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Posted at 9:00 AM ET, 12/ 7/2010

Gary Gallagher: Was the election of Abraham Lincoln a threat to the South?

By Gary Gallagher

Professor of history at the University of Virginia


Geography shaped perceptions of whether Abraham Lincoln's election represented a credible threat to the South. Of fifteen slave-holding states, only the Deep South's seven envisioned long-term consequences that justified secession. The Border States and the Upper South, which included Virginia, home to the most enslaved people, accepted the change of administration until the firing on Fort Sumter and Lincoln's call for 75,000 volunteers radically altered the political landscape.

Republicans insisted their platform posed no danger to any state. At their convention in 1860, they pledged to maintain "the rights of the states, and especially the right of each state, to order and control its own domestic institutions according to its own judgment exclusively." Slavery was the most important "domestic institution" within the context of sectional friction, so the only threat lay in the territories, which in 1860 contained a statistically insignificant number of slaves. Only a hysterical over-reaction among oligarchic slaveholders, argued Republicans, explained secession.

Republican protestations rang hollow in states with the largest percentage of families owning slaves, the highest average number of slaves held, and the greatest proportion of African American residents. Secessionists pointed to well-known statements by Lincoln and William Henry Seward as proof of Republican dissembling. During his debates with Stephen A. Douglas in 1858, Lincoln had stated that "a house divided against itself cannot stand. I believe this government cannot endure, permanently half slave and half free. . . ." That same year, Seward had spoken of "an irrepressible conflict between opposing and enduring forces, . . . the United States must and will, sooner or later, become either entirely a slave-holding nation or entirely a free-labor nation." Everyone knew Lincoln and Seward preferred a nation without any slaves, so the Deep South might well question the Republican commitment to accepting slavery where it existed.

Should Republicans strike at slavery, secessionists feared the loss of a substantial wealth--$3 billion according to the 1860 census, more than the value of all the nation's manufactures and railroads-as well as the prospect of dealing with the social implications of having millions of freed slaves in their midst. Jefferson Davis articulated a widespread opinion in April 1861. Barring slavery from the territories would have rendered "property in slaves so insecure as to be comparatively worthless, . . . thereby annihilating in effect property worth thousands of millions of dollars." Confronted with this menace to economic "interests of such overwhelming magnitude," added Davis, southern states "were driven by the conduct of the North to the adoption of some course of action to avert the danger."

The degree of threat posed to slavery by Lincoln's election thus lay, in large measure, in the eye of the beholder. And perception trumped reality in determining reactions across the slave-holding South.

By Gary Gallagher  | December 7, 2010; 9:00 AM ET
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