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

Mike Musick: Was the election of Abraham Lincon a threat to the South?

By Mike Musick

Retired subject area expert for the U.S. Civil War at the National Archives


This was the question Lincoln addressed head-on in his first inaugural of March 4, 1861. Most reasonable people, when confronted with the new president’s thoroughly conciliatory words, would have said “no, there is no apparent danger from this quarter.” His “We are not enemies, but friends. We must not be enemies” were hardly fighting words. Not a single saber was being rattled. On the contrary, heart-felt assurances were proffered that in this the first Republican administration, the property (meaning slaves), peace, and personal security (from insurrection) of the “Southern people” (in Lincoln’s phrase) were safe.

But by this time, reason no longer held the reins among southern pro-slavery whites in many states. Radicals of the likes of William Lowndes Yancey and Robert Barnwell Rhett were in the saddle, and they successfully rode the notion that secession was the salvation of the South across a wide swath of territory toward their long-desired goal of independence. Other southerners, including Union men of various stripes, free blacks, and four million slaves were simply overridden, amid a climate that John Brown and his associates had done much to inflame.

In hindsight, it seems clear that slavery was much safer in the Union than out of it, at least for a time. Indeed, it now appears with even greater clarity that the real threat to the well-being of the Southern people - all of them - was the survival of slavery itself.

By Mike Musick  | December 7, 2010; 9:00 AM ET
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