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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.
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