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Lincoln's Election, Southern Secession & the New Confederacy

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  • 0:07 The Election Of 1860
  • 3:08 South Carolina's Secession
  • 5:11 Formation of the Confederacy
  • 7:13 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Alexandra Lutz

Alexandra has taught students at every age level from pre-school through adult. She has a BSEd in English Education.

Learn about how Abraham Lincoln's election in the contentious 1860 presidential race set off a domino effect leading to the secession of South Carolina and six other states and the formation of the Confederate States of America.

The Election of 1860

In the mid-19th century, the issue of slavery was threatening to divide the United States. More than three decades of compromise had not strengthened the Union, but rather polarized it, so that by the 1850s, politics were largely a matter of geography. Southerners generally supported policies that supported agriculture and expanded slavery, while Northerners largely supported policies that supported business and contained slavery.

The South supported agriculture and slavery, while the North supported business and opposed slavery.
North Support Business

The Lincoln-Douglas debates had further divided the Democratic Party. In 1860, the extreme pro-slavery Southern Democrats (also known as 'fire-eaters') stormed out of the convention where the Party had gathered to select a presidential candidate. What was left of the Northern (or 'National') Democratic Party chose Stephen Douglas after much debate. The Southern (or 'Constitutional') Democratic Party nominated the current Vice President, John Breckinridge. The Constitutional Union Party was formed by Northerners and Southerners who sought to preserve the Union by taking the text of the U.S. Constitution as their platform. They chose John Bell to run for president. Recognizing that the turmoil in the nation was a distinct advantage, the Republicans just needed a candidate to win the West (plus Pennsylvania and New Jersey). They turned to Abraham Lincoln.

The Republican Party painted a romanticized image of 'Honest Abe, the Rail Splitter,' making him the poster child for free labor - proving that even a poor American could climb his way to the top with intelligence and hard work. Republicans campaigned almost exclusively in the North, with limited efforts in border states.

Tuesday, November 6, 1860, was Election Day and had the second-highest voter turnout on record at 81.2%. The results were oddly scattered. All four candidates won some states, but only Douglas won states in both the North and South. In fact, Lincoln came in dead last in the Border States and didn't even appear on the ballot in most parts of the South. Breckinridge, for his part, actually won more counties than any other candidate.

In the presidential election of 1860, all four candidates won some states.
Election Results

In the end, Lincoln garnered only about 40% of the popular vote, but because of the population of the North and West, he won the Electoral College easily. Though his opponents declared that Lincoln only won because the Democrats were split, the numbers tell a different story. Even if all anti-Lincoln voters had united behind one candidate, Lincoln would still have carried the Electoral College and become president in 1860. Still, considering 60% of American voters chose anyone but Lincoln, a new question faced the nation: would they accept the results of the election?

South Carolina's Secession

Within days of Lincoln's election, South Carolina met to discuss secession. On December 20, 1860, South Carolina voted unanimously to repeal its ratification of the Constitution and withdraw from the United States of America. Then, on Christmas Eve they approved the text of their articles of secession and wrote a defense of their decision. They pointed out that the Constitution protected slavery. The Northern states had breached their contract by refusing to assist in the return of fugitive slaves, so the Southern states were released from their obligation to the Union. They believed that Lincoln - once he was inaugurated - would not protect their rights or sovereignty. Furthermore, they cited the Declaration of Independence as support for their right to abolish a government that did not protect the rights of its people (although it's worth noting here that most of the 'Founding Fathers' did not believe that the Declaration asserts the right of secession).

You might remember that this wasn't the first time South Carolina had threatened to secede, but it was the first time they had actually done it. This didn't have to mean war. In fact, the outgoing president - James Buchanan - didn't support secession, but he sympathized with South Carolina's reasons and felt that a president had no constitutional means of stopping them. And, at the same time that South Carolina was deciding to sever its ties with the Union, one last-ditch effort was made by Senator John Crittenden to avert the crisis. He proposed restoring the Missouri Compromise Line at 36°30' and extending it all the way to the Pacific. All territory north of the line would be forever free and all territory south of the line would receive federal protection for slavery. Furthermore, he wanted to secure it with a Constitutional Amendment. Republicans refused to support the Crittenden Compromise, and the dominoes began to fall.

Senator John Crittenden proposed restoring the Missouri Compromise Line.
Crittenden Compromise

Formation of the Confederacy

Since South Carolina's secession just before Christmas, everyone had been watching tensely to see how events would unfold over the coming days and weeks. But, the Crittenden Compromise had failed, and then came the crisis at Ft. Sumter. A tiny garrison of U.S. soldiers was trapped on an island fortress called Ft. Sumter in Charleston Harbor. South Carolina had demanded that they evacuate and hand over the fort. President Buchanan stalled for time and sent a ship with supplies and reinforcements. On January 9, 1861, when the ship tried to enter Charleston Harbor, South Carolina viewed this as a federal violation of state sovereignty. The state militia fired on the ship and it returned home without unloading.

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