Abraham Lincoln was demonized in the South long before he took office as President in 1861. During the four-way campaign in 1860, Lincoln was demonized as a black Republican whose election would split the Union. Historian Arthur Cole wrote: "Lincoln was pictured in many quarters not only as a black Republican but 'as an Abolitionist; a fanatic of the John Brown type; the slave to one idea, who, in order to carry that out to its legitimate results, would override laws, constitutions, and compromises of every kind', as a Robespierre ready to overturn the whole fabric of society."1 Historian Michael Burlingame wrote that Lincoln told a Tennessee visitor in the secession winter that "to execute the laws is all that I shall attempt to do. This, however, I will do, no matter how much force may be required."2
Lincoln tried to avoid adding fuel to the attacks on him. During the 1860 campaign, he refrained from making any policy pronouncements - for fear they would be misconstrued in both North and South. After the election, Lincoln told one journalist: "I know the justness of my intentions and the utter groundlessness of the pretended fears of the men who are filling the country with their clamor. If I go into the presidency, they will find me as I am on record - nothing less, nothing more. My declarations have been made to the world without reservation. They have been often repeated; and now, self-respect demands of me and of the party that has elected me that when threatened, I should be silent."3 As far back as 1856, Mr. Lincoln had told a Republican convention in Illinois: "We say to the southern disunionists, we won't go out of the Union, and you shan't."4
Southern failure to abide by majority rule was at the center of the secession crisis. "We have just carried on election on principles fairly stated to the people," Lincoln wrote to New Hampshire Senator John Hale a week before Georgia acted. "Now we are told in advance, the government shall be broken up, unless we surrender to those we have beaten, before we take the offices. In this they are either attempting to play upon us, or they are in dead earnest. Either way, if we surrender, it is the end of us, and of the government. They will repeat the experiment upon us ad libitum....There is, in my judgment, but one compromise which would really settle ths slavery question, and that would be a prohibition against acquiring any more territory."5
Lincoln was about to be bullied by the South and many in the South were unwilling to let him be president. Historian Walter A. McDougall wrote: "If the Republican had dismissed talk of secession as bluff, so had the southern Democrats discounted the chance that the bluff would be called. It was time for everyone to sober up, but since the Republicans were too busy toasting themselves, only some southerners did."6 Historian Michael Burlingame wrote: "A few days after the election, Charles Francis Adams viewed Southern threats to secede as a means 'to frighten Mr. Lincoln at the outset, and to compel him to declare himself in opposition to the principles of the party that has elected him.' Adams confessed that he awaited the president-elect's reaction 'with some misgivings,' for 'the swarms that surround Mr Lincoln are by no means the best.'"7 The game of bluff had been going for more that a decade. The Compromise of 1850 had temporarily quieted the discord. Historian William E. Gienapp wrote: "Belief in the constitutional right of secession, which a growing number of Southerners endorsed after 1846, encouraged southern politicians to resort to political blackmail. Increasingly, they engaged in a dangerous game of brinkmanship, steadily escalating their demands on the North heedless of the consequences."8
Response to the 1860 Election
Secessionists used the Lincoln victory as an excuse to act on a decade of threats to leave the Union. William E. Gienapp wrote: "Socially the agent of aristocracy, the Slave Power politically was the proponent of minority rule. In both its social pretensions and political principles, Republicans identified the Slave Power with values utterly repugnant to northern voters' republican ideals....Control of the nation by 'a mere handful of Southerners,' contended a newspaper published in southern Illinois, represented the 'paradox of republican government, in which a minority rules the majority.'" Gienapp wrote that after Abraham Lincoln's election in 1860, "the northern majority possessed the power to which it was entitled. Yet southerners refused to accept the popular verdict..."9 When two northerners visited Richmond in July 1864, Jefferson Davis told them: "We seceded to rid ourselves of the rule of the majority..."10 Lincoln denied that right. As Lincoln would say in his First Inaugural Address: "I hold, that in contemplation of universal law, and of the Constitution, the Union of these States is perpetual. Perpetuity is implied, if not expressed, in the fundamental law of all national governments. It is safe to assert that no government proper, ever had a provision in its organic law for its own termination. Continue to execute all the express provisions of our national Constitution and the Union will endure forever - it being impossible to destroy it, except by some action not provided for in the instrument itself."11
During this period, Mr. Lincoln was relentlessly upbeat about the Union and skeptical of secession. Journalist William H. Smith recalled: "On two...occasions during the campaign a delegation from Indiana visited Mr. Lincoln. He impressed them with the conviction that the Union must be preserved at all hazards. There was something tangible about him which made those who called on him feel that he possessed great reserve powers, and would be able to meet any contingency which might arise. His visitors always left him in more enthusiastic mood than they were when he arrived."12 Mr. Lincoln believed there was a danger of self-fulfilling prophecies - too much attention had been given to southern complaints in the past. He also believed that southern self-interest would prevail, telling Ohio Republican Donn Piatt: "They wont give up the offices. Were it believed that vacant places could be had at the North Pole, the road there would be lined with dead Virginians."13 But southern slaveholders were not be appeased with patronage. Historian James A. Rawley wrote: "By 1850, the Southern states shared a history of grievances against the North ranging from territorial restriction of slavery in fact and in intent; surging anti-slavery agitation; broad sanction of John Brown's violence; an economic posture threatening southern interests; formation of a sectional party hostile to the South's peculiar institution; and repeated Northern defiance of the Constitution in deed, as in the personal liberty laws, and in word, as in Seward's 'higher law' doctrine and the Republican Party's denunciation of the Supreme Court's 'new dogma' of the Dred Scott decision."14
Attorney Donn Piatt spent time with Mr. Lincoln in October and November 1860. He later wrote: "Mr. Lincoln did not believe, could not be made to believe, that the South meant secession and war. When I told him, subsequently to this conversation, at a dinner-table in Chicago, where the Hon. Hannibal Hamlin, General [Robert] Schenck, and others were guests, that the Southern people were in dead earnest, meant war, and I doubted whether he would be inaugurated at Washington, he laughed and said the fall of pork at Cincinnati had affected me. I became somewhat irritated, and told him that in ninety days the land would be whitened with tents. He said in reply, 'Well, we won't jump that ditch until we come to it,' and then, after a pause, he added, 'I must run the machine as I find it.' I take no credit to myself for this power of prophecy. I only said what every one acquainted with the Southern people knew, and the wonder is that Mr. Lincoln should have been so blind to the coming storm. "15
Although Abraham Lincoln understood the nature of southern antipathy to him and his principles, his comprehension of southern events and attitudes was flawed. He misread the South in late 1860 and early 1861 because he used the past as a prologue to the future. Historian William E. Gienapp noted that secessionists were gambling against the North: "They had little incentive to compromise or take a broad national view of matters, or even seek northern cooperation, for they could always leave the Union if their tactics led to political disaster."16 Historian Russell McClintock wrote "that the secession crisis...began in direct response to the outcome of a national election, specifically to the triumph of a particular party. Thus it not only represented the breakdown of constitutional government...but was also intimately tied to the structure and operation of the antebellum party system."17 McClintock wrote: "Struggling to reconcile a wide disparity on the contentious question of force, the Democracy tried to united on a pro-compromise position and cast their rivals as fanatical warmongers. The Republicans, who had been universally deaf to Democrats' pleas for 'traditional,' secession-neutral Jackson Day resolutions just two weeks earlier, now found themselves divided on the far weightier matter of a national compromise, to the point that some feared that conservative members might bolt and join the Democrats."18
The Republican Party was young and untested. And Lincoln needed to maintain its unity if he was going to maintain the unity of the country. Historian Edward Conrad Smith wrote: "Lincoln's own policy apparently developed slowly during the winter. Shortly after the election he determined to give the former democratic element of the Republican party a strong representation in his cabinet, with a view to uniting the North."19 Historian Charles W. Ramsdell wrote that "support had come from a heterogeneous mass of voters and for a variety of reasons. The slavery issue, the drive for a protective tariff and internal improvements, the promise of free homesteads in the West, and disgust at the split among the Democrats had each played its part. Many voters had been persuaded that there was no real danger of a disruption of the Union in the event of his election. The secession of the border states had now thrown the former issues into the background and thrust to the front the question whether the government should, as Lincoln phrased it, 'enforce the laws' and in so doing bring on war with the newly formed Confederacy."20 Although Mr. Lincoln saw the storm clouds approaching, he misjudged the seriousness of the threat. After all, he had spent only two years in Washington and had seldom been farther south than Kentucky. Civil War scholar Bruce Catton observed: "It may be that the mounting pressure for offices, the increasing evidence that there were many among the multitudes who wanted a political victory to bring tangible political rewards, made it hard for the man in Springfield to tell the difference between a revolutionary fervor and a simple political maneuver."21
Lincoln though his best policy was patient, quiet firmness. Journalist Henry Villard wrote: "Mr. Lincoln is above bulling and bearing. Although conservative in his intentions, and anxious to render constitutional justice to all sections of the country, he is possessed of too much nobleness and sense of duty to quail before threats and lawlessness. He knows well enough that the first step backward on his part, or that of his supporters, will be followed by a corresponding advance on the part of the cotton rebels, and he knows that for every inch yielded, a foot will be demanded.'"22 Mr. Lincoln thought silence was the best retardant for inflamed passions. He refused to make public statements that many urged him to give. In response to such a request from New York businessman George T. M. Davis, Mr. Lincoln wrote in late October 1860: "What is it I could say which would quiet alarm? Is it that no interference by the government, with slaves or slavery within the states, is intended? I have said this so often already, that a repetition of it but mockery, bearing an appearance of weakness, and cowardice, which perhaps should be avoided. Why do not uneasy men read what I have already said? and what our platform says? If they will not read, or heed, then [these?], would they read, or heed, a repetition of them? Of course the declaration that there is no intention to interfere with slaves or slavery, in the states, with all that is fairly implied in such declaration, is true; and I should have no objection to make, and repeat the declaration a thousand times, if there were danger of encouraging bold bad men to believe they are dealing with one who can be scared into anything.23 Mr. Lincoln believed that the public statements he had made between 1854 and 1860 should be a sufficient guide to his intentions. He continued that taciturn policy as president-elect, despite great pressure to issue a public statement that would pacify the South and prevent the secession of southern states.
