John Brown's Harper's Ferry Raid began on the night of October 16th, 1859, was defeated barely 36 hours later, and Brown was hanged less than two months later, on December 2nd. Although direct support for Brown in abolitionist circles had been minimal, and public opinion across the North widely condemned his act, the calm courage with which he met his fate excited no little admiration. One Northern man of letters wrote, "History, forgetting the errors of his judgement in the contemplation of his unfaltering courage, of his dignified and manly deportment in the face of death, and of the nobleness of his aims, will record his name among those of its martyrs and heroes." Ralph Waldo Emerson commented that Brown would "make the gallows as glorious as the cross." John Brown, fanatic and firebrand, had been almost universally condemned; John Brown, courageous martyr to the slave power, was almost universally praised.
The distinction was lost on the South. The simple fact of Brown's act had created alarm across the slave states; papers and maps captured on his person pointed to the possibility of a wider conspiracy that might strike in other states. The praise for Brown as he met the hangman made it nigh-on impossible to placate the South. All that was seen in Dixie was that the North was praising a man who would have set loose the slaves to slit the throats of their children in the night.
The direct political result was simple: Southern tolerance and willingness to submit to a Republican electoral victory, never very high, totally vanished. The fire-eaters were quick to paint the Republicans with the John Brown brush, and quick to take advantage of the fear incited by Brown's act.
In Battle Cry of Freedom (pp. 212-213), James McPherson gives us a window into the sense of fear that swept through the slave states in the wake of Harpers Ferry:
John Brown's ghost stalked the South as the election year of 1860 opened. Several historians have compared the region's mood to the "Great Fear" that seized the French countryside in the summer of 1789 when peasants believed that the "King's brigands are coming" to slaughter them. Keyed up to the highest pitch of tension, many slaveholders and yeoman alike were ready for war to defend hearth and home against those Black Republican brigands. Thousands joined military companies; state legislatures appropriated funds for the purchase of arms. Every barn or cotton gin that burned down sparked new rumors of slave insurrections and abolitionist invaders. Every Yankee in the South became persona non grata. Some of them received a coat of tar and feathers and ride out of town on a rail. A few were lynched. The citizens of Boggy Swamp, South Carolina, ran two northern tutors out of the district. "Nothing definite is known of their abolitionist or insurrectionary sentiments," commented a local newspaper, "but being from the North, and, therefore, imbued with doctrines hostile to our institutions, the presence in this section has been obnoxious." The northern-born president of an Alabama college had to flee for his life. In Kentucky, a mob drove thirty-nine people associated with an antislavery church and school at Berea out of the state.The first political manuverings began early in 1860. The governors of South Carolina, Mississippi and Alabama began exchanging letters. Militia appropriations were raised the same three states. In January the Alabama Democratic Party adopted what became known as the Alabama Platform (aladem.html). This set of resolutions essentially pledged the Alabama delegation to the Democratic convention to insist on a nominee committed to a Congressional slave code protecting the institution in all territories prior to statehood; failing in this, they were to walk out of the convention. More than any other single act of the year, this set the nation on the road to secession and war.
The Southern demand for a Federal slave code was the inevitable consequence of Douglas's Freeport Doctrine and the enmity with which most Northerners viewed the Dred Scott decision. Although the Supreme Court had ruled that Congress could not keep slavery out of a territory, it was clear to everyone that slavery could not be established in a territory in the absence of the right kind of protective laws. No slaveowner would risk his property in the absence of some kind of legal protection. For many, the insistence on a Congressional slave code was aimed directly at the Presidential ambitions of Stephen A. Douglas of Illinois. For some, it was a calculated move to foment secession by guaranteeing the election of a Republican. On the other side of the political fence, a collection of New York Republicans, opposed to the ambitions of that state's senior senator, William H. Seward, proposed a series of lectures on the political landscape of the day, to be held in New York City. The goal of the group was to essentially "audition" alternate Republican candidates for a New York audience. The third speaker -- after Frank Blair, Jr., and Cassius M. Clay -- was Abraham Lincoln of Illinois.
Lincoln was selected on the basis of his strong showing against Stephen Douglas in the senatorial campaign of 1858. He gave his speech at the Cooper Union on February 27, 1860, and it was a rousing success, as was his subsequent New England speaking tour. The Cooper Union speech itself opened with a detailed denunciation of the logic of the Dred Scott decision, showing how many of the men who had written the Constitution had in fact voted in Congress in favor of restrictions on slavery. The middle part of the speech is cast as an appeal to the Southern people, and the last part is a homily of sorts to Republicans. In this last section he put his finger square on the heart of the problem:
If slavery is right, all words, acts, laws, and constitutions against it, are themselves wrong, and should be silenced, and swept away. If it is right, we cannot justly object to its nationality -- its universality; if it is wrong, they cannot justly insist upon its extension -- its enlargement. All they ask, we could readily grant, if we thought slavery right; all we ask, they could as readily grant, if they thought it wrong. Their thinking it right,and our thinking it wrong, is the precise fact upon which depends the whole controversy. Thinking it right, as they do, they are not to blame for desiring its full recognition, as being right; but, thinking it wrong, as we do, can we yield to them? Can we cast our votes with their view, and against our own? In view of our moral, social, and political responsibilities, can we do this?
Wrong as we think slavery is, we can yet afford to let it alone where it is, because that much is due to the necessity arising from its actual presence in the nation; but can we, while our votes will prevent it, allow it to spread into the National Territories, and to overrun us here in these Free States? If our sense of duty forbids this, then let us stand by our duty, fearlessly and effectively.
