slavery into the territories. “Let there be no compromise on the question of extending slavery. If there be, all our labor is lost, and ere long, must be done again,” wrote President-elect Lincoln to Senator Trumbull. “Have none of it. Stand firm. The tug has to come, and better now than any time hereafter.”103 Mr. Lincoln held firm in all his letters to congressional allies. President-elect Lincoln wrote to Illinois Congressman Elihu B. Washburne on December 13, 1860: “Prevent as far as possible any of our friends from demoralizing themselves and our cause by entertaining propositions for compromise of any sort on slavery extension. There is no possible compromise upon it, but which puts us under again, and all our work to do over again. Whether it be a Missouri line or Eli Thayer’s Popular Sovereignty, it is all the same. Let either be done, and immediately filibustering and extending slavery recommences. On that point hold firm as a chain of steel.”104

Attempted Compromise in Congress

Many Republicans were worried. In the Senate and the House, committees were appointed to seek an agreeable compromise. Lincoln chronicler Frank van der Linden wrote: “The dimming prospects for congressional action in the secession crisis depressed Representative Tom Corwin the Ohio Republican who headed the House Committee of Thirty-three. Corwin hated war…After weeks of wrangling in his committee the gloomy chairman told Lincoln in a confidential letter: ‘If the states are no more harmonious in their feelings and opinions than these thirty-three Representative men, then appalling as the idea is, we must dissolve, and a long and bloody civil war must follow.”105 In mid-January letter, Corwin reported to Lincoln: “I have been for thirty days in a Committee of Thirty-Three. If the States are no more harmonious in their feelings and opinions than these thirty-three representative men, then, appalling as the idea is, we must dissolve, and a long and bloody civil war must follow. I cannot comprehend the madness of the times. Southern men are theoretically crazy. Extreme Northern men are practical fools. The latter are really quite as mad as the former. Treason is in the air around us everywhere. It goes by the name of patriotism. Men in Congress boldly avow it, and the public offices are full of acknowledged secessionists. God alone, I fear, can help us. Four or five States are gone, others are driving before the gale. I have looked on this horrid picture till I have been able to gaze on it with perfect calmness. I think, if you live, you may take the oath.”106

Lincoln conferred on January 19-21 with Illinois Congressman William Kellogg, who served on the House Committee of Thirty-three. Like Corwin had in December, Kellogg urged Lincoln to come to Washington to reach a congressional compromise, but a newspaper report subsequently quoted Lincoln as declaring: “I will suffer death before I will consent or will advise my friends to consent to any concession or compromise which looks like buying the privilege of taking possession of this government to which we have a constitutional right…”107

Beginning in 1854 when he spoke out forcefully against the Kansas-Nebraska Act, Lincoln had been a consistent opponent of any expansion of slavery in the territories. Historian William B. Hesseltine wrote: “Lincoln’s refusal to entertain a compromise and his willingness to furnish a rallying cry, privately expressed though they were, indicated his growing strength. Less than six weeks after election day he had begun to take a grip upon the party. In a sense his strength was only relative: he was less muddled than the Republican congressmen. In part, his growing power resulted from his skillful handling of the patronage. After listening carefully to the hordes of visitors who streamed into Springfield, he had begun wisely to select his cabinet from the sundry elements of his chaotic party.”108 Historian James M. McPherson wrote that “on the matters of slavery where it already existed and enforcement of the fugitive slave provision of the Constitution, Lincoln was willing to reassure the South. But on the crucial issue of 1860, slavery in the territories, he refused to compromise, and this refusal kept his party in line. Seward, or any other man who might conceivably have been elected president in 1860, would have pursued a different course.” McPherson noted: “He refused to yield the core of his antislavery philosophy to say the break up of the Union.”109

Under conditions of mutual suspicion, it was difficult to achieve any meaningful compromise, especially between political extremes in the North and South. Historian David M. Potter wrote: “It is one of the misfortunes of the literature of vindication, by both Northern and Southern apologists, that it has overemphasized these tactical maneuvers in Congress. Far more significant than all the disputed by-play of congressional manipulation is the undisputed fact that no compromise was tendered by one section, or requested by the other. This was true, in one case, because the leaders who might have made such a tender preferred to adhere to the Chicago Platform; and, in the other case, because the leaders who might have made such a request preferred to invoke secession. Yet in neither instance is there any convincing evidence that the policies adopted were the policies desired by the ordinary men and women who had to bear the consequences.”110 President-elect Lincoln, however, believed he was pledged to the content of the Republican National Platform adopted at Chicago and he was unwilling to abandon that pledge.

Lincoln did not seek conflict, but nor could he shrink from it. South Carolina triggered the conflict that most sought to avoid. The state and its secessionist citizenry were the bully whom no one took seriously until they led the Deep South out of the Union. Arthur Cole wrote: “Southern champions were defending an agrarian civilization against the encroachment of a Northern industrialism, which harbored the menace of a pure democracy against the landed aristocracy which they were building up…These champions found the non-slaveholders unresponsive to their appeals against Northern economic oppression; they had reason, too, to be fearful of arousing the class consciousness of a yeomanry whose coöperation was essential to the maintenance of prevailing institutions.”111

Lincoln and the Constitution

Against these secessionist forces, Mr. Lincoln saw the Constitution as inviolable.

Historian Don E. Fehrenbacher noted: “Lincoln believed that the power needed to meet the secession crisis had been provided by the Constitution and vested primarily in the president. He cited the commander-in-chief clause, the clause requiring him to ‘take care that the laws be faithfully executed,’ and his presidential oath – ‘registered in heaven,’ as he put it – to ‘preserve, protect and defend the Constitution of the United States.”112 Historian Herman Belz wrote: “Considered as a matter of practical constitutional reason, a consensus existed that no right of secession existed. Much as theorists of state sovereignty might speculate otherwise, political men understood that secession, if actually undertaken, would require violation of national law and present itself as unlawful rebellion. The Union was…the sovereign government of the nation, constitutionally authorized to legislate for individuals, compel obedience, command loyalty, and punish the crime of treason.”113 Lincoln contended in a draft of his First Inaugural: ‘Plainly, the central idea of secession, is the essence of anarchy. A constitutional majority is the only true sovereign of a people. Whoever rejects it, does, of necessity, fly to anarchy or to despotism. Unanimity is impossible; the rule of a minority, as a permanent arrangement, is wholly inadmissable; so that, rejecting the majority principle, anarchy or despotism is all that is left.”114

During this period, Northerners frequently were the victims of their own wishful thinking regarding secession. According to John Nicolay, “On the part of the North, also, there had been grave misapprehension of the actual state of Southern opinion. For ten years the Southern threats of disunion had been empty bluster. The half-disclosed conspiracy of 1856 did not seem to extend beyond a few notorious agitators. The more serious revolutionary signs of the last three months – the retirement of Southern members of Congress, the secession of States, the seizure of federal forts and the formation of the Montgomery provisional government – were not realized in their full force by the North, because of the general confusion of politics, the rush and hurry of events, the delusive hopes of compromise held out by Congressional committees and factions, and the high-sounding professions of the Washington peace conference.”115 This conference was ill-intentioned but toothless affair that convened in Washington in early February without delegates from much of the South and some northern states. Historian Stephen B. Oates noted that “Lincoln…refused to endorse the Washington Peace Convention. He didn’t even want Illinois to send delegates.”116

On February 9, 1861, Lincoln met for an hour in Springfield with an old friend. Quincy attorney Orville H. Browning reported in his diary: “We discussed the state of the Country expressing our opinions fully and freely. He agreed entirely with me in believing that no good results would follow the border State Convention now in session in Washington, but evil rather, as increased excitement would follow when it broke up without having accomplished any thing. He agreed it broke up without having accomplished any thing. He agreed with me no concession by the free States short of a surrender of every thing worth preserving, and contending for would satisfy the South, and that Crittendens proposed amendment to the Constitution in the form proposed ought not to be made, and he agreed with me that far less evil & bloodshed would result from an effort to maintain the Union and the Constitution, than from disruption and the formation of two confederacies.”117 Preserving the Union and the Constitution were Lincoln’s priorities. When Pennsylvania Governor-elect Andrew Curtin wrote Mr. Lincoln for advice on his inaugural, Mr. Lincoln wrote back: “I think you would do well to express, without passion, threat, or appearance of boasting, but nevertheless, with firmness, the purpose of yourself, and your state to maintain the union at all hazards. Also if you can, procure the Legislature to pass resolutions to that effect.”118