The president understood the dangers that any public pronouncement would entail. Shortly after the 1860 presidential election, Mr. Lincoln talked to one visitor about yielding to the worries of Southerners: "It is the trick by which the South breaks down every northern man. I would go to Washington without the support of the men who supported me and were my friends before election. I would be as powerless as a block of buckeye wood. The honest man (you are talking of honest men) will look at our platform and what I have said. There they will find everything I could now say or which they would ask me to say. All I could say would be but repetition. Having told them all these things ten times already, would they believe the eleventh declaration? Let us be practical. There are many general terms afloat, such as 'conservatism,' 'enforcement of the irrepressible conflict at the point of the bayonet,' 'hostility to the South,' and so forth - all of which mean nothing without definition. What then could I say to allay their fears, if they will not define what particular act or acts they fear from me or my friends?"24 Nevertheless, Lincoln tried to disseminate his position to friends. Historian Michael Burlingame wrote: "Lincoln also used journalists to broadcast his views. From November to February, Henry Villard of the New York Herald and Cincinnati Commercial reported almost daily from Springfield, often describing the opinion of "Springfield" or "the men at the capitol,' which doubtless reflected the president-elect's thinking."25
An election having been held, Lincoln did not believe that it could be annulled by secession. Lincoln told visitors that "it was sometimes better for a man to pay a debt he did not owe, or to lose a demand which was a just one, than to go to law about it; but then, in compromising our difficulties, he would regret to see the victors put in the attitude of the vanquished, and the vanquished in the place of the victors. He would not contribute to any such compromise as that."26 Lincoln's attitude toward compromise was summed up by his law partner: "Away - off-begone! If the nation wants to back down, let it - not I."27 The South's persistent threats to dissolve the Union had become a fixture of American politics; those threats had not materialized, ergo, those would not materialize. In surveying southern newspapers, historian Arthur C. Cole wrote: "The election of Lincoln 'means all the insult for the present and all the injury for the future that such an act can do', proclaimed the Wilmington, North Carolina, Daily Journal. The Atlanta Confederacy predicted that, while Lincoln's administration would be conservative for twenty-four months, it would insidiously be 'coiling its slimy folds around our dearest rights and patriarchal interest'; the Montgomery Southern Confederacy proclaimed the danger that the Republicans would in four short years 'inflict a moral sting upon slavery' from which it would never recover. 'The Southern States will not tamely submit to be governed by a party that declares eternal war on their constitutional rights', announced the Raleigh Press of November 9."28 Lincoln scholar Harry V. Jaffa wrote that "Southern opinion laid great weight upon the doctrine that secession by each state, deratifying its membership in the Union by the same procedures as had ratified it, was sanctioned by the Constitution."29
Both sides were maneuveuring for the loyalty of southern unionists. Historian Craig L. Symonds wrote:"Lincoln's goal had been to pursue a policy of quiet firmness in the hope of preserving the loyalty of the border states and buy time for the rebellious states to appreciate their foolishness."30 Lincoln believed that there were influential Unionists and there were - like his friend Alexander H. Stephens of Georgia - but they were steam-rolled by more passionate secessionists, especially in the cotton South. Historian Daniel Walker Howe wrote: "After Lincoln's election, Stephens and the handful of Unionist Democrats in Georgia found themselves together, willy-nilly, with old Whigs in trying to prevent secession. Throughout the South, wherever the Whig party remained a vital force, there opposition to secession could be effective."31 But the ties of statehood proved greater than the tradition of nationalism for even old Whigs like Stephens, who found themselves unable to control events. Momentum favored secession. Historian William Link wrote: "Lincoln's election...dealt a stunning blow to [southern] moderates, who feared unleashed sectional extremism. A week after the election, one moderate described a crisis that would soon bring the secession of the Lower South and the 'awful calamity of civil war.'" Link wrote: "Most Virginia Unionists favored defending the Union only if Lincoln renounced coercion of seceding states."32 Historian Sean Wilentz noted that "although the border-state Unionists included a large number of nonplanters - who, in places, even expressed antislavery opinions - their leaders came out of the same elite of comfortable slaveholders who dominated politics throughout the South. For these upper South gentlemen, secession, far from a necessity, looked suicidal for slavery, handing the northern Republicans the grounds for destroying the institution even where it existed. The Union, they believed, gave infinitely greater protection to slavery than some fancied and untested new confederacy....If their hostility to secession obstructed the spread of disunionism, their allegiance to the Union extended only so far as it would preserve, protect, defend, and extend the slaveholders' democracy."33
Mr. Lincoln had more faith in southern loyalists than events and people would justify. The President-elect was highly skeptical of the success of secession, but reluctant to talk about it and even more reluctant to change his positions. He wrote a correspondent urging him to speak out: "I am not at liberty to shift my ground - that is out of the question. If I thought a repetition would do any good I would make it. But my judgment is it would do positive harm. The secessionists, per se believing they had alarmed me, would clamor all the louder."34 Mr. Lincoln told Ohio's Don Piatt: "If our Southern friends are right in their claim, the framers of the Government carefully planned the rot that now threatens their work with destruction. If one State has the right to withdraw at will, certainly a majority have the right, and we have the result given us of the States being able to force out one State. That is logical."35
Lincoln did allow occasional glimpses into his thinking in talks with Springfield visitors - comments that newspapers reported. In November, he was reported as saying: "I know the justness of my intentions and the utter groundlessness of the pretended fears of the men who are filling the country with their clamor. If I go into the presidency, they will find me as I am on record - nothing less, nothing more. My declarations have been made to the world without reservation. They have been often repeated; and now, self-respect demands of me and of the party that has elected me that when threatened, I should be silent."36 Lincoln told some Kentuckians that southern secessionists had no special excuse for their action other than "the naked desire to go out of the Union."37 Lincoln was not about to give them an excuse. He told a Mississippi visitor that "if the southern states concluded upon a contingent secession, that is, upon awaiting aggressive acts on the part of his administration, they would never go out of the Union."38
In December 1860, Lincoln reportedly said: "I think, from all I can learn, that things have reached their worst point in the South, and they are likely to mend in the future. If it be true, as reported, that the South Carolinians do not intend to resist the collection of the revenue, after they ordain secession, there need be no collision with the federal government. The Union may still be maintained. The greatest inconvenience will arrive from the want of federal courts; as with the present feeling, judges, marshals, and other officers could not be obtained."39 Mr. Lincoln tried to calm the worries of visitors to Springfield. In January 1861, he told one Pennsylvania visitor who asked him about southern secession: "I do not think they will. A number from different sections of the South pass through here daily, and all that call appear pleasant and seem to go away apparently satisfied, and if they only give me an opportunity, I will convince them that I do not wish to interfere with them in any way, but protect them in everything that they are entitled to. But if they do, the question will be and it must be settled, come what may."40 The President-elect was very conscious of the oath he would take at his inauguration. Lincoln told a New York visitor "that he did not quite like to hear southern journals and southern speakers insisting that there must be no 'coercion'; that while he had no disposition to coerce anybody, yet, after he had taken an oath to execute the laws, he should not care to see them violated."41
At the end of November 1861, Mr. Lincoln launched a trial balloon in the form of language he composed for Illinois Senator Lyman Trumbull to read during a speech in Springfield at which President-Elect Lincoln would be in attendance: "I have labored in, and for, the Republican organization with entire confidence that whenever it shall be in power, each and all of the States will be left in as complete control of their own affairs respectively, and at as perfect liberty to choose, and employ, their own means of protecting property, and preserving peace and order within their respective limits, as they have ever been under any administration. Those who have voted for Mr. Lincoln, have expected, and still expect this; and they would not have voted for him had they expected otherwise. I regard it as extremely fortunate for the peace of the whole country, that this point, upon which the Republicans have been so long, and so persistently misrepresented, is now to be brought to a practical test, and placed beyond the possibility of doubt. Disunionists per se, are now in hot haste to get out of the Union, precisely because they perceive they can not, much longer, maintain apprehension among the Southern people that their homes, and firesides, and lives, are to be endangered by the action of the Federal Government. With such:"'Now, or never' is the maxim." He added: "I am rather glad of this military preparation in the South. It will enable the people the more easily to suppress any uprisings there, which their misrepresentations of purposes may have encouraged."42
Historian Maury Klein wrote that Lincoln's words were "intended as a gesture to sooth public fears, but some northern papers denounced it as proof that Lincoln planned to abandon Republican principles, while southern editors held it up as a declaration of war on the South."43 The incident convinced the president-elect that his best and safest posture was silence. Klein noted that Mr. Lincoln wrote New York Times editor Henry J. Raymond a few days later: "I now think we have a demonstration in favor of my view. On the 20th. inst. Senator Trumbull made a short speech which I suppose you have both seen and approved. Has a single newspaper, heretofore against us, urged that speech [upon its readers] with a purpose to quiet public anxiety? Not one, so far as I know. On the contrary the Boston Courier, and its class, hold me responsible for the speech, and endeavor to inflame the North with the belief that it foreshadows an abandonment of Republican ground by the incoming administration; while the Washington Constitution, and its class hold the same speech up to the South as an open declaration of war against them." Mr. Lincoln continued: "This is just as I expected, and just what would happen with any declaration I could make. These political fiends are not half sick enough yet. 'Party malice' and not 'public good' possesses them entirely. 'They seek a sign, and no sign shall be given them.' At least such is my present feeling and purpose."44
President-elect Lincoln's Silence
Mr. Lincoln's maintained his policy of self-imposed silence, writing one Connecticut correspondent who urged him to speak out: "I could say nothing which I have not already said, and which is in print, and open for the inspection of all. To press a repetition of this upon those who have listened, is useless; to press it upon those who have refused to listen, and still refuse, would be wanting in self-respect, and would have an appearance of sycophancy and timidity, which would excite the contempt of good men, and encourage bad ones to clamor the more loudly."45 Historian Susan-Mary Grant wrote: "Although in his private correspondence his shock at events was palpable, his public utterances tended to downplay the seriousness of the situation, especially in those speeches he made en route to Washington for his inauguration."46
Mr. Lincoln's thinking on December 13,1861 was reported by his secretary: "The very existence of a general and national government implies the legal (power), right and duty of maintaining its own integrity. This, if not expressed, is at least implied in the Constitution. The right of a state to secede is not an open or debatable question. It was fully discussed in Jackson's time and denied not only by him, but by the vote of Congress. It is the duty of a president to execute the laws and maintain the existing government. He cannot entertain any proposition for dissolution or dismemberment. He was not elected for any such purpose. As a matter of theoretical speculation it is probably true that if the people, with whom the whole question rests, should become tired of the present government, they might change it in the manner prescribed by the Constitution."47
Optimism, discipline and rejection of any compromise on extension of slavery were the tools Mr. Lincoln brandished. Still, historian Albert D. Kirwan wrote that Lincoln "apparently thought that the average southerner could distinguish between Lincoln's own philosophy on the slavery question and that of abolitionists like William Lloyd Garrison....He also seemed to think that secession was largely talk on the part of a few hotheads, and would be easily put down by an overwhelming Unionist sentiment in the South. The Upper South he believed so steadfast that there was patently no danger of secession there. If there were, the border states would smother the sentiment."48 President-elect Lincoln continued to believe disciplined silence was his best policy as he prepared to leave Springfield for Washington in early February. Secretaries John G. Nicolay and John Hay wrote: "Now that secession was proclaimed in every Cotton State, his simple logic rose about minor considerations to the peril and the protection of the nation, to the assault on and the defense of the Constitution. He saw but the ominous cloud of civil war in front, and the patriotic faith and enthusiasm of the people behind."49 Historian Kenneth M. Stampp wrote: "Lincoln's reaction to the secession movement during the weeks before he left Springfield was revealed only in fragments, in fleeting glimpses through the screen which generally concealed his thoughts. Several times he exposed himself a little by sending advice in private letters to Republican leaders, or by suddenly blurting out some significant observation while conversing with friends. On rare occasions a newspaper reporter would elicit an incisive comment from him." These glimpses according to Stampp, revealed that Mr. Lincoln "shared or merely reflected the views of most Northerners, for he was being guided by and not controlling public opinion. Always he was careful to keep abreast of popular currents by listening to reports from his many visitors and by watching the trends in the northern press."50
Historian Edward Conrad Smith wrote that Lincoln "was extremely careful to make no statement in advance of his assuming the reins of the government that could be construed by the secessionists to their advantage." Smith wrote: "There is nothing in the published writings of Lincoln which manifests the slightest wavering on the question of maintaining the Union. Everything he wrote indicates that he had a positive policy, even to the extent of going to war as a last resort."51 Lincoln wrote one southern editor: "Please pardon me for suggestion that if the papers, like yours, which heretofore have persistently garbled, and misrepresented what I have said, will now fully and fairly place it before their readers, there can be no further misunderstanding."52 Historian Michael Burlingame wrote: "Lincoln's unwillingness to make a public declaration may have been a mistake. Such a document might have allayed fears in the Upper South and Border States and predisposed them to remain in the Union when hostilities broke out. But it might also have wrecked the Republican coalition and doomed his administration to failure before it began."53
Attempts at Compromise
