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Lincoln's Rigidity and Partisanship in the Sectional Crisis

Lincoln's Rigidity and Partisanship in the Sectional Crisis
AI visualization of President-Elect Abraham Lincoln reading correspondence asking him to speak out during the secession crisis of late 1860-early 1861.

In this week's video we look at President-Elect Abraham Lincoln's eerie silence throughout most of the period between his election and his nomination, despite the fact that Unionists from the Upper South and border states were begging him to speak up and reassure alarmed Southerners. Historian William J. Cooper, in his book We Have the War Upon Us: The Onset of the Civil War, November 1860-April 1861, argues that Lincoln fundamentally misunderstood the South. Furthermore, after being elected he failed to shift out of his campaign mindset enough to declare that he would be president of all Americans despite the sectional character of his victory, which only garnered 39 percent of the popular vote.

As we saw last week, Upper South and border-state Unionists had ample reason to worry about their hands being forced by the fire-eaters' machinations. Cooper cites the example of John Gilmer of North Carolina:

No one made a more thoughtful plea than an antisecessionist congressman from North Carolina, John A. Gilmer. Like most of his comrades a former Whig, Gilmer was a successful attorney, had served in his state legislature, and upon reaching Congress in 1857 rapidly became a leader of the southern opponents to the Democrats. Of medium height, with “a full round face,” “strong compact form,” and engaging personality, Gilmer had a knack for winning friends. Even some Republicans found him persuasive and sympathetic. On December 10, Gilmer wrote Lincoln. Admitting that he and his constituents had tried to defeat Lincoln, he invoked “the present perilous condition of the Country—threatening the destruction of the Union must be my excuse for the unusual liberty I take in writing this letter.” “If by any fair measure possible,” he wanted to maintain the peace and secure the constitutional rights of all Americans. His chief goal was “to have allayed, if possible, the apprehension of real danger and harm to [southerners] and their peculiar institution which have seized the people of my section.”
To that end Gilmer posed a number of specific questions. He wanted to know Lincoln’s opinion on matters ranging from the Fugitive Slave Law to the admission of new slave states. He even asked about Lincoln's intentions regarding the agitation of the slavery issue through either policy or appointments. Finally, Gilmer came to the most contentious issue. How would Lincoln recommend settling “the disturbing question of slavery in the territories?”
Closing, Gilmer wrote, “I address you from pure motives.” He hoped “a clean and definite exposition of your views” would “go far to quiet, if not to satisfy all reasonable minds.” Gilmer confided that he believed “more misunderstanding than difference” separated Republicans and southerners. He was certainly convinced that the differences were “more abstract than useful.” “A generous and patriotic yielding on the part of your section, now so largely in the majority,” Gilmer pled, “would, on the one hand, be a mere sacrifice of opinion, and, on the other, the preservation of the best Government that has ever fallen to the lot of any people.”
Lincoln took Gilmer seriously. That he replied at some length confirms that conclusion, though because his response went through an intermediary, it took extra time to reach Gilmer. At the same time, Lincoln marked the letter “Strictly confidential”; it was not, as Gilmer wished, for public distribution. The president-elect simply repeated that his positions on important political matters were already before the public. To Gilmer, however, Lincoln was direct. He answered the queries in a manner that could only have pleased Gilmer. He said he would not recommend the abolition of either slavery in the District of Columbia or the interstate slave trade. Additionally, he declared that he had no problem with employing slaves in federal arsenals and dockyards. He also indicated that he had no plan as a matter of policy to exclude slaveowners from patronage appointments. On the fugitive slave question, he gave no support to state laws that conflicted with the fugitive slave provision of the Constitution.
There was, however, a critical exception to these satisfying responses, one which Lincoln termed “the only substantial difference between us.” “On the territorial question,” Lincoln answered, “I am inflexible.” He pointed to the Chicago platform and the published record of his 1858 debates with Stephen A. Douglas. He would agree to no extension of slavery. Yet, “for this,” Lincoln reflected, “neither has any occasion to be angry with the other.”

On the substance, of course, the issue of slavery in the territories was one on which both sides should have been flexible, since the climates of the West and the Great Plains were inhospitable to the kinds of agriculture that made enslaved labor so enticing for Southern planters. See this post for why the issue was a proxy for sectional power.

