In the period between Lincoln's election in November and his inauguration in March, the Union disintegrated. On November 9, three short days after Lincoln's election, a secession convention was called in South Carolina. Although no definitive action was taken, South Carolina's senators resigned from Congress the next day. In the following weeks, several southern states would consider seriously the possibility of leaving the union.
In December, President Buchanan made his final address to Congress. As a lame duck, Buchanan took a characteristically pasty stance, calling secession illegal but also failing to recognize the Federal government's capacity to prevent such action. With his administration winding down and sectional conflict heating up, Buchanan began to lose the members of his cabinet one by one. On December 8, Secretary of Treasury Howell Cobb of Georgia presented his resignation, indicating his view that secession was a necessary step for the southern states. Less than a week later, Secretary of State Lewis Cass of Michigan would also resign, but for very different reasons, feeling that Buchanan was not taking a strong enough stand against the threat of secession.
Finally, on December 20, 1860, against the best efforts of President Buchanan to the contrary, South Carolina officially seceded from the Union. As the home state of the late John C. Calhoun, champion of nullification, South Carolina had tested the constitutional basis of union before, but it had never stepped quite this far into the unknown. Implausible and unlikely as it might have seemed, the United States had become two nations.
In a last desperate attempt to preserve what remained of the Union, and to bring South Carolina back into the fold, Senator John J. Crittenden of Kentucky attempted to follow in the steps of his fellow statesman Clay with a compromise that would be amenable to all sides. His proposal provided for the restoration of the boundary drawn under the Missouri Compromise, an even stricter fugitive slave law, federal compensation for owners of runaway slaves, and territorial entry into the Union on the basis of popular sovereignty. In addition, a congressional proviso would prevent the Constitution from being amended in such as to prohibit slavery in states where it already existed.
The Crittenden Compromise enjoyed considerable support, but in the end it was Lincoln who rejected it as untenable. Satisfied though he was with the idea of guaranteeing the right of slavery in states where it existed, Lincoln insisted that the government could "entertain no proposition for a compromise in regard to the extension of slavery." Crittenden would suffer as much as any in this final failure to reach middle ground: one of his sons remained with the Union in the Civil War while the other defected to the Confederacy.
With an insurgent state government in his midst, President Buchanan was faced with a crisis in the closing days of his administration. In attempt to cut their losses in truant South Carolina, federal agents had bolstered their position at Fort Sumter in Charleston Harbor on December 26. Reasserting independence from the federal government, South Carolina demanded a total evacuation of the harbor. Buchanan refused to comply, and sent a ship full of reinforcements and supplies down to Charleston a few days later. With this act, Buchanan lost the remainder of his cabinet, which had been liquidated completely in less than a month.
When the federal ship arrived in Charleston Harbor on January 9, South Carolina opened fire against it, and Buchanan decided to withdraw, content to possess Fort Sumter if not to reinforce it. That would become Lincoln's problem. So too would the continuing tide of secession. In the aftermath of the Charleston skirmish, four more states seceded from the Union: Mississippi on the day of the clash, Florida the day after, Alabama the day after that, and Georgia one week later.
Hoping to stem the momentum of secession, Virginia representatives proposed a national peace conference on January 19. However, the integrity of the conference was undermined by a boycott from the Deep South, and without national representation little could be accomplished. In late January Kansas was admitted to the Union as a free state, but this could hardly compensate for the defection of two more states, Louisiana on January 26 and Texas on February 1.
In early February, the seceded states met in Montgomery, Alabama to form an alliance, which they termed the Confederate States of America. A constitution was drafted, and Jefferson Davis, a former senator who had recently resigned his seat in Washington, was named and inaugurated as president.
Amidst this national drama, on February 11, Lincoln set out from his Springfield home en route to Washington for his inauguration. In his brief but moving farewell address to his townsmen, he affectionately took their leave, "not knowing when or whether ever I may return." A twelve-day train trip ensued, with stops scheduled for various eastern cities along the way. Security was at a maximum on the rails, and Lincoln was whisked in and out of several locales, often under cover of darkness. Combined with Lincoln's emerging whiskers (grown at the suggestion of a young correspondent), his furtive journey to Washington gave him something of the air of a fugitive in the land he was poised to command.
As Lincoln drew closer and closer to Washington, the level of tension grew higher and higher. Lincoln cut short his visit to Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, and left Philadelphia promptly after his advisers received word of an assassination plot. Menace was also looming in Baltimore, where another assassination attempt was said to be lurking.
Despite the various threats on his life, Lincoln made it safely to Washington at the end of February. But in the bargain his credibility suffered at the hands of those who lampooned his secretive, almost frightened, journey east. Attempting to silence his critics, Lincoln delivered a firm, forceful inaugural address on March 4. Reasserting the dual rights of the federal and state governments, Lincoln denied any wish to interfere with the question of slavery in the southern states. Rather than harping on the need to contain slavery, Lincoln chose to place his emphasis on the necessity of preserving the Union.
In the interest of the Union's integrity, Lincoln resolved to "hold, occupy and possess the property and places belonging to the government." It would be up to the states to decide whether such a resolution would necessitate warfare. On the podium, this was a master stroke of rhetoric by Lincoln, but in practical terms the statement was a meaningless one. The Union was prepared to do what it had to in order to keep what it felt was rightfully its own, and if aggression followed suit then so be it.
Recognizing the precariousness of his political situation, Lincoln made every effort to turn his northern rivals into friends. He named William Seward Secretary of State, and Salmon Chase Secretary of Treasury. Additionally, he had several promises to fulfill as a result of the finagling his supporters had engaged in at the Republican nominating convention. One such arrangement was realized in the nomination of Simon Cameron as Secretary of War, which would prove to be a post of more than usual importance in this particular administration. But as a purely political appointment, Cameron would not last long, being replaced less than a year later by the indefatigable Edwin Stanton.
The result of Lincoln's cabinet decisions was an eclectic and diverse cabinet of Republicans who held varying views on the questions of slavery and union. It is a mark of Lincoln's political adroitness that he was even able to win the ear and loyalty of Stephen Douglas, his former rival and erstwhile Democrat. At the inauguration, Douglas made a symbolic gesture by holding Lincoln's hat and cane as Lincoln delivered his inaugural address.
In the first months of the administration, Douglas was a loyal supporter and trusted adviser to Lincoln. Tragically, on a diplomatic speaking tour of the Confederacy in the spring of 1861, Douglas contracted typhoid fever and died on June 3 in Chicago. Lincoln, normally loath to form close relationships, wept openly at news of the loss of his foremost rival and longtime friend. Only a few short years before, the two men had argued passionately about a question that threatened to divide the Union. And within a few short years, by working to repair that divide, both men would surrender their lives in the service of the Union.