Lincoln’s Election: Catalyst for Beginning of Civil War

The American civil war, fought between 1861-1865, has gone down in the United States’ history as the nation’s costliest war, in which an estimated 620,000 Americans lost their lives, killed by fellow Americans. It was the most bloody and brutal war ever fought on American soil with thousands of soldiers losing their lives through disease or the gun. The Northerners and Southerners, all legitimate sons of the land had fought each other; each fighting to preserve those patterns and practices that so much determined their social and economic lives.1

Although Abraham Lincoln’s election to presidency was the main catalyst for the beginning of a war between the North and South, tension had probably been building up for a long time. There were several issues at stake namely, definition of self-government, human freedom, revolutionary limits and sovereignty to name but a few. America’s Northern and Southern states could not agree over several of these issues and while the South was determined not to conserve their traditional social and economic patterns, the North was open for change and felt that conquest was the only way that would restore rebel sates back to the Union and help America move forward.2

For a long time, the issue of slavery dominated American politics. The economy of the South depended on free slave labor to maintain the vast plantations and expansion of slavery was crucial to this economy. To the Northerners, slavery was an evil that could not be allowed to spread into new territories. Lincoln strongly felt that a strong nation could not be built upon a half free and half slave foundation and this raised a lot of conflict especially each time a new state joined the Union. For Abraham Lincoln, America had to be founded as one united nation and not a conglomerate of autonomous polities, ready to break away at their own convenience.3

America had seized some new territories after the Mexican-American War and the issue was now at hand as to whether these new territories should be slave states or free states. There was need to observe a balance between free and slave states for an equal representation in the congress. By 1860, the number stood at 18 free states and 15 slave states and this made many Southerners feel that they were losing control of their country. For this reason, the Southerners had every reason to reject the election of an anti-slavery Northerner into the highest office in the land.4

Throughout the early years of the 19th century, the slavery issue had opened very deep divisions between Northern and Southern states, a situation that gave the Federal politicians a very difficult task of developing political compromises that would govern slave trade especially in new territories. To both sides was a clear realization that the debate over the extension of slavery to new territory highly determined the continuity of this institution in America. The North was against its spread while the South saw this as a new source of stronger control over the congress.5

During the first half of the 19th century, the issue of state rights Vs strong federal government had raised conflicting approaches between North and South regarding the type of government that was most suitable for America. The Southerners preferred a nation made up of a confederacy of sovereign states that held ultimate powers while the Northerners favored the formation of one country under a strong central government based in Washington.

This put fear in the Southerners who felt that if the Northerners controlled the Congress, they would force them to set free the slave labor that was the pillar to their economy. With no hope of nullification, secession remained the only option left for the South to help preserve their traditional rights.6

The Democratic Party was divided within itself; a division that helped Lincoln easily capture the presidency. Pro-slavery Northerners and almost all of the Southern states made up this party and regional differences made them disagree over the party’s candidature for the 1860 presidential nominations.

The Southerners did not approve the nomination of Stephen Douglas, a Northerner and they nominated a Southerner, John Breckinridge; a split indicating that the South felt independent enough to nominate their own candidate. This helped Lincoln into office because he had the full support of the Republicans. It was no secret to the Southerners that a split in the party would give Lincoln victory but it seems that they had an ulterior motive of seceding from the union of states and could have been looking for a war.7

Prominent economic differences existed between North and South by the second half of the 19th century. While the North was rapidly evolving into an individual and urban society, the south was stack to an agrarian and rural kind of society. The North attracted new immigrants from Europe and the Southern states in search of better employment in upcoming industries. While the North embraced the new era of industrial revolution, the cotton economy in the South was totally dependant on free slave labor and as a result of the migration was now stagnated under an already outdated system. But large plantation owners benefited from such a system and adamantly resisted any kind of change.8

Following Abraham Lincoln’s election, his predecessor Buchanan displayed a lack of interest regarding state matters and for the remaining four months, a period of inactivity characterized the Union. Such a situation of silence gave the Southern states a good opportunity to completely organize themselves. Lincoln therefore inherited a nation that was fractured and lacked a clear vision of Administration.9

Upon his election as president, Lincoln promised that the Union of States would no longer admit slave states and as a result the Southerners feared that they were losing power, losing their rights and that they would soon be outnumbered. To the Southerners, this was an indication that he was committed to an end to slavery which to them was a heritage, way of life and the economic base for their industry, agricultural production and commerce.

