Share This Article
President-elect Abraham Lincoln remained strangely silent as threats of secession became a reality during the long winter before his inauguration.

ON THE EVE OF HIS VICTORY in the 1860 presidential election, Abraham Lincoln surprised a well-wisher by declaring, “For personal considerations, I would rather have a full term in the Senate—a place in which I would feel more consciously able to discharge the duties required and where there was more chance to make a reputation and less danger of losing it—than four years of the presidency.”

Lincoln’s expression of 11th-hour doubt was not merely the disclaimer of a self-deprecating politician. The nearer he got to fulfilling his ambition of becoming president, the more he realized how daunting the job would be. He did his best to maintain a cheerful front as he monitored the final election returns at the Springfield, Ill., telegraph office on November 6. But his private secretary John Nicolay watched “the appalling shadow of his mighty task and responsibility” pass over him as he donned his overcoat around 1:30 a.m. and headed home in a melancholy mood. “It seemed as if he suddenly bore the whole world upon his shoulders, and could not shake it off.”

Lincoln faced the unnerving prospect that by the time he took his oath of office on March 4—four months after the election—the Union would be in ruins. Southern radicals were already clamoring for secession. Meanwhile, even though Lincoln lacked the constitutional authority to act as president, people in both the North and the South looked to him for leadership as the nation plunged into a period of dangerous uncertainty.

Years later, Lincoln’s first vice president, Hannibal Hamlin, chided eulogists for “constructing a Lincoln who was as great the day he left Springfield as when he made his earthly exit four years later.” As president-elect, Lincoln was uncertain about whether the secession movement represented the bluster of a minority or a groundswell of popular Southern sentiment. Nor could he confidently predict whether Northerners would insist on holding the Union together or bid good riddance to the slave states. Moreover, he struggled at first with his own natural tendency to let pressing questions simmer until solutions bubbled to the surface. Should he try to reach some accommodation with Southern moderates in hopes of averting war? Or would that merely encourage the radical secessionists, who would interpret any accommodation as weakness and grow more convinced the North would never fight?

During the long winter interlude before he took office, Lincoln initially did nothing, hoping the crisis would pass. But when his inaction proved counterproductive and the secessionist momentum intensified, he felt obliged to alter course. Still, he moved quietly and indirectly, fearing that his words and deeds might provoke Southern moderates into joining the secessionists. Only at his inauguration did he muster the will to speak boldly and attack the secessionists head on.

By then it was too late to save the Union peacefully.

American’s Seek a Sign

Lincoln had sought the presidency by means that invited confusion. He won the Republican nomination largely on the strength of his House Divided speech of 1858, in which he declared that America could not continue half slave and half free. But in the general election the Republicans promised to leave slavery alone in the states where it existed, and Lincoln embraced that promise without ever overtly disavowing the uncompromising message of the House Divided address.

In the mid-19th century presidential candidates didn’t campaign for themselves, nor was it thought seemly for presidents-elect to speak on the record. But given the turmoil surrounding his election, many people thought Lincoln must explain his position on the unfolding crisis. A pointed appeal came from George Prentice, the editor of the Louisville Journal. Prentice was a discouraged Southern Unionist who urged Lincoln to make a public statement that would “take from the disunionists every excuse or pretext for treason.”

“If what I have already said has failed to convince you, no repetition of it would convince you,” Lincoln replied. His answer was a dodge; he wouldn’t speak because he didn’t want to commit himself before he had to.

The rumblings of secession increased, however, and Lincoln realized he had to give some sign of his thinking. Lyman Trumbull was a senator from Illinois who had been elected as a Democrat but subsequently converted to Republicanism. He and Lincoln were known to be close, and his words were often taken as coming from Lincoln. Two weeks after the election Lincoln wrote a brief passage for Trumbull to insert in a speech at Chicago. “I have labored in and for the Republican organization,” Trumbull said, for himself and Lincoln, “with entire confidence that whenever it shall be in power, each and all of the states will be left in complete control of their own affairs respectively, and at as perfect liberty to choose, and employ, their own means of protecting property, and preserving peace and order within their respective limits, as they have ever been under any administration.”

Lincoln’s proxy statement failed dismally. It lacked the authority words spoken by Lincoln himself would have carried, and its second-hand character suggested a timidity that augured ill for Lincoln’s administration or his cause. Southern secessionists concluded that a man without the courage to speak in his own voice would be a president without the nerve to challenge their separatist designs. Northern radicals complained that the Trumbull statement was a retreat from the moral clarity of the House Divided speech.

The criticism reinforced Lincoln’s caution. “This is just what I expected, and just what would happen with any declaration I could make,” he told a friend. “These political fiends are not half sick enough yet. ‘Party malice’ and not ‘public good’ possesses them entirely. ‘They seek a sign, and no sign shall be given them.’”