Mr. Lincoln maintained his disciplined public silence on how he would handle the crisis even as he traveled from Springfield to Washington in February. The necessity of not making news was wearing on President-elect Lincoln, who told Ward Hill Lamon “he had done much hard work in his life, but to make speeches day after day, with the object of speaking and saying nothing, was the hardest work he ever had done.”119 Lamon wrote that until March, “Mr. Lincoln had been slow to realize or acknowledge, even to himself, the awful gravity of the situation, and the danger that the gathering clouds portended. Certain it is that Mr. Seward wildly underrated the courage and determination of the Southern people, and both men indulged the hope that pacific means might yet be employed to arrest the tide of passion and render a resort to force unnecessary. Mr. Seward was inclined…to credit the Southern leaders with a lavish supply of noisy bravado, quite overlooking the dogged pertinacity and courage which Mr. Lincoln well knew would characterize those men, as well as the Southern masses, in case of armed conflict between the sections.”120

As president-elect, Lincoln had been unrealistic about the determination of secessionists in the South. David Potter wrote that “the President-elect had…showed and continued to show a complete misunderstanding of the Southern temper, and a complete misconception of the extent of the crisis. On this misconception, his later policy was constructed.” On his train trip across the North from Springfield to Washington in February 1861, Mr. Lincoln remained relentlessly upbeat about the Union while retaining his circumspect silence about specifics of his policies. Potter wrote that Lincoln’s comments suggest that he believed that southern Unionists would help prevent war and secession.” Potter wrote: “Translated into realistic terms…the circumstances required, first, that the South be reassured as to the good will, conciliatory purposes, and Constitutional scruples of the new admiration; second, that a symbolic assertion of Federal authority be maintained; third, that the operation of Federal jurisdiction must be tacitly waived until it could be resumed by Southern consent. These terms for peaceable reunion were precisely the terms which Lincoln attempted to meet in his inaugural address.”121

Mr. Lincoln’s rule book was the Constitution. He met with representatives of border states at the Washington Peace Convention at the end of February 1861. It was easy to do since the convention was being held in the Willard Hotel where the President-elect was staying. The convention itself was an exercise in futility, noted Massachusetts member George S. Boutwell, who wrote “that the Convention did not possess all the desirable characteristics of a deliberative assembly. It was in some degree disqualified for the performance of the important task assigned to it, by the circumstances of its constitution…Moreover, there were members who claimed that certain concessions must be granted that the progress of the secession movement might be arrested; and on the other hand there were men who either doubted or denied the wisdom of such concessions.”122 Historian Burton J. Hendrick wrote that the convention “offered no practical plan for reunited the severed Union; all it could do was to propose again the Crittenden compromise, with its extension of the Missouri line. But the convention may have served a valuable purpose in preventing the secession of Virginia and certain sister Border states until Lincoln had been solidly seated in power.”123

Mr. Lincoln was conciliatory without compromising. Union officer John Pope recalled in his memoirs: “There was at the time a “Peace Convention’ in session at Willard’s Hotel, consisting of old gentlemen sent from every state in the Union, to consult together and devise and submit to the country measures which should quiet the public feeling and restore fraternal relations. They had been wise men in their day, but that day had passed and their wisdom had become folly in such a crisis as then beset us. Whilst they were with immense gravity and importance effecting some proposed modification of the fugitive slave law, or agreeing upon some small concession to the supporters of state sovereignty, the whole country was in the throes of a revolution which swept away both slavery and state sovereignty. They were a worthy and most eminent body of gentlemen in every respect, except a comprehension of the situation with which they thought they were dealing.”124 Mr. Lincoln remained firm when he met with delegates. Vermont Republican Lucius Chittenden recalled Lincoln telling some delegates to the Peace Conference. “My course is as plain as a turnpike road. It is marked out by the Constitution. I am in no doubt which way to go. Suppose now we all stop discussing and try the experiment of obedience to the Constitution and the laws.”125

Few in Washington wanted to support a compromise measure that would fail – or support one that would fail to attract support from their own party colleagues. What moderates did want to show was that the failure to compromise was not their fault – but the fault of intransigent. Most politicians did not want to get too far away from the predominant views of their section or party. Historian Russell McClintock wrote that “when the Crittenden plan came up for discussion on December 22, the committee rejected the extension of the Missouri line that lay at its heart. The six Northern Democratic and Upper South senators on the committee were in favor, and even the two Deep South delegates reluctantly agreed to recommend it, but only if the Republicans went along. All four Republicans present – Seward was still in New York meeting with Weed – voted against it. As a result, the two cotton-state representatives added their nays, and just like that it was dead.”126

Despite all the rhetoric about state’s rights by secessionists, the fundamental issue was slavery. Lincoln’s analysis of slavery’s impact on secession was confirmed by the Cornerstone speech made by Vice President Stephens in Savannah in late March 1861: “Our new government is founded…upon the great truth that the negro is not equal to the white man; that slavery, subordination to the superior race, is his natural and normal condition. This, our new government, is the first in the history of the world, based upon this great physical and moral truth.”127 Secessionists tried to clothe their rationale in the Declaration of Independence, but the reality of slavery undermined that claim.

While Stephens worried about slavery, Mr. Lincoln was worried about the Constitution. In his message to Congress on July 4, 1861, President Lincoln would write that there might seem “to be of little difference whether the present movement at the South be called ‘secession’ or ‘rebellion.’ The movers, however, well understand the difference. At the beginning, they knew they could never raise their treason to any respectable magnitude, by any name which implies violation of law. They knew their people possessed as much of moral sense, as much of devotion to law and order, and as much pride in, and reverence for, the history, and government, of their common country, as any other civilized, and patriotic people. They knew they could make no advancement directly in the teeth of these strong and noble sentiments. Accordingly they commenced by an insidious debauching of the public mind. They invented an ingenious sophism, which, if conceded, was followed by perfectly logical steps, through all the incidents, to the complete destruction of the Union. The sophism itself is, that any state of the Union may, consistently with the national Constitution, and therefore lawfully, and peacefully, withdraw from the Union, without the consent of the Union, or of any other state. The little disguise that the supposed right is to be exercised only for just cause, themselves to be the sole judge of its justice, is too thin to merit any notice.”

    With rebellion thus sugar-coated, they have been drugging the public mind of their section for more than thirty years, and, until at length, they have brought many good men to a willingness to take up arms against the government the day after some assemblage of men have enacted the farcical pretence of taking their State out of the Union, who could have been brought to no such thing the day before.128

Southern Unionism and Lincoln’s Inauguration

Along with William H. Seward, Lincoln placed great importance to appealing to Unionist sentiments in the Border States. During the latter days of the Buchanan Administration, Attorney General Edwin Stanton passed on confidential information to Senator Seward through a mutual friend, Peter H. Watson. Stanton also passed on information to Senator Charles Sumner. Seward also got information from General Scott. Historian David M. Potter wrote that “Seward, as usual, followed a course which perplexed his contemporaries and has baffled historians. The only thing clear about it is that he was primarily concerned with saving the Border states, and that, to this end, he maintained a wide communication with Southern Unionists. It also appears that he held consultations of some sort with Douglas and Crittenden.”129 Lincoln scholar Harry V. Jaffa wrote: “Critical to the uture, as seen from the perspective of March 4, 1861, was the fact that although seven of the fifteen slave states had seceded, eight had not. The border states were Delaware, Maryland, Virginia, Kentucky, and Missouri. Between the Deep South and the border states lay the middle tier: North Carolina, Tennessee, and Arkansas.”130 Historian Michael Burlingame wrote: “Lincoln was not unrealistic in imagining that the Upper South and Border States might remain in the Union. After all, the Deep South had threatened to secede in 1832-1833, in 1850-1851, and yet again in 1856, as recently as 1859-1860, secessionists in South Carolina, Alabama, and Mississippi had failed to win support for disunion.”131

In retrospect, it is clear that Seward – and to a lesser extent Lincoln – placed too much faith in southern Unionists. Historian Sean Wilentz wrote that Lincoln “was utterly mistaken” in his faith in southern Unionists. “His election, the culmination of the long-building crisis of American democracy, instantly turned many Deep South moderates and even erstwhile Unionists into secessionists. No misrepresentation was necessary to show that he and his Republicans wanted to put slavery on the road to extinction, which was enough to make him a tyrant in Dixie.” 132 Historian Michael Burlingame wrote: “Lincoln may have overestimated the depth and extent of Southern Unionism, but he understood Northern opinion better than Seward did.” Burlingame observed: “Seward’s behavior is one of the great mysteries of the secession crisis. If he had informed House and Senate Republicans that Lincoln supported the New Mexico Compromise, they would not have lamented, as John Sherman did on February 9, that ‘we are powerless here because we don’t know what Lincoln wants. As he is to have the Executive power we can’t go further than he approves. He communicates nothing even to his friends here & so we drift along.’”133 Seward fed the newspapers information in line with his preferred policy.