Their standard of living solely depended on the system of non-salaried labor and for all the reasons, slavery had now become a political agenda for the Southerners. With an opponent of slavery now in the White House, the slave states lost hope of any political control and of preserving slavery. They reacted immediately and in a period of about one and a half months after elections, South Carolina led several other states in receding from the Union. Mississippi and Florida followed suit and soon after, Alabama, Georgia and Louisiana joined the caravan. On the 9th of February 1861, these states came together to form the Confederate States of America (CSA).10

When Chief Justice Taney led Abraham Lincoln in taking oath for his new office as president on March, 1861, the South was already settled with a Confederate government, provisional President and elected congress. Worse still, they had seized all U.S government forts, military equipment and arsenals in their territory with the exception of the Florida and Charleston harbor military bases. The Confederacy had become a going concern and any attempt to coerce these states back to the Union was certainly going to create resistance.

But eight of the 15 slave states did not join the Confederate and the continued independence of the South was at stake. Forcing the seceded states back into the Union would certainly drive the remaining states into the confederacy, and this meant doom for the Union government. Although Lincoln had to act as ambassador for peace for the sake of these slave states that had remained in the Union, he was also well aware that war was inevitable in order to preserve the Union.11

On the 12th of April 1861, only two weeks after the inauguration of Abraham Lincoln, Rebel Soldiers from the South fired at a Federal Vessel sent to deliver new supplies to Fort Sumter. The new President immediately called fro troops to the tune of 75,000 men and soon after this, the states of Virginia, Arkansas and Tennessee chose to leave the Union. Action had to be taken; the American Civil War had now begun. For Lincoln, victory in this war would help conquer the South and strengthen the North in the Congress. But there was a tough task ahead of the New President, that of conquering rather than being conquered and for Lincoln, this meant devoting all his statesman and leadership resources.12

Conclusion

For four years the war raged on and by the time it was over, the original republic of America was gone and the landscape extensively damaged. A new republic would now be carved extensively out of what the war had made. America’s sons had waged a war against themselves and the memory of it would be told for generations to come. 13

Bibliography

Carter, Patrick, Finelli Carter, Grant Nagy, Fineli Fiorella, and Nagy David. American History. Toronto: Edmond Montgomery Publication, 2007.

Engle, Stephen D. The American Civil War: The War in the West, 1861-July 1863. New York: Osprey Publishing, 2001.

Fantina, Robert. Desertion and the American Soldier, 1776-2006. New York: Algora Publishing, 2006.

Jaffa, Harry V. A New Birth of Freedom: Abraham Lincoln and the Coming of the Civil War. Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield, 2004.

O’Brien, Cormac and Suteski Monika. Secret Lives of the Civil War: What Your Teachers Never Told You about the War Between the States. Philadelphia: Quirk Books, 2007.

Footnotes

  1. Stephen D. Engle, The American Civil War: The War in the West, 1861-July 1863, (New York: Osprey Publishing, 2001), 13.
  2. Cormac O’Brien and Monika Suteski, Secret Lives of the Civil War: What Your Teachers Never Told You about the War Between the States, (Philadelphia, Quirk Books, 2007), 6.
  3. Ibid., 11.
  4. Robert Fantina, Desertion and the American Soldier, 1776-2006, (New York: Algora Publishing, 2006), 64-65.
  5. Patrick Carter, Carter Finelli, Nagy Grant, Fiorella Fineli and David Nagy, American History, (Toronto: Edmond Montgomery Publication, 2007), 181.
  6. Ibid., 188.
  7. Robert, Desertion, 64.
  8. Ibid.
  9. Patrick, History, 187.
  10. Patrick, History 186-187.
  11. Harry V. Jaffa, A new Birth of Freedom: Abraham Lincoln and the Coming of the Civil War, (Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield, 2004), 236-237.
  12. Robert, Desertion, 65.
  13. Ibid.