Lincoln Walks a Narrow Path

Lincoln’s diffidence encouraged others to take the stage. The secessionists called conventions and drafted resolutions to implement their separatist aims. Northern Unionists and Southern moderates weighed a constitutional amendment guaranteeing the future of slavery in the states where it already existed. Lame duck president James Buchanan sent an envoy, Duff Green, to test Lincoln’s thinking on such an amendment.

“I do not desire any amendment,” Lincoln told Green. An amendment, he reasoned, would be difficult to pass and nearly impossible to repeal. He blanched at the idea of grafting slavery so egregiously onto America’s fundamental law. But he wouldn’t rule it out entirely, if only because amending the Constitution was the prerogative of Congress and the states, not the president.

More promising, to Lincoln’s view, was the approach of Alexander Stephens, a Georgia moderate Lincoln had known since the 1840s, when they served in the House of Representatives together. As Georgians debated their response to Lincoln’s election, Stephens gave a widely noted speech opposing rash action. “I do not anticipate that Mr. Lincoln will do anything to jeopardize our safety or security,” he said. “He can do nothing unless he is backed by power in Congress. The House of Representatives is largely in the majority against him. In the Senate he will also be powerless.”

Lincoln read newspaper summaries of Stephens’ remarks, and he wrote Stephens asking if he had prepared them for publication. Stephens replied that he had not, but that the news reports fairly characterized what he had said. He went on to offer Lincoln encouragement in his efforts to hold the nation together. “The Country is certainly in great peril and no man ever had heavier or greater responsibilities resting upon him than you have in this present momentous crisis,” he said.

Lincoln appreciated the gesture, and he tried, through Stephens, to allay the concerns of Southern moderates. “Do the people in the South really entertain fears that a Republican administration would, directly or indirectly, interfere with their slaves?” he asked Stephens. “If they do, I wish to assure you, as once a friend and still, I hope, not an enemy, that there is no cause for such fears. The South would be in no more danger in this respect than it was in the days of Washington.”

Yet Lincoln conceded to Stephens that the issue ran deeper than political assurances. Southerners and Northerners had irreconcilable views on the morality of slavery. “You think slavery is right and ought to be extended, while we think it is wrong and ought to be restricted. That I suppose is the rub.”

The Union Begins to Break

That was the rub, and it chafed the more as Lincoln’s inauguration neared. A desperate Congress convened committees to find an arrangement to hold the Union together. Proposals included one to resurrect a popular sovereignty scheme advanced by Lincoln’s old nemesis Stephen Douglas, by which residents of frontier territories would vote to permit or ban slavery. Lincoln still declined to issue a public statement, but he wrote Republican members of Congress to stiffen their resolve against any retreat on slavery in the territories. “Entertain no proposition for a compromise in regard to extension of slavery,” he urged William Kellogg, a Republican representative from Illinois. “The instant you do, they have us under again; all our labor is lost…. The tug has to come and better now than later.” Lincoln told Elihu Washburne, another Illinois Republican: “Hold firm, as with a chain of steel.”

Lincoln perceived Southerners’ aggressiveness on the slave issue as inevitable. Their current demands were but the start. “If we surrender, it is the end of us, and of the government,” he asserted privately. “They will repeat the experiment upon us ad libitum.” The sole way out of the present impasse, Lincoln said, was by a route neither Northerners nor Southerners would accept: “a prohibition against acquiring any more territory.” It was a great irony of American history that this very solution—which Lincoln and nearly every contemporary rejected as unworkable—had already been effected, in political practice if not in political theory. The continental expansion that was causing all the trouble had ended in 1848. The only substantial piece of North America to be added to the United States after 1860 was Alaska, which was unsuited to a large population of any sort, slave or otherwise.

As the winter dragged on, Lincoln realized he had underestimated the South. Those who spoke of secession were not bluffing. He decided he must state his position—albeit still not quite for public consumption. Thurlow Weed, the New York Republican boss whose support had been central to Lincoln’s election, had convened Northern governors to prepare a riposte to the South. “I am unwilling to see a united South and a divided North,” Weed wrote Lincoln. “Thus united, your administration will have its foundation upon a rock.” What could Lincoln tell the governors, even in private, about his intentions?

Lincoln’s response echoed what he had told other Republicans: He was “inflexible on the territorial question”—no slavery outside the Southern states. He added: “My opinion is that no state can, in any way lawfully, get out of the Union, without the consent of the others; and that it is the duty of the President, and other government functionaries, to run the machine as it is.”

But the machine was already breaking up. South Carolina, amid great fanfare, had passed an ordinance of secession on December 20, and in the succeeding weeks several other states prepared to follow suit and leave the Union.

Lincoln Travels Cross-Country

On February 11, Lincoln left Springfield for Washington. The psychological strain of the long, hard winter showed in his face and bearing; an acquaintance remarked that his body “heaved with emotion and he could scarcely command his feelings.” Lincoln’s voice broke as he told his Springfield neighbors, “I now leave, not knowing when, or whether ever, I may return.”