On March 4, President-elect Lincoln was escorted to the U.S. Capitol, where he took the oath of office and delivered his first Inaugural Address. Historian David Brion Davis wrote: “In his inaugural address, Lincoln attempted to be both firm and conciliatory. He declared secession to be wrong; but he also promised that he would ‘not interfere with the institution of slavery where it exists.’” 134 Lincoln said: “I hold, that in contemplation of universal law, and of the Constitution, the Union of these States is perpetual. Perpetuity is implied, if not expressed, in the fundamental law of all national governments. It is safe to assert that no government proper, ever had a provision in its organic law for its own termination. Continue to execute all the express provisions of our national Constitution and the Union will endure forever – it being impossible to destroy it, except by some action not provided for in the instrument itself.”

Lincoln said: “All profess to be content in the Union, if all constitutional rights can be maintained. Is it true, then, that any right, plainly written in the Constitution, has been denied? I think not. Happily the human mind is so constituted, that no party can reach to the audacity of doing this. Think, if you can, of a single instance in which a plainly written provision of the Constitution has ever been denied. If, by the mere force of numbers, a majority should deprive a minority of any clearly written constitutional right, it might, in a moral point of view, justify revolution–certainly would, if such right were a vital one. But such is not our case. All the vital rights of minorities, and of individuals, are so plainly assured to them, by affirmations and negations, guarranties and prohibitions, in the Constitution, that controversies never arise concerning them. But no organic law can ever be framed with a provision specifically applicable to every question which may occur in practical administration. No foresight can anticipate, nor any document of reasonable length contain express provisions for all possible questions. Shall fugitives from labor be surrendered by national or by State authority? The Constitution does not expressly say. May Congress prohibit slavery in the territories? The Constitution does not expressly say. Must Congress protect slavery in the territories? The Constitution does not expressly say.

Lincoln said: “Plainly, the central idea of secession, is the essence of anarchy. A majority, held in restraint by constitutional checks, and limitations, and always changing easily, with deliberate changes of popular opinions and sentiments, is the only true sovereign of a free people. Whoever rejects it, does, of necessity, fly to anarchy or to despotism. Unanimity is impossible; the rule of a minority, as a permanent arrangement, is wholly inadmissable; so that, rejecting the majority principle, anarchy, or despotism in some form, is all that is left.”

President Lincoln concluded his First Inaugural Address, which was wholly devoted to the secession crisis with an appeal to the South: “In your hands, my dissatisfied fellow countrymen, and not in mine, is the momentous issue of civil war. The government will not assail you. You can have no conflict, without being yourselves the aggressors. You have no oath registered in Heaven to destroy the government, while I shall have the most solemn one to ‘preserve, protect, and defend’ it.”

    I am loath to close. We are not enemies, but friends. We must not be enemies. Through passion may have strained, it must not break our bonds of affection. The mystic chords of memory, stretching from every battle-field, and patriot grave, to every living heart and hearthstone, all over this broad land, will yet swell the chorus of the Union, when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature.135

Lincoln scholar William Lee Miller wrote: “Although his address was as conciliatory as his convictions allowed, and a reasoned effort at persuasion with his ‘dissatisfied countrymen,’ it was nevertheless implicitly clear that, should they persist, force would be used to prevent their seceding, and that the oath-bound president would be the one to use it.”136

Lincoln had consulted Seward on the text of his address, but incoming Secretary of State Seward clearly was not consulting with Lincoln on every he was doing. And Seward was not acting in concert with Lincoln. Historian John Taylor wrote: “A master of news management, Seward was almost certainly behind some of the pacifist sentiment that found its way into print in the first weeks after Lincoln’s inauguration. In Washington, the National Intelligencer ran an earnest editorial calling for the evacuation of Fort Sumter. In January, the South Carolina Legislature had declared that any reenforcement of the fort would be considered an act of war.” 137 Lincoln requested his cabinet members to furnish him with written advice on March 15. Historian John Eisenhower noted that the kind of conflicting advice Mr. Lincoln was receiving was reflected in a letter the influential and venerable Scott sent Seward shortly before the inauguration:

    “Hoping that, in a day or two, the new President will have, happily, passed through all personal dangers, & find himself installed an honored successor of the great Washington – with you as chief of his cabinet – I beg leave to repeat, in writing, what I have before said to you, orally, this supplement to my printed “views,” (dated October last) on the highly disordered condition of our (so late) happy & glorious union. To meet the extraordinary exigencies of the times, it seems to me that I am guilty of no arrogance in limiting the President’s field of selection to one of the four plans of procedure, subjoined: –
    I. Throw off the old, & assume a new designation – the Union party; – adopt the conciliatory measures proposed by Mr. Crittenden, or the Peace convention, & my life upon it, we shall have no new case of secession, but, on the contrary, an early return of many, if not all the states which have already broken off from the Union, without some equally benign measure, the remaining slave holding states will, probably, join the Montgomery confederacy in less than sixty days, when this city – being included in a foreign country – would require permanent Garrison of at least 35,000 troops to protect the Government within it.
    II. Collect the duties on foreign goods outside the ports of which this Government has lost the command, or close such ports by acts of congress, & blockade them.
    III. Conquer the seceded States by invading Armies. No doubt this might be done in two or three years by a young able General – a Wolfe, a Desaix or a Hoche, with 300,000 disciplined men – estimating a third for Garrisons, & the loss of a yet greater number by skirmishes, sieges, battles & southern fevers. The destruction of life and property, on the other side, would be frightful – however perfect the moral discipline of the invaders.
    The conquest completed at that enormous waste of human life, to the north and north west – with at least $250[,]000,000, added thereto, and cui bono? – Fifteen devastated provinces – not to be brought into harmony with their conquerors; but to be held, for generations, by heavy garrisons – at an expense quadruple the net duties or taxes which it would be possible to extract from them – followed by a Protector or an emperor.
    IV. Say to the seceded – States – wayward sisters, depart in peace!”138

Clearly, both Seward and Scott were out of tune with President Lincoln and most Republicans. Eisenhower wrote: “Seward passed the letter to an uninterested Lincoln and made sure that his colleagues, both in and out of government, were made aware of the general’s written support of his own views. The result was a temporary alliance of Seward and Scott against the inclinations of most Lincoln supporters – and, it later turned out, of Lincoln himself. Strong Union men such as Montgomery Blair…were dismayed to see Scott softening toward the secessionists…”139 Even Democrat Edwin M. Stanton, the outgoing attorney general, urged more forceful action that the Lincoln Administration contemplated. Stanton biographer Frank A. Flower wrote that “Stanton, who having advised Seward on March 5, the day following the inauguration, that ‘everything the Government possesses for the defense has been put in shape for instant use,’ was disgusted and angry because Lincoln made no attempt ‘for forty days,’ as he says in one of the foregoing letters, to take advantage of that preparation, during every moment of which delay secession was gaining in strength and the Confederacy increasing its store of war munitions and its enlistment of soldiers.”140

In truth, Lincoln was trying to figure out what actions he should take. Navy Secretary Gideon Welles later wrote: “”The President then, and until decisive steps were finally taken, was averse to offensive measures, and anxious to avoid them. In council, and in personal interviews with myself and others, he enjoined upon each and all to forbear giving any cause of offense; and as regarded party changes consequent upon a change of administration, while they would necessarily be made elsewhere, he wished no removal for political causes to be made in the Southern States, and especially not in Virginia. Although disturbed by the fact that the supplies of the garrison at Sumter were so limited, he was disinclined to hasty action, and wished time for the Administration to get in working order and its policy to be understood. He desired, I think, on the suggestion of Mr. Seward, that General Scott, should prepare a statement of the position of Sumter, and of the other batteries, and of preparations in Charleston and Charleston Harbor,- the strength of each, how far and long could the garrison maintain itself and repel an attack if made, what force would be necessary to overcome any rebel force or organized military of the State of South Carolina, should she bid defiance to and resist the Federal authorities.”141

The fate of Fort Sumter – according to its commander Robert Anderson – seemed increasingly hopeless. Historian Craig L. Symonds wrote: “Anderson’s gloomy report…suggested that Lincoln must now choose – and soon – between two equally undesirable options; he must either evacuate Anderson’s garrison from Fort Sumter and begin his administration with a craven act of surrender or commit a provocative act that not only was sure to alienate the border states but also was likely to fail.’” 142 Eisenhower wrote: “On March 13 the New York Herald’s Washington correspondent wrote: ‘I am able to state positively that the abandonment of Fort Sumter has been determined upon by the President and his Cabinet.’

