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

Lonnie Bunch: Was the election of Abraham Lincoln a threat to the South?

By Lonnie Bunch

Founding director of the Smithsonian's National Museum of African American History and Culture.


In many ways, the election of Abraham Lincoln was both a real and perceived threat to the South. It was a perceived threat because in the minds of most Southerners, Lincoln was viewed as an abolitionist who was bent on destroying slavery. They felt that because Lincoln had received almost all of his votes from the North, his presidential administration would allow the North to impose its will on the South. The fear was that Lincoln would use the power of the federal government to either destroy slavery or contain it. If he contained it by not letting it expand into the territories, Southerners believed that slavery would die. It had to either grow or die.

The reality is that Lincoln really struggled to keep the Union together. If he could preserve the union without ending slavery then that is what he would do. The decision to end slavery slowly evolved during the actual conflict. The irony is that by leaving the Union the South forced Lincoln to be more aggressive against slavery than he would have been if they had stayed in the Union. By the time of Lincoln’s election, the political and cultural differences had hardened into an atmosphere where compromise was as rare as a Republican in the antebellum south.

Could Lincoln have kept the Union together? Probably not. Lincoln’s election was the spark that ignited a long simmering conflict that would eventually be settled by war.

By Lonnie Bunch  | December 7, 2010; 9:00 AM ET
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