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

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OpnCoronet

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In support of this, from McPherson's "Battle Cry of Freedom" pp 229-231
Republican s refused to take these warnings to heart. They had heard them before, a dozen times or more. In 1856 Democrats had used such threats to frighten northerners into voting Democratic . Republicans believed that the same thing was happening in 1860. It was "the old game of scaring and bullying the North into submission to Southern demands," said the Republican mayor of Chicago. In a speech at St. Paul, Seward ridiculed this new southern effort "to terrify or alarm" the North. "Who's afraid? (Laughter an d cries of'no one.') Nobody's afraid; nobody can be bought. " Nor did Lincoln expect "any formidable effort to break up the Union. The people of the South have too much sense, " he thought, "to attempt the ruin of the government."

Hindsight was to reveal that southerners meant what they said. Two sagacious historians have maintained that Republican failure to take these warnings seriously was a "cardinal error." Yet it is hard to see what Republicans could have done to allay southern anxieties short of dissolving their party and proclaiming slavery a positive good. As a com mittee of the Virginia legislature put it, "the very existence of such a party is an offense to the whole South." A New Orleans editor regarded every northern vote cast for Lincoln as "a deliberate, cold-blooded insult and outrage' to southern honor. It was not so much what Republican s might do as what they stood for that angered southerners. "No other 'overt act' can so imperatively demand resistance on our part, " said a North Carolin a congressman, "as the simple election of their candidate."







I am not sure what is the point of the OP. To discuss whether Lincoln should have known better or done something other than what he did, without the benefit of foreknowledge(or the hindsight enjoyed by those in the future)?.
 

Andersonh1

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I am not sure what is the point of the OP. To discuss whether Lincoln should have known better or done something other than what he did, without the benefit of foreknowledge(or the hindsight enjoyed by those in the future)?.
When I first read a few letters by Lincoln, I was surprised that he didn't take secession threats seriously, so I wanted to explore that and see why that was the case. A number of good answers have been posted, and his attitude makes more sense to me now.
 
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OpnCoronet

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When I first read a few letters by Lincoln, I was surprised that he didn't take secession threats seriously, so I wanted to explore that and see why that was the case. A number of good answers have been posted, and his attitude makes more sense to me now.


In that regard, the McPherson clips in your previous Post, IMO, pretty well explains Lincoln's early misconceptions of the true state of the minds of southerners in general.

Seen in the context of the last 3o years(as Lincoln tended to do) why would he not, initially, assume the present crisis was any different, in form or attitudes, than all the other crisis over slavery expansion over those same 3 decades.
 

jgoodguy

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In support of this, from McPherson's "Battle Cry of Freedom" pp 229-231

This mass hysteria caused even southern unionists to warn Yankees that a Republican victory meant disunion. "The Election of Lincoln is Sufficient Cause for Secession," a Bell supporter in Alabama entitled his speech. The moderate Benjamin H . Hill of Georgia insisted that "this Government and Black Republicanism cannot live together. . . . At no period of the world's history have four thousand millions of property debated whether it ought to submit to the rule of an enemy." Not to be outdone in southern patriotism, the leading Douglas newspaper in Georgia thundered: "Let the consequences be what they may—whether the Potomac is crimsoned in human gore , and Pennsylvania Avenue is paved ten fathoms deep with mangled bodies . . . the South will never submit to such humiliation and degradation as the inauguration of Abraham Lincoln."

The fever spread to the border states. A unionist editor in Louisville professed to have received hundreds of letters "all informing us of a settled and widely-extended purpose to break up the Union" if Lincoln was elected. "We admit that the conspirators are mad , but such madness 'rules the hour. ' " John J. Crittenden, Kentucky's elder statesman of unionism, heir of Henry Clay's mantle of nationalism, gave a speech just before the election in which he denounced the "profound fanaticism " of Republicans who "think it their duty to destroy . . . the white man , in order that the black might be free. . . . [The South] has come to the conclusion that in case Lincoln should be elected . . . she could not submit to the consequences, and therefore, to avoid her fate, will secede from the Union."

Republican s refused to take these warnings to heart. They had heard them before, a dozen times or more. In 1856 Democrats had used such threats to frighten northerners into voting Democratic . Republicans believed that the same thing was happening in 1860. It was "the old game of scaring and bullying the North into submission to Southern demands," said the Republican mayor of Chicago. In a speech at St. Paul, Seward ridiculed this new southern effort "to terrify or alarm" the North. "Who's afraid? (Laughter an d cries of'no one.') Nobody's afraid; nobody can be bought. " Nor did Lincoln expect "any formidable effort to break up the Union. The people of the South have too much sense, " he thought, "to attempt the ruin of the government."
Hindsight was to reveal that southerners meant what they said. Two sagacious historians have maintained that Republican failure to take these warnings seriously was a "cardinal error." Yet it is hard to see what Republicans could have done to allay southern anxieties short of dissolving their party and proclaiming slavery a positive good. As a com mittee of the Virginia legislature put it, "the very existence of such a party is an offense to the whole South." A New Orleans editor regarded every northern vote cast for Lincoln as "a deliberate, cold-blooded insult and outrage' to southern honor. It was not so much what Republican s might do as what they stood for that angered southerners. "No other 'overt act' can so imperatively demand resistance on our part, " said a North Carolina congressman, "as the simple election of their candidate."
Note the blue bold. In short unless unless the Southern Political leaders are in control and their agenda is in place, it is disunion. Always the fly in the ointment when suggesting what Lincoln and Co should have done.
 

