In November 1860, the election of Abraham Lincoln to the presidency the United States of America would trigger the most serious political crisis in the history of the country. Three months would be enough to divide the nation into two political entities, and less than six to plunge it into civil war - and this, despite repeated attempts at conciliation to avoid the worst.
An electoral earthquake
The presidential election was accompanied, as always, bylegislative elections for the House of Representatives (completely renewed) and the Senate (renewed by thirds every two years). While in the first, the usual Republicans advance was held back by John Bell's Constitutional Union party, in the second the Republican party snatched a few more seats from the divided Democrats. Among the latter, many of those originally from the South refused even to sit, protesting against the election of Lincoln, which they considered illegitimate. A real institutional crisis arose.
The "fire eaters" and other secession supporters gave it their all, pouring out their rhetoric on a Southern electorate begging to hear it. Their logic was as follows: in addition to having lost the executive power, the slavers could see that the whole North had become hostile to them by voting overwhelmingly republican. The coming to power of an abolitionist meant that the federal government would sooner or later seek to impose on the South the abolition of its particular institution. Representatives and senators from the northern states were more numerous: they would vote abolition. The Supreme Court might stand in the way for a while, but its members being appointed for life by the government, it was only a matter of years before it found itself made up of a majority of abolitionists. And then, nothing, absolutely nothing, would prevent theabolition to occur.
The latter would, in the minds of " fire eaters ", The guarantee of a rapid collapse of the economy of the South. Ruin would befall the states concerned, and the southern "way of life" and culture would be over. This idea was accepted all the more easily by voters in the South as the hardening of everyone's positions on slavery in previous years had really given them the impression that the Northerners had an increasingly fierce hatred of them. civilization. The logical conclusion of this reasoning was that the best thing to do was to leave the Union, to separate now from this North which wanted to take away from the Southern States the freedom to live as they saw fit.
At least that's what the "fire eaters" believed - but the problem was how they got the rest of the southerners to believe it. Lincoln may have made many conciliatory statements, recalling that his program was not about the abolition of slavery - he had no intention, during his presidency, of abolishing the institution himself, nor now or later - but only on stopping its extension, nothing helped. The "fire eaters", and with them the legislatures of the southern states, were trapped in a fallacy commonly referred to as the "soapy slope" in rhetoric: in this case, the idea that any measure aimed at limiting the slavery in one way or another would necessarily be followed by another reducing it, and so on until its outright ban.
A South also divided
Yet the secession didn't have all friends. Many moderate supporters of slavery were fully aware that since the nullification crisis of 1832-33 secession was considered illegal by federal institutions and therefore would only serve to alienate the Northern voters, still numerous although now in the minority, who were sympathetic to the "necessary evil" that slavery constituted for them. The more moderate - and the more subtle - Southerners counted on them to counterbalance the influence of the Republicans and possibly act as a safeguard. They also pointed out that if the Union attempted to oppose secession by force, the South, less populated and less industrialized than the North, was in great danger of losing out.
Besides the "fire eaters," other factions tried to make their point prevail. Thus, certain moderate secessionists, the " cooperationists "Sought to foster the birth of an independent but united South: according to them, states should wait until there are enough of them to leave the Union in order to be able to secede all at the same time; they would thus be less vulnerable to possible federal reprisals. The champion of this trend was the governor of Texas and the hero of the State's War of Independence, Sam Houston - who feared that a civil war would end in the ruin of the South and wanted to avoid it at all costs. There were also many Unionists in the South. They had mainly voted for John Bell in the presidential elections - Bell himself was from Tennessee - and found themselves in the majority around the Appalachians, where slavery was little practiced.
But the radical secessionists quickly brushed aside their objections. In the first place, they held slavery not as a "necessary evil" but on the contrary as a "positive good" protecting blacks from the pauperization which affected the working masses of the North, which limited their ability to understand the need. to reconcile the Northern Democrats. But above all, they thought they had an unstoppable weapon: the " cotton-king ". So named in reference to a speech by South Carolina Senator James Hammond in 1858, the idea was based on the colossal share of southern cotton in American exports: of the 500 million dollars annually that they brought in, cotton alone provided 300 million. Secessionists believed that if cotton exports to Europe ceased, Britain, its largest consumer, would come to the aid of the South and force the federal government to recognize the independence of the breakaway states.
The inevitable secession
In Washington, members of Congress - at least those who still sat there - spared no effort in the weeks following the election to try to find a solution. compromise which would save the Union. On December 18, 1860, Kentucky Senator John Crittenden submitted legislation to Congress intended to appease secession supporters. In essence, this offered the slavers enormous concessions: if slavery was prohibited in the territories located north of the parallel 36 ° 30 'of north latitude (a limit set by a previous compromise on slavery, in 1820 ), on the other hand, it became authorized in the south of it, including in future territories - which left virtually all of South America as a potential ground for the expansion of slavery.
Abraham Lincoln and the Republican representatives and senators were not mistaken and found this idea unacceptable. Equally unacceptable were the "adjustments" proposed to the much maligned Fugitive Slave Act from 1850, a " runaway slaves law ", Allowing slave owners to come and pick up their fleeing servants in any state, including northerners, and condemning those who would offer aid and assistance to fugitives. Many northern states had passed legislation making its enforcement impossible, and Crittenden suggested, with minor concessions, that these be repealed. Rejected, these proposals were again discussed in January and February 1861, but were not followed up.
The Republicans formulated a counter-proposal on December 29 to integrate New Mexico into the Union as a slave state, this to compensate for the one, scheduled for January 29, 1861, of Kansas as a free state. This time, it was the Southern Democrats who refused; and anyway, it was already too late. Very active, authors of numerous publications and other pamphlets, the "fire eaters" used the pretext of any public demonstration to ignite the crowds, and immerse the legislatures of the southern states in turmoil. William Gist, the governor of South Carolina, maintained an ongoing correspondence with his Southern counterparts.
Both eventually agreed to wait for South Carolina to take the initiative for secession: the other slave states would follow suit. The Carolinians then had their hands free to vote, on December 20, 1860, a " secession order "Stating that" the current union between South Carolina and the other states, known as the "United States of America," is now dissolved, "by the state legislature, meeting in Charleston.
This secession quickly led to others: the Mississippi took the plunge on January 9, 1861, Florida on the 10th, Alabama on the 11th, Georgia on the 19th, Louisiana on the 26th and Texas, finally on the 1st.er February. Initially the movement stopped there: it had indeed known only mixed success and limited to the States of the Old South, where the cotton economy made the use of slavery omnipresent. The other slave states were much more cautious and refused secession.
To be continued