    “Because Lincoln had not yet decided what to do about Sumter, Seward stalled the commissioners with excuses – official appointments and problems attendant to his new duties at the State Department. On March 15 Lincoln held the second of two cabinet meetings devoted largely to the Sumter question. Seward again opposed any attempt at relief. He cited General Scott’s and Major Anderson’s reports that any relief expedition would be costly in terms of casualties without assuring success.143

Lincoln did not take any hostile action toward the secessionists, but was prepared to take action if hostile action was taken against the Union. The flash point for the Civil War was not secession but the Confederate attack on Fort Sumter on April 12. Representatives of the Confederacy and nearby border states had come to Washington seeking negotiation. Confederate President Jefferson Davis sought to forestall an armed conflict by sending three commissioners to Washington – John Forsyth, Martin J. Crawford and A. B. Roman. Seward was approached by two justices of the Supreme Court, John A, Campbell and Samuel Nelson, who hoped to broker some compromise with the Confederate commissioners who had been denied an official contact with the Lincoln Administration. Frank van der Linden wrote that Martin “Crawford arrived first, and on the evening of Lincoln’s inaugural day, met with Senator Wigfall and three Virginia congressmen, Daniel DeJarnete, Roger Pryor, and Muscoe R.M. Garnett. ‘We all agreed that it was Lincoln’s purpose at once to attempt the collection of the revenue, to reinforce and hold Forts Sumter and Pickens, and to retake other places,’ they reported to the Montgomery government. ‘He is a man of will and firmness. His cabinet will yield to him with alacrity.’”144

Despite the unprecedented pressure he was under, President Lincoln remained prudential and principled. Historian James G. Randall wrote: “In all this prewar excitement and tension there were three things that Lincoln did not do. (1) He did not order what would now be called mobilization. For the Lincoln case the term is, of course, a misnomer; any plan for warlike operations in the South would have required a vast increase of existing forces. The militia of the United States was a shadowy thing, trained reserves did not exist, and the regular army numbered no more than sixteen thousand at a time when the holding of the Federal position at Charleston alone in case of southern attack was supposed by some to require twenty thousand. (2) Lincoln did not issue or inspire any public statements designed to inflame passion or intensify Northern hostility against the South. (3) Lincoln did not attempt to retake any of the already occupied forts in the lower South.”145

Instead of taking aggressive action, Lincoln waited for the secessionists to strike. But he could not ignore the precarious situation of Fort Sumter. In early April, President Lincoln told Virginian John Minor Botts: “We have seventy odd men in Fort Sumter, who are short of provisions. I can not and will not let them suffer for food: they have so much beef, so much pork, potatoes, etc., but their bread will not last longer than next Wednesday, and I have sent a special messenger to Governor Pickens to say that I have dispatched a steamer loaded with ‘bread’ – that was his expression, though I suppose he meant provisions generally – ‘and that if he fired upon that vessel he would fire upon an unarmed vessel, with bread only for the troops; and that if he would supply them, or let Major Anderson procure his marketing in Charleston, I would stop the vessel; but that I had also sent a fleet along with this steamer to protect her if she was fired into. What do I want with war? I am no war man; I want peace more than any man in this country, and I will make great sacrifices to preserve it than any other man in the nation.”146

Historian Kenneth M. Stampp wrote “From the time the President-elect left Springfield in February until the firing upon Fort Sumter, the central theme of his public utterances was the further development and clarification of the strategy of defense. Holding inflexibly to the view that his fundamental purpose must be the preservation of the Union, he chose his words carefully and shrewdly to absolve himself from any charge of aggression.”147 He was also inflexible on the issue of extending slavery to territories. Lincoln Scholar Harold Holzer notes that Lincoln repeatedly had used similar language in his pre-inaugural letters. “On the territorial question, I am inflexible,” he wrote North Carolinian John A. Gilmer. “On that, there is a difference between you and us; and it is the only substantial difference. You think slavery is right and ought to be extended; we think it is wrong and ought to be restricted. For this, neither has any just occasion to be angry with the other.”148

Attack on Fort Sumter

Lincoln’s strategy of defense led to the Confederate attack on Fort Sumter – thus rallying Union support in the North. Historian David M. Potter wrote: “The primary significance of the southern attack on Fort Sumter is not that it started the Civil War, but rather that it started the war in such a manner as to give the cause of Union an eruptive force which it might otherwise have been slow to acquire.”149 It was a nerve-wracking time. President Lincoln said to fellow Illinoisan Orville Browning “that all the troubles and anxieties of his life had not equalled those which intervened between this time and the fall of Sumter.”150

Lincoln had to play both a public game and a private one – and historians have chosen to put their own interpretations on his motivations. His determination not to compromise could appear to be belligerent. Historian Nelson D. Lankford contended: “The Divided opinions of his advisers and his distaste for retreat reinforced Lincoln’s temperamental reluctance to act.” Lankford wrote: “On March 28, Lincoln ended his hesitation and decided the conciliatory strategy had failed. Pressure from leaders of his own party – reflected in the drumbeat of assertive editorials in Republican newspapers warning against retreat – had its effect. But the decision was his alone, and he had to bear the responsibility for choosing risk and confrontation as much as his opponent in Montgomery.”151 Kenneth Stampp maintained that Lincoln continued to try to demonstrate his peaceful intentions even after Fort Sumter – arguing in the President’s July 4 message to Congress that he was motivated by humanitarian concern for the soldiers stationed at Fort Sumter. But in reality, argued Stampp, “Step by step he was quietly moving to assert and vindicate federal authority in the South. Before each advance the secessionists would have had to retreat, until they found themselves discredited before their own people and, for all practical purposes, back in the Union. Their only alternative was resistance, but always the burden of aggression would be upon them.”152 President Lincoln sent a messenger to South Carolina Governor Pickens: “I am directed by the President of the United States to notify you to expect an attempt will be made to supply Fort Sumter with provisions only, and that if such attempt be not resisted, no effort to throw in provisions, arms or ammunition will be made without further notice, or in case of an attack upon the fort.”153

This warning prompted the Confederates to act before the fort could be reenforced. Kenneth Stampp wrote that Lincoln anticipated this result. Military historian Colin R. Ballard wrote: “How far this opening manoeuvre was engineered by Lincoln can only be a matter of doubt, but there can be no doubt that it was just what the Strategist needed. The intrinsic value of the fort was a minus quantity; it would have taken the whole of his army to garrison it. But the dramatic end of it was a real asset. The Confederates had put themselves out of court by appealing to force. This solved all legal questions of Constitutional Law at one stroke. The only remaining question was whether the Federal Government should or should not suppress an armed rebellion. There could, of course, be no hesitation on the part of the North in answering. And so the Strategist could get down to the purely military situation.”154

Fate played a role in setting up the Confederate attack on Fort Sumter. Historian Don E. Fehrenbacher wrote: “Consider, as one small example, the ambiguity of motive and the irony of consequence in Major Robert Anderson’s decision to move his troops from Fort Moultrie to Fort Sumter on December 26, 1860. Anderson, a professional soldier and a Southerner, wanted to avoid surrendering his command, but he also wanted to avoid armed conflict. His removal to the more defensible Sumter, unauthorized by his superiors, was a pacificatory effort at disengagement. But Moultrie in December had nothing like the enormous symbolic meaning attached to Sumter by the following April, when the guns of a proud new republic opened fire on the fort. Thus, by postponing the day of reckoning in Charleston harbor, Anderson greatly increased its impact. He alone determined the place and nature of the confrontation that erupted into civil. War.”155

Lincoln scholar Gabor Boritt wrote: “Historians have offered three sets of views concerning Lincoln’s role in the start of war at Sumter. One argued that Lincoln deliberately provoked the first shot to unite the North behind him. Reaffirming with poor scholarship contemporary Southern partisan charges (later dignified by Jefferson Davis and Alexander Stephens), this view has few adherents among historians. It can readily be dismissed.”

    “Another approach, most clearly delineated by a penetrating David Potter, pictured a somewhat bungling Lincoln desiring peace and believing to the last that he might be able to avoid war. A third view sees the president more firmly in charge, expecting the peaceful provisioning of the Sumter garrison ‘possible,’ but the starting of hostilities ‘probable.’ Two excellent scholars, Kenneth Stampp and Richard Current, are the leading proponents of this position.”

    “Professors Current and Stampp focused on too narrow a span of time, and thus did not take fully into account Lincoln’s genuine, deep devotion to peace and how badly and for how long he misunderstood the reality of the Southern movement toward war. Conversely, Professor Potter failed to appreciate fully that sometime during the secession crisis Lincoln recognized that the war may indeed come. ‘It is not with any pleasure that I contemplate the possibility that a necessity may arise in this country for the use of the military arm.’ He said to applause in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, as early as Washington’s birthday, 1861. But he did ‘contemplate’ the possible ‘necessity.’ He also added, however, to louder applause, his ‘most’ sincere hope that it will never be the people’s ‘duty to shed blood, and most especially never to shed fraternal blood.’”

