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

Harold Holzer: Was the election of Abraham Lincoln a threat to the South?

By Harold Holzer

Author or editor of 36 books, many on Lincoln, and chairman of the Abraham Lincoln Bicentennial Foundation


In a sense, of course his election was a threat to the South -- to the White South, anyway. To discourage secession and rebellion, Lincoln vainly tried reassuring Southerners after his victory that he represented no more danger to them than had George Washington. But the region knew better. Lincoln’s Republican Party had made it manifest in its platform that if it came to power it would not tolerate the spread of slavery. This restriction alone -- not on slavery where it existed, but merely on its migration west -- was enough for the South to fear that Lincoln posed a genuine danger to the survival of its inhuman institution, slave labor.

The reason was purely mathematical. As long as Southerners maintained their power in the U. S. Senate and House (which in the latter case they did, in a cruel Constitutional irony, by counting its non-citizen slaves for purposes of representation) they could assure the perpetuity of slavery simply by voting down abolition. But once new free western territories became free states and joined Congress, with no new slave states to balance opposition gains, the Southern Democratic stranglehold over the legislative branch -- not to mention the pro-slavery judiciary -- was doomed. Lincoln’s 1860 victory promised just such a result, added to which was the prospect, which many Southerners found equally offensive, of new Republican appointees to federal patronage jobs in their cities and towns. Even an anti-slavery presence in a village Post Office was viewed as a threat to the region’s stranglehold over their millions of subjugated black residents.

So while Southern salons were surely wrong -- either misled or intentionally misleading -- when they charged that Lincoln would prove overtly aggressive to their region, slaveholders cannot be faulted for seeing inevitable freedom on the horizon, or at least in expecting limits at last on slavery expansion, as a result of his 1860 victory. Looking at his triumph from the perspective of African Americans in the South, however, we should never forget that Abraham Lincoln did not pose a threat. He offered hope.

By Harold Holzer  | December 7, 2010; 9:00 AM ET
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