Nov. 11, 1860
With nearly half a year to prepare for the possibility of a Lincoln election, the editorial writers of the South had ample time to sharpen their rhetoric, and the arias of wroth and venom unleashed after last Tuesday’s decision proved that those months were not idly spent.
“If we submit now to Lincoln’s election,” said the Fayetteville North Carolinian, “your homes will be visited by one of the most fearful and horrible butcheries that has cursed the face of the globe.” Said the Richmond Semi-Weekly Examiner, “Here [is] a present, living, mischievous fact. The Government of the Union is in the hands of the avowed enemies of one entire section. It is to be directed in hostility to the property of that section.” Added The Atlanta Confederacy, even more emphatically, “Let the consequences be what they may — whether the Potomac is crimsoned in human gore, and Pennsylvania Avenue is paved ten fathoms deep with mangled bodies, or whether the last vestige of human liberty is swept from the face of the American continent, the South will never submit to such humiliation and degradation as the inauguration of Abraham Lincoln.” Concluded a pithier Augusta Constitutionalist: “The South should arm at once.”
Hot words, those, but in South Carolina, there were even hotter deeds: the day after the election, fire-eaters lowered the Stars and Stripes flying above the state capitol, and raised the Palmetto flag. Three days later, the legislature voted to convene in December to decide whether to secede.
Southerners, of course, have called this tune before. They threatened to bolt in 1820, floated the divisive theory of nullification in the 1830s, and angrily convened in Nashville in 1850. (The governor of South Carolina, William Gist, even has a brother whose name is States Rights — yes, his actual name is States Rights Gist — who was born during the nullification crisis; Father Gist was evidently a fervent Calhoun man.)
Whatever the time and whatever the provocation, the story has always been the same: threats, indignation and outrage, followed in the end by placations from the North and reconciliations that left the South wealthier and the institution of slavery more entrenched. Most assume that past will be prologue. The South seceded last year when the Republicans elected William Pennington as Speaker of the House, jibed pro-Lincoln newspaperman Carl Schurz earlier this year. “The South seceded from Congress, went out, took a drink, and came back. When Old Abe gets elected, they’ll go out, and this time they’ll take two drinks before they come back.”
And yet, this time they might really mean it.
Is it all due to Lincoln? Certainly, but that his mere election would incite secession is not so obvious. Though an opponent of slavery, he is measurably more moderate than Senator Seward or Senator Chase, rivals for the nomination whom the Republicans, for all their abolitionist ardor, plainly did not prefer. Nearly a month has passed since Lincoln spoke in public about the issue of slavery, and all he did was repeat that he was constitutionally powerless to interfere with the institution of slavery in any state where it existed. “What is it I could say which would quiet alarm?” said Lincoln, his exasperation evident. “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 is but mockery.”
But to the South, Lincoln is but the tip of the spear. “He rides a wave he cannot control or guide,” observes a perceptive editorialist for The Atlanta Daily Constitutionalist, who predicts that Lincoln’s “very restraint will give new strength to its pent up fury, and it will carry into the same office, four years hence, a man of more revolutionary ideas.”
Republicans come to Washington not just with an eye to stopping the expansion of slavery. Their program also includes higher tariffs, which will increase the power of Northern manufacturers; support for the railroads, which will lead to the settlement of the West and to the creation of who knows how many anti-slavery states between the Mississippi and the Pacific; and unrestrained immigration. Eighty percent of new arrivals settle in the North, swelling its power with their labor and their votes. The Constitution may prevent the Republicans from abolishing slavery now, but Southerners are concerned that the great unsettled Dakota prairies will be carved into a dozen states that will become full of Republican-loving Italians and Poles and Irishmen and escapees from the revolutions of 1848. See what happens then.
