How did Lincoln view the South's threat to secede?

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Andersonh1

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I feel like I hijacked jgoodguy's Northern Views thread, and I didn't intend to do that, so I wanted to bring this discussion to another thread. After Lincoln had been elected but before he was inaugurated, he wrote the following letter on January 11, 1861.

http://quod.lib.umich.edu/l/lincoln/lincoln4/1:268.1?rgn=div2;submit=Go;subview=detail;type=simple;view=fulltext;q1=1860

Confidential. Hon. J. T. Hale Springfield, Ill. Jan'y. 11th 1861.
My dear Sir---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. Yours very truly, A. LINCOLN.

It seemed to me on first reading this that Lincoln seemed to not believe that secession was anything other than a strongarm tactic by Southern states to extract concessions in exchange for remaining in the Union. He saw it as a blatant attempt to control the government. Others saw that Lincoln took this view and tried to change his mind, apparently with no success.

http://www.abrahamlincolnsclassroom.org/abraham-lincoln-in-depth/abraham-lincoln-and-secession/

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

-----------------------------------------------------

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.

I found all of this quite interesting to think about. We look back on the war as something that proceeded in an obvious fashion and think that everyone should have known what was coming, but it seems that Lincoln did not treat secession as a real event, but just as an obnoxious bit of political blackmail. Would he have proceeded differently once he was sworn in if he had taken it more seriously? Does this attitude of Lincoln's shed some light on how he chose to deal with Fort Sumter and Fort Pickens? I'm interested in everyone's thoughts on this.
 

Andersonh1

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Lincoln seriously thought that South Carolina would allow revenue to be collected after they seceded, and that would mean that the Union could be maintained.

http://www.nytimes.com/1860/12/20/news/visit-mr-lincoln-president-elect-his-office-conversation-public-affairs-his.html

At length, one of the party asked him if he had any news from the South. "No," he replied; "I have not yet read the dispatches in 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.
 
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rpkennedy

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As I've said before, it seems that Lincoln was trying to maintain normalcy while giving time to the Unionist majority which he believed would pressure the secessionists to come back to the Union. If Lincoln can be faulted for anything, it's his overly optimistic appraisal of unionism within the seceded states.

Ryan
 

jgoodguy

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As I've said before, it seems that Lincoln was trying to maintain normalcy while giving time to the Unionist majority which he believed would pressure the secessionists to come back to the Union. If Lincoln can be faulted for anything, it's his overly optimistic appraisal of unionism within the seceded states.

Ryan
Some points to consider.

Private Citizen Lincoln:
  • Will be a private citizen until March 4, 1861
  • Only has history and the newspapers for information.
  • Is not getting intelligence briefing from Buchanan who will keep him ignorant.
  • Has no intelligence gathering capability.
  • Is head of his party, first and foremost he must rally and unify the Republican party if the US is to be saved.
  • Compromise will destroy the party and the nation.
  • Devoid of information other than what he has read to that point in books and newspapers.
  • Has no authority other than that of any other private citizen to act.
  • No knowledge of the future.
  • Secession is an one off event. No one has endured one before.
  • Southerns have been threatening secession for 80 years.
So why are we here?
 

Andersonh1

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Granted, Lincoln did not have access to all the facts on the ground, so I'm not necessarily criticizing his position. It's just a side of his thinking that I had not seen before, and it does make me wonder if things might have been different if he had earlier taken a more realistic view of secession.

https://books.google.com/books/about/Lincoln_s_Tragic_Pragmatism.html?id=nPCpZktGqjgC&printsec=frontcover&source=kp_read_button#v=onepage&q&f=false

Lincoln's correspondence and remarks during the secession winter reflected some of the uncertainties of his position. On November 20, 1860, a little more than two weeks after his election, Lincoln inserted two paragraphs into a speech given by Lyman Trumbull:

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, maintajn 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.

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. (2: 187)


There are two arguments in this passage: (1) that since it should be obvious that the Republicans really represent no threat to slavery in the slave states, Lincoln's election will provide an occasion to separate those who have legitimate concerns with slavery from those who are disunionists per se, and 2) that the mobilization of all of the southern state militias will prove to be useful in suppressing any secessionist insurrections. Both arguments manifest either a desperate attempt to whistle through the graveyard or a scarcely believable level of wishful thinking. Trumbull, understanding this, omitted the last point when he gave his speech.
 