Lincoln needed to deal with both the public and the private turmoil in the nation. The anxiety was particularly acute in Washington. "The second session of the Thirty-seventh Congress convened on the first Monday of December, 1860. The Senators and Representatives of the rebellious States were no longer with us. The rumblings of treason, deep and significant, were everywhere heard. What was to be the outcome no one could tell," recalled Illinois Congressman Elihu B. Washburne. "The loyal members of both Senate and House were closely organized to concert measures to meet the appalling emergencies that confronted them. It was determined that each House should appoint one of its members to form a committee to watch the current of events and discover as far as possible the intentions of the rebels. The committee of 'Public Safety,' as it might be called, was a small one, only two members, Governor [James] Grimes, the Senator from Iowa, on the part of the Senate, and myself on the part of the House. Clothed with full powers, we at once put ourselves in communications with General Scott, the head of the army, with headquarters at Washington, and Chief of Police [John] Kennedy, of New York City, a loyal and true man...He at once sent us some of his most skillful and trusted detectives; and earnestly, loyally, and courageously they went to work to unravel the plots and schemes set on foot to destroy us. 54
Mr. Lincoln counseled Republican members of Congress against any compromise which would undermine the principles and platform of the Republican party. In mid-December 1860, President-elect Lincoln wrote Illinois Congressman William Kellogg to "entertain no proposition for a compromise in regard to the extension of slavery - that if this were done - the work achieved by the late election would all have to be done over again."55 The president-elect's unwillingness to compromise pleased many Republicans but annoyed others. Compromise would have been difficult regardless of Lincoln's position against extension of slavery in the West. "Unwillingness by Republicans and Breckinridge Democrats to yield on the territorial question, ten years of sectional stress, miscalculation on both sides, all this made compromise a formidable undertaking," wrote historian James A. Rawley.56
Compromise, Lincoln understood, was a slippery slope. In early 1861, Lincoln told a visitor: "By no act or complicity of mine shall the Republican party become a mere sucked egg, all shell or no principle in it."57 Lincoln Scholar Harold Holzer wrote: "Lincoln described the situation more succinctly than any of his self-appointed advisors. Assuring his visitor that 'he looks with contempt on the whole pack of compromisers,' he bluntly declared that 'he did not wish to pay for being inaugurated.'"58 Historian Michael Burlingame wrote: "Lincoln's firmness was rooted in a profound self-respect that forbade knuckling under to what he perceived as extortionate bullying."59 Lincoln wrote William H. Seward in late January: "I say now...as I have all the while said, that on the territorial question - that is, the question of extending slavery under the national auspices, - I am inflexible. I am for no compromise which assists or permits the extension of the institution on soil owned by the nation."60 On the other hand wrote historian Russell McClintock, "Lincoln's chief means of encouraging Southern unionism lay in giving his future secretary of state [Seward] free rein in Washington - to a point."61 Historian Michael Burlingame wrote: "Dominating Congress that winter, Seward maneuvered desperately to keep the Union from breaking apart before Lincoln's inauguration. The senator viewed himself as a well-informed realist who must somehow save the nation from fire-eaters in the Deep South and naive stiff-back Republicans like Lincoln who failed to understand the gravity of the crisis."62
Mr. Lincoln understood that the national situation was deteriorating and that President James Buchanan was doing little to halt the country's dissolution: "Every hour adds to the difficulties I am called upon to meet, and the present administration does nothing to check the tendency toward dissolution. I, who have been called to meet this awful responsibility, am compelled to remain here, doing nothing to avert it or lessen its force when it comes to."63 Nevertheless, President-elect Lincoln did not want to rush to Washington, telling a reporter: "I don't want to go before the middle of February, because I expect they will drive me insane after I get there, and I want to keep tolerably sane, at least until after inauguration."64 Lincoln Scholar Harold Holzer wrote: "Discarding his longtime Whiggish belief in congressional supremacy, Lincoln forcefully interjected himself into the congressional debate....he made his views clear in a series of remarkably tough letters to key allies on Capitol Hill, which he knew would be widely shared with other Republicans."65
Facing secession, Mr. Lincoln did not want a strictly northern administration but neither did he want to abandon his principles in search of southern cabinet members. In most states of the South he hadn't even appeared as a ballot option for voters in 1860. His circle of southern political acquaintances was small. Historian Arthur Cole wrote that "Lincoln was anxious to give Southerners adequate consideration for appointments under the new régime. He was willing to give at least one Southerner who had opposed his election a place in the cabinet, and, as he informed Seward, he preferred one who had a bona fide 'living position in the South' to one from the border states or one who had a record of long service in Washington. He tendered a cabinet appointment to John A. Gilmer, of North Carolina, in whom he placed considerable confidence as a Union man."66 Historian Nelson D. Lankford described John Gilmer: "A bluff, powerfully built congressman from Greensboro, North Carolina, he had a round face, a kindly smile, and an appealing ability as a speaker to captivate his listeners, even bring them to tears."67 Gilmer, however, was not interested in a Cabinet appointment and Mr. Lincoln was not interested in appointing a southerner who did not share his views.
Albany editor Thurlow Weed, who favored conciliation, recalled "that Mr. Lincoln made me the bearer of his letter to Mr. Gilmer, with which I repaired to Washington. It being an open letter, Mr. Gilmer, after reading it attentively, entered into a frank conversation with me upon the subject which was exciting profound interest and anxiety in and out of Congress. He said that he entirely approved of the views of Mr. Lincoln on that question, and that he was gratified with the confidence reposed in him; but that before replying to it he deemed it proper to confer with members of Congress from Southern States, who, like himself, were opposed to secession. Soon afterward the 'Border State proposition' was rejected by the House of Representatives. Under these circumstances, hopeless of keeping North Carolina in the Union, Mr. Gilmer declined the offer of a seat of a seat in the cabinet."68 In mid-December 1860, an editorial appeared in the Illinois State Journal, which has been attributed to Mr. Lincoln:
We see such frequent allusion to a supposed purpose on the part of Mr. Lincoln to call into his cabinet two or three Southern gentlemen, from the parties opposed to him politically, that we are prompted to ask a few question.
1st. Is it known that any such gentleman of character, would accept a place in the cabinet?
2- If yes, on what terms? Does he surrender to Mr. Lincoln, or Mr. Lincoln to him, on the political difference between them? Or do they enter upon the administration in open opposition to each other? 69
The southerner to whom Mr. Lincoln had the greatest affinity was Georgian Alexander H. Stephens, an old Whig congressional colleague who would become the Confederacy's vice president in February 1861. After requesting a copy of a Stephens speech against secession delivered in early November 1860, Lincoln sought to reassure Stephens: "Do the people of the South really entertain fears that a Republican administration would, directly, or indirectly, interfere with their slaves, or with them, about their slaves? If they do, I wish to assure you, as once a friend, and still, I hope, not an enemy, that there is no cause for such fears. The South would be no more danger in this respect, than it was in the days of Washington. I suppose, however, this does not meet the case. You think slavery is right and ought to be extended; while we think it is wrong and ought to be restricted. That I suppose is the rub. It certainly is the only substantial difference between us."70 On December 20, South Carolina seceded. It was soon joined by Alabama, Florida, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, South Carolina and Texas.
Representatives of the new "Confederate" states convened in Montgomery, Alabama on February 4, 1861 and inaugurated Jefferson Davis as president on February 18. When New York Republican leader Thurlow Weed visited Mr. Lincoln in late December, the President-elect told him: "I believe you can pretend to find but little, if any thing, in my speeches, about secession; but my opinion is that no state can, in any way lawfully, get out of the Union, without the consent of the others; and that it is the duty of the President, and other government functionaries, to run the machine as it is."71 But, noted historian Bruce Catton, the South was right to be worried about Lincoln's election because "the mere existence of a Federal administration hostile to slavery spelled eventual doom for the institution even though the doom might be delayed for a great many years."72
Historian David M. Potter wrote that "it would be hazardous to conclude that a better understanding of the southern temper would have made him and certain other members of his party more amenable to compromise. Lincoln himself had predicted in 1858 that the sectional conflict would not subside until a crisis was 'reached and passed.' When the crisis actually arrived, he showed no disposition to back off. 'The tug has to come,' he declared, 'and better now, than any time hereafter.'"73 Virginia Unionist John Minor Botts recalled being told in early April 1861: "Botts, I have always been an Old-line Henry-Clay Whig, and if your Southern people will let me alone, I will administer this government as nearly upon the principles that he would have administered it as it is possible for one man to follow in the path of another."74
Mr. Lincoln was not completely out of touch with moderate southern opinion, but he did underestimate radical secessionists who out-maneuvered the unionists. "There is some justification for Lincoln's optimism, even in retrospect, given the narrow margins by which secessionists triumphed in most states in the South," wrote historian Potter. "But the election returns, so far as they can be analyzed, show that in a number of states the results were remarkably close."75 Historian Michael Burlingame wrote: "Lincoln's optimism rested not only on the information derived from visitors and newspapers but also on his interpretation of the election results."76 Historian Stephen B. Oates argued: "With the border states also threatening to secede, Lincoln seemed confused, incredulous, at what was happening to his country. He seemed not to understand how he appeared in southern eyes....He could not accept the possibility that his election to the presidency might cause the collapse of the very system which had enabled him to get there."77 Meanwhile, Southern extremists exaggerated the threat that Lincoln's election posed to their slaveholding society. Historian James M. McPherson noted: "Many Southerners feared not only Black Republicanism but "red" Republicanism as well. Proud of their stable, conservative social order, they viewed the Republican party as a political embodiment of all the 'isms' that afflicted Northern society."78
Kentuckian Duff Green came to visit Mr. Lincoln in late December 1860. He reported to President James Buchanan that President-elect Lincoln "said that the real question at issue between the North & the South, was Slavery 'propagandism' and that upon that issue the republican party was opposed to the South and that he was with his own party; that he had been elected by that party and intended to sustain his party in good faith, but added that the question of the Amendments to the Constitution and the questions submitted by Mr. Crittenden, belonged to the people & States in legislatures or Conventions & that he would be inclined not only to acquiesce, but give full force and effect to their will thus expressed...."79 Historian David E. Woodward wrote that "The letter serves as an excellent example of the charged antebellum political environment, and its elusive journey demonstrates how difficult it was for Lincoln to make any statement or comment before his inauguration."80 Earl Schencks Miers noted: "The visit to Springfield of Buchanan's personal emissary, Duff Green, was so closely guarded that there was no immediate notice of it in the press. Again Mr. Lincoln called on Trumbull to guard his interest, enclosing a copy of a letter to Green."81
The coming conflict was felt by Lincoln's family. The day after Christmas, Joseph Gillespie asked the Lincoln boys what Santa Claus had brought them. Robert replied: "Papa received a Christmas gift in a letter." Mr. Lincoln added: "[O]h, yes, Gillespie, I forgot to tell you that some kind friend in South Carolina sent me a printed copy of the ordinance they adopted a few days before Christmas, and I was telling Bob here...that it must have been intended for a Christmas gift." Gillespie recalled: "I was silent, for I could see that he had been endeavoring to keep from his son a knowledge of his father's danger, and that he sought to give the deed of a most malignant enemy the guise of a friendly act."82 During this period resident-elect Lincoln even worried about the loyalty of Egypt, as southern Illinois was known. Lawyer Henry C. Whitney wrote: "I did a considerable 'fetching and carrying' for Mr. Lincoln during that gloomy winter; and as he was anxious to know definitely the conditions of politics in Egypt, I started from Chicago, on the night of December 23, 1860; and, ostensibly as a commercial traveler, commenced my researches at noon the next day at Lawrenceville." Whitney concluded that southern Illinois was safe for the Union.83
Lincoln had to balance both pro-compromise and anti-compromise factions of the Republican Party. Historian Arthur Cole noted: "Following the election an even more conservative trend set in. Lincoln felt its pressure from the ranks of his own party as he made preparations to assume the reins of office. The New York Herald of December 4, 1860 rejoiced in the evidence that Republican leaders were 'ready now for terms of compromise with the South, which every Republican a month ago would have scouted as degrading to the most servile Northern doughface'....Lincoln stood firmly against compromise on slavery extension; on the other hand, at a time when leaders of his party were trying to effect the admission of New Mexico as a free state, he did not 'care much about New Mexico, if further extension were hedged against.'"84
Republicans had a diversity of opinions - depending on how high a priority they placed on the Union, slavery and business interests. Historian Daniel J. Ryan wrote: "If the general citizenship had knowledge of what Lincoln's mental attitude...they would have been satisfied, but its publicity would have been disastrous. From his vantage ground at Springfield he was in full touch with the situation, which called for the exercise of the greatest wisdom as well as caution. Under the threats of secession he saw the influence of [Horace] Greeley's appeal spreading through the North. It found a willing lodgment in two classes of his own party: the commercial element and pro-abolition Republicans. The former feared war, as destructive to trade and credits...The motive of the latter was hatred of slavery, which was stronger in their minds than love for the Union."85 Northern businessmen worried about the loss of their profitable southern trade. David M. Potter wrote that "one may fairly infer that the Northern publicists who, for a brief time, bespoke the cause of voluntary dissolution, advocated it only as an alternative to compromise and not as a principle of action. When the choice lay between dissolution and war, all accepted armed conflict; some welcomed it. "86
Still, Mr. Lincoln remained optimistic, probably excessively so. A reporter for the Philadelphia Evening Bulletin met with President-elect Lincoln in late December 1860 at the Illinois State House. "At length one of the party [of the reporter's friends] asked him if he had any news from the South. 'No,' he replied; 'I have not yet read the dispatches of the morning papers. But,' he added, 'I think, from all I can learn, that things have reached their worst point in the South, and they are likely to mend in the future. If it be true, as reported, that the South Carolinians do not intend to resist the collection of the revenue, after they ordain secession, there need be no collision with the Federal Government. The Union may still be maintained. The greatest inconvenience will arise from the want of Federal courts; as with the present feeling, judges, marshals, and other officers could not be obtained.' On this point Mr. Lincoln spoke at some length, regretting its difficulty, but adding that his mind was made up as to how it should be overcome. His tone and language were moderate, good-humored and friendly towards the South."
