Although the economic depression of 1857–1858 put a temporary damper on the slavery debate, the radical abolitionist John Brown quickly revived it with another violent incident. On October 16, 1859, Brown—the infamous Free-Soiler who had killed five proslavery men at the Pottawatomie Massacre in Kansas in 1856—stormed an arsenal at Harpers Ferry, Virginia (present-day West Virginia), with twenty other men. He hoped the raid would prompt slaves throughout Virginia and the South to rise up against their masters.
Strangely, though, the fanatical Brown had never informed the slaves of his plan, so no uprising took place, and Brown and his men found themselves cornered inside the arsenal. A long standoff ended with half the raiders dead and the rest, including Brown, captured. After a speedy trial, Brown was convicted of treason and hanged. Before his death, he announced that he would gladly die if his death brought the nation closer to justice.
Brown’s execution was met with cheers in the South and wails in the North. His raid had touched on Southerners’ deepest fear that their slaves would one day rise up against them, and many in the South viewed him as a criminal and a traitor of the worst kind. Most Northerners, however, saw Brown as a martyr, especially after he so boldly denounced slavery with his final words.
Amid this tense atmosphere, the nation’s political parties convened to select their respective candidates for the presidential election of 1860. Democrats gathered in Charleston, South Carolina, but were bitterly deadlocked on whom to nominate. Though Stephen Douglas was the party favorite, no Southern Democrat would vote for him after he had rejected the Lecompton Constitution in 1858. Unable to compromise, the party split: Northern Democrats returned home and nominated Douglas, while Southern Democrats chose proslavery Vice President John C. Breckinridge from Kentucky.
The Republicans also had trouble choosing a candidate. Senator William Seward from New York was the most popular choice but also the riskiest because of his hard-line antislavery stance. Moreover, the Republicans knew they needed a candidate who could win both the Northeast and the contested Northwest (now called the Midwest), where the Democrats had a strong foothold.
As a result, the Republicans settled on the lanky Abraham Lincoln from Illinois, who had a reputation in the North for being a moderate and a Unionist. Nonetheless, a small faction of Republicans saw Lincoln as too much of an abolitionist and instead nominated Tennessean John Bell under the banner of the proslavery Constitutional Union Party.
With the parties split and compromise no longer a solution, the election of 1860 was less a national election that two sectional elections. Most Southern states refused to put Lincoln’s name on the ballot or acknowledge his candidacy, and several even vowed to leave the Union if Lincoln were elected. Few people took this secession talk seriously, however, for the South had been making similar threats for decades.
The run-up to the election was intense as the four major candidates crisscrossed the country discussing the issues. On top of their traditional platform of higher tariffs and internal improvements, Lincoln and the Republicans added the promise of maintaining the Union. The Constitutional Union candidate, Bell, likewise promised to preserve the Union. Northern Democrat Douglas delivered antisecession speeches, and Southern Democrat Breckinridge defended slavery.
In the end, Lincoln won a resounding victory, with 40 percent of the popular vote. He won a total of 180 electoral votes, while the other candidates combined won 123.
A month after Lincoln’s election, legislators in South Carolina voted unanimously to secede; within several weeks, Alabama, Florida, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, and Texas followed suit. Despite “Honest Abe’s” reputation in the North as a moderate, he was vilified as a radical abolitionist “Black Republican” in the South. Much to the dismay of anxious Northerners, lame-duck president James Buchanan did nothing to address the secession crisis. Lincoln also waited to take action until he had officially become president.
Meanwhile, delegates from the seven secessionist states met in Montgomery, Alabama, in February 1861 to form the government of the new Confederate States of America. They drafted a new constitution; chose Richmond, Virginia, to be the new capital; and selected former Mississippi senator Jefferson Davis as the Confederacy’s first president. (For more information about the Confederate government, see The Confederate Side)
Hoping to prevent war from breaking out after the secession, Senator John Crittenden from Kentucky proposed another compromise. He suggested adding an amendment to the Constitution to protect slavery in all territories south of 36˚ 30', and then allowing popular sovereignty to determine whether these Southern territories became free or slave when they applied for statehood. All territories north of 36˚ 30', meanwhile, would be free. Many Southerners contemplated the Crittenden Compromise, but Lincoln rejected it on the grounds that he had been elected to block the westward expansion of slavery.
As both Northerners and Southerners waited to see how Lincoln would respond, he calmly announced in his first inaugural address that he would do nothing. Rather, he reaffirmed the North’s friendship with the South, stressed national unity, and asked Southerners to abandon secession. Moreover, he declared that the secession was illegal and that he would maintain the Union at all costs—but that he would make no move against the South unless provoked.
In announcing that he himself would take no action, Lincoln placed the responsibility for any future violence squarely on the South’s shoulders. He knew that Americans in the North would support a war only in which the Southerners were the aggressors. Lincoln could thus continue to claim honestly that he was fighting to defend and save the Union from those who wished to tear it apart.
Jefferson Davis, on the other hand, announced in his inaugural speech that the South might be required to use force to secure its aims, and that spring, the South made good on its word. On April 12, 1861, General P. T. Beauregard ordered his South Carolinian militia unit to attack Fort Sumter, a Union stronghold on an island in Charleston Harbor. After a day of intense bombardment, Major Robert Anderson surrendered the fort to Beauregard. South Carolina’s easy victory prompted four more states—Arkansas, North Carolina, Tennessee, and Virginia—to secede. The Civil War had begun.
The fall of Fort Sumter was not a major battle, militarily speaking: the Union troops surrendered only because they ran out of supplies, and neither side suffered any serious casualties. However, the easy seizure of Fort Sumter inspired complacency in the South: Southerners misinterpreted Anderson’s surrender as a sign that the Union was weak and unwilling to fight.
Lincoln’s lack of immediate response was likewise misleading. The North appeared to do nothing for months afterward—the next battle wasn’t fought until July—and the South interpreted this inaction as further weakness. In reality, Lincoln used the interim weeks to ready the military and put the gears of the North’s war machine into motion. The brutal war that followed turned out to be far different from the smooth sailing the South initially expected.