jgoodguy

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In that regard, the McPherson clips in your previous Post, IMO, pretty well explains Lincoln's early misconceptions of the true state of the minds of southerners in general.

Seen in the context of the last 3o years(as Lincoln tended to do) why would he not, initially, assume the present crisis was any different, in form or attitudes, than all the other crisis over slavery expansion over those same 3 decades.
In short, why in the world would there be a rebellion over a few slaves in territories where slavery is not viable.
 
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OpnCoronet

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In short, why in the world would there be a rebellion over a few slaves in territories where slavery is not viable.

Indeed. It only mattered if slavery in the territories was the issue, upon which, secessionists believed the future of slavery in the states turned.
 

jgoodguy

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Indeed. It only mattered if slavery in the territories was the issue, upon which, secessionists believed the future of slavery in the states turned.
IMHO more of a panic in losing political dominance of the country. Different Southern leaders could have handled things different. One reason I wonder why the emphasis on Lincoln when the burden of the past prior to 1860 is on Southern leaders. They had the initiative and were in public office long before Lincoln and even at the last minute could have stood up for their country against the secessionists, but chose political expediency.
 

OpnCoronet

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IMHO more of a panic in losing political dominance of the country. Different Southern leaders could have handled things different. One reason I wonder why the emphasis on Lincoln when the burden of the past prior to 1860 is on Southern leaders. They had the initiative and were in public office long before Lincoln and even at the last minute could have stood up for their country against the secessionists, but chose political expediency.


Well we are probably talking about opposite sides of the same coin.
It is true their panic over the possible loss of political power, in Congress(and, the Presidency too, for that matter)) was real enough. The benefits of Taney's Court had to be cemented into place by positive laws.

But, that panic was, itself indicative of the centrality of slavery to the existence of sectionalism, as a separate political, social and economic force, within the national gov't itself.

The southern oligarchs were generally satisfied with the, operation of the Federal gov't in relation to slavery and the states. The bugaboo, was getting slavery into newly created states, the source of the oligarch's political power in the national gov't, and, even more importantly, within the leadership ranks of the Democratic Party(or if necessary, a new national party).

Historically, except for SC, the southern oligarchs saw the federal gov't as guarantors of slavery in the states(not true, but they thought so). Without that guarantee, there was little reason to be governed by a gov't that would(or, could) not protect their property in slaves. After all, if slaves(slavery) was the defining of characteristic of your section(country?), then it was not only right but necessary to leave a gov't, that not only repudiated protecting slavery, but was instead, actually, dedicated to seeing the extinction of the cornerstone of your society. Whether that be long or short was immaterial, it was deadly, in either case to a society looking to the past, rather than the future.
 
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jgoodguy

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Well we are probably talking about opposite sides of the same coin.
It is true their panic over the possible loss of political power, in Congress(and, the Presidency too, for that matter)) was real enough. The benefits of Taney's Court had to be cemented into place by positive laws.

But, that panic was, itself indicative of the centrality of slavery to the existence of sectionalism, as a separate political, social and economic force, within the national gov't itself.

The southern oligarchs were generally satisfied with the, operation of the Federal gov't in relation to slavery and the states. The bugaboo, was getting slavery into newly created states, the source of the oligarch's political power in the national gov't, and, even more importantly, within the leadership ranks of the Democratic Party(or if necessary, a new national party).

Historically, except for SC, the southern oligarchs saw the federal gov't as guarantors of slavery in the states(not true, but they thought so). Without that guarantee, there was little reason to be governed by a gov't that would(or, could) not protect their property in slaves. After all, if slaves(slavery) was the defining of characteristic of your section(country?), then it was not only right but necessary to leave a gov't, that not only repudiated protecting slavery, but was instead, actually, dedicated to seeing the extinction of the cornerstone of your society. Whether that be long or short was immaterial, it was deadly, in either case to a society looking to the past, rather than the future.
Good analysis.
 

MattL

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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.
Very interesting and good topic for a thread. I think cataloguing Lincoln's views over time is quite interesting.

I think in general people take for granted that secession happened and that war happened. It's easy to point to certain people that said war was eminent and then believe anyone that didn't have that view was missing the obvious situation. The reality is there are always doomsayers, people calling that secession or war will happen. We see that still to this day. This isn't exclusive to American history or politics, each century is full of apocalypse doomsayers of a variety of both religion and politics.