He then went on to speak of the charges made by the South against the North, remarking that they were so indefinite that they could not be regarded as sound. If they were well defined they could be fairly and successfully met. But they are so vague that they cannot be long maintained by reasoning men even in the Southern States. Afterwards he spoke of the course pursued by certain Republican newspapers at the North, which I need not name, in replying to the threats of secession from Southern States, by saying, 'Let them secede; we do not want them.' This tone, he remarked, was having a bad effect in some of the border States, especially in Missouri, where there was danger that it might alienate some of the best friends of the cause, if it were persisted in. In Missouri and some other States, where Republicanism has just begun to grow, and where there is still a strong Pro-Slavery party to contend with, there can be no advantage in taunting and bantering the South."87
Among the newspapers to which the New York Times referred was the New York Tribune, whose erratic editor Horace Greeley wanted to "let the erring sisters go in peace."88 Northerners were not united against secession, noted historian Edward Lillie Pierce: "Greeley, appalled with the prospect of civil war with an uncertain issue,...treated secession as a revolutionary right, and discountenanced coercive measures for keeping the seceding States in the Union. Wendell Phillips, in a passionate harangue, affirmed the right of the slave States, 'upon the principles of 1776,' to decide the question of a separate government for themselves. Thurlow Weed, on the other hand, contemporaneously with Greeley's prompt declaration, proposed to reach a peaceful issue in another way, - by acceding to the substance of the claims of the seceders."89
President-elect Lincoln unhappily viewed the actions and inaction of Congress and the Buchanan Administration in Washington. After he won the 1860 election, President-elect Lincoln told fellow lawyer Joseph Gillespie: "Joe, I suppose you will never forget that trial down in Montgomery County, where the lawyer associated with you gave the whole case in his opening speech? I saw you signaling to him, but you couldn't stop him. Now, that's just the way with me and [President James] Buchanan. He is giving away the case, and I have nothing to say, and can't stop him."90 Another attorney, Henry Clay Whitney, indicated the pressure Mr. Lincoln was under. Whitney wrote: "Lincoln's best friends besought him to quiet the public apprehension by saying - something. One of the most popular and honored men in Illinois - Joseph Gillespie - beseeched him, in the name of their old 'Whig' intimacy, to issue an address, setting forth pacific views, and upon Lincoln declining, burst forth in a flood of tears. Yet Lincoln was neither unadvised, nor insensible to the situation and its needs, as I happen in more than one way to know."91
Mr. Lincoln counseled Republican members of Congress against any compromise which would undermine the principles and platform of the Republican party. In mid-December President-elect Lincoln wrote Illinois Congressman William Kellogg to "entertain no proposition for a compromise in regard to the extension of slavery - that if this were done - the work achieved by the late election would all have to be done over again."92 His unwillingness to compromise pleased many Republicans but annoyed others.
Mr. Lincoln was naturally cautious, but especially so when where secession was concerned and he was unwilling to commit himself to a definitive course of action. Lincoln chronicler Melvin L. Hayes wrote: "Even aside from political expediency, Lincoln had a watch-and-wait attitude toward the divisive questions of the day. He liked to tell about the time during his service as a circuit lawyer, when he stopped at an inn in a torrential rain. He and other attorneys were glad to find a Methodist presiding elder there too, for he was familiar with the treacherous Fox River, which lay ahead. When asked about the stream, the clergyman said he had crossed it often and understood it well, 'but I have one fixed rule regarding the Fox River: I never cross it till I reach it.'"93 Historian David E. Woodward wrote: "A number of people traveled to Springfield, Illinois, attempting to draw opinions from Lincoln. The historical record shows that he revealed few details during those four months. Lincoln remarked, "I could say nothing which I have not already said, and which is in print and accessible to the public.' He wished neither to articulate unrealistic solutions nor hinder ongoing negotiations.'"94
On January 11, 1861, President-elect Lincoln wrote Pennsylvania Congressman James Hale: "Yours of the 6th is received. I answer it only because I fear you would misconstrue my silence. What is our present condition? We have just carried an election on principles fairly stated to the people. Now we are told in advance the Government shall be broken up unless we surrender to those we have beaten, before we take the offices. In this they are either attempting to play upon us or they are in dead earnest. Either way, if we surrender, it is the end of us and of the Government. They will repeat the experiment upon us ad libitum. A year will not pass till we shall have to take Cuba as a condition upon which they will stay in the Union. They now have the Constitution under which we have lived over seventy years, and acts of Congress of their own framing, with no prospect of their being changed; and they can never have a more shallow pretext for breaking up the Government, or extorting a compromise, than now. There is in my judgment but one compromise which would really settle the slavery question, and that would be a prohibition against acquiring any more territory."95
The future president of the Confederacy had a different, even more belligerent attitude. On January 13, Mississippi Senator Jefferson Davis wrote the governor of South Carolina: "We are probably soon to be involved in that fiercest of human strife, a civil war. The temper of the Black Republicans is not to give us our rights in the Union or allow us to go peaceably out of it. If we had no other cause, this would be enough to justify secession at whatever hazard."96 At the same time, a Texas correspondent for the New York Herald reported: "I do not know that I can find language sufficiently strong to express to you the unanimity and intensity of the feeling in this region in opposition to the perpetuation of the Union under the rule of President Lincoln and a black Republican administration."97
Compromise Ruled Out
About a week later, Mr. Lincoln was quoted as saying: "I will suffer death before I will consent or will advise my friends to consent to any concession or compromise which looks like buying the privilege of taking possession of this government to which we have a constitutional right; because, whatever I might think of the merit of the various propositions before Congress, I should regard any concession in the face of menace the destruction of the government itself, and a consent on all hands that our systems shall be brought down to a level with the existing disorganized state of affairs in Mexico. But this thing will hereafter be as it is now, in the hands of the people; and if they desire to call a Convention to remove any grievances complained of, or to give new guarantees for the permanence of vested rights, it is not mine to oppose."98 Not all Republicans agreed with him. Historian Russell McClintock wrote that Republican "moderates disagreed over whether the unionist backlash could occur without Republican assistance. Some, like Seward and John Sherman, joined conservatives in the belief that Republican intransigence was crippling the Southern unionist effort; others, including Lincoln and Trumbull, agreed with the radicals that concessions would encourage secessionism and destroy the Republican Party."99
In Mr. Lincoln's view, southern secessionists rejected the fundamental basis of democracy. Historian Michael F. Holt wrote: "Without question, the most persistent theme in secessionist rhetoric was not the danger of the abolition of restriction of black slavery, but the infamy and degradation of submitting to the rule of a Republican majority." Holt noted that "secessionist rhetoric had much less resonance among the residents of the upper South, and they rejected the demands to join their sister states to the south. They did not perceive Lincoln's victory as the end of republicanism, but as the product of its normal workings." Holt argued that "while residents of the upper South were as emphatically opposed to Republican programs as other Southerners, they had much more confidence that the new administration could be checked by Congress and vanquished at future elections when their majorities would fade away."100
While white northern and southern politicians were deliberating - and seceding, slaves were also evaluating the changed political landscape and southerners were frightened. Historian William A. Link wrote: "Abraham Lincoln's election pushed the struggle between slaves and slaveholders to a new level of intensity. Convinced that invaders were conspiring to foster insurrection, masters feared that outside forces were undermining their social system. Slaves challenging masters was nothing new; for many generations, bondspeople had opposed master's authority. What was different about the rush of events after November 1860 was how the collapsing national political system aroused slaves to new opportunities and challenged and excited slaveholders' sensibilities about the instability of the political-constitutional system. Secession represented a logical measure of self-protection that flowed directly from deteriorating master-slave relationships, increased slave restiveness, and the possibility of northern intervention. The same was true across much of the Deep South during late 1860 and early 1861."101
Lincoln's tools to handle the situation were limited. He had no executive experience, no experience in the Cabinet and only a single term as a member of Congress. He was a demon in the South and a question mark in the North. Historian Kenneth M. Stamp wrote: "It took a deep faith in the talents of the 'citizen class of people' to nourish even the hope that Lincoln might be able to cope with the national crisis. The new President could not rely upon his national prestige, for he had little of that....Nor could he capitalize upon the experience gathered from long participation in national politics, for that too was lacking." Stampp noted: "His strength could come from nowhere but within himself: from his native shrewdness, his instinctive feeling for trends in public opinion, above all, from his capacity for growth. The secession movement tested the sufficiency of these qualities and gave him his first real training in statecraft."102
President-elect Lincoln understood that he must show his mettle. He would not compromise on the key issue of the expansion of slavery into the territories. "Let there be no compromise on the question of extending slavery. If there be, all our labor is lost, and ere long, must be done again," wrote President-elect Lincoln to Senator Trumbull. "Have none of it. Stand firm. The tug has to come, and better now than any time hereafter."103 Mr. Lincoln held firm in all his letters to congressional allies. President-elect Lincoln wrote to Illinois Congressman Elihu B. Washburne on December 13, 1860: "Prevent as far as possible any of our friends from demoralizing themselves and our cause by entertaining propositions for compromise of any sort on slavery extension. There is no possible compromise upon it, but which puts us under again, and all our work to do over again. Whether it be a Missouri line or Eli Thayer's Popular Sovereignty, it is all the same. Let either be done, and immediately filibustering and extending slavery recommences. On that point hold firm as a chain of steel."104
Attempted Compromise in Congress
Many Republicans were worried. In the Senate and the House, committees were appointed to seek an agreeable compromise. Lincoln chronicler Frank van der Linden wrote: "The dimming prospects for congressional action in the secession crisis depressed Representative Tom Corwin the Ohio Republican who headed the House Committee of Thirty-three. Corwin hated war...After weeks of wrangling in his committee the gloomy chairman told Lincoln in a confidential letter: 'If the states are no more harmonious in their feelings and opinions than these thirty-three Representative men, then appalling as the idea is, we must dissolve, and a long and bloody civil war must follow."105 In mid-January letter, Corwin reported to Lincoln: "I have been for thirty days in a Committee of Thirty-Three. If the States are no more harmonious in their feelings and opinions than these thirty-three representative men, then, appalling as the idea is, we must dissolve, and a long and bloody civil war must follow. I cannot comprehend the madness of the times. Southern men are theoretically crazy. Extreme Northern men are practical fools. The latter are really quite as mad as the former. Treason is in the air around us everywhere. It goes by the name of patriotism. Men in Congress boldly avow it, and the public offices are full of acknowledged secessionists. God alone, I fear, can help us. Four or five States are gone, others are driving before the gale. I have looked on this horrid picture till I have been able to gaze on it with perfect calmness. I think, if you live, you may take the oath.106
Lincoln conferred on January 19-21 with Illinois Congressman William Kellogg, who served on the House Committee of Thirty-three. Like Corwin had in December, Kellogg urged Lincoln to come to Washington to reach a congressional compromise, but a newspaper report subsequently quoted Lincoln as declaring: "I will suffer death before I will consent or will advise my friends to consent to any concession or compromise which looks like buying the privilege of taking possession of this government to which we have a constitutional right..." 107