    “When Lincoln accepted war, he still practiced avoidance, like multitudes of the people he led and opposed. He remained part of the larger American culture. In the spring of 1865 he would remember that ‘Neither party expected for the war, the magnitude or the duration, which it has already attained.’”156

In early April President Lincoln sent several envoys to Charleston to evaluate the situation. One was his friend Ward Hill lamon, whom he had appointed U.S. Marshal for the District of Columbia. Lincoln brushed aside objections from Secretary of State Seward, saying: “I’ve known Lamon to be in many a close place, and he’s never been in one he couldn’t get out of.” Unfortunately, the South Carolina native was not the best or most effective envoy. Historian Russell McClintock wrote that Lamon came back to Washington with ha “preposterous….piece of intelligence – that Governor Pickens wanted South Carolina to reenter the Union….Scott and Lamon had…a long conversation about the necessity of evacuating not only Fort Sumter but also Fort Pickens. Understanding from Lamon that Lincoln would approve such an idea, Scott drew up a memorandum recommending the evacuation of both forts, which he presented to Lincoln that evening before dinner.”157

Lincoln also directed State Department clerk Robert S. Chew: “Sir – you will proceed directly to Charleston, South Carolina; and if, on your arrival there, the flag of the United States shall be flying over Fort Sumpter, and the Fort shall not have been attacked, you will procure an interview with Gov. Pickens, and read to him as follows: I am directed by the President of the United States to notify you to expect an attempt will be made to supply Fort-Sumpter with provisions only; and that, if such attempt be no resisted, no effort to throw in men, arms or ammunition, will be made, without further notice, or in case of an attack upon the Fort.”158 Historian Nelson D. Lankford wrote that “Charleston’s most notable unionist, James Louis Petigru, said: “South Carolina is too small for a republic and too big for a lunatic asylum.”159

Historian Richard Striner wrote of the Lincoln strategy to send a relief expedition to Fort Sumter: “The sheer cunning of the move has elicited praise and condemnation down the years. For Lincoln’s message to the South could be read in very different ways. In the North it sounded mild and innocuous. In the South it was an act of defiance. Lincoln knew from his agent what the South Carolinians would think when he told them of his plans. And he knew what they would do in return. But it was Northern opinion that he wanted to bring into line with his Sumter policy.” 160 Union reenforcements for Fort Sumter were being turned back from Charleston. Historian Michael Burlingame wrote: “On April 10, Jefferson Davis and his cabinet had instructed the general in charge of Charleston, P.G. T. Beauregard, to insist upon the immediate surrender of Sumter; if Anderson declined.161 Historian Richard N. Current noted: “The fact is that Jefferson Davis and the Confederates had already made their decision to capture the fort, and they would very soon have attacked it even if Lincoln had never thought of sending an expedition there….But it is quite a different thing to suggest that Lincoln considered the possibility, indeed the probability, of a conflict of arms resulting from his provisioning attempt. And it is not too much to say – for he said it himself – that he was determined to manage the project in such a way as to put the blame for war, if war should ensue, clearly and unmistakably upon the other side.” Current wrote that “it appears that Lincoln, when he decided to send the Sumter expedition, considered hostilities to be probable. It also appears, however, that he believed an unopposed and peaceable provisioning to be at least barely possible.”162 The actual expedition was a tragedy of errors; what navy ships did arrive off the port of Charleston came too late to attempt a resupply.

Lincoln placed the Confederacy in a lose-lose situation even through the immediate event would be a Confederate victory. Historian James M. McPherson wrote: “In effect, Lincoln flipped a coin and told Davis: ‘Heads I win, tails you lose.’ If Southern guns fired first, the Confederates would stand convicted of starting a war. If they let the supplies go in, the American flag would continue to fly over Fort Sumter. The Confederacy would lose face; Unionists would take courage.”163 Scholar Lois Einhorn was more critical of Lincoln’s actions. She wrote that “in his ‘Inaugural Address’ and afterward, he expressed an optimistic attitude that today seems naive and unrealistic. For example, in a “special Message to Congress’ four months after his inauguration, he explained the policy he had chosen to espouse in his ‘Inaugural Address’: ‘The policy chosen looked to the exhaustion of all peaceful measures….It was believed possible to keep the government on foot.’ Perhaps Lincoln did not want to say publicly, ‘We’re going to have a war,’ because he knew he was speaking to posterity, because people naturally want their public leaders to be optimistic, and/or because he wanted the South to fire the first shot.”164 There is no smoking gun in Lincoln’s papers, however, to suggest that he sought conflict. What he understood was that if the South sought conflict, it would have be engaged.

A great deal of wishful thinking was admittedly at work, especially in the North – wishful thinking that the attack on Fort Sumter dispelled. Historian Nelson D. Lankford wrote: “Many northerners believed that southerners who did not own slaves would never rally to the Confederate cause. Many southerners believed the downtrodden laborers and immigrants in the North would never fight for the Republican cause. To their shock, both expectations were confounded. To Upper South unionists, Lincoln’s decision to confront the Confederates over Fort Sumter was insanely reckless.”165

The Constitution, Lincoln believed, required him to act and to place his faith in Americans who believed in the Union. In the spring of 1861, President Lincoln told some administration officials: “We must not forget that the people of the seceded states, like those of the loyal ones, are American citizens, with essentially the same characteristics and powers. Exceptional advantages on one side are counterbalanced by exceptional advantages on the other. We must make up our minds that man for man the soldier from the South will be a match for the soldier of the North and vice versa.”166

Despite the deficiencies of Lincoln’s attempt to resupply Fort Sumter, historian Craig L. Symonds wrote that “some of the elements of Lincoln’s future greatness were evident in his first exercise of presidential authority over the U.S. Navy. First, he had sought expert advice wherever he could find it, not only from the aged and authoritative Scott and Totten but also from the more unlikely sources such as [Gustavus] Fox, [Montgomery] Meigs, and [David Dixon] Porter. Second, he allowed, even demanded, free discussion among the advocates of different policy options, asking his advisers to put their ideas in writing to clarify their thoughts. Third, he was willing to consider unconventional solutions and independent thinking. And finally, when a decision had to be made, he made it himself, saw it through, and accepted both the responsibility and the consequences.”167

President Lincoln acted carefully and deliberately to avoid a confrontation if possible and win it if necessary. Historian James G. Randall wrote: “In this light Lincoln’s executive acts in April 1861 had at least five important aspects: (1) they inaugurated for the nation a state of war where there had been peace; (2) they set up a legal front in terms of theory and status; (3) they equally set the pattern for the President’s own theory of executive measures with regard to Congress: (4) they launched a military policy (reliance upon ‘militia’ and upon action by the states rather than upon national army expansion); (5) finally, these measures fixed the mold into which the government’s policy was to be cast in its relations with foreign nations.”168

After Fort Sumter’s fall, the President acted quickly to assemble a broad-based coalition in the North behind the Union war effort. Ward Hill Lamon recalled: “Mr. Lincoln had shown great wisdom in appreciating the importance of holding such Democrats as Mr. [Stephen A.] Douglas close to the Administration, on the issue of a united country or a dissolution of the Union. He said: ‘They are just where we Whigs were in 1848, about the Mexican war. We had to take the Locofoco preamble when Taylor wanted help, or else vote against helping Taylor; and the Democrats must vote to hold the Union now, without bothering whether we or the Southern men got things where they are; and we must make it easy for them to do this, for we cannot live through the case without them.’ He further said: ‘Some of our friends are opposed to an accommodation because the South began the trouble and is entirely responsible for the consequences, be they what they may. This reminds me of a story told out in Illinois where I lived. There was a vicious bull in a pasture, and a neighbor passing through the field, the animal took after him. The man ran to a tree, and got there in time to save himself; and being able to run round the tree faster than the bull, he managed to seize him by the tail. His bullship seeing himself at a disadvantage, pawed the earth and scattered gravel for awhile, then broke into a full run, bellowing at every jump, while the man, holding on to the tail, asked the question, ‘Darn you, who commenced this fuss?’ Now, our plain duty is to settle the fuss we have before us, without reference to who commenced it.’”169 Illinois Senator Douglas, Lincoln’s longtime political rival, rallied to his support. Speaking at Chicago on May 1, Douglas put the struggle in context:

    “The present secession movement is the result of an enormous conspiracy which was matured a year ago. The conspiracy was formed by the leaders of the secession movement twelve months ago, and they have used every means to urge it on. They have caused a man to be elected by a sectional vote, to demonstrate that the Union was divided; and when the history of the country from the time of the Lecompton constitution to the date of Lincoln’s election is written, it will appear that a scheme was maturing in the meantime which was for no end except to break up the Union. They desired toe break it up, and they used the slavery question as a means This scheme was defeated by the overthrow of the disunion candidates in Kentucky, Tennessee, and Virginia. Still, the grand conspiracy existed, and the disunion movement was the result of it.”170

The Union could not and would not be dissolved under Lincoln’s constitutional vision. Historian Craig L. Symonds wrote: “The Confederacy, he insisted, was a legal fiction – rebellious part of the United States, not a separate nation.”171 Historian Richard Striner wrote: “Lincoln resolutely stood up to these threats of secession and proposed to let the chips fall where they might. He would not back down one inch from his program of slavery containment.”172 Historian Herman Belz wrote: “Lincoln’s construction of the nature of the Union was achieved through the instrument of prudent and forceful exercise of the executive power in time of war.”173 In the pursuit of an inflexible Union, Lincoln was flexible in his tactics. Lincoln scholar William Lee Miller wrote: “Keeping these turbulent places on the Union side required making most careful judgments about when to use and when to avoid military force. Sometimes the presence of Union troops and overt military action would solidify a dominant Union opinion (as in Maryland); in other cases such action might push a touchy, fragile public over into the arms of the secessionists (as it probably would have done in Kentucky).”174

