The Election of Lincoln and Start of the Civil War
The 1860 Presidential election included four candidates. Abraham Lincoln ran as a Republicn, Stephen Douglas and John Breckinridge ran as Democrats; John Bell ran as a third party. Abraham Lincoln won the election with the smallest percentage of the popular vote in our history, about 40%. Nonetheless, Lincoln won an absolute majority, over 50%, in enough states to win in the Electoral College. The nearby table lists all the states Lincoln won along with the Electoral votes and popular vote margin. 152 Electoral votes were needed to win, Lincoln reached 180 Electoral votes, including 169 in states where he won an absolute majority, over 50%. One reason for Lincoln’s victory was the size of the North compared to the South. In 1790, the South and the North were about equal in population. By 1860, the North was more than twice as large as the South. The South was now a minority in the country.
This election demonstrates how the Electoral College works compared to the popular vote. The two Democratic candidates, Douglas (Northern Democrats) and Breckinridge (Southern Democrats), combined for over 47% of the popular vote. Imagine the Democrats had united on a single candidate who won that 47% of the vote. And imagine a popular vote system instead of the Electoral College. Under that hypothetical scenario, we would have had a Democratic President, since their 47% exceeded Lincoln’s 40%. However, the Electoral College gave the election to Lincoln as shown in the table, since he won enough states to win in the College. We do not know what would have happened under a Democratic President, but we do know Lincoln preserved the Union and abolished slavery.
Lincoln’s inauguration occurred on March 4, 1861. Before his inauguration, seven Southern states seceded from the Union. South Carolina left first issuing its December 1860 “Declaration of the Immediate Causes Which Induce and Justify the Secession of South Carolina from the Federal Union.” The document stated that the original 13 colonies were recognized as “FREE, SOVEREIGN AND INDEPENDENT STATES” (caps in the original) by the Declaration of Independence of 1776, the Articles of Confederation of 1778, the 1793 Treaty of Paris with England ending the Revolutionary War, and implicitly by the 10th amendment to the Constitution (“The powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the states, are reserved to the States respectively, or to the people.”) South Carolina stated that the North was not enforcing the Fugitive Slave provision of the U.S. Constitution (“No person held to service or labor in one state…escaping into another, shall…be discharged from such service or labor, but shall be delivered up on claim of the party to whom such service or labor may be due.”). The secession document quotes Lincoln’s belief that “Government cannot endure permanently half slave, half free," suggesting that the future Federal government would be hostile to slavery. The conclusion: “We, therefore, the People of South Carolina…have solemnly declared that the Union heretofore existing between this State and the other States of North America, is dissolved…”
Lincoln had to sneak into Washington, D.C., due to assassination rumors. The District was surrounded by slave states, Maryland to the north and Virginia to the south. His inaugural address, given on March 4, 1861, appealed to the South. He assured the South that slavery was safe where it already existed: “I have no purpose, directly or indirectly, to interfere with the institution of slavery in the States where it exists. I believe I have no lawful right to do so, and I have no inclination to do so.” Lincoln reiterates support for the Fugitive Slave provisions and its enforcement.
He argues that secession is illegal: “It is safe to assert that no government proper ever had a provision in its organic law for its own termination.” The President argues that he will leave the South alone unless it takes action: “…there needs to be no bloodshed or violence, and there shall be none unless it be forced upon the national authority. The power confided to me will be used to hold, occupy, and possess the property and places belonging to the Government …but beyond what may be necessary for these objects, there will be no invasion, no using of force against or among the people anywhere.”
There was a last-minute attempt to save the Union via a Constitutional Amendment protecting slavery, known as the Corwin Amendment. Lincoln implies support for that amendment: “I understand a proposed amendment to the Constitution has passed Congress, to the effect that the Federal Government shall never interfere with the domestic institutions of the States, including that of persons held to service…holding such a provision to now be implied constitutional law, I have no objection to its being made express and irrevocable.”
Lincoln closes with a plea for unity: “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…We are not enemies, but friends. We must not be enemies. Though passion may have strained it must not break our bonds of affection. The mystic chords of memory, stretching from every battlefield 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.”
Alas, the Southern States started the Civil War on April 12, 1861, by attacking Fort Sumter in Charleston Harbor, South Carolina. At the time the United States had a tiny army forcing Lincoln to rely on state militias. Based on limitations of militia acts from the 1700s, Lincoln was able to call initially for only 75,000 volunteers to serve for 90 days. Congress later expanded his authority. Four additional Southern States seceded from the Union after Lincoln’s call: Virginia, North Carolina, Tennessee, and Arkansas. Maryland, Kentucky, and Missouri, although slave states, stayed in the Union.
I wonder what would have happened if the South had left Sumter alone. We don’t know as they didn’t and the war was on.