Beginning in 1854 when he spoke out forcefully against the Kansas-Nebraska Act, Lincoln had been a consistent opponent of any expansion of slavery in the territories. Historian William B. Hesseltine wrote: "Lincoln's refusal to entertain a compromise and his willingness to furnish a rallying cry, privately expressed though they were, indicated his growing strength. Less than six weeks after election day he had begun to take a grip upon the party. In a sense his strength was only relative: he was less muddled than the Republican congressmen. In part, his growing power resulted from his skillful handling of the patronage. After listening carefully to the hordes of visitors who streamed into Springfield, he had begun wisely to select his cabinet from the sundry elements of his chaotic party."108 Historian James M. McPherson wrote that "on the matters of slavery where it already existed and enforcement of the fugitive slave provision of the Constitution, Lincoln was willing to reassure the South. But on the crucial issue of 1860, slavery in the territories, he refused to compromise, and this refusal kept his party in line. Seward, or any other man who might conceivably have been elected president in 1860, would have pursued a different course." McPherson noted: "He refused to yield the core of his antislavery philosophy to say the break up of the Union."109
Under conditions of mutual suspicion, it was difficult to achieve any meaningful compromise, especially between political extremes in the North and South. Historian David M. Potter wrote: "It is one of the misfortunes of the literature of vindication, by both Northern and Southern apologists, that it has overemphasized these tactical maneuvers in Congress. Far more significant than all the disputed by-play of congressional manipulation is the undisputed fact that no compromise was tendered by one section, or requested by the other. This was true, in one case, because the leaders who might have made such a tender preferred to adhere to the Chicago Platform; and, in the other case, because the leaders who might have made such a request preferred to invoke secession. Yet in neither instance is there any convincing evidence that the policies adopted were the policies desired by the ordinary men and women who had to bear the consequences."110 President-elect Lincoln, however, believed he was pledged to the content of the Republican National Platform adopted at Chicago and he was unwilling to abandon that pledge.
Lincoln did not seek conflict, but nor could he shrink from it. South Carolina triggered the conflict that most sought to avoid. The state and its secessionist citizenry were the bully whom no one took seriously until they led the Deep South out of the Union. Arthur Cole wrote: "Southern champions were defending an agrarian civilization against the encroachment of a Northern industrialism, which harbored the menace of a pure democracy against the landed aristocracy which they were building up...These champions found the non-slaveholders unresponsive to their appeals against Northern economic oppression; they had reason, too, to be fearful of arousing the class consciousness of a yeomanry whose coöperation was essential to the maintenance of prevailing institutions."111
Lincoln and the Constitution
Against these secessionist forces, Mr. Lincoln saw the Constitution as inviolable.
Historian Don E. Fehrenbacher noted: "Lincoln believed that the power needed to meet the secession crisis had been provided by the Constitution and vested primarily in the president. He cited the commander-in-chief clause, the clause requiring him to 'take care that the laws be faithfully executed,' and his presidential oath - 'registered in heaven,' as he put it - to 'preserve, protect and defend the Constitution of the United States."112 Historian Herman Belz wrote: "Considered as a matter of practical constitutional reason, a consensus existed that no right of secession existed. Much as theorists of state sovereignty might speculate otherwise, political men understood that secession, if actually undertaken, would require violation of national law and present itself as unlawful rebellion. The Union was...the sovereign government of the nation, constitutionally authorized to legislate for individuals, compel obedience, command loyalty, and punish the crime of treason."113 Lincoln contended in a draft of his First Inaugural: 'Plainly, the central idea of secession, is the essence of anarchy. A constitutional majority is the only true sovereign of a people. Whoever rejects it, does, of necessity, fly to anarchy or to despotism. Unanimity is impossible; the rule of a minority, as a permanent arrangement, is wholly inadmissable; so that, rejecting the majority principle, anarchy or despotism is all that is left."114
During this period, Northerners frequently were the victims of their own wishful thinking regarding secession. According to John Nicolay, "On the part of the North, also, there had been grave misapprehension of the actual state of Southern opinion. For ten years the Southern threats of disunion had been empty bluster. The half-disclosed conspiracy of 1856 did not seem to extend beyond a few notorious agitators. The more serious revolutionary signs of the last three months - the retirement of Southern members of Congress, the secession of States, the seizure of federal forts and the formation of the Montgomery provisional government - were not realized in their full force by the North, because of the general confusion of politics, the rush and hurry of events, the delusive hopes of compromise held out by Congressional committees and factions, and the high-sounding professions of the Washington peace conference."115 This conference was ill-intentioned but toothless affair that convened in Washington in early February without delegates from much of the South and some northern states. Historian Stephen B. Oates noted that "Lincoln...refused to endorse the Washington Peace Convention. He didn't even want Illinois to send delegates."116
On February 9, 1861, Lincoln met for an hour in Springfield with an old friend. Quincy attorney Orville H. Browning reported in his diary: "We discussed the state of the Country expressing our opinions fully and freely. He agreed entirely with me in believing that no good results would follow the border State Convention now in session in Washington, but evil rather, as increased excitement would follow when it broke up without having accomplished any thing. He agreed it broke up without having accomplished any thing. He agreed with me no concession by the free States short of a surrender of every thing worth preserving, and contending for would satisfy the South, and that Crittendens proposed amendment to the Constitution in the form proposed ought not to be made, and he agreed with me that far less evil & bloodshed would result from an effort to maintain the Union and the Constitution, than from disruption and the formation of two confederacies."117 Preserving the Union and the Constitution were Lincoln's priorities. When Pennsylvania Governor-elect Andrew Curtin wrote Mr. Lincoln for advice on his inaugural, Mr. Lincoln wrote back: "I think you would do well to express, without passion, threat, or appearance of boasting, but nevertheless, with firmness, the purpose of yourself, and your state to maintain the union at all hazards. Also if you can, procure the Legislature to pass resolutions to that effect."118
Mr. Lincoln maintained his disciplined public silence on how he would handle the crisis even as he traveled from Springfield to Washington in February. The necessity of not making news was wearing on President-elect Lincoln, who told Ward Hill Lamon "he had done much hard work in his life, but to make speeches day after day, with the object of speaking and saying nothing, was the hardest work he ever had done."119 Lamon wrote that until March, "Mr. Lincoln had been slow to realize or acknowledge, even to himself, the awful gravity of the situation, and the danger that the gathering clouds portended. Certain it is that Mr. Seward wildly underrated the courage and determination of the Southern people, and both men indulged the hope that pacific means might yet be employed to arrest the tide of passion and render a resort to force unnecessary. Mr. Seward was inclined...to credit the Southern leaders with a lavish supply of noisy bravado, quite overlooking the dogged pertinacity and courage which Mr. Lincoln well knew would characterize those men, as well as the Southern masses, in case of armed conflict between the sections."120
As president-elect, Lincoln had been unrealistic about the determination of secessionists in the South. David Potter wrote that "the President-elect had...showed and continued to show a complete misunderstanding of the Southern temper, and a complete misconception of the extent of the crisis. On this misconception, his later policy was constructed." On his train trip across the North from Springfield to Washington in February 1861, Mr. Lincoln remained relentlessly upbeat about the Union while retaining his circumspect silence about specifics of his policies. Potter wrote that Lincoln's comments suggest that he believed that southern Unionists would help prevent war and secession." Potter wrote: "Translated into realistic terms...the circumstances required, first, that the South be reassured as to the good will, conciliatory purposes, and Constitutional scruples of the new admiration; second, that a symbolic assertion of Federal authority be maintained; third, that the operation of Federal jurisdiction must be tacitly waived until it could be resumed by Southern consent. These terms for peaceable reunion were precisely the terms which Lincoln attempted to meet in his inaugural address."121
Mr. Lincoln's rule book was the Constitution. He met with representatives of border states at the Washington Peace Convention at the end of February 1861. It was easy to do since the convention was being held in the Willard Hotel where the President-elect was staying. The convention itself was an exercise in futility, noted Massachusetts member George S. Boutwell, who wrote "that the Convention did not possess all the desirable characteristics of a deliberative assembly. It was in some degree disqualified for the performance of the important task assigned to it, by the circumstances of its constitution...Moreover, there were members who claimed that certain concessions must be granted that the progress of the secession movement might be arrested; and on the other hand there were men who either doubted or denied the wisdom of such concessions."122 Historian Burton J. Hendrick wrote that the convention "offered no practical plan for reunited the severed Union; all it could do was to propose again the Crittenden compromise, with its extension of the Missouri line. But the convention may have served a valuable purpose in preventing the secession of Virginia and certain sister Border states until Lincoln had been solidly seated in power."123
Mr. Lincoln was conciliatory without compromising. Union officer John Pope recalled in his memoirs: "There was at the time a "Peace Convention' in session at Willard's Hotel, consisting of old gentlemen sent from every state in the Union, to consult together and devise and submit to the country measures which should quiet the public feeling and restore fraternal relations. They had been wise men in their day, but that day had passed and their wisdom had become folly in such a crisis as then beset us. Whilst they were with immense gravity and importance effecting some proposed modification of the fugitive slave law, or agreeing upon some small concession to the supporters of state sovereignty, the whole country was in the throes of a revolution which swept away both slavery and state sovereignty. They were a worthy and most eminent body of gentlemen in every respect, except a comprehension of the situation with which they thought they were dealing."124 Mr. Lincoln remained firm when he met with delegates. Vermont Republican Lucius Chittenden recalled Lincoln telling some delegates to the Peace Conference. "My course is as plain as a turnpike road. It is marked out by the Constitution. I am in no doubt which way to go. Suppose now we all stop discussing and try the experiment of obedience to the Constitution and the laws."125
Few in Washington wanted to support a compromise measure that would fail - or support one that would fail to attract support from their own party colleagues. What moderates did want to show was that the failure to compromise was not their fault - but the fault of intransigent. Most politicians did not want to get too far away from the predominant views of their section or party. Historian Russell McClintock wrote that "when the Crittenden plan came up for discussion on December 22, the committee rejected the extension of the Missouri line that lay at its heart. The six Northern Democratic and Upper South senators on the committee were in favor, and even the two Deep South delegates reluctantly agreed to recommend it, but only if the Republicans went along. All four Republicans present - Seward was still in New York meeting with Weed - voted against it. As a result, the two cotton-state representatives added their nays, and just like that it was dead."126
Despite all the rhetoric about state's rights by secessionists, the fundamental issue was slavery. Lincoln's analysis of slavery's impact on secession was confirmed by the Cornerstone speech made by Vice President Stephens in Savannah in late March 1861: "Our new government is founded...upon the great truth that the negro is not equal to the white man; that slavery, subordination to the superior race, is his natural and normal condition. This, our new government, is the first in the history of the world, based upon this great physical and moral truth."127 Secessionists tried to clothe their rationale in the Declaration of Independence, but the reality of slavery undermined that claim.
