From Election to Sumter: How the Union Fell Apart

Historian Adam Goodheart discusses the tumultuous period between Lincoln’s election and the Confederate attack on Fort Sumter

According to historian Adam Goodheart, the media played an important role in driving the country toward secession. When people in the South spoke, people in the North heard it and vice versa. (Bettmann / Corbis)

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There was a significant contingent of people in the North, not just the John Brown radicals anymore, who were ready to say, “We’re going to put our collective foot down and say that we are tired of compromising with the South. Not only are we tired of compromising with the South, but we are ready to fight and risk our lives in order not to have to continue to compromise.”

How was slavery, that “peculiar institution,” embedded in the American economy? And did that create a financial reason on behalf of Northerners to prevent war?

Just two days before the election day in 1860, an editorial in the New York Herald, which was one of the most important newspapers in the whole country, said by electing an antislavery president like Lincoln, we will be killing the goose that lays the golden eggs. It reminded Northerners how much of the Northern economy was based on the cotton grown in the South being milled into cloth in the great textile mills of Lowell, Massachusetts, and elsewhere in New England.

A lot of the shipping industry in New York was based on the fact that it was largely Northern ships that would take the cotton bales from Southern ports to European ports and goods from the North down to the South. Northern manufacturers made the cloth for slaves’ clothing. Midwestern farmers grew the corn and raised the hogs that were shipped downriver to feed the slaves on the plantations.

The Northern economy was enmeshed with slavery in many different ways. Northern banks and insurance companies to a degree owned slaves themselves through mortgages and policies.

We forget today that slaves were not simply labor, but they were capital. The price of slaves in the years before the Civil War spiked to the point where in 1860 the combined value of slaves in the South was larger than the value of industry and railroads in the entire country. It was highly unlikely that the Southerners were going to divest themselves of their slaves willingly; slavery was flourishing as it never had before.

Goodheart’s book, 1861: The Civil War Awakening, will be published by Knopf in April 2011. He is the director of the Center for the Study of the American Experience at Washington College and is currently blogging about the Civil War for the New York Times at


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