Still, Lincoln had moments of desperation. Historian Michael Burlingame wrote: “On April 25, he asked a Connecticut visitor, who thought he looked badly depressed: ‘What is the North about? Do they know our condition?’”175 Lincoln understood the shallowness of the North’s emotional response. Lincoln told the story about the soldier preparing to go to war. His sisters wanted to embroider a shirt with the words “Victory or Death.” “No, no,” he protested, “don’t put it quite that strong. Put it ‘Victory or get hurt pretty bad.’”176

Lincoln understood that what was important was not just what he did, but why he did it and when he did it. Under attack, Lincoln acted vigorously to preserve the Union and ultimately to destroy slavery. Historian Herman Belz wrote: “Inspired by a variety of motives, Americans in the deepest sense went to war in 1861 to resolve constitutional controversy over the nature of the Union and the status of slavery in republican society. In both a practical and a moral sense, Lincoln’s construction of the executive power in the secession crisis succeeded in placing these reciprocally related issues in the course of ultimate resolution.”177 Just as slavery would be placed in the course of ultimate extinction. In his special message to Congress on July 4, 1861, Lincoln laid out the Union case and why compromise had not been possible:

    “The Constitution provides, and all the States have accepted the provision, that ‘The United States shall guarantee to every State in this Union a republican form of government.’ But, if a State may lawfully go out of the Union, having done so, it may also discard the republican form of government; so that to prevent its going out, is an indispensable means, to the end, of maintaining the guaranty mentioned; and when an end is lawful and obligatory, the indispensable means to it, are also lawful, and obligatory.”

    It was with the deepest regret that the Executive found the duty of employing the war-power, in defense of the government, forced upon him. He could but perform this duty, or surrender the existence of the government. No compromise, by public servants, could, in this case, be a cure; not that compromises are not often proper, but that no popular government can long survive a marked precedent, that those who carry an election, can only save the government from immediate destruction, by giving up the main point, upon which the people gave the election. The people themselves, and not their servants, can safely reverse their own deliberate decisions. As a private citizen, the Executive could not have consented that these institutions shall perish; much less could he, in betrayal of so vast, and so sacred a trust, as these free people had confided to him. He felt that he had no moral right to shrink; nor even to count the chances of his own life, in what might follow. In full view of his great responsibility, he has, so far, done what he has deemed his duty. You will now, according to your own judgment, perform yours. He sincerely hopes that your views, and your action, may so accord with his, as to assure all faithful citizens, who have been disturbed in their rights, of a certain, and speedy restoration to them, under the Constitution, and the laws.178

Confederate Colonel
The New Life of The Old South

Quotes About The South

“There was a land of Cavaliers and Cotton Fields called the Old South. Here in this pretty world, Gallantry took its last bow. Here was the last ever to be seen of Knights and their Ladies Fair, of Master and of Slave. Look for it only in books, for it is no more than a dream remembered, a Civilization gone with the wind.”
Prologue – Gone With The Wind

“There are things in the old Book which I may not be able to explain, but I fully accept it as the infallible word of God, and receive its teachings as inspired by the Holy Spirit.”
Robert E. Lee

“Let us go home and cultivate our virtues.”
Robert E. Lee, addressing his soldiers at Appomattox

“[T]he contest is really for empire on the side of the North, and for independence on that of the South, and in this respect we recognize an exact analogy between the North and the Government of George III, and the South and the Thirteen Revolted Provinces. These opinions…are the general opinions of the English nation.”
London Times, November 7, 1861

“Our country demands all our strength, all our energies. To resist the powerful combination now forming against us will require every man at his place. If victorious, we will have everything to hope for in the future. If defeated, nothing will be left for us to live for.”
Robert E. Lee

“The principle for which we contend is bound to reassert it’s self, though it may be at another time and in another form.”
President Jefferson Davis, C.S.A.

“Nothing fills me with deeper sadness than to see a Southern man apologizing for the defense we made of our inheritance. Our cause was so just, so sacred, that had I known all that has come to pass, had I known what was to be inflicted upon me, all that my country was to suffer, all that our posterity was to endure, I would do it all over again.”
President Jefferson Davis, C.S.A.

“…the contest is not over, the strife is not ended. It has only entered upon a new and enlarged arena.”
President Jefferson Davis, C.S.A., address to the Mississippi legislature in 1881.

“We feel that our cause is just and holy; we protest solemnly in the face of mankind that we desire peace at any sacrifice save that of honour and independence; we ask no conquest, no aggrandizement, no concession of any kind from the States with which we were lately confederated; all we ask is to be let alone; that those who never held power over us shall not now attempt our subjugation by arms.”
President Jefferson Davis, C.S.A. – 29 April 1861

“It appears we have appointed our worst generals to command forces, and our most gifted and brilliant to edit newspapers! In fact, I discovered by reading newspapers that these editor/geniuses plainly saw all my strategic defects from the start, yet failed to inform me until it was too late. Accordingly, I’m readily willing to yield my command to these obviously superior intellects, and I’ll, in turn, do my best for the Cause by writing editorials – after the fact.”
Robert E. Lee, 1863

“Duty is the sublimest word in our language. Do your duty in all things. You cannot do more. You should never wish to do less.”
Robert E. Lee

“All that the South has ever desired was that the Union as established by our forefathers should be preserved and that the government as originally organized should be administered in purity and truth.”
Robert E. Lee

“We could have pursued no other course without dishonour; and as sad as the results have been, if it had all to be done over again, we should be compelled to act in precisely the same manner.”
Robert E. Lee

“I am nothing but a poor sinner, trusting in Christ alone for salvation.”
Robert E. Lee

Definition of a Gentleman – “The forbearing use of power does not only form a touchstone, but the manner in which an individual enjoys certain advantages over others is a test of a true gentleman. The power which the strong have over the weak, the employer over the employed, the educated over the unlettered, the experienced over the confiding, even the clever over the silly — the forbearing or inoffensive use of all this power or authority, or a total abstinence from it when the case admits it, will show the gentleman in a plain light. The gentleman does not needlessly and unnecessarily remind an offender of a wrong he may have committed against him. He cannot only forgive, he can forget; and he strives for that nobleness of self and mildness of character which impart sufficient strength to let the past be but the past. A true man of honor feels humbled himself when he cannot help humbling others.”
Robert E. Lee

“Every man should endeavor to understand the meaning of subjugation before it is too late… It means the history of this heroic struggle will be written by the enemy; that our youth will be trained by Northern schoolteachers; will learn from Northern school books their version of the war; will be impressed by the influences of history and education to regard our gallant dead as traitors, and our maimed veterans as fit objects for derision… It is said slavery is all we are fighting for, and if we give it up we give up all. Even if this were true, which we deny, slavery is not all our enemies are fighting for. It is merely the pretense to establish sectional superiority and a more centralized form of government, and to deprive us of our rights and liberties.”
Maj. General Patrick R. Cleburne, CSA, January 1864

“Sirs, you have no reason to be ashamed of your Confederate dead; see to it they have no reason to be ashamed of you.”
Robert Lewis Dabney, Chaplain for Stonewall Jackson

“If you bring these [Confederate] leaders to trial it will condemn the North, for by the Constitution secession is not rebellion. Lincoln wanted Davis to escape, and he was right. His capture was a mistake. His trial will be a greater one.”
Chief Justice Salmon P. Chase, July 1867 (Foote, The Civil War, Vol. 3, p. 765)

“Governor, if I had foreseen the use those people designed to make of their victory, there would have been no surrender at Appomattox Courthouse; no sir, not by me. Had I foreseen these results of subjugation, I would have preferred to die at Appomattox with my brave men, my sword in this right hand.”
General Robert E. Lee, August 1870 to Governor Stockdale of Texas

“The Union government liberates the enemy’s slaves as it would the enemy’s cattle, simply to weaken them in the conflict. The principle is not that a human being cannot justly own another, but that he cannot own him unless he is loyal to the United States.”
London Spectator in reference to the Emancipation Proclamation

“The Northern onslaught upon slavery was no more than a piece of specious humbug designed to conceal its desire for economic control of the Southern states.”
Charles Dickens, 1862

“It is stated in books and papers that Southern children read and study that all the blood shedding and destruction of property of that conflict was because the South rebelled without cause against the best government the world ever saw; that although Southern soldiers were heroes in the field, skillfully massed and led, they and their leaders were rebels and traitors who fought to overthrow the Union, and to preserve human slavery, and that their defeat was necessary for free government and the welfare of the human family. As a Confederate soldier and as a citizen of Virginia, I deny the charge, and denounce it as a calumny. We were not rebels; we did not fight to perpetuate human slavery, but for our rights and privileges under a government established over us by our fathers and in defense of our homes.”
Colonel Richard Henry Lee, C.S.A.