While Stephens worried about slavery, Mr. Lincoln was worried about the Constitution. In his message to Congress on July 4, 1861, President Lincoln would write that there might seem "to be of little difference whether the present movement at the South be called 'secession' or 'rebellion.' The movers, however, well understand the difference. At the beginning, they knew they could never raise their treason to any respectable magnitude, by any name which implies violation of law. They knew their people possessed as much of moral sense, as much of devotion to law and order, and as much pride in, and reverence for, the history, and government, of their common country, as any other civilized, and patriotic people. They knew they could make no advancement directly in the teeth of these strong and noble sentiments. Accordingly they commenced by an insidious debauching of the public mind. They invented an ingenious sophism, which, if conceded, was followed by perfectly logical steps, through all the incidents, to the complete destruction of the Union. The sophism itself is, that any state of the Union may, consistently with the national Constitution, and therefore lawfully, and peacefully, withdraw from the Union, without the consent of the Union, or of any other state. The little disguise that the supposed right is to be exercised only for just cause, themselves to be the sole judge of its justice, is too thin to merit any notice."
With rebellion thus sugar-coated, they have been drugging the public mind of their section for more than thirty years, and, until at length, they have brought many good men to a willingness to take up arms against the government the day after some assemblage of men have enacted the farcical pretence of taking their State out of the Union, who could have been brought to no such thing the day before.128
Southern Unionism and Lincoln's Inauguration
Along with William H. Seward, Lincoln placed great importance to appealing to Unionist sentiments in the Border States. During the latter days of the Buchanan Administration, Attorney General Edwin Stanton passed on confidential information to Senator Seward through a mutual friend, Peter H. Watson. Stanton also passed on information to Senator Charles Sumner. Seward also got information from General Scott. Historian David M. Potter wrote that "Seward, as usual, followed a course which perplexed his contemporaries and has baffled historians. The only thing clear about it is that he was primarily concerned with saving the Border states, and that, to this end, he maintained a wide communication with Southern Unionists. It also appears that he held consultations of some sort with Douglas and Crittenden."129 Lincoln scholar Harry V. Jaffa wrote: "Critical to the future, as seen from the perspective of March 4, 1861, was the fact that although seven of the fifteen slave states had seceded, eight had not. The border states were Delaware, Maryland, Virginia, Kentucky, and Missouri. Between the Deep South and the border states lay the middle tier: North Carolina, Tennessee, and Arkansas."130 Historian Michael Burlingame wrote: "Lincoln was not unrealistic in imagining that the Upper South and Border States might remain in the Union. After all, the Deep South had threatened to secede in 1832-1833, in 1850-1851, and yet again in 1856, as recently as 1859-1860, secessionists in South Carolina, Alabama, and Mississippi had failed to win support for disunion."131
In retrospect, it is clear that Seward - and to a lesser extent Lincoln - placed too much faith in southern Unionists. Historian Sean Wilentz wrote that Lincoln "was utterly mistaken" in his faith in southern Unionists. "His election, the culmination of the long-building crisis of American democracy, instantly turned many Deep South moderates and even erstwhile Unionists into secessionists. No misrepresentation was necessary to show that he and his Republicans wanted to put slavery on the road to extinction, which was enough to make him a tyrant in Dixie."132 Historian Michael Burlingame wrote: "Lincoln may have overestimated the depth and extent of Southern Unionism, but he understood Northern opinion better than Seward did." Burlingame observed: "Seward's behavior is one of the great mysteries of the secession crisis. If he had informed House and Senate Republicans that Lincoln supported the New Mexico Compromise, they would not have lamented, as John Sherman did on February 9, that 'we are powerless here because we don't know what Lincoln wants. As he is to have the Executive power we can't go further than he approves. He communicates nothing even to his friends here & so we drift along.'"133 Seward fed the newspapers information in line with his preferred policy.
On March 4, President-elect Lincoln was escorted to the U.S. Capitol, where he took the oath of office and delivered his first Inaugural Address. Historian David Brion Davis wrote: "In his inaugural address, Lincoln attempted to be both firm and conciliatory. He declared secession to be wrong; but he also promised that he would 'not interfere with the institution of slavery where it exists.'"134 Lincoln said: "I hold, that in contemplation of universal law, and of the Constitution, the Union of these States is perpetual. Perpetuity is implied, if not expressed, in the fundamental law of all national governments. It is safe to assert that no government proper, ever had a provision in its organic law for its own termination. Continue to execute all the express provisions of our national Constitution and the Union will endure forever - it being impossible to destroy it, except by some action not provided for in the instrument itself."
Lincoln said: "All profess to be content in the Union, if all constitutional rights can be maintained. Is it true, then, that any right, plainly written in the Constitution, has been denied? I think not. Happily the human mind is so constituted, that no party can reach to the audacity of doing this. Think, if you can, of a single instance in which a plainly written provision of the Constitution has ever been denied. If, by the mere force of numbers, a majority should deprive a minority of any clearly written constitutional right, it might, in a moral point of view, justify revolution---certainly would, if such right were a vital one. But such is not our case. All the vital rights of minorities, and of individuals, are so plainly assured to them, by affirmations and negations, guarranties and prohibitions, in the Constitution, that controversies never arise concerning them. But no organic law can ever be framed with a provision specifically applicable to every question which may occur in practical administration. No foresight can anticipate, nor any document of reasonable length contain express provisions for all possible questions. Shall fugitives from labor be surrendered by national or by State authority? The Constitution does not expressly say. May Congress prohibit slavery in the territories? The Constitution does not expressly say. Must Congress protect slavery in the territories? The Constitution does not expressly say.
Lincoln said: "Plainly, the central idea of secession, is the essence of anarchy. A majority, held in restraint by constitutional checks, and limitations, and always changing easily, with deliberate changes of popular opinions and sentiments, is the only true sovereign of a free people. Whoever rejects it, does, of necessity, fly to anarchy or to despotism. Unanimity is impossible; the rule of a minority, as a permanent arrangement, is wholly inadmissable; so that, rejecting the majority principle, anarchy, or despotism in some form, is all that is left."
President Lincoln concluded his First Inaugural Address, which was wholly devoted to the secession crisis with an appeal to the South: "In your hands, my dissatisfied fellow countrymen, and not in mine, is the momentous issue of civil war. The government will not assail you. You can have no conflict, without being yourselves the aggressors. You have no oath registered in Heaven to destroy the government, while I shall have the most solemn one to 'preserve, protect, and defend' it."
I am loath to close. We are not enemies, but friends. We must not be enemies. Through passion may have strained, it must not break our bonds of affection. The mystic chords of memory, stretching from every battle-field, and patriot grave, to every living heart and hearthstone, all over this broad land, will yet swell the chorus of the Union, when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature.135
Lincoln scholar William Lee Miller wrote: "Although his address was as conciliatory as his convictions allowed, and a reasoned effort at persuasion with his 'dissatisfied countrymen,' it was nevertheless implicitly clear that, should they persist, force would be used to prevent their seceding, and that the oath-bound president would be the one to use it."136
Lincoln had consulted Seward on the text of his address, but incoming Secretary of State Seward clearly was not consulting with Lincoln on every he was doing. And Seward was not acting in concert with Lincoln. Historian John Taylor wrote: "A master of news management, Seward was almost certainly behind some of the pacifist sentiment that found its way into print in the first weeks after Lincoln's inauguration. In Washington, the National Intelligencer ran an earnest editorial calling for the evacuation of Fort Sumter. In January, the South Carolina Legislature had declared that any reenforcement of the fort would be considered an act of war."137 Lincoln requested his cabinet members to furnish him with written advice on March 15. Historian John Eisenhower noted that the kind of conflicting advice Mr. Lincoln was receiving was reflected in a letter the influential and venerable Scott sent Seward shortly before the inauguration:
"Hoping that, in a day or two, the new President will have, happily, passed through all personal dangers, & find himself installed an honored successor of the great Washington - with you as chief of his cabinet - I beg leave to repeat, in writing, what I have before said to you, orally, this supplement to my printed "views," (dated October last) on the highly disordered condition of our (so late) happy & glorious union. To meet the extraordinary exigencies of the times, it seems to me that I am guilty of no arrogance in limiting the President's field of selection to one of the four plans of procedure, subjoined: -
I. Throw off the old, & assume a new designation - the Union party; - adopt the conciliatory measures proposed by Mr. Crittenden, or the Peace convention, & my life upon it, we shall have no new case of secession, but, on the contrary, an early return of many, if not all the states which have already broken off from the Union, without some equally benign measure, the remaining slave holding states will, probably, join the Montgomery confederacy in less than sixty days, when this city - being included in a foreign country - would require permanent Garrison of at least 35,000 troops to protect the Government within it.
II. Collect the duties on foreign goods outside the ports of which this Government has lost the command, or close such ports by acts of congress, & blockade them.
III. Conquer the seceded States by invading Armies. No doubt this might be done in two or three years by a young able General - a Wolfe, a Desaix or a Hoche, with 300,000 disciplined men - estimating a third for Garrisons, & the loss of a yet greater number by skirmishes, sieges, battles & southern fevers. The destruction of life and property, on the other side, would be frightful - however perfect the moral discipline of the invaders.
The conquest completed at that enormous waste of human life, to the north and north west - with at least $250[,]000,000, added thereto, and cui bono? - Fifteen devastated provinces - not to be brought into harmony with their conquerors; but to be held, for generations, by heavy garrisons - at an expense quadruple the net duties or taxes which it would be possible to extract from them - followed by a Protector or an emperor.