Observing that Lincoln was acting like "a partisan's partisan, not the leader of a country," Cooper writes:

The critical question focuses on the why underlying his rigidity. The evidence strongly suggests that he feared alienating his party’s most fervent antislavery zealots, the hard-liners. Lincoln constantly expressed concern that any serious compromise would fracture the party; he meant drive off the left. If that segment bolted because of sectional compromise, Lincoln worried the Republican party would disintegrate. That group did not, of course, encompass the Republican party. Undoubtedly, it was a minority, albeit an articulate, vigorous minority. The right and the center of the party clearly outnumbered the left.
A suggestive approach to assess Lincoln's course concentrates on [William H.] Seward [a U.S. senator representing New York, and Lincoln's choice for secretary of state], who looked favorably on compromise. Early on, considerably before Lincoln, Seward perceived the Union to be in mortal danger. Above all, he wanted to prevent its dissolution, if possible. Having been in Washington for the entire decade of the 1850s and knowing many southern politicians, he had a much better grasp than Lincoln of the political force of secession and the political reality facing moderate southerners. Then, he, along with [Albany Evening Journal publisher Thurlow] Weed, believed the territorial issue had done its work, elected a Republican president. To them it was chiefly a political matter. With all the territory controlled by the United States already covered by existing law, they thought any chance of adding new land remote and certainly not taking place without Republican concurrence.
Additionally, the two New Yorkers saw the Republican victory in no small part as a result of Democratic division. Because they judged, “the normal proclivities of the American people are Democratic,” as well as “the issues of the late campaign are obsolete,” they regarded new issues mandatory to maintain the Republicans in power. In 1864, a reunited Democratic party would cause trouble for the Republicans unless the party could expand. Seward wanted to reach out to the Unionists in the South, especially in the Upper and Border slave states. He identified with the very men begging Lincoln to help them fend off the secessionists. To Seward, bringing them into the Republican tent was not only possible but essential. Without question, a number of them, overwhelmingly former Whigs and Constitutional Unionists in 1860, made clear their willingness to come into a party that focused on the Union, not sectional antagonism. No evidence suggests that Lincoln at the time conceived of a Republican future beyond the border of the 1860 party.
As for the unity of the newly triumphant Republican party, Seward occupied different ground than Lincoln. Since the inception of the party and even before that Seward, as the major spokesman for antislavery northern Whigs, had been the evangelist of the irrepressible conflict. He had the standing to repel an assault from the Republican left, which would surely have come. Moreover, if a party opting for sectional compromise really distressed the hard-liners, where could they go? And even if the most radical bolted, the adherence of southern Unionists would offset their loss. Thus, for Seward the Republican party would become the great Union party, with a solid presence in the South, particularly in the Upper and Border slave states. Lincoln did turn to the Union party idea, but only after the shooting had begun. Before hostilities he absolutely did not.
Yes, Lincoln was ignorant of the South, and he viewed the crisis from a partisan perspective, but a third fundamental reason underlay his rejection of serious compromise. The evidence suggests that he had a much deeper, more visceral hatred of slavery than did Seward. Seward did abhor slavery, never giving it moral equality with freedom. Convinced, however, that the rapid population growth and geographic expansion along with the burgeoning economic power of the free states would naturally overpower slavery, he was willing to let the institution and the southern political strength based on it become casualties of America’s inevitable progress. Thus, after the territorial issue had accomplished its purpose in 1860, Seward was quite willing to shelve it.
Not so Lincoln—to him the territorial issue was never just about politics. To him it spoke about the nation, even if primarily as symbol. In his mind the nation must be about freedom, never slavery. That certitude had informed his important and well-known Cooper Union speech in February 1860. During the crisis itself in his confidential letters to John Gilmer and Alexander Stephens, Lincoln maintained that he could find no serious disagreement with them, except on one fundamental matter. Both southerners thought slavery right, and he considered it wrong. And he used the words “right” and “wrong.”
Those expressions had powerful antecedents. As early as 1850 Lincoln told a former law partner that “the slavery question can’t be compromised.” That was a logical statement for a man who described the sight of shackled slaves as “continual torment to me.” He compared slavery and freedom to “two wild beasts in sight of each other, but chained and held apart. Some day,” he predicted, “these deadly antagonists will one or the other break their bonds, and then the question will be settled.” A key reason for his adamant opposition to Stephen A. Douglas, he avowed, was that Douglas “don’t care whether slavery is voted up or down, but God cares, and humanity cares, and I care.”

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