These developments might sit differently if the South felt weak, but in fact, it feels stronger than ever. Cotton production is at an all-time high; perhaps two billion pounds will be produced this year, enough to account for nearly 60 percent of the country’s exports. Almost half the crop will go to England, where a fifth of the population of the world’s greatest power works in the textile industry. Two years ago Senator James Hammond of South Carolina proclaimed, “The slaveholding South is now the controlling power of the world.” With an increasingly abundant cotton crop earning ever-rising prices, no one down south feels obliged to argue, unless it is with the abolitionist who wishes to cast moral aspersions upon him and deny him the labor force that is the underpinning of this ever-increasing wealth.
And so, inevitably, the South thinks of secession — and expansion. The South has long believed that unless slavery keeps expanding, it will die, and take the slave-holding elite with it. As Senator Jefferson Davis of Mississippi recently said, “We of the South are an agricultural people, and we require an extended territory. Slave labor is a wasteful labor, and it therefore requires a still more extended territory than would the same pursuits if they could be prosecuted by the more economical labor of white men.” Limiting slave territory, Davis says, would “crowd upon our soil an overgrown black population, until there would not be room in the country for whites and blacks to subsist in, and in this way. . . reduce the whites to the degraded position of the African race.” Oddly, Senator Charles Sumner, the ardent abolitionist from Massachusetts, has in a rather different way reached the same conclusion: limiting slavery will kill slavery.
And so the slaveholders seek to expand, although whether they can go further north and west is more than a political question; there is much doubt whether the climate and crops of western America would sustain slavery. But all doubts vanish when they turn their backs to the north, and see rimming the Gulf of Mexico verdant lands that could, and have, enriched slaveholding planters. “To the Southern republic bounded on the north by the Mason and Dixon line and on the south by the Isthmus of Tehuantepec, including Cuba and all the other lands on our southern shore,” toasted one Texan at a convention in 1856, and that sentiment burns at the heart of many of the fire-eaters now crying secession.
Don’t forget that not very long ago, such sentiments burned brightly in Washington as well. The Polk and Pierce administrations tried to buy Cuba. Just six years ago, the current president, James Buchanan, who was then Minister to Great Britain, was one of the three authors of the Ostend Manifesto, which maintained that if Spain wouldn’t sell us Cuba, we would be justified in seizing it. Accompanying these official efforts were unofficially encouraged forays by slaveholder-supported filibusteros to invade Cuba, foment a rebellion and grab the island on behalf of expansionist-minded southerners.
Expansionists north and south initially supported William Walker’s campaigns to seize control of Nicaragua, but it was the southern expansionists who were his true constituency. The south’s moral and financial support sustained Walker when he seized Nicaragua’s presidency in 1856, and though he governed only briefly, he managed to re-establish the legality of slavery before a coalition of Central American powers defeated his cholera-ravaged army and sent him scampering. Walker made further attempts to conquer Nicaragua, the last of which ended last September in front of a firing squad in Honduras. But southerners backed every one.
A mere freebooter, Walker nearly succeeded. The ultras dream of what could be accomplished in Nicaragua, and Cuba and northern Mexico and the West Indies if a cotton-rich American government should seek its destiny in commanding a tropical empire that would dominate the world’s supply of not only cotton but the staple of sugar as well.
So here, then, is the South’s choice. Does it select a future in which the southern slavocracy is less powerful; more isolated; consistently subjected to moral castigation by northerners for an economic system that profits not just planters but innumerable northern shippers and insurers and mill owners? Or does the South choose to establish a new nation that will sit at the center of a rich and powerful slaveholding empire that will dominate the hemisphere?
There are plenty of people in the south who oppose disunion and wish to move slowly or not at all. But most of the South’s leadership — its money and its political establishment and its opinion-makers — know that the South is at a crossroads, and they mean for it to choose independence.
Note: An earlier version of this story misstated the Republican proposal on tariffs; their plan called for them to be higher, not lower.
(To read more about this period, see “Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era,” by James M. McPherson, Oxford University Press, 1988; “Days of Defiance,” by Maury Klein, Alfred A. Knopf, 1997)
Jamie Malanowski has been an editor at Time, Esquire and Spy, and is the author of the novel “The Coup.”