IV. Say to the seceded - States - wayward sisters, depart in peace!138
Clearly, both Seward and Scott were out of tune with President Lincoln and most Republicans. Eisenhower wrote: "Seward passed the letter to an uninterested Lincoln and made sure that his colleagues, both in and out of government, were made aware of the general's written support of his own views. The result was a temporary alliance of Seward and Scott against the inclinations of most Lincoln supporters - and, it later turned out, of Lincoln himself. Strong Union men such as Montgomery Blair...were dismayed to see Scott softening toward the secessionists...."139 Even Democrat Edwin M. Stanton, the outgoing attorney general, urged more forceful action that the Lincoln Administration contemplated. Stanton biographer Frank A. Flower wrote that "Stanton, who having advised Seward on March 5, the day following the inauguration, that 'everything the Government possesses for the defense has been put in shape for instant use,' was disgusted and angry because Lincoln made no attempt 'for forty days,' as he says in one of the foregoing letters, to take advantage of that preparation, during every moment of which delay secession was gaining in strength and the Confederacy increasing its store of war munitions and its enlistment of soldiers."140
In truth, Lincoln was trying to figure out what actions he should take. Navy Secretary Gideon Welles later wrote: ""The President then, and until decisive steps were finally taken, was averse to offensive measures, and anxious to avoid them. In council, and in personal interviews with myself and others, he enjoined upon each and all to forbear giving any cause of offense; and as regarded party changes consequent upon a change of administration, while they would necessarily be made elsewhere, he wished no removal for political causes to be made in the Southern States, and especially not in Virginia. Although disturbed by the fact that the supplies of the garrison at Sumter were so limited, he was disinclined to hasty action, and wished time for the Administration to get in working order and its policy to be understood. He desired, I think, on the suggestion of Mr. Seward, that General Scott, should prepare a statement of the position of Sumter, and of the other batteries, and of preparations in Charleston and Charleston Harbor,- the strength of each, how far and long could the garrison maintain itself and repel an attack if made, what force would be necessary to overcome any rebel force or organized military of the State of South Carolina, should she bid defiance to and resist the Federal authorities."141
The fate of Fort Sumter - according to its commander Robert Anderson - seemed increasingly hopeless. Historian Craig L. Symonds wrote: "Anderson's gloomy report...suggested that Lincoln must now choose - and soon - between two equally undesirable options; he must either evacuate Anderson's garrison from Fort Sumter and begin his administration with a craven act of surrender or commit a provocative act that not only was sure to alienate the border states but also was likely to fail.'"142 Eisenhower wrote: "On March 13 the New York Herald's Washington correspondent wrote: 'I am able to state positively that the abandonment of Fort Sumter has been determined upon by the President and his Cabinet.'
"Because Lincoln had not yet decided what to do about Sumter, Seward stalled the commissioners with excuses - official appointments and problems attendant to his new duties at the State Department. On March 15 Lincoln held the second of two cabinet meetings devoted largely to the Sumter question. Seward again opposed any attempt at relief. He cited General Scott's and Major Anderson's reports that any relief expedition would be costly in terms of casualties without assuring success.143
Lincoln did not take any hostile action toward the secessionists, but was prepared to take action if hostile action was taken against the Union. The flash point for the Civil War was not secession but the Confederate attack on Fort Sumter on April 12. Representatives of the Confederacy and nearby border states had come to Washington seeking negotiation. Confederate President Jefferson Davis sought to forestall an armed conflict by sending three commissioners to Washington - John Forsyth, Martin J. Crawford and A. B. Roman. Seward was approached by two justices of the Supreme Court, John A, Campbell and Samuel Nelson, who hoped to broker some compromise with the Confederate commissioners who had been denied an official contact with the Lincoln Administration. Frank van der Linden wrote that Martin "Crawford arrived first, and on the evening of Lincoln's inaugural day, met with Senator Wigfall and three Virginia congressmen, Daniel DeJarnete, Roger Pryor, and Muscoe R.M. Garnett. 'We all agreed that it was Lincoln's purpose at once to attempt the collection of the revenue, to reinforce and hold Forts Sumter and Pickens, and to retake other places,' they reported to the Montgomery government. 'He is a man of will and firmness. His cabinet will yield to him with alacrity.'"144
Despite the unprecedented pressure he was under, President Lincoln remained prudential and principled. Historian James G. Randall wrote: "In all this prewar excitement and tension there were three things that Lincoln did not do. (1) He did not order what would now be called mobilization. For the Lincoln case the term is, of course, a misnomer; any plan for warlike operations in the South would have required a vast increase of existing forces. The militia of the United States was a shadowy thing, trained reserves did not exist, and the regular army numbered no more than sixteen thousand at a time when the holding of the Federal position at Charleston alone in case of southern attack was supposed by some to require twenty thousand. (2) Lincoln did not issue or inspire any public statements designed to inflame passion or intensify Northern hostility against the South. (3) Lincoln did not attempt to retake any of the already occupied forts in the lower South."145
Instead of taking aggressive action, Lincoln waited for the secessionists to strike. But he could not ignore the precarious situation of Fort Sumter. In early April, President Lincoln told Virginian John Minor Botts: "We have seventy odd men in Fort Sumter, who are short of provisions. I can not and will not let them suffer for food: they have so much beef, so much pork, potatoes, etc., but their bread will not last longer than next Wednesday, and I have sent a special messenger to Governor Pickens to say that I have dispatched a steamer loaded with 'bread' - that was his expression, though I suppose he meant provisions generally - 'and that if he fired upon that vessel he would fire upon an unarmed vessel, with bread only for the troops; and that if he would supply them, or let Major Anderson procure his marketing in Charleston, I would stop the vessel; but that I had also sent a fleet along with this steamer to protect her if she was fired into. What do I want with war? I am no war man; I want peace more than any man in this country, and I will make great sacrifices to preserve it than any other man in the nation."146
Historian Kenneth M. Stampp wrote "From the time the President-elect left Springfield in February until the firing upon Fort Sumter, the central theme of his public utterances was the further development and clarification of the strategy of defense. Holding inflexibly to the view that his fundamental purpose must be the preservation of the Union, he chose his words carefully and shrewdly to absolve himself from any charge of aggression."147 He was also inflexible on the issue of extending slavery to territories. Lincoln Scholar Harold Holzer notes that Lincoln repeatedly had used similar language in his pre-inaugural letters. "On the territorial question, I am inflexible," he wrote North Carolinian John A. Gilmer. "On that, there is a difference between you and us; and it is the only substantial difference. You think slavery is right and ought to be extended; we think it is wrong and ought to be restricted. For this, neither has any just occasion to be angry with the other."148
Attack on Fort Sumter
Lincoln's strategy of defense led to the Confederate attack on Fort Sumter - thus rallying Union support in the North. Historian David M. Potter wrote: "The primary significance of the southern attack on Fort Sumter is not that it started the Civil War, but rather that it started the war in such a manner as to give the cause of Union an eruptive force which it might otherwise have been slow to acquire."149 It was a nerve-wracking time. President Lincoln said to fellow Illinoisan Orville Browning "that all the troubles and anxieties of his life had not equalled those which intervened between this time and the fall of Sumter."150
Lincoln had to play both a public game and a private one - and historians have chosen to put their own interpretations on his motivations. His determination not to compromise could appear to be belligerent. Historian Nelson D. Lankford contended: "The Divided opinions of his advisers and his distaste for retreat reinforced Lincoln's temperamental reluctance to act." Lankford wrote: "On March 28, Lincoln ended his hesitation and decided the conciliatory strategy had failed. Pressure from leaders of his own party - reflected in the drumbeat of assertive editorials in Republican newspapers warning against retreat - had its effect. But the decision was his alone, and he had to bear the responsibility for choosing risk and confrontation as much as his opponent in Montgomery."151 Kenneth Stampp maintained that Lincoln continued to try to demonstrate his peaceful intentions even after Fort Sumter - arguing in the President's July 4 message to Congress that he was motivated by humanitarian concern for the soldiers stationed at Fort Sumter. But in reality, argued Stampp, "Step by step he was quietly moving to assert and vindicate federal authority in the South. Before each advance the secessionists would have had to retreat, until they found themselves discredited before their own people and, for all practical purposes, back in the Union. Their only alternative was resistance, but always the burden of aggression would be upon them."152 President Lincoln sent a messenger to South Carolina Governor Pickens: "I am directed by the President of the United States to notify you to expect an attempt will be made to supply Fort Sumter with provisions only, and that if such attempt be not resisted, no effort to throw in provisions, arms or ammunition will be made without further notice, or in case of an attack upon the fort."153
This warning prompted the Confederates to act before the fort could be reenforced. Kenneth Stampp wrote that Lincoln anticipated this result. Military historian Colin R. Ballard wrote: "How far this opening manoeuvre was engineered by Lincoln can only be a matter of doubt, but there can be no doubt that it was just what the Strategist needed. The intrinsic value of the fort was a minus quantity; it would have taken the whole of his army to garrison it. But the dramatic end of it was a real asset. The Confederates had put themselves out of court by appealing to force. This solved all legal questions of Constitutional Law at one stroke. The only remaining question was whether the Federal Government should or should not suppress an armed rebellion. There could, of course, be no hesitation on the part of the North in answering. And so the Strategist could get down to the purely military situation."154
Fate played a role in setting up the Confederate attack on Fort Sumter. Historian Don E. Fehrenbacher wrote: "Consider, as one small example, the ambiguity of motive and the irony of consequence in Major Robert Anderson's decision to move his troops from Fort Moultrie to Fort Sumter on December 26, 1860. Anderson, a professional soldier and a Southerner, wanted to avoid surrendering his command, but he also wanted to avoid armed conflict. His removal to the more defensible Sumter, unauthorized by his superiors, was a pacificatory effort at disengagement. But Moultrie in December had nothing like the enormous symbolic meaning attached to Sumter by the following April, when the guns of a proud new republic opened fire on the fort. Thus, by postponing the day of reckoning in Charleston harbor, Anderson greatly increased its impact. He alone determined the place and nature of the confrontation that erupted into civil. War."155
Lincoln scholar Gabor Boritt wrote: "Historians have offered three sets of views concerning Lincoln's role in the start of war at Sumter. One argued that Lincoln deliberately provoked the first shot to unite the North behind him. Reaffirming with poor scholarship contemporary Southern partisan charges (later dignified by Jefferson Davis and Alexander Stephens), this view has few adherents among historians. It can readily be dismissed."
Another approach, most clearly delineated by a penetrating David Potter, pictured a somewhat bungling Lincoln desiring peace and believing to the last that he might be able to avoid war. A third view sees the president more firmly in charge, expecting the peaceful provisioning of the Sumter garrison 'possible,' but the starting of hostilities 'probable.' Two excellent scholars, Kenneth Stampp and Richard Current, are the leading proponents of this position.
Professors Current and Stampp focused on too narrow a span of time, and thus did not take fully into account Lincoln's genuine, deep devotion to peace and how badly and for how long he misunderstood the reality of the Southern movement toward war. Conversely, Professor Potter failed to appreciate fully that sometime during the secession crisis Lincoln recognized that the war may indeed come. "It is not with any pleasure that I contemplate the possibility that a necessity may arise in this country for the use of the military arm,' he said to applause in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, as early as Washington's birthday, 1861. But he did 'contemplate' the possible 'necessity.' He also added, however, to louder applause, his 'most' sincere hope that it will never be the people's 'duty to shed blood, and most especially never to shed fraternal blood.'