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jgoodguy

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Granted, Lincoln did not have access to all the facts on the ground, so I'm not necessarily criticizing his position. It's just a side of his thinking that I had not seen before, and it does make me wonder if things might have been different if he had earlier taken a more realistic view of secession.

https://books.google.com/books/about/Lincoln_s_Tragic_Pragmatism.html?id=nPCpZktGqjgC&printsec=frontcover&source=kp_read_button#v=onepage&q&f=false

Lincoln's correspondence and remarks during the secession winter reflected some of the uncertainties of his position. On November 20, 1860, a little more than two weeks after his election, Lincoln inserted two paragraphs into a speech given by Lyman Trumbull:

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, maintajn 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.

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. (2: 187)


There are two arguments in this passage: (1) that since it should be obvious that the Republicans really represent no threat to slavery in the slave states, Lincoln's election will provide an occasion to separate those who have legitimate concerns with slavery from those who are disunionists per se, and 2) that the mobilization of all of the southern state militias will prove to be useful in suppressing any secessionist insurrections. Both arguments manifest either a desperate attempt to whistle through the graveyard or a scarcely believable level of wishful thinking. Trumbull, understanding this, omitted the last point when he gave his speech.
Ah the blame Lincoln starch gets added to a thin gruel to make some sort of gravy. Unpalatable to begin with no amount of what if speculation will add any flavor to it.

Secession was a secessionist plot to secede. Led by the South Carolina Gist, in the knowledge that public acknowledgement and discussion of secession had sunk past attempts, he engaged in a secret coup to secede with deep South governors he could depend on. Lincoln had no knowledge of this plot and could in no case could have prevented it.

The Road to Disunion, Volume II : Secessionists Triumphant Volume II By William W. Freehling
pp 389-399 parts quoted below cover this.

To answer your question, if by some chance a psychic told Lincoln of this secret plot and he exposed it to the press, then secession would have taken a different path. OTOH if the secessionists had played fair and done their disputable business in the open with free and open debate, 700,000 lives could have been saved.

p1.png


p2.png
 

Andersonh1

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Ah the blame Lincoln starch gets added to a thin gruel to make some sort of gravy. Unpalatable to begin with no amount of what if speculation will add any flavor to it.
In my reading I have discovered something I didn't know about Lincoln, and it surprised me. So as I said, and I did mean what I said, I'm not necessarily criticizing Lincoln here. I'm genuinely interested in the fact that he did not seem to take secession threats seriously, because in the face of what the South was doing, that mindset makes no sense to me. So please don't start assigning motivations to me that I don't have. Believe me, if I want to criticize Lincoln, I won't dance around the issue.

To answer your question, if by some chance a psychic told Lincoln of this secret plot and he exposed it to the press, then secession would have taken a different path. OTOH if the secessionists had played fair and done their disputable business in the open with free and open debate, 700,000 lives could have been saved.
Plotting may have been secret, but the actions of South Carolina and the other states were out in the open for all to see.
 

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In my reading I have discovered something I didn't know about Lincoln, and it surprised me. So as I said, and I did mean what I said, I'm not necessarily criticizing Lincoln here. I'm genuinely interested in the fact that he did not seem to take secession threats seriously, because in the face of what the South was doing, that mindset makes no sense to me. So please don't start assigning motivations to me that I don't have. Believe me, if I want to criticize Lincoln, I won't dance around the issue.



Plotting may have been secret, but the actions of South Carolina and the other states were out in the open for all to see.
Personally I hear waltz music.
 
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jgoodguy

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Assuming this is a what if question. What if private citizen Lincoln had the knowledge of the secession plot and results that I have, do I think he would do anything different. No is my answer. Nothing different that he did.

His priority is to save the United States and to do that, he needs a united Republican Party for political unity and Northern citizens support for his policies. He succeeded in that. There was an intensive discussion in Northern newspapers, gathering places and among Northern politicians. All possibilities were discussed and by the time Fort Sumter was fired upon, the matter had been settled. Lincoln is not going to surrender and surrender is the only thing that will change the course of history. The majority of Northerners will support that decision.
 

Andersonh1

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Assuming this is a what if question. What if private citizen Lincoln had the knowledge of the secession plot and results that I have, do I think he would do anything different. No is my answer. Nothing different that he did.

