For ten years before the Civil War, Abraham Lincoln had been warning of the perils that could result from secession. However, there were numerous threats to secede made by Southern politicians and the plantation aristocracy who were willing to separate from the United States, and even risk war, to preserve their slave-based antebellum culture.
On the other hand, by 1861 with Lincoln as President, the U.S. government was only willing to engage in war to preserve the Union; not to change the status of slavery in those states where it was authorized by the Constitution. Most leaders in the North did, however, oppose the expansion of slavery to any additional states; while Southern political leaders feared that unless more states permitted slavery, the eventual result would be new federal laws interfering with, or abolishing, slavery.
Jefferson Davis said that secession is inevitable but war is not, while Lincoln said secession is unconstitutional so war is inevitable only if secession occurs. A clear clash of ideals!
As late as 1862, while the war was raging, Lincoln reiterated his position by saying (in part),”My paramount object in this struggle is to save the Union, and is not either to save or destroy slavery. If I could save the Union without freeing any slave I would do it. And if I could save it by freeing all of the slaves I would do it.”
As a purely legal matter, Lincoln had long believed that, after a state had ratified the U.S. Constitution in 1789, the Union was perpetual, the individual states were thereafter subordinate to the Federal government, its people were U.S. citizens, and secession was illegal; therefore no state could ever be permitted to separate from the United States. Of course, that view was not held by most Southern leaders.
However, as a purely practical matter, Lincoln also believed that if secession were permitted, the various departed states would likely further divide over time as their self interests and cultural differences would cause future breaches. He believed the result would be several small nation-states unable to defend against foreign intervention or attacks from other states. He called it, “The worst of Europe.” Lincoln saw his duty as President to bring those “misguided state governments” back into the Union; first through diplomacy if possible, but through force of war if necessary.
His early warnings about secession included this comment in 1854 about an ill-fated attempt to keep Southern states in the Union by extending slavery to other states, “This Nebraska act is usurpation. We will say to the Southern Democrats, we won’t go out of the Union and you shan’t;” adding later, “We will stop you!”
In 1856, a Democratic candidate for President said, “If the Republicans are elected the Union will be dissolved.” Lincoln replied (in part), “We in the majority of this nation would not strive to dissolve the Union, and if any attempt is made it must be by you. But the Union won’t be dissolved. If you attempt it we won’t let you. With the purse and the sword in our hands, you couldn’t do it.”
In 1859, abolitionist John Brown was executed for his failed raid on the Harper’s Ferry arsenal, which he hoped would arm a slave revolt. Hearing new threats to secede, Lincoln said that Brown was wrong to resort to violence and his sentence was justified; but he continued with this warning to the South, “If Constitutionally we elect a President, and thereafter you undertake to destroy the Union, it will be our duty to deal with you as old John Brown has been dealt with.”
By the time of his Inauguration speech on March 4, 1861, seven of the eventual eleven states had already seceded, but war had not yet started. President Lincoln said (in part),”I hold that the Union of these states is perpetual. No state upon its mere motion can lawfully get out of the Union and I shall take care of the laws of the United States. If a minority will secede rather than acquiesce, they will make a precedent which will divide and ruin them. The central idea of secession is the essence of anarchy. In your hands my dis-satisfied countrymen, is the momentous issue of Civil War. You have no oath in heaven to destroy the government, while I shall have the most solemn one to protect and defend it.”
Southern leaders certainly knew Lincoln’s position but, in my opinion, they underestimated his resolve, believing he would be an ineffective President and, if conflict came, he would not fight a war for very long. As Jefferson Davis believed, and said, “There is no fire in his fight.”
Clearly Lincoln entered the war to preserve the Union and expected that the eventual victory over the “rebellion” would restore the Union and “forever settle the issue of secession.”
Of course as the war dragged on, Lincoln saw an opportunity to abolish slavery by Constitutional Amendment and end, once and for all, the divisive issue of slavery among the states.
He just did not start out with that in mind.
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