"When Lincoln accepted war, he still practiced avoidance, like multitudes of the people he led and opposed. He remained part of the larger American culture. In the spring of 1865 he would remember that 'Neither party expected for the war, the magnitude or the duration, which it has already attained.'156
In early April President Lincoln sent several envoys to Charleston to evaluate the situation. One was his friend Ward Hill lamon, whom he had appointed U.S. Marshal for the District of Columbia. Lincoln brushed aside objections from Secretary of State Seward, saying: "I've known Lamon to be in many a close place, and he's never been in one he couldn't get out of." Unfortunately, the South Carolina native was not the best or most effective envoy. Historian Russell McClintock wrote that Lamon came back to Washington with ha "preposterous....piece of intelligence - that Governor Pickens wanted South Carolina to reenter the Union....Scott and Lamon had...a long conversation about the necessity of evacuating not only Fort Sumter but also Fort Pickens. Understanding from Lamon that Lincoln would approve such an idea, Scott drew up a memorandum recommending the evacuation of both forts, which he presented to Lincoln that evening before dinner."157
Lincoln also directed State Department clerk Robert S. Chew: "Sir - you will proceed directly to Charleston, South Carolina; and if, on your arrival there, the flag of the United States shall be flying over Fort Sumpter, and the Fort shall not have been attacked, you will procure an interview with Gov. Pickens, and read to him as follows: I am directed by the President of the United States to notify you to expect an attempt will be made to supply Fort-Sumpter with provisions only; and that, if such attempt be no resisted, no effort to throw in men, arms or ammunition, will be made, without further notice, or in case of an attack upon the Fort."158 Historian Nelson D. Lankford wrote that "Charleston's most notable unionist, James Louis Petigru, said: "South Carolina is too small for a republic and too big for a lunatic asylum."159
Historian Richard Striner wrote of the Lincoln strategy to send a relief expedition to Fort Sumter: "The sheer cunning of the move has elicited praise and condemnation down the years. For Lincoln's message to the South could be read in very different ways. In the North it sounded mild and innocuous. In the South it was an act of defiance. Lincoln knew from his agent what the South Carolinians would think when he told them of his plans. And he knew what they would do in return. But it was Northern opinion that he wanted to bring into line with his Sumter policy."160 Union reenforcements for Fort Sumter were being turned back from Charleston. Historian Michael Burlingame wrote: "On April 10, Jefferson Davis and his cabinet had instructed the general in charge of Charleston, P.G. T. Beauregard, to insist upon the immediate surrender of Sumter; if Anderson declined.161 Historian Richard N. Current noted: "The fact is that Jefferson Davis and the Confederates had already made their decision to capture the fort, and they would very soon have attacked it even if Lincoln had never thought of sending an expedition there....But it is quite a different thing to suggest that Lincoln considered the possibility, indeed the probability, of a conflict of arms resulting from his provisioning attempt. And it is not too much to say - for he said it himself - that he was determined to manage the project in such a way as to put the blame for war, if war should ensue, clearly and unmistakably upon the other side." Current wrote that "it appears that Lincoln, when he decided to send the Sumter expedition, considered hostilities to be probable. It also appears, however, that he believed an unopposed and peaceable provisioning to be at least barely possible."162 The actual expedition was a tragedy of errors; what navy ships did arrive off the port of Charleston came too late to attempt a resupply.
Lincoln placed the Confederacy in a lose-lose situation even through the immediate event would be a Confederate victory. Historian James M. McPherson wrote: "In effect, Lincoln flipped a coin and told Davis: 'Heads I win, tails you lose.' If Southern guns fired first, the Confederates would stand convicted of starting a war. If they let the supplies go in, the American flag would continue to fly over Fort Sumter. The Confederacy would lose face; Unionists would take courage."163 Scholar Lois Einhorn was more critical of Lincoln's actions. She wrote that "in his 'Inaugural Address' and afterward, he expressed an optimistic attitude that today seems naive and unrealistic. For example, in a "special Message to Congress' four months after his inauguration, he explained the policy he had chosen to espouse in his 'Inaugural Address': 'The policy chosen looked to the exhaustion of all peaceful measures....It was believed possible to keep the government on foot.' Perhaps Lincoln did not want to say publicly, 'We're going to have a war,' because he knew he was speaking to posterity, because people naturally want their public leaders to be optimistic, and/or because he wanted the South to fire the first shot."164 There is no smoking gun in Lincoln's papers, however, to suggest that he sought conflict. What he understood was that if the South sought conflict, it would have be engaged.
A great deal of wishful thinking was admittedly at work, especially in the North - wishful thinking that the attack on Fort Sumter dispelled. Historian Nelson D. Lankford wrote: "Many northerners believed that southerners who did not own slaves would never rally to the Confederate cause. Many southerners believed the downtrodden laborers and immigrants in the North would never fight for the Republican cause. To their shock, both expectations were confounded. To Upper South unionists, Lincoln's decision to confront the Confederates over Fort Sumter was insanely reckless."165
The Constitution, Lincoln believed, required him to act and to place his faith in Americans who believed in the Union. In the spring of 1861, President Lincoln told some administration officials: "We must not forget that the people of the seceded states, like those of the loyal ones, are American citizens, with essentially the same characteristics and powers. Exceptional advantages on one side are counterbalanced by exceptional advantages on the other. We must make up our minds that man for man the soldier from the South will be a match for the soldier of the North and vice versa."166
Despite the deficiencies of Lincoln's attempt to resupply Fort Sumter, historian Craig L. Symonds wrote that "some of the elements of Lincoln's future greatness were evident in his first exercise of presidential authority over the U.S. Navy. First, he had sought expert advice wherever he could find it, not only from the aged and authoritative Scott and Totten but also from the more unlikely sources such as [Gustavus] Fox, [Montgomery] Meigs, and [David Dixon] Porter. Second, he allowed, even demanded, free discussion among the advocates of different policy options, asking his advisers to put their ideas in writing to clarify their thoughts. Third, he was willing to consider unconventional solutions and independent thinking. And finally, when a decision had to be made, he made it himself, saw it through, and accepted both the responsibility and the consequences."167
President Lincoln acted carefully and deliberately to avoid a confrontation if possible and win it if necessary. Historian James G. Randall wrote: "In this light Lincoln's executive acts in April 1861 had at least five important aspects: (a) they inaugurated for the nation a state of war where there had been peace; (2) they set up a legal front in terms of theory and status; (3) they equally set the pattern for the President's own theory of executive measures with regard to Congress: (4) they launched a military policy (reliance upon 'militia' and upon action by the states rather than upon national army expansion); (5) finally, these measures fixed the mold into which the government's policy was to be cast in its relations with foreign nations."168
After Fort Sumter's fall, the President acted quickly to assemble a broad-based coalition in the North behind the Union war effort. Ward Hill Lamon recalled: "Mr. Lincoln had shown great wisdom in appreciating the importance of holding such Democrats as Mr. [Stephen A.] Douglas close to the Administration, on the issue of a united country or a dissolution of the Union. He said: 'They are just where we Whigs were in 1848, about the Mexican war. We had to take the Locofoco preamble when Taylor wanted help, or else vote against helping Taylor; and the Democrats must vote to hold the Union now, without bothering whether we or the Southern men got things where they are; and we must make it easy for them to do this, for we cannot live through the case without them.' He further said: 'Some of our friends are opposed to an accommodation because the South began the trouble and is entirely responsible for the consequences, be they what they may. This reminds me of a story told out in Illinois where I lived. There was a vicious bull in a pasture, and a neighbor passing through the field, the animal took after him. The man ran to a tree, and got there in time to save himself; and being able to run round the tree faster than the bull, he managed to seize him by the tail. His bullship seeing himself at a disadvantage, pawed the earth and scattered gravel for awhile, then broke into a full run, bellowing at every jump, while the man, holding on to the tail, asked the question, 'Darn you, who commenced this fuss?' Now, our plain duty is to settle the fuss we have before us, without reference to who commenced it.'"169 Illinois Senator Douglas, Lincoln's longtime political rival, rallied to his support. Speaking at Chicago on May 1, Douglas put the struggle in context:
"The present secession movement is the result of an enormous conspiracy which was matured a year ago. The conspiracy was formed by the leaders of the secession movement twelve months ago, and they have used every means to urge it on. They have caused a man to be elected by a sectional vote, to demonstrate that the Union was divided; and when the history of the country from the time of the Lecompton constitution to the date of Lincoln's election is written, it will appear that a scheme was maturing in the meantime which was for no end except to break up the Union. They desired toe break it up, and they used the slavery question as a means This scheme was defeated by the overthrow of the disunion candidates in Kentucky, Tennessee, and Virginia. Still, the grand conspiracy existed, and the disunion movement was the result of it."170
The Union could not and would not be dissolved under Lincoln's constitutional vision. Historian Craig L. Symonds wrote: "The Confederacy, he insisted, was a legal fiction - rebellious part of the United States, not a separate nation."171 Historian Richard Striner wrote: "Lincoln resolutely stood up to these threats of secession and proposed to let the chips fall where they might. He would not back down one inch from his program of slavery containment."172 Historian Herman Belz wrote: "Lincoln's construction of the nature of the Union was achieved through the instrument of prudent and forceful exercise of the executive power in time of war."173 In the pursuit of an inflexible Union, Lincoln was flexible in his tactics. Lincoln scholar William Lee Miller wrote: "Keeping these turbulent places on the Union side required making most careful judgments about when to use and when to avoid military force. Sometimes the presence of Union troops and overt military action would solidify a dominant Union opinion (as in Maryland); in other cases such action might push a touchy, fragile public over into the arms of the secessionists (as it probably would have done in Kentucky)."174
Still, Lincoln had moments of desperation. Historian Michael Burlingame wrote: "On April 25, he asked a Connecticut visitor, who thought he looked badly depressed: 'What is the North about? Do they know our condition?'"175 Lincoln understood the shallowness of the North's emotional response. Lincoln told the story about the soldier preparing to go to war. His sisters wanted to embroider a shirt with the words "Victory or Death." "No, no," he protested, "don't put it quite that strong. Put it 'Victory or get hurt pretty bad.'"176
Lincoln understood that what was important was not just what he did, but why he did it and when he did it. Under attack, Lincoln acted vigorously to preserve the Union and ultimately to destroy slavery. Historian Herman Belz wrote: "Inspired by a variety of motives, Americans in the deepest sense went to war in 1861 to resolve constitutional controversy over the nature of the Union and the status of slavery in republican society. In both a practical and a moral sense, Lincoln's construction of the executive power in the secession crisis succeeded in placing these reciprocally related issues in the course of ultimate resolution."177 Just as slavery would be placed in the course of ultimate extinction. In his special message to Congress on July 4, 1861, Lincoln laid out the Union case and why compromise had not been possible:
The Constitution provides, and all the States have accepted the provision, that 'The United States shall guarantee to every State in this Union a republican form of government.'' But, if a State may lawfully go out of the Union, having done so, it may also discard the republican form of government; so that to prevent its going out, is an indispensable means, to the end, of maintaining the guaranty mentioned; and when an end is lawful and obligatory, the indispensable means to it, are also lawful, and obligatory.
It was with the deepest regret that the Executive found the duty of employing the war-power, in defence of the government, forced upon him. He could but perform this duty, or surrender the existence of the government. No compromise, by public servants, could, in this case, be a cure; not that compromises are not often proper, but that no popular government can long survive a marked precedent, that those who carry an election, can only save the government from immediate destruction, by giving up the main point, upon which the people gave the election. The people themselves, and not their servants, can safely reverse their own deliberate decisions. As a private citizen, the Executive could not have consented that these institutions shall perish; much less could he, in betrayal of so vast, and so sacred a trust, as these free people had confided to him. He felt that he had no moral right to shrink; nor even to count the chances of his own life, in what might follow. In full view of his great responsibility, he has, so far, done what he has deemed his duty. You will now, according to your own judgment, perform yours. He sincerely hopes that your views, and your action, may so accord with his, as to assure all faithful citizens, who have been disturbed in their rights, of a certain, and speedy restoration to them, under the Constitution, and the laws.178