The New Haven speech, delivered about a week later, covers much the same themes but without the lengthy historical opening. I have long planned to add the Cooper Union speech to my web site, but it is so long -- and the published version was footnoted, to boot -- that I have been unable to get the job done. I commend the New Haven speech to you all as a substitute.)
In today's language, the Cooper Union speech and subsequent tour in New England launched Lincoln's candidacy. It gave him visibility and name recognition among the national Republican leadership. Heretofore the nomination had been assumed to be Seward's, something which many did not like. Now they had an alternative to gather around.
The choice of convention sites that summer was to play a crucial role in the nominating process. The Republicans would meet in Chicago, giving Lincoln much extra support as the favorite son candidate. The Democrats would meet in Charleston, in an environment which made rational debate on the issue of slavery almost impossible.
The Democrats met first, in late April. By their rules of the day, a two-thirds majority was required to win the nomination, but the platform would be adopted by majority vote. Douglas had the solid support of perhaps three-fifths of the delegates. The platform committee -- by a margin of one vote, each state having a single vote -- reported out a document which included a call for a Federal slave code based on proposals authored by Jefferson Davis. This was unacceptable to the large Douglas majority among the delegates, and after an extended fight the minority platform was adopted by the convention as a whole, 165-138. At this point approximately 50 of the Southern delegates walked out.
The fire-eaters had their rupture. They had forced Douglas and his supporters to draw a line in the sand over the territorial slave code, and while they had lost that vote, the struggle had served its purpose. Douglas could not muster the additional votes to get the needed two-thirds required for the nomination. After 57 pointless ballots (during which Benjamin Butler of Massachusetts repeatedly voted for Jefferson Davis) the convention adjourned to Baltimore.
The second convention was no more peaceful than the first. The Deep South delegates that had bolted in Charleston sought re-admission, but found that the Douglas supporters, livid at the conduct of the fire-eaters, had organized rival delegations of their own. Once again, the Deep South walked out, this time for good. The Southern faction held a rump convention in Richmond while the remainder of the Baltimore convention nominated Douglas.
One consequence of this affair is often overlooked. A large amount of outright anger and hostility was released by the actions of the Deep South delegates. Many a Douglas Democrat went home seething mad that their Southern brethren had virtually guaranteed party defeat in November by adopting a "rule or ruin" attitude. Many a War Democrat was doubtless born of that anger.
In May the Republicans met in Chicago, not yet the "City of Big Shoulders" but undeniably a city in favor of the favorite son, Abe Lincoln. Seward was still the favorite, but the home team was ably led and not to be denied. The first ballot ended with Seward at 173 1/2, 60 short of the nomination, and Lincoln at 102. On the second ballot Lincoln soared to 181 while Seward crept upwards by about a dozen. The momentum continued Lincoln's way. The third ballot ended with Lincoln at 231 1/2, less than two votes short; before the fourth ballot could begin the Ohio chairman rose to announce the change of four votes to Lincoln and all hell broke loose in the convention hall.
When all the smoke and dust settled out from the nominations, there were a total of four tickets running for the office: Abraham Lincoln and Hannibal Hamlin carried the Republican standard; Hamlin was from Maine, and had ties to the Seward faction of the party. Stephan A. Douglas and Herschel Johnson were the "regular" Democratic nominees; Johnson was from Georgia, and had been considered somewhat of a fire-eater in the days of the 1850 Compromise, but had recently moderated his views. John C. Breckenridge and Joseph Lane were nominated by the "Southern" wing of the Democratic Party; Lane was from Oregon, but had roots in North Carolina and was a pro- slavery man. Finally, the Constitutional Union Party put forward John Bell of Tennessee and Edward Everett of Massachusetts. Douglas was the only one with even a ghost of a chance of gaining significant votes all across the country. Lincoln was not even on the ballot in the South, and Breckenridge would get few votes in the North. (All four party platforms are on my Web site, under
Some attempts were made by the Democrats and Constitutional Union men to combine efforts to defeat Lincoln. Most of these fusion efforts were stillborn, but a few actually showed signs of potential success. But in the end none of it mattered. Douglas broke with tradition and stumped the country on his own behalf; he was campaigning in Iowa when he heard that the October state elections in the lower midwest had gone to the Republicans. Recognizing that this meant those states would go for Lincoln in November, Douglas told his secretary, "Mr. Lincoln is the next President. We must try to save the Union. I will go South." Go South he did, at great peril to his failing health and also to his life, as Southerners were not interested in being told by the apostate Douglas that the election of Lincoln was no grounds for disunion.
With a four-way horse race it is easy to twist the resulting returns to support almost any interpretation. After all, Lincoln was out-polled 2,815,617 to 1,866,452. Lincoln was indeed a minority president, but even if all his opponents' votes were combined, Lincoln would still have decisively carried the electoral vote. One important view of the election is that taken by Allan Nevins, who pointed out that a vast majority of the votes (3,243,409 to 1,438,660, or 69%) had gone to men (Lincoln or Douglas) who were committed to the end of the expansion of slavery. It is true, they differed on how to do it and they differed on their view of slavery itself. But we cannot escape the conclusion that the country as a whole had made a decision that fall about what it thought the future of slavery should be. Charles Francis Adams, soon to be Lincoln's ambassador to Great Britain, wrote, "The country has once and for all thrown off the domination of the Slaveholders."