Modern history

From Sectional Crisis to War

During the 1850s, a profusion of abolitionist lectures, conventions, and literature increased antislavery sentiment in the North. Mainstream as well as antislavery newspapers now covered rescues of fugitives, the Dred Scott case, and the bloody crisis in Kansas. Republican candidates in state and local elections also kept concerns about slavery’s expansion and southern power alive. Nothing, however, riveted the nation’s attention as much as John Brown’s raid on the federal arsenal at Harpers Ferry, Virginia, in 1859. A year later, Republican Abraham Lincoln captured the White House. In the wake of his election, South Carolina seceded from the Union, agreeing with the presidentelect that the nation could no longer exist half slave and half free.

John Brown’s Raid

John Brown was committed not only to the abolition of slavery but also to complete equality between whites and blacks. A friend to many abolitionist leaders, Brown held views quite similar to those of David Walker, whose 1829 Appeal (see chapter 11) warned that slaves would eventually rise up and claim their freedom by force of arms. By 1859, following the bloody battles in Kansas, Brown believed strongly that direct action was the only answer. Deeply religious, he saw himself as the instrument of God’s plan to liberate the enslaved.

Brown focused his efforts on the federal arsenal in Harpers Ferry, Virginia. With 18 followers—including 5 African Americans and 13 whites, including 3 of his sons— Brown planned to capture the arsenal and distribute the arms stored there to slaves in the surrounding area. He hoped this action would ignite a rebellion that would take down the plantation system. He tried to convince Frederick Douglass to join the venture, but Douglass, who admired Brown, considered it a foolhardy plan. However, the passionate rebel Brown did manage to persuade a small circle of white abolitionists to bankroll the effort.

On the night of October 16, 1859, Brown and his men successfully kidnapped some leading townsmen and seized the arsenal. Local residents were stunned but managed to alert authorities, and state militia swarmed into Harpers Ferry. The next day, federal troops arrived, led by Colonel Robert E. Lee. The rebels had failed to consider how they would alert slaves to the arsenal’s capture so that slaves could gain access to the town and the weapons. With state and federal troops flooding into Harpers Ferry, Brown and his men were soon under siege, trapped in the arsenal. Fourteen rebels were killed, including two of Brown’s sons. On October 18, Brown and three others were captured.

As word of the daring raid spread, Brown was hailed as a hero by devoted abolitionists and depicted as a madman by southern planters. Southern whites were sure he was part of a widespread conspiracy led by power-hungry abolitionists. Federal authorities moved quickly to quell slaveholders’ fears and end the episode. Brown rejected his lawyer’s advice to plead insanity, and a local jury found him guilty of murder, criminal conspiracy, and treason on October 31. He was hanged on December 2, 1859.

John Brown’s execution unleashed a massive outpouring of grief, anger, and uncertainty across the North. Abolitionists organized parades, demonstrations, bonfires, and tributes to the newest abolitionist martyr. Even many Quakers and other pacifists viewed John Brown as a hero for giving his life in the cause of emancipation. But most northern politicians and editors condemned the raid as a rash act that could only intensify sectional tensions.

Among southern whites, fear and panic greeted the raid on Harpers Ferry, and the execution of John Brown did little to quiet the outrage they felt at having their peculiar institution once again threatened with violence. Southern intellectuals had developed a sophisticated proslavery argument that they believed demonstrated the benefits of bondage for African Americans and its superiority to the northern system of wage labor. Yet neither that argument nor any federal law or Supreme Court decision seemed able to deter antislavery activism. Not surprisingly, Americans on both sides of the sectional divide considered the I860 presidential election critical to the nation’s future.

The Election of 1860

Brown’s hanging set the tone for the I860 presidential campaign. The Republicans met in Chicago in May I860 and made clear that they sought national prominence by distancing themselves from the more radical wing of the abolitionist movement. The party platform condemned John Brown along with southern “Border Ruffians” who initiated the violence in Kansas. The platform accepted slavery where it already existed, but continued to advocate its exclusion from western territories. Finally, the party platform argued forcefully for internal improvements and protective tariffs. On the third ballot, Republicans nominated Abraham Lincoln as their candidate for president. Recognizing the impossibility of gaining significant votes in the South, the party focused instead on winning large majorities in the Northeast and Midwest.