“Let danger never turn you aside from the pursuit of honor or the service to your country … Know that death is inevitable and the fame of virtue is immortal”
Robert E. Lee

“The Slave must be made fit for his freedom by education and discipline, and thus made unfit for slavery. And as soon as he becomes unfit for slavery, the master will no longer desire to hold him as a slave.”
President Jefferson Davis, C.S.A.

“You have no right to ask, or expect that she will at once profess unbounded love to that Union from which for four years she tried to escape at the cost of her best blood and all her treasure. Nor can you believe her to be so unutterably hypocritical, so base, as to declare that the flag of the Union has already surpassed in her heart the place which has so long been sacred to the ‘Southern Cross.’ ”
General Wade Hampton

“I loved the old government in 1861. I loved the old Constitution yet. I think it is the best government in the world, if administered as it was before the war. I do not hate it; I am opposing now only the radical revolutionists who are trying to destroy it. I believe that party to be composed, as I know it is in Tennessee, of the worst men on Gods earth – men who would not hesitate at no crime, and who have only one object in view – to enrich themselves.”
Nathan Bedford Forrest, in an interview shortly after the war

“Captain, my religious belief teaches me to feel as safe in battle as in bed. God has fixed the time for my death. I do not concern myself about that, but to be always ready, no matter when it may overtake me. That is the way all men should live, and then all would be equally brave.”
Thomas Jonathan “Stonewall” Jackson

“Our poor country has fallen a prey to the conqueror. The noblest cause ever defended by the sword is lost. The noble dead that sleep in their shallow though honored graves are far more fortunate than their survivors. I thought I had sounded the profoundest depth of human feeling, but this is the bitterest hour of my life.”
Colonel John Singleton Mosby

“As for the South, it is enough to say that perhaps eighty per cent. of her armies were neither slave-holders, nor had the remotest interest in the institution. No other proof, however, is needed than the undeniable fact that at any period of the war from its beginning to near its close the South could have saved slavery by simply laying down its arms and returning to the Union.”
Major General John B. Gordon, from his book, Causes of the Civil War.

“The flags of the Confederate States of America were very important and a matter of great pride to those citizens living in the Confederacy. They are also a matter of great pride for their descendants as part of their heritage and history.”
Winston Churchill

“I was raised by one of the greatest men in the world. There was never one born of a woman greater than Gen. Robert E. Lee, according to my judgment. All of his servants were set free ten years before the war, but all remained on the plantation until after the surrender.”
William Mack Lee (Robert E. Lee’s black servant)

“Any society which suppresses the heritage of its conquered minorities, prevents their history or denies them their symbols, has sown the seeds of their own destruction.”
Sir William Wallace, 1281

“His noble presence and gentle, kindly manner were sustained by religious faith and an exalted character.”
Winston Churchill on the character of Robert E. Lee

“He possessed every virtue of other great commanders without their vices. He was a foe without hate; a friend without treachery; a victor without oppression, and a victim without murmuring. He was a public officer without vices; a private citizen without reproach; a Christian without hypocrisy and a man without guile. He was a Caesar without his ambition; Frederick without his tyranny; Napoleon without his selfishness, and Washington without his reward. He was obedient to authority as a servant, and loyal in authority as a true king. He was gentle as a woman in life; modest and pure as a virgin in thought; watchful as a Roman vital in duty; submissive to law as Socrates, and grand in battle as Achilles!”
War-era Georgia Senator Ben Hill’s tribute to Robert E. Lee

“They (the South) know that it is their import trade that draws from the peoples pockets sixty or seventy millions of dollars per annum, in the shape of duties, to be expended mainly in the North, and in the protection and encouragement of Northern interest. These are the reasons why these people do not wish the South to secede from the union”.
New Orleans Daily Crescent-1861

“The Southern Confederacy will not employ our ships or buy our goods. What is our shipping without it? Literally nothing… it is very clear that the South gains by this process and we lose. No…we must not let the South go”.
Union Democrat Manchester, New Hampshire. 19 February, 1861

“The cause of the South was the cause of constitutional government, the cause of government regulated by law, and the cause of honesty and fidelity in public servants. No nobler cause did man ever fight for!”
Rep. Benjamin Franklin Grady-Duplin Co. NC 1899

“Instead of friends, I see in Washington only mortal enemies. Instead of loving the old flag of the stars and stripes, I see in it only the symbol of murder, plunder, oppression, and shame.”
Rose O’Neal Greenhow, Confederate Spy

“To me, the campaign by certain groups to remove all the symbols and memorials to our Southern past amounts to the same thing…a desecration of graves. Every flag or monument that is removed, every plaque taken down, every school or street or bridge that is renamed, is no different from a broken tombstone. It is wanton and hateful violence directed at the dead who can no longer defend themselves.”
John Field Pankow

“The real issue involved in the relations between the North and the South of the American States, is the great principle of self-government. Shall a dominant party of the North rule the South, or shall the people of the South rule themselves. This is the great matter in controversy.”
Robert Barnwell Rhett (Montgomery, Alabama, 1860)

“To tar the sacrifices of the Confederate soldier as simple acts of racism, and reduce the battle flag under which he fought to nothing more than the symbol of a racist heritage, is one of the great blasphemies of our modern age”.
James Webb-Secretary of Navy And Assistant Secretary of Defense under U.S. President Ronald Regan and current U.S. Senator (D.VA.) (Born Fighting: How the Scots-Irish Shaped America, New York: Broadway Books, 2004, p. 225)

“…We must forevermore do honor to our heroic dead. We must forevermore cherish the sacred memories of those four terrible but glorious years of unequal strife. We must forevermore consecrate in our hearts our old battle flag of the Southern Cross – not now as a political symbol, but as the consecrated emblem of an heroic epoch. The people that forgets its heroic dead is already dying at the heart, and we believe we shall be truer and better citizens of the United States if we are true to our past.”
Confederate Veteran Rev. Randolph Harrison McKim

“Had the cotton gin of Massachusetts inventor Eli Whitney not come on the scene in the late 1700’s, African slavery in this country was most likely doomed. The antislavery and emancipation feeling in the South was ascendant, but thwarted by profitable slave-trading and hungry cotton mills in New England which gave rise to more plantations in the South, and the perpetuation of slavery. And after years of treating the American South as an agricultural colony, New England set out in 1861 to strip it of political power.”
Bernhard Thuersam- Director Cape Fear Historical Institute NC.

“I love the Union and the Constitution, but I would rather leave the Union with the Constitution than remain in the Union without it.”
Confederate President Jefferson Davis

“I tried all in my power to avert this war. I saw it coming, for twelve years I worked night and day to prevent it, but I could not. The North was mad and blind; it would not let us govern ourselves, and so the war came, and now it must go on unless you acknowledge our right to self government. We are not fighting for slavery. We are fighting for Independence.”
President Jefferson Davis, CSA

“When the South raised its sword against the Union’s Flag, it was in defense of the Union’s Constitution.”
Confederate General John B. Gordon

“Any people, anywhere, being inclined and having the power, have the right to rise up and shake off the existing government, and form a new one that suits them better. This is a most valuable, a most sacred right, a right which we hope and believe is to liberate the world”.
Abraham Lincoln – U.S. Congress, 1847

A little over 10 years later after the South attempted precisely that, Lincoln, when asked, “Why not let the South go in peace”? replied; “I can’t let them go. Who would pay for the government”? “And, what then will become of my tariff”?
Abraham Lincoln to Virginia Compromise Delegation March 1861

“The universal practice of carrying arms in the South is undoubtedly the cause of occasional loss of life, and is much to be regretted. On the other hand, this custom renders altercations and quarrels of very rare occurrence, for people are naturally careful what they say when a bullet may be the probable result.”
LtC Sir Arthur James Lyon Fremantle, HM Coldstream Guards, 24 May 1863

“Breathe there the man with soul so dead
Who never to himself has said,
This is my own, my native land!”
Sir Walter Scott

“The consolidation of the states into one vast republic, sure to be aggressive abroad and despotic at home, will be the certain precursor of that ruin which has overwhelmed all those that have preceded it.”
Robert E. Lee

“Everyone should do all in his power to collect and disseminate the truth, in the hope that it may find a place in history and descend to posterity. History is not the relation of campaigns and battles and generals or other individuals, but that which shows the principles for which the South contended and which justified her struggle for those principles.”
Robert E. Lee

“It was necessary to put the South at a moral disadvantage by transforming the contest from a war waged against states fighting for their indepdence into a war waged against states fighting for the maintenance and extension of slavery…and the world, it might be hoped, would see it as a moral war, not a political; and the sympathy of nations would begin to run for the North, not for the South.”
Woodrow Wilson, “A History of The American People”, page 231

“If they (the North) prevail, the whole character of the Government will be changed, and instead of a federal republic, the common agent of sovereign and independent States, we shall have a central despotism, with the notion of States forever abolished, deriving its powers from the will, and shaping its policy according to the wishes, of a numerical majority of the people; we shall have, in other words, a supreme, irresponsible democracy. The Government does not now recognize itself as an ordinance of God, and when all the checks and balances of the Constitution are gone, we may easily figure to ourselves the career and the destiny of this godless monster of democratic absolutism. The progress of regulated liberty on this continent will be arrested, anarchy will soon succeed, and the end will be a military despotism, which preserves order by the sacrifice of the last vestige of liberty.

