It is hard to deny Abraham Lincoln’s political acumen.  He understood his constituents, and he sagely analyzed his political opponents, including Republicans and Northern Democrats.

Lincoln combined his knowledge of human nature, Northern voters, and national issues to win the Republican nomination for president.  However, he didn’t anticipate that Southern states would secede.  This blog post will discuss Lincoln’s miscalculation and a possible link to the topic of Southern honor.

Abraham Lincoln (Library of Congress)

A contentious time

Historian David M. Potter states that Republicans saw recent history as “one long shameful record of concession after concession to the insatiable Slave-ocracy.  The annexation of Texas, the Mexican War, the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850, the Kansas-Nebraska Act, all were designed to buy off the South.”[1]

Insights into Lincoln’s convictions

President-elect Lincoln told one of his Republican allies in December 1860:  “Let there be no compromise on the question of extending slavery … The tug has to come, & better now, than any time hereafter.”[2]

A candid, prophetic statement

A year earlier, before Lincoln was a presidential candidate, he told a crowd in Leavenworth, Kansas:

If constitutionally we elect a President, and therefore you [Southerners] undertake to destroy the Union, it will be our duty to deal with you as old John Brown has been dealt with.

His listeners remembered that federal troops stopped the insurrection.  Lincoln hastened to add his hope that “extreme measures” wouldn’t be necessary.[3]

Southerners crying “Wolf”

By the 1860 campaign season, according to Potter, “All parties at the South were agreed in either threatening to leave or reserving the right to leave a government administered by Republicans.”  Potter explains that Republicans “were able to ignore the whole thing.  The constantly reiterated threats of secession … had, to all intents and purposes, ceased to be audible to them.”

Senator Henry Wilson had expressed a typical Republican attitude:  “Sir, you cannot kick out of the Union the men who utter these impotent threats.”

Republican confidence

Potter continues:

The Republicans … still felt confident that the latent mass of the Southern people were devoted to the Federal government, and that any overt attempt at secession would arouse this large and heretofore inarticulate majority to violent opposition, thus destroying secession by local action.[4]

Cries for help

In contrast with Republican confidence, Unionist Southern Democrats fought for their political lives against Ultra-Secessionist Democrats (“Fire-eaters”).  The Unionists cried for President-Elect Lincoln to give tangible signs that he would protect slavery.  Lincoln kept public silence, but he wrote a few Unionists of his kindly intentions.

Private, revealing letters

Unionist Southern Democrat Alexander H. Stephens of Georgia exchanged letters with Lincoln, shedding light on Lincoln’s thinking shortly before, and shortly after, Southern states started to secede.

Alexander H. Stephens (Library of Congress)

After Lincoln’s election, Stephens told the Georgia Legislature on November 14, 1860:

My object is not to stir up strife, but to allay it; not to appeal to your passions, but to your reason … Before looking to extreme measures, let us first see, as Georgians, that everything which can be done to preserve our rights, our interests, and our honor, as well as the peace of the country in the Union, be first done … To make a point of resistance to the government, to withdraw from it because a man has been constitutionally elected, puts us in the wrong …

But it is said Mr. Lincoln’s policy and principles are against the Constitution, and that, if he carries them out, it will be destructive of our rights. Let us not anticipate a threatened evil.[5]

President-Elect Lincoln read Stephens’s speech.  On December 22, 1860, two days after South Carolina seceded, Lincoln wrote Stephens:

I fully appreciate the present peril the country is in, and the weight of responsibility on me.  Do the people of the South really entertain fears that a Republican administration would, directly or indirectly, interfere with the slaves, or with them about the slaves? … I wish to assure you … that there is no cause for such fears …

You think slavery is right and ought to be extended, while we think it is wrong and ought to be restricted.  That, I suppose, is the rub.  It certainly is the only substantial difference between us.[6]

Stephens responded to Lincoln on December 30, 1860:

In my judgment, the people of the South do not entertain any fears that a Republican Administration, or at least the one about to be inaugurated, would attempt to interfere directly and immediately with slavery in the States. Their apprehension and disquietude do not spring from that source …

The leading object [of Republicans] seems to be simply, and wantonly, if you please, to put the institutions of nearly half the States under the ban of public opinion and national condemnation. This, upon general principles, is quite enough of itself to arouse a spirit not only of general indignation but of revolt.

