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Posted at 9:56 AM ET, 01/10/2011

Chandra Manning: Why was Abraham Lincoln so silent following his election?

By Chandra Manning

Associate professor of history at Georgetown University


Recently some accounts have emphasized all that Lincoln did say during the “secession winter” of 1860-1861, but certainly at the time Lincoln seemed remarkably silent. Two of the most important factors were the near-impossibility of saying anything that could have muted the reasons for secession, and Lincoln’s over-estimation of unionist sentiment among white Southerners.

Lincoln maintained that statements from him were pointless because his positions were available in the public record; while such a response is not notable for its graciousness, there was some truth in it. The seceding states were straightforward about their reasons for leaving. The ordinances of secession (and South Carolina’s Declaration of Causes) consistently cited northern resistance to the Fugitive Slave Law especially in the form of Personal Liberty Laws (state laws either withholding state resources from use in the recapture of slaves and/or allowing individual citizens to choose not to partake personally in slave recapture), the election of a President opposed to the spread of slavery, and the growth of general anti-slavery sentiment in the non-slave holding states. As far as the Fugitive Slave Law went, Lincoln was on record as supporting the upholding of the law, but that support was either not believed or seen to be inadequate, so reiterating it was unlikely to accomplish much. Similarly, there was little Lincoln could do or say about perceptions of the growth of a general sentiment. And when it came to the extension of slavery into western territories, given that he had just been elected on a platform explicitly opposed to such extension (not to mention held strong personal opinions about non-extension), Lincoln was not about to accede to a Federal Slave Code imposing slavery on western territories, which southern Democrats had made clear was their non-negotiable requirement in the election of 1860. So it is tough to imagine what he might have said that could have satisfied secessionists.

But I think another factor was equally important: Lincoln consistently over-estimated the extent and strength of unionist sentiment among white Southerners. Lincoln’s reading of white southern sentiment was that in their heart of hearts, most white Southerners opposed secession despite the noisy posturing of a few blowhards, and that if one simply left things alone, when it really came down to it, white Southerners would stand by the Union and stand up against secessionism, so the best thing to do was keep silent and let things take what Lincoln thought would be their natural course. In short, I think he adopted a version of “ignore secession and it will go away.” It did not work, partly because unionist sentiment did exist but was not as strong as Lincoln thought, and partly because events intervened at Fort Sumter.

By Chandra Manning  | January 10, 2011; 9:56 AM ET
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Subject: Why did Abraham Lincoln remain silent following the election of November 1860?

The panelists all provide plausible explanations for Mr. Lincoln's silence during the months following his election in November 1860. In the new Republican Party, Mr. Lincoln led a fragile coalition of former partisan opponents, e.g., progressive, big-government Whigs; conservative Northern Democrats; and fiery abolitionists.

Mr. Lincoln feared making a verbal gaffe that could fracture his coalition and hence referred people to his written record, based on transcribed speeches, e.g., the “house-divided” speech of 1858, and the Lincoln Douglas debates. He had also secretly coauthored his own campaign biography, which was a national bestseller in 1860, and carefully distilled and honed his earlier policy statements.

As President-elect, Mr. Lincoln now had an additional problem. His advance comments could give a potential enemy insight into his military plans, long before he had power to implement them. Already, disloyal elements in the Buchanan Administration were diverting government weapons to the slave South. Showing strength against secession, before Mr. Lincoln had the reigns of power, could be highly problematic. Some speculated that the Confederate States might launch a preemptive attack on Washington, to prevent Mr. Lincoln's inauguration.

That left Mr. Lincoln only silence as the best policy before his inauguration as president, four months later in March 1861. The Confederacy interpreted his silence as weakness and incompetency. There was no preemptive attack.

David Bradford, editor, Vote Lincoln! The Presidential Campaign Biography of Abraham Lincoln, 1860; Restored and Annotated.

Posted by: DBradford | January 11, 2011 12:56 AM | Report abuse

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