The Democrats met in Charleston, South Carolina. Although Stephen Douglas was the leading candidate, he could not assuage southern delegates who were still angry that Kansas had been admitted as a free state. Mississippi senator Jefferson Davis then introduced a resolution to protect slavery in the territories, but Douglas’s northern supporters rejected it. When President Buchanan came out against Douglas, the Democratic convention ended without choosing a candidate. Instead, various factions held their own conventions. A group of largely northern Democrats met in Baltimore and nominated Douglas. Southern or “cotton” Democrats selected John Breckinridge, the current vice president and a Kentucky slaveholder, on a platform that included the extension of slavery and the annexation of Cuba. The Constitutional Union Party, composed mainly of former southern Whigs, advocated “no political principle other than the Constitution of the country, the union of the states, and the enforcement of the laws.” Its members nominated Senator John Bell of Tennessee, a onetime Whig.

Although Lincoln won barely 40 percent of the popular vote, he carried a clear majority in the electoral college. With the admission of Minnesota and Oregon to the Union in 1858 and 1859, free states now outnumbered slave states eighteen to fifteen, and Lincoln won all but one of them. Moreover, free states in the Middle Atlantic and Midwest were among the most populous in the nation and therefore had a large number of electoral votes. Douglas ran second to Lincoln in the popular vote, but Bell and Breckinridge captured more electoral votes than Douglas did. Despite a deeply divided electorate, Lincoln became president (Map 12.3).

Although many abolitionists were wary of the Republicans’ position on slavery, especially their willingness to leave slavery alone where it already existed, most were nonetheless relieved at Lincoln’s victory and hoped he would become more sympathetic to their views once in office. Meanwhile, southern whites, especially those in the deep South, were furious that a Republican had won the White House without carrying a single southern state.

The Lower South Secedes

On December 20, 1860, six weeks after Lincoln’s election, the legislature of South Carolina announced that because “a sectional party” had engineered “the election of a man to the high office of President of the United States whose opinions and purposes are hostile to slavery, [the people of South Carolina dissolve their union with] the other states of North America.” The first southern state had seceded from the Union, and its leaders now worked to convince neighboring states to join them. In early 1861, Mississippi, Florida, Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana, and Texas followed suit. Representatives from these states met on February 8 in Montgomery, Alabama, where they adopted a provisional constitution, elected Mississippi senator and slaveholder Jefferson Davis as their president, and established the Confederate States of America (Map 12.4).

MAP 12.3

The Election of 1860 Four candidates vied for the presidency in 1860, and the voters split along clearly sectional lines. Although Stephen Douglas ran a vigorous campaign and gained votes in all regions of the country, he won a majority only in Missouri. Lincoln triumphed in the North and far West, and Breckinridge in most of the South.

MAP 12.4

The Original Confederacy

Seven states in the Lower South seceded from the United States and formed the Confederate States of America in February 1861. While the original Confederacy was too limited in population and resources to defend itself against the U.S. government, its leaders hoped that other slave states would soon join them.

Although President Buchanan was aware of developments in the South, he did nothing. His cabinet included three secessionists and two unionists, one of whom resigned in mid-December in frustration over Buchanan’s failure to act. But Washington, D.C., was filled with southern sympathizers, who urged caution on an already timid president. Although some Northerners were shocked by the decision of South Carolina and its allies, many others supported their right to leave or believed they would return to the Union when they realized they could not survive economically on their own. Moreover, with Virginia, Maryland, and other Upper South slave states still part of the nation, the secession movement seemed both limited and unlikely to succeed.

Buchanan did urge Congress to find a compromise, and Kentucky senator John Crittenden proposed a plan that gained significant support. Indeed, Congress approved the first part of his plan, which called for a constitutional amendment to protect slavery from federal interference in any state where it already existed. But the second part of Crittenden’s plan failed to pass after Republicans voiced their unanimous opposition. It would have extended the Missouri Compromise line (latitude 36°30') to the California border and barred slavery north of that line. South of that line, however, slavery would be protected, including in any territories “acquired hereafter.” Fearing that passage would encourage southern planters to once again seek territory in Cuba, Mexico, or Central America, Lincoln and the Republicans rejected the proposal. Despite the hopes of the Buchanan administration, it was becoming apparent that compromise was impossible. The Confederacy was not a fleeting disruption of the national order. It was the beginning of the Civil War.


• How and why did John Brown's raid on Harpers Ferry move the country closer to civil war?

• Why did many in the South believe that the election of Abraham Lincoln was cause for secession?

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