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Secession and Abraham Lincoln

Abraham Lincoln faced an absolute calamity on March 4, 1861, the day when Chief Justice Roger Taney administered the oath of office to Lincoln at his inauguration.

Already seven states from the South had seceded, or withdrawn, from the Union because voters had elected Lincoln President of the United States. Southern voters believed that Lincoln opposed the expansion of slavery into western territories, like Kansas and Nebraska.

South Carolina voted to secede on December 20, 1860, forty-four days after the November 6 election, and it went into effect on Christmas Eve. Mississippi, Florida, Alabama, Georgia, and Louisiana followed suit after Christmas, in January of 1861, and Texas on February 1.

Lincoln understood that another eight slave states might also secede from the Union soon.

On that day in March, 1861, Lincoln placed his hand on the Bible and said, “I do solemnly swear that I will faithfully execute the Office of President of the United States, and will to the best of my ability, preserve, protect, and defend the Constitution of the United States.”

He then delivered his first Inaugural Address, saying, “The central idea of secession is the essence of anarchy. A majority is the only true sovereign of a free people. Whoever rejects it does fly to anarchy or despotism. The rule of a minority is wholly inadmissible.”

Almost three years before, on June 16, 1858, Lincoln had delivered an address at the Republican State convention, in Springfield, Illinois, and had discussed the issue of “slavery agitation.” Historians since have entitled his talk, the “House Divided” speech. In it, he said,

“In my opinion, it will not cease, until a crisis shall have been reached, and passed. ‘A house divided against itself cannot stand.’ (That is a quote from the Gospel of Matthew.) I believe this government cannot endure, permanently half slave and half free.

“I do not expect the Union to be dissolved—I do not expect the house to fall—but I do expect it will cease to be divided. It will become all one thing, or all the other.”

Southerners read Lincoln’s speech and were convinced that he had aligned himself with Northern agitators, and that he was anxious to eradicate the South’s primary labor force.

Because they felt threatened, even fearful, certain Southern states chose to secede from the Union and create a new country, the Confederate States of America.

Delegates from the seven Southern states assembled in Montgomery, Alabama, in early February of 1861, to adopt a provisional constitution for the Confederate States, elect Jefferson Davis their president for the next six years, and adopt a flag for their new country.

Delegates from North Carolina arrived in Montgomery on February 6, “to plead in vain for conciliation,” wit the Northern states, and so they left, feeling dismayed.

On April 12, 1861, thirty-nine days after Lincoln’s inauguration, a line of canons poised at Charleston, South Carolina fired upon Fort Sumter, four miles out in Charleston’s harbor, the opening shots of the Civil War.

Inside the fort, the stars and stripes came down, and the Confederate flag was hoisted high. North and South were now locked into a bloody conflict to see whose set of ideas would win.

On April 17, Virginia seceded and joined the Confederacy. In May, Arkansas and North Carolina seceded, and on June 8, Tennessee did the same. A total of eleven states seceded.

Years before, on September 12, 1854, Lincoln gave an insightful speech at Bloomington, Illinois, about the differences between North and South. He said that,

“The Southern slaveholders were neither better, nor worse than we of the North, and that we of the North were no better than they. If we were situated as they are, we should act and feel as they do; and if they were situated as we are, they should act and feel as we do.

“And we never ought to lose sight of this fact in discussing the subject.”

Steven Inskeep, author of a new book, “Differ We Must,” said that Lincoln believed that,

“Slaveholders were not bad people, but people caught up in a bad system, which they naturally acted out of self-interest to defend. Lincoln’s quarrel was not with them, but with their circumstances.”

No president before or since Lincoln has faced as bad a calamity as he did in 1861.