Lincoln and the Decision for War: The Northern Response to Secession

Lincoln and the Decision for War: The Northern Response to Secession

Lincoln and the Decision for War: The Northern Response to Secession

Lincoln and the Decision for War: The Northern Response to Secession


When Abraham Lincoln's election in 1860 prompted several Southern states to secede, the North was sharply divided over how to respond. In this groundbreaking book, the first major study in over fifty years of how the North handled the secession crisis, Russell McClintock follows the decision-making process from bitter partisan rancor to consensus.

From small towns to big cities and from state capitals to Washington, D. C., McClintock highlights individuals both powerful and obscure to demonstrate the ways ordinary citizens, party activists, state officials, and national leaders interacted to influence the Northern response to what was essentially a political crisis. He argues that although Northerners' reactions to Southern secession were understood and expressed through partisan newspapers and officials, the decision fell into the hands of an ever-smaller handful of people until finally it was Abraham Lincoln alone who would choose whether the future of the American republic was to be determined through peace or a sword.

Lincoln and the Decision for War illuminates the immediate origins of the Civil War, demonstrating that Northern thought evolved quite significantly as the crisis unfolded. It also provides an intimate understanding of the antebellum political system as well as Lincoln's political acuity in his early presidential career.


The outlines of the story are easily enough told. In the presidential election of 1860, a long history of sectional strife culminated in victory for the Republican Party. Not surprisingly, given the Republicans' anti-South, antislavery message, the voting that year was remarkably lopsided with regard to geography. In the eighteen free states—generally speaking, those states from Pennsylvania to Iowa, north—Republican candidate Abraham Lincoln won 54 percent of the popular vote and nearly every electoral vote. In the fifteen slave states— roughly from Maryland, Kentucky, and Missouri, south—Lincoln received just 2 percent of the popular vote and captured a total of two counties; his name did not even appear on the ballot in the Deep South cotton belt. To a great many Southerners, the election's results exposed their powerlessness before a hostile enemy. The seven states of the Deep South formally withdrew from the United States and met in early February to form a new government. Secessionists and unionists in the other eight slave states spent the next months debating whether to join the new Southern Confederacy.

The remainder of the country was left with the stunned realization that America's unique experiment in self-government, whose example was to have inspired the overthrow of monarchy and the spread of republican principles throughout the world, was imploding. The outgoing administration of President James Buchanan, fearful of initiating war, hesitated to act. The incoming Lincoln administration, powerless until the inauguration, maintained an official silence. Congress quickly deadlocked between members who wished to entice the Southern states with concessions to slavery and those who refused to bow to the threat of disunion. And throughout the free states, citizens spent the winter arguing, petitioning, pleading, haranguing, accusing, and, above all, anxiously pondering a suddenly uncertain future as abstract questions regarding the nature of their national Union abruptly became all too real and immediate.

The paralysis lasted from early November until April, when military forces from the seceded states attacked federal troops stationed at Fort Sumter in South Carolina. The recently inaugurated Republican president, Abraham Lincoln, called for volunteers to suppress the Southern . . .

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