The 15 slave states can be thought of as comprising three tiers from south to north. The first tier to secede was the southernmost, led on December 20, 1860 by South Carolina, home of the ideological spokesmen of the pro-slavery “King Cotton” interests. English mills’ demand for cotton had created vast wealth and self-righteousness in the six Deep South cotton states. Inspired by South Carolina’s Fire-Eater orators, the states of Georgia, Florida, Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana, and Texas soon followed.So what did Lincoln do to address the greatest crisis in the Republic's history?
But then, secession ground to a halt.
It is unknowable whether a seven-state Confederacy would have survived the next downturn in world cotton prices, or, disheartened, would have asked for readmission to the Union. We can see now that King Cotton proved to be a bubble. With the North declaring a blockade and the South an export embargo in 1861, the British ramped up cotton growing in Egypt and India, leaving the South impoverished after the war.
A rump Confederacy confined to the Deep South might have eventually been bought off by the plan Lincoln floated in the middle of the war for ending slavery voluntarily by compensating slave-owners with the proceeds from the sale of Western lands. At minimum, a seven-state Confederacy would have been easier to defeat on the battlefield than the eleven-state South that fought for four years.
The next tier of states northward—North Carolina, Tennessee, and Arkansas—didn’t secede until May or June, well after the outbreak of fighting at Fort Sumter, South Carolina on April 12, 1861.
Finally, in the northernmost tier of slave states, above 36.5 degrees latitude, four states never seceded—Delaware, Maryland, Kentucky, and Missouri.
But Lincoln took few steps to ready himself for this task. His main response to his election in November 1860 was to hire a second secretary to help answer his increased mail from politicians seeking patronage.Malice or incompetence? But not everyone was ignoring the crisis:
During the interregnum, Lincoln kicked around the notion of maybe adding one Southerner to the Cabinet, what with the secession and all, but nothing came of the idea. After Lincoln finally took the oath of office on March 4, 1861 he devoted much of his first six weeks to conscientiously interviewing the long line of Republican job-seekers that stretched out of the White House and down Pennsylvania Avenue to determine which would make the best local postmasters.
While Lincoln waited out the five-month interim in Springfield, Seward, his incoming Secretary of State, had been energetically warning European diplomats to heed the Monroe Doctrine and stay out of the Western Hemisphere during the American troubles. Within the cabinet, the New York statesman advocated abandoning indefensible Fort Sumter because the Union fighting a losing battle might emotionally propel indispensable Virginia into the Confederacy.Lincoln smacked him down, aggressively defended Ft. Sumpter, and the shooting began. Virginia and the rest joined the Confederacy based on the attack, and 750,000 lives were thrown away. The reaction of historians these days?
On April 1, 1861, Seward sent Lincoln a memo, Some Considerations for the President, advising Lincoln to stop wasting time on jobs-for-the-boys. Instead, the administration should reunite Americans, North and South, by ginning up a foreign-policy crisis over France’s ambitions in Mexico and Spain’s recolonizing of the Dominican Republic:
I would demand explanations from Spain and France, categorically, at once.…And if satisfactory explanations are not received from Spain and France, would convene Congress and declare war against them.
Today, historians seem to side wholeheartedly with Lincoln in his waging of office politics against Seward while ignoring the substance of the Secretary of State’s audacious attempt to rescue the nation from civil war. The considered judgment of scholars such as James M. McPherson and Doris Kearns Goodwin upon Lincoln’s response to Seward is, roughly, “Ooooh, diss.”The reaction of observers closer to the time?
“The American people, North and South, went into the war as citizens of their respective states, they came out subjects of the United States.”Doris Kearns Goodwin is no Thomas Carlyle, or even an H. L. Mencken.
– H. L. Mencken
“No war ever raging in my time was to me more foolish looking.”
– Thomas Carlyle