by Chandra M. Manning

‘A house divided against itself can not stand’ I believe this government can not endure permanently, half slave, and half free . . . I do not expect the Union to be dissolved - I do not expect the house to fall; but I do expect it will cease to be divided . . . Either the opponents of slavery will arrest the further spread of it, and put it in course of ultimate extinction; or its advocates will push it forward till it shall become alike lawful in all the states, old, as well as new.

Abraham Lincoln’s December 1857 notes for what would become the House Divided Speech of 1858

[Dividing the] National [Map]. [Cincinnati], 1860. (LC-DIG-ppmsca-33122)For most of the antebellum era, differences between the North and South did not equate to hostile and insurmountable division between the two sections. Legal slavery existed only in the southern states, but whites in both sections shared assumptions of white supremacy, and most of all shared a deep disinclination to discuss the slavery question. Bitter conflicts—about economic development, political parties, the relative strength of the state and federal governments, proper roles for men and women, religion, and more—divided Americans, but they divided them along partisan, religious, ethnic, and social lines, not sectional ones. Residents of Wisconsin and Vermont jealously guarded the primacy of state over federal law as Mississippians demanded a stronger, more active federal government. Democrats from Maine to Louisiana railed ferociously against economic measures like a National Bank, while Whigs throughout the land protested the actions of the James K. Polk administration in precipitating the Mexican-American War. Methodists in Georgia felