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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The Atlantic Monthly, run by James Russell Lowell, called it the “last juiceless squeeze of the orange” from this sort of intellectually and politically depleted Buchanan administration.

And what about Lincoln? Did he make any public statements during this time?

From the time that he was nominated back in May as the Republican candidate all the way up until he left Springfield, Ill., in February of 1861, so the better part of an eventful year later, Lincoln pretty much kept his mouth shut. People, especially other Republicans, begged him to make some sort of public statement that would soothe the unsettled nation and would give people some kind of reassurance that he was in fact not a Republican radical, and he refused to do that.

Lincoln said that any assurances of conservatism he gave were not going to be believed anyhow; he said that his words would be twisted no matter what he said—as indeed his words had been misused in the past. And he also said that he was simply gathering information about the crisis so he could be fully informed. It’s a little bit odd for somebody who basically stayed in his office in Springfield to say that he was gathering information.

Lincoln did have a number of Republican leaders and even some Democrats come to visit him in Springfield to have private conversations with him, but he certainly wasn’t budging from there. There are many signs that he actually underestimated the gravity of the crisis. He gave several speeches on the course of his roundabout railway journey from Springfield to Washington in February 1861. He would stop at every major city and give a speech. Each was typically a sort of extemporaneous talk, and in a couple of places, notably Columbus, Ohio, he said, “Well, we have nothing to be afraid of. No one is hurting—no one is suffering, yet.” People just thought this was amazing that as the country was coming apart, plunging into a serious financial crisis, and as people on both sides were arming for civil war, that he should say that no one was suffering.

So we have the judiciary branch stoking the fire of disunion with the Dred Scott decision, the legislative branch reflecting the strife with angry outbursts and feeble proposals of compromise, and the executive branch incapacitated by the transition between Lincoln and Buchanan. What about the so-called fourth branch of government, the media? What role did it play?

The media played an incredibly important role in driving the country toward secession. This was an era of a communications revolution. It was a moment of new technologies like the telegraph, the advent of cheap, mass printing and a huge proliferation of newspapers, not just weekly ones but daily newspapers in many, many cities in both parts of the country.

When someone in Charleston said something, the people in Massachusetts heard it and vice versa. Both sides were appalled by the degree of vehemence in the rhetoric that was being said in each section against the other. I think it had an incredible polarizing effect. The way that an editor or a politician wins a reputation is to say things that are completely outrageous that will be quoted all around the country.

Was there Northern support for secession?

It seems amazing to us today that there were people in the North, including most of the intransigently antislavery voices either willing to accept secession or actually pro-Southern secession. There were people like Wendell Phillips and William Lloyd Garrison who were ready to say, “Well, this will remove the taint of slavery from our national banner. No longer will the American flag stand for bondage—it will let us be able to claim a pure commitment to freedom in a way that we never have before.” It was a fairly selfish thinking. They cared more about not being morally tainted than they seemed to care about actually liberating the slaves.


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