They are now fighting the battle of despotism. They have put their Constitution under their feet; they have annulled its most sacred provisions; The future fortunes of our children, and of this continent, would then be determined by a tyranny which has no parallel in history.”
Dr. James Henly Thornwell of South Carolina, in Our Danger and our Duty, 1862

“Why doesn’t the Confederacy just fade away? Is it because we are irresistibly fascinated by catastrophic loss? Or is it something else? Is it because the Confederacy is to this day the greatest conservative resistance to federal authority in American history?”
Professor David Blight

Confederate Pride Back to Articles Index

The Case for Southern Secession (Again?)
by John P. George

Why should Southerners believe that secession should be any more feasible now than in 1861? After all, didn’t the failed War for Southern Independence end the question of secession forever? In addition, what possible benefits could there be from forming a new Southern confederacy? These are probably the most frequently asked questions of League of the South members.

Secession today appears to be a serious but popularly accepted option everywhere except here in the United States. Fifteen years ago, someone suggesting that Russia would voluntarily allow the three Baltic states their independence after their re-annexation, at the point of a bayonet in the 1940s, would have had been considered a hopeless romantic and/or lunatic. With the breakup of the Soviet Union and Yugoslavia (and possibly Canada) and a rebirth of Scottish nationalism, Southerners too are increasingly wondering whether or not greater autonomy for the South is possible.

Lincoln and the War notwithstanding, self-determination and independence remain just as much a legitimate aspiration today for Southerners as in 1861. It is impossible to read the Declaration of Independence and not believe in the right of self-determination without being hypocritical. While the purpose of this paper is not discuss in great detail the Constitutional questions concerning secession, let it suffice to be said that many constitutional experts before the War believed strongly in the Constitutional right of secession. This was based on the very origin of the federal government itself (states, in effect, had to secede’ from the old Articles of Confederation in order to join the Union). In addition, the tenth amendment states specifically that since the ‘power’ of secession is nowhere prohibited in the Constitution, that right is guaranteed to the states (‘reserved to the states respectively’). Lincoln, of course, was opposed to the question of secession going to the Taney Supreme Court because he knew lie would not prevail. What Lincoln was unable to accomplish by Constitutional means, lie was quite willing to do by forcing the South to stop Union supplies from reaching Ft. Sumter thus precipitating the War. The War itself did not, of course, settle the Constitutional question unless one believes (as Lincoln did) that might makes right.

Secession and independence remains the only an answer for the South today. Aside from the fact that the old ordinances of secession were perfectly legal and repealed only at the point of a bayonet after the War, thus giving the South a legitimate reason for returning to the status quo antebellum, the Federal government (and the North in general) has again and again demonstrated a continual arrogant abuse of power against the South. From the First Reconstruction (1865-1877) to the Second Reconstruction (1957 [when Federal troops were sent back into the South]) to the present, the Federal government has shown a habitual disregard for state rights by regarding the states as the servants of the central government rather than the reverse.

Complete Southern autonomy and the establishment of a true confederate system is the only solution for the South that can remove the possibility of new encroachments against state rights by the Federal government. Devolution of central power back to the local and state level will remove an unneeded and unwarranted level of bureaucracy and provide the greatest amount of freedom and empowerment to the people.

Southern independence will allow us to work out our own problems by ourselves and not by Federal force. From slavery to segregation to under 21 drinking, the Federal government has been unwilling to let us work things out among ourselves if it has not been the proper solution at the proper speed deemed appropriate by our Federal ‘Big Brother’. In the case of secession we were told, ‘We don’t care what you want, you will remain in the Union whether you want to or not.’ In the ease of desegregation it was, ‘If you don’t move fast enough with what we consider “all deliberate speed” in our social engineering, we will send Federal troops back into the South to force you with violence if necessary to do as we say to do.’ In the case of the question of whether those under 21 should be able to drink, it was ‘Since the Constitution says nothing about a drinking age, you will raise the drinking age to 21 or else we will not give you back some of the Federal highway tax money that we have forced you to pay us.

Southern independence will allow Southern culture and heritage to flourish. The South will no longer have to struggle constantly to be permitted to celebrate its own holidays and traditions. Most importantly, the statement that the South is a history without a nation will no longer be true; we will have our national history without Yankee revisionism. We will be able emphasize again our agrarian and small town values and stop the process of every Southern city becoming an architectural carbon copy of Northern urban sprawl, strip malls and urban congestion.

Southern independence will check the inane drift toward world government through the United Nations. The same people who love a strong federal government think nothing about chipping away at our national sovereignty and freedom. Not surprisingly, our scalawag President Clinton was opposed to U.S. support for Chechnya since the U.S. had opposed secession. Imperialistic nations such as Russia, our own Federal government, and China can be counted on not to support secession and independence for the people of Kosovo and Tibet.

Southern independence is based on the belief that there are basic and distinct differences in culture, religion, political ideology, and ethnicity that form a nation distinct from the North. Ethnically the white population of the South has been predominantly from Great Britain and Ireland and northern Europe and Protestant Christian in religion. Politically the South has long been more conservative than the North or West, and regardless of ethnic background (e.g., black, Cajun, or Cherokee) all Southerners share a common history and certain similarities in cuisine, language, and music. To find out the differences between the North and the South, just tell a Southerner there aren’t any!

Southern independence and nationalism will check the growth of liberal internationalism, social engineering and radical egalitarianism. While Marxism is dead or dying throughout the old communist block nations, it remains an insidious virus within Western liberalism which has distorted liberalism from its previous lofty aims of individual freedom. It is this Marxist tainted liberalism which promotes an androgenous, homogenized, and centralized society under the guise of ‘diversity’ and ‘multiculturalism’. Southern nationalism is based on the belief that cultural heritage and traditions can best be maintained through ethnic autonomy. Robert Frost and his ilk notwithstanding, good fences do make good neighbors. Radical egalitarians not only want to tear down their neighbors’ fences; they also believe that ‘What’s mine is mine and What’s yours is also mine.’ Thus in their striving towards equality of condition, racial preferences become “affirmative action” and any scientific research into inherent racial or gender differences becomes taboo. SAT score requirements for minorities in colleges and physical requirements for women in the armed forces are lowered in order to meet radical egalitarian dogma. Instead our Southern heritage celebrates true diversity (as in complementary differences between men and women) and true multiculturalism (where differences are recognized yet evaluated accordingly instead of pretending that all cultures are equal).

Even without an organized political party to promulgate Southern nationalism, public opinion polls have indicated that approximately ten percent of the South’s population would support Southern independence if it could be obtained without violence. This means that a Southern nationalist party organizing for elections today would start out with a larger base of support than the Parti Quebecois did when it came into existence when less than five percent of the Quebecois supported independence for Quebec. Such a political party in the South could run candidates for local election and support national candidates it felt best represented the interests of the party.

And even a single state seceding and gaining independence would be more economically viable and politically feasible than some of the national states that have come into existence over the past fifty years. Even allowing for some of the financial technicalities (e.g., assumption of a per capita portion of the national debt). Imagine how wonderful it would be to wake up one morning in a state free of the dictates of Washington, master in its own house, and master of its own destiny!

As the single star of a new ‘Bonnie Blue Flag’ grows to include others, a true confederacy could be created, i.e., one with a truly weak central government that is created solely to be the servant of states (and not vice versa). Such a central government would attend almost exclusively to foreign affairs, a common currency, postal system, and defense. The new constitution would take seriously Patrick Henry’s admonitions against the ratification of the old Constitution.

A bumper sticker appeared several years ago which stated, ‘If independence sounds good in Lithuania, it’ll play great in Dixie.’ If independence can be obtained from the Soviet Union without bloodshed by three small Baltic states, surely the same can be done by the South. Someday we will be able to repeat in fact the lines from Timrod’s ‘Ethnogenesis’ written in 1861 upon the formation of the first Confederacy:

Hath not the morning dawned with added light?
And shall not evening call another star
Out of the infinite regions of the night,
To mark this day in heaven? At last we are
A nation among nations; and the world
Shall soon behold in many a distant port
Another flag unfurled.

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