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

Stephanie McCurry: Was the election of Abraham Lincoln a threat to the South?

By Stephanie McCurry

Undergraduate chair of the history department at the University of Pennsylvania


Those actively orchestrating secession in the American South in the winter of 1860 and 1861 were heavily invested in casting the election of Abraham Lincoln – the black abolitionist, as they routinely called him -- as an immediate threat to the security of the South and of property in slaves. His election certainly handed radical disunionists the opening they needed to press immediate secession on the voters, and it was a crucial part of their electoral strategy especially in the Deep South states.

But while Lincoln was not the abolitionist secessionists made him out to be, his election certainly did pose a real threat to the South and, as white southerners charged, to the future of slavery in the American union. The November 1860 election of Lincoln, was the first of a Republican party candidate by a strictly sectional vote; Lincoln got virtually no votes in the Southern states. As such it was a very bad sign for the southern states and a potent measure of their increasing political weakness within the union. It is also true that Abraham Lincoln was explicitly and profoundly antislavery in his politics and his beliefs. “Slavery is wrong and ought not to be extended,” he had proclaimed to all the world in the Lincoln-Douglas debates in 1857 and he meant it. Pushed to seek compromise in the secession winter he had said plainly in December and again in February that “on the territorial question . . . I am inflexible.” Lincoln’s vision of American democracy was grounded in the dignity and self-ownership of labor, and in that principle he did not exclude enslaved people. Slavery had no place in Lincoln’s thinking about the future of government by the people.

So, yes, in the long run Lincoln’s election posed a profound threat to the South and the future of slavery. But the irony remains. For Lincoln and the Republicans posed no immediate threat to the security of slave property in the states where it already existed and where, the president-elect acknowledged, it enjoyed positive Constitutional protections.This significant fact undergirded the Unionists’ position in both the Deep South and Border South states.They advised a cautious wait and see approach, letting Lincoln take office and judging the party policy from there. And indeed, as late as 1863 Lincoln offered a deal to the Union border states that would have extended the life of the institution to 1900. But precipitating the South out of the Union was the key to the secessionists plan. And so the historical irony -- that in succeeding to protect the future of slavery Confederates created arguably the only set of conditions – war and state-sponsored emancipation -- under which, in the span of but four years, slavery could be totally and immediately abolished as an institution in American life. It might have come to that eventually, but never, at President Lincoln’s hand, by 1865.

By Stephanie McCurry  | December 7, 2010; 9:00 AM ET
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