Abraham Lincoln and a New Birth of Freedom: The Union and Slavery in the Diplomacy of the Civil War

By Howard Jones | Go to book overview

CHAPTER TWO
Lincoln, Slavery, and Perpetual Union

I hold, that in contemplation of universal law, and of the Constitution, the Union of these States is perpetual. . . . Continue to execute all the express provisions of our national Constitution, and the Union will endure forever -- it being impossible to destroy it.

President Abraham Lincoln, March 4, 1861

As the American people plunged into civil war, the issue of slavery and its relationship to the Union became profoundly complicated both at home and abroad. Slavery had been the main driving force behind the growing sectional division in the United States, despite the claims of southerners that they were defending self-government and states' rights against northern tyranny. Did not South Carolina's declaration of secession in December 1860 repeatedly emphasize the importance of protecting slavery? Did not the Confederate Constitution adopted in Montgomery establish an elaborate defense of slavery, even guaranteeing its existence in the territories?

Southerners denied that slavery played a role in bringing on the war, and yet they declared slavery the cornerstone of their society and white supremacy its mortar. How else can one explain the rabid reaction by southerners to Lincoln's election in 1860? Before his inauguration, Lincoln expressed the core issue best to his old friend Alexander Stephens, the spindly and sickly congressman from Georgia who became the Confederacy's vice president: "You think slaven, is right and ought to be extended; while we think it is wrong and ought to be restricted. That I suppose is the rub."1 The Repubilcan party's platform would undermine the antebellum South by barring the expansion of slavery, despite its assurance of no interference in areas where it already existed. Thus Lincoln's election placed slavery -- and the Old South -- on the path of ultimate extinction.

Both President Davis and Vice-President Stephens recognized the threat to their entire way of life. Although neither man considered himself a fire-

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