The strain intensified as he headed east. The newspapers en route reported on the provisional Congress of the Confederate States of America, meeting in Montgomery, Ala. Seven states— South Carolina, Mississippi, Florida, Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana and Texas—sent delegates, although the Texans had to await the ratification of secession by the people of the Lone Star State. Lincoln read of the election of Jefferson Davis to be president of the Confederacy, and days later of Davis’ inauguration with Alexander Stephens as his vice president. He also read that the Southern states were seizing the federal forts on their soil.

The progress of a president-elect en route to his inauguration was a once-in-a-lifetime event for many of the towns through which Lincoln’s train passed, and at every stop people gathered and insisted that he speak. He was too good a politician not to oblige. “If the United States should merely hold and retake its own forts and other property, and collect the duties on foreign importations, or even withhold the mails from places where they were habitually violated, would any or all these things be ‘invasion’ or ‘coercion’?” he asked an audience at Indianapolis. Then he waffled: “I am not asserting anything. I am merely asking questions.”

At Philadelphia he learned that Allan Pinkerton, a detective hired by the rail road company to preempt sabotage, had heard rumors of an assassination plot in Baltimore, where secessionist sympathies ran strong. Lincoln at first resisted altering his schedule, but when additional evidence suggested real danger, he was persuaded. He disguised himself as an invalid and slipped through Baltimore in the dead of night.

He soon regretted that decision. Southern newspapers ridiculed his lack of courage; even Republican papers feared he had diminished himself on the verge of his inauguration.

A Promise and a Threat

All of Washington was on edge as Lincoln prepared to take his oath of office on March 4. General Winfield Scott, the army commander, stationed infantry, cavalry and artillery troops conspicuously about the capital, and special squadrons of policemen lined Pennsylvania Avenue. The great majority of the visitors who crowded the streets were from the Northern states—“judging from the lack of long haired men in the crowd,” an eyewitness observed. When the members of the House of Representatives were summoned to join the inaugural procession to the east side of the Capitol, their jostling for position escalated to curses, threats and near-fisticuffs. Chief Justice Roger B. Taney, whose decision in the Dred Scott case had elicited Lincoln’s House Divided prophecy, visibly trembled as he stood near Lincoln on the rostrum.

Lincoln felt the tension as he looked out on the crowd. And he couldn’t help reflecting that his caution had done nothing to ease the nation’s crisis, which grew more acute by the day. Inaction had simply encouraged others to seize the initiative.

But now it was his turn—finally. He commenced by reiterating what he had been conveying in private: that slavery in the South was secure. “I have no purpose, directly or indirectly, to interfere with the institution of slavery in the States where it exists. I believe I have no lawful right to do so, and I have no inclination to do so.”

Sadly, he continued, Southern radicals were not so tolerant. “A disruption of the Federal Union, heretofore only menaced, is now formidably attempted.”

No disruption would be allowed. An unexpected steel entered Lincoln’s voice—a tone few had anticipated and none in public heard. “The Union of these States is perpetual,” he said. Secessionists would search in vain for constitutional authorization for their plan. “No government proper ever had a provision in its organic law for its own termination.” If, as the secessionists contended, the Union was a union of states rather than of peoples, this afforded no easier exit, for, having been created by all the states, the Union required the consent of all the states to be destroyed. “No State, upon its own mere motion, can lawfully get out of the Union…. The Union is unbroken.”

And Lincoln vowed it would remain unbroken. “To the extent of my ability I shall take care, as the Constitution itself expressly enjoins upon me, that the laws of the Union be faithfully executed in all of the States.”

The secessionists blamed Lincoln personally for endangering the peace of the Union; they had it just backward, he said. “In your hands, my dissatisfied fellow-countrymen, and not in mine, is the momentous issue of civil war. The Government will not assail you. You can have no conflict without being yourselves the aggressors. You have no oath registered in Heaven to destroy the Government, while I shall have the most solemn one to ‘preserve, protect, and defend it.’”

These were fighting words. The secessionists had doubted Lincoln’s resolve; his long silence had corroborated their doubts, to the point of encouraging their secession. But they could doubt him no longer. To speak of civil war was to make it possible.

Lincoln had never fought a civil war; none of his contemporaries had. He had only the vaguest notion of what it would mean or how it would be done. Yet if the secessionists persisted in their destructive ways, they would provoke a civil war.

He let his words hang in the March air above the Capitol grounds. Applause had interrupted him earlier; now the thousands were silent as they pondered his promise, and his threat. He gave both a moment to sink in.

Then he concluded more hopefully: “We are not enemies, but friends. We must not be enemies. Though passion may have strained, it must not break our bonds of affection. The mystic chords of memory, stretching from every battlefield and patriot grave to every living heart and hearthstone all over this broad land, will yet swell the chorus of the Union, when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature.”

H.W. Brands is a history professor at the University of Texas and the author of 16 books. His latest is Traitor to His Class, a biography of Franklin Roosevelt