Lincoln may not have properly reckoned with inflamed Southern honor.

An under-appreciated factor

Historian Bertram Wyatt-Brown explains:

In 1860-61, the lower South separated from the Union out of a sense of almost uncontrollable outrage.  To be sure, slavery was the root cause of sectional conflict … The threat to slavery’s legitimacy in the Union prompted the sectional crisis, but it was Southern honor that pulled the trigger …

At the heart of the conflict was Southern fear of free-state political and economic power and what that portended for the future of the peculiar institution.[7]

The complexity of honor and shame

Wyatt-Brown explains the connection between white liberty and Antebellum slavery:

Racism, white freedom and equality, and honor were not discrete concerns in the Southern mind.  They were all an inseparable part of personal and regional self-definition.  White supremacy, as Ulrich B. Phillips maintained long ago, was the ‘central theme’ of Southern culture.  Yet the language for expressing it was largely framed in terms of honor and shame.

To put it another way, white liberty was sustainable, it was thought, only on the basis of black slavery.  Black freedom, on the other hand, necessarily meant white disgrace because it placed the Southerner on a level with African Americans and Republicans.[8]

According to Stephens and many other leaders, Southerners perceived a long-term threat to the peculiar institution through the Republican Platform of 1856.

Piercing complaints

Historian Wyatt-Brown explains the impact of decades of abolitionist complaints:

Criticism of the South – its slave system, morals, and culture – had so vastly expanded that Southern whites increasingly felt deeply insulted to the point of disunion and war.  They reacted in the language they knew best – the rhetoric of honor – whose use provided the Southern cause with moral urgency and self-justification.[9]

Another motive for slavery in the territories

Wyatt-Brown suggests a connection between reputation and political battles:

Anti-slavery attacks stained the reputations by which Southern whites judged their place and power in the world.  Such, for instance, was the reason why slaveholders insisted on the right to carry their property into the free territories at will.  It was not solely a matter of expanding slavery’s boundaries, though that was of course important.

No less significant, however, was Southern whites’ resentment against any congressional measure that implied the moral inferiority of their region, labor system, or style of life.[10]

Historian Wyatt-Brown continues:

Just as personal insults could lead to duels, so could Northern assaults on Southern reputation for honesty and Christian bearing result in civil conflict.  John Brown’s raid and Lincoln’s election seemed a culmination of Northern contempt, hostility, and determination to destroy Southern wealth and power, all of which Republicans considered dependent upon that corrupting national canker, slavery.[11]

In retrospect, it seems that Lincoln didn’t anticipate secession, in part, because he misunderstood the importance of Southern-defined honor.

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Thank you for reading my blog.  Please leave any comments and questions below.

[1] David M. Potter, Lincoln and His Party in the Secession Crisis (Baton Rouge:  1995), 47.

[2] Lincoln to Lyman Trumbull, 12/10/1860, Roy P. Basler et al., eds., The Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln vol. IV (New Brunswick, NJ:  1953-1955), 149-150.

[3] Abraham Lincoln speech, 12/3/1859, George W. Martin, Transactions of the Kansas State Historical Society, 1901-1902, Vol. VII (Topeka:  1902), 540-544.

[4] Potter, Lincoln and His Party in the Secession Crisis, 6, 9, 16-17.

[5] Stephens to Georgia Legislature, 11/14/1860, in Cleveland, Alexander H. Stephens in Public and Private, 695-697.

[6] Abraham Lincoln to Alexander H, Stephens, L12/22/1860, found on Lincoln/Net, Northern Illinois University, University Libraries Online Digital Collections, http://lincoln.lib.niu.edu/islandora/object/niu-lincoln%3A36652

[7] Bertram Wyatt-Brown, The Shaping of Southern Culture:  Honor, Grace, and War, 1760s – 1880s (Chapel Hill:  2001), 177-178.

[8] Wyatt-Brown, The Shaping of Southern Culture, 199-200.

[9] Wyatt-Brown, The Shaping of Southern Culture, 178.

[10] Wyatt-Brown, The Shaping of Southern Culture, 198.

[11] Wyatt-Brown, The Shaping of Southern Culture, 78.