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)

You seem to identify the Dred Scott decision [which declared that all black Americans –regardless of whether or not they were slaves-- were not protected by the constitution as citizens] as the proverbial straw that broke the camel’s back on the road to disunion. What was it about Dred Scott that jolted the country out of a period of relative calm?

The problem with the Dred Scott decision is that it really addressed the issue of slavery head-on in a way that it hadn’t been addressed before. The previous compromises had all attempted to paper over these big issues of racial equality or inequality and citizenship—what it meant to be American, what the future of slavery might be. With the Dred Scott decision, Chief Justice Taney opened up several cans of worms that people had deliberately left sealed for some time.

He thought that he was going to solve the issue once and for all. He was a very thoughtful man, a very scholarly man. I don’t think that he was an ill-intentioned man; he genuinely believed in his capacity to solve this in a very rational and scholarly way. Of course he turned out to be completely wrong.

The country had four major candidates for president in 1860; Who were they and where was their base of support?

The Democratic Party split in half at two very rancorous conventions in Baltimore and Charleston. The Northern Democrats and the Southern Democrats couldn’t agree on a candidate, so there literally was a walkout by the Southerners who ended up nominating John Breckinridge, the Southern vice president at that time. The Northern wing of the Democratic Party got behind Stephen A. Douglas. Meanwhile, at that time, John Bell also came in as a candidate for the Constitutional Union Party. Basically those three candidates split up the moderate vote to one degree or another and left Lincoln with a clear field.

What did people know about Abraham Lincoln when he was elected president?

People didn’t know very much at all. It’s hard for us to imagine today since Lincoln has become such a gigantic figure in our history just how obscure he was. He was really by far the most obscure person ever to achieve a presidency, one of the most obscure ever to become a major candidate for the presidency. He literally hadn’t been to Washington in over a decade. He had served a single term as a congressman from Illinois. He was unknown not just to the voters, but also to the entire power structure in Washington.

People didn’t even know how to spell Lincoln’s name. He was referred to, including in the headline in the New York Times announcing his nomination, as Abram Lincoln. Even after he was elected, many newspapers continued to refer to him that way for a while.

Who were the Wide Awakes?

It hasn’t been appreciated the extent to which that campaign was truly a grass-roots phenomenon—one that quickly came to stand for much more than the party bosses of the Republican Party had expected it to.


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