The problem is once it happens, once secession and then civil war actually happened the doomsayers this time turned out to be right, but they were wrong every time before. I can wake up every day and say something bad is going to happen and eventually I will be right.

There were indeed decades of issues building around Slavery and the growing divide in the Nation. Battles over and over on the issue of slavery in the territories and the war of power in the government with pro and anti slavery interests. I think it's easy to in modern days see slavery = bad so Southern (and other) slave interests are bad, but I definitely don't see it that way for the time. There simply were competing interests like any other time in US history (probably the most unique aspect is it being so powerfully surrounding a single issue). Those interests certainly built in escalating conflict, though even then was secession and war inevitable, I don't think so.

Despite all the hostile conditions building over decades over slavery I still think what actually happened was a sequence of specific actions that resulted in war vs some other lesser conflict. For example, when the anti-slavery Whigs lost power they didn't secede and start a war, they ended up forming up under the Republicans and eventually taking power. I think something similar could have happened with the slave interests. They could've softened up on keeping slavery in the territories and found some broader interests to appeal to just enough people to gain more political power.

The more I study the sequence of events the more I feel like South Carolina really was the critical linchpin of events it seems to be. They were just so quick in response to seceding after the election. I mean it was before Lincoln was inaugurated. Hardly enough time for their political party or interests to evolve and combat things in a democratic way. To me it seems them jumping to action before everyone else really pushed the time table. My view may change as I read more, but they seemed to be the real zealots of the cause... I keep going back to their statement to the Virginia secession convention:

http://secession.richmond.edu/documents/index.html?keyword=non-slaveholders&element=p&formType=Keyword&start=1&order=date&direction=ascending&id=pb.1.104
----
This, gentlemen, brings me directly to the causes which I desire to lay before you. For fully thirty years or more, the people of the Northern States have assailed the institution of African slavery. They have assailed African slavery in every form in which, by our contiguity of territory and our political alliance with them, they have been permitted to approach it.
----

If you read the full thing that official commissioner from South Carolina gives four reasons for secession, all about how the North has assailed Southern slave interests. South Carolina certainly seemed far more passionate about things than Virginia (not surprising considering the secession timeline) and in many ways to the other states as well.

In the context of this I certainly can see why Lincoln didn't think secession was as serious as early as most of those quotes suggest. Most of the cited material was pretty early in, long before he was up to speed on things and honestly before most important things happened.

Maybe I missed something but the latest direct reference to Lincoln's views cited so far was Jan'y. 11th 1861. On that day the 4th state had seceded and the full intentions were far from clear. The secession states wouldn't hold a convention and form the CSA until about a month later. I imagine his views changed quite a bit as things progressed towards Fort Sumter.

I think a perspective that things would settle down and the South who legitimately lost the election would accept the full impact of that, that their party didn't appeal to the majority of the US, and would circle around and be more reasonable in their expectations (remember the South was upset that the territories might not be full slave territories, they weren't even happy with much of the compromises of splitting it). I think that perspective is probably far more reasonable than full on secession, the CSA and the South instigating violent aggression.
 

jgoodguy

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The problem is once it happens, once secession and then civil war actually happened the doomsayers this time turned out to be right, but they were wrong every time before. I can wake up every day and say something bad is going to happen and eventually I will be right.
Good point. My favorite analogy is that for anyone in history the way forward is a thicket of possible paths with unknown consequences, while looking back a single bright and shining path is seen.

IMHO the critical people and decision paths lay in the South. Exactly how a Illinois lawyer is going to figure that out is a mystery to me.
 
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MattL

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Good point. My favorite analogy is that for anyone in history the way forward is a thicket of possible paths with unknown consequences, while looking back a single bright and shining path is seen.

IMHO the critical people and decision paths lay in the South. Exactly how a Illinois lawyer is going to figure that out is a mystery to me.
Agreed. I mean the fact is the South did something unprecedented. Secession simply had never happened before or after this point, despite it coming up as a topic from time to time (and even as far as some sort of convention).

Who in their right mind in the North would suspect it would actually fully happen and not circle back around for political leverage. I mean reading the Virginia secession convention meeting transcriptions is amazingly insightful. Even up until just before Fort Sumter in early April they were still debating secession. They still couldn't get more than about a third to go for secession at that moment and even those that did weren't sure how they would proceed from that point. In their own words having to choose to send troops to fight for the North against the South vs. sending them to the South to fight the North, they chose their "brethren" in the Southern slave states.

It seems clear that even many Southerners weren't sure it would lead to anything serious up until Fort Sumter.

I'm going a bit off topic though... To circle back around, i find the progression of Lincolns thoughts is very important and interesting and I'd be very curious to his thoughts closer to Fort Sumter vs in Nov, Dec, and Jan as we've seen. Though I don't know if it would've made any impact at all if he was an early alarmist vs the pragmatist Lincoln seems to be more often than not.
 
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