His priority is to save the United States and to do that, he needs a united Republican Party for political unity and Northern citizens support for his policies. He succeeded in that. There was an intensive discussion in Northern newspapers, gathering places and among Northern politicians. All possibilities were discussed and by the time Fort Sumter was fired upon, the matter had been settled. Lincoln is not going to surrender and surrender is the only thing that will change the course of history. The majority of Northerners will support that decision.
- Why did Lincoln not take secession seriously?
- Why, if his friends and colleagues could see the situation for what it was, could Lincoln not do the same?
- Did he understand it, and was he just putting up a good front to avoid letting the secessionists believe they'd gotten to him?
- What would have changed once he became President if he had seen how serious it was? In the short amount of time that he had before Fort Sumter, would or could his approach to the situation have changed?
- to what extent did Lincoln's belief contribute to the crisis, if at all, and how that crisis was handled?
 

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- Why did Lincoln not take secession seriously?
- Why, if his friends and colleagues could see the situation for what it was, could Lincoln not do the same?
- Did he understand it, and was he just putting up a good front to avoid letting the secessionists believe they'd gotten to him?
- What would have changed once he became President if he had seen how serious it was? In the short amount of time that he had before Fort Sumter, would or could his approach to the situation have changed?
- to what extent did Lincoln's belief contribute to the crisis, if at all, and how that crisis was handled?
Do you want me to move this thread to the what if forum. This is not history, it is a what if inquiry.
 
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Andersonh1

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Do you want me to move this thread to the what if forum. This is not history, it is a what if inquiry.
I don't agree. There's some speculation involved, but there's also questions about why Lincoln believed what he did, and to me that's the more relevant question than the 'what if' speculations.

As I've said before, it seems that Lincoln was trying to maintain normalcy while giving time to the Unionist majority which he believed would pressure the secessionists to come back to the Union. If Lincoln can be faulted for anything, it's his overly optimistic appraisal of unionism within the seceded states.

Ryan
I've read some things that would back this up, including the quote I posted earlier where Lincoln thought the militia in the states would deal with the secessionists.
 
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BillO

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In my reading I have discovered something I didn't know about Lincoln, and it surprised me. So as I said, and I did mean what I said, I'm not necessarily criticizing Lincoln here. I'm genuinely interested in the fact that he did not seem to take secession threats seriously, because in the face of what the South was doing, that mindset makes no sense to me. So please don't start assigning motivations to me that I don't have. Believe me, if I want to criticize Lincoln, I won't dance around the issue.



Plotting may have been secret, but the actions of South Carolina and the other states were out in the open for all to see.
You are not allowed to question!
 
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Andersonh1

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My only question as host of this forum is that if this is a what if thread and that is what it appears to me to be, then it is in the wrong forum.
And as I've said, I don't see it as a "what if" question at all. My main question is "why did Lincoln believe what he did?" when it came to secession in the Southern states when it would seem to fly against common sense for him not to take secession more seriously.
 

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I don't want to interject myself into a quarrel but I will say the OP question does not seem like a Lincoln attack to me and I think it a reasonable question to ask. Quotes were provided that do seem to imply Lincoln at first thought things wouldn't really get out of hand. Seems reasonable to wonder what he thought at that time and how his thinking changed once he took office. How is simply asking that a veiled attack ?
 
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I don't want to interject myself into a quarrel but I will say the OP question does not seem like a Lincoln attack to me and I think it a reasonable question to ask. Quotes were provided that do seem to imply Lincoln at first thought things wouldn't really get out of hand. Seems reasonable to wonder what he thought at that time and how his thinking changed once he took office. How is simply asking that a veiled attack ?
Too many years on CWT leads me to be extra sensitive about some subjects.
Too often I am correct.
Be that as it may.
Continue on. Keep it to factual history.
 

BillO

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I don't want to interject myself into a quarrel but I will say the OP question does not seem like a Lincoln attack to me and I think it a reasonable question to ask. Quotes were provided that do seem to imply Lincoln at first thought things wouldn't really get out of hand. Seems reasonable to wonder what he thought at that time and how his thinking changed once he took office. How is simply asking that a veiled attack ?
It isn't but I guarantee you several folks here are sharpening their quills as I type this. Be prepared, you have been warned.
Expect several lengthy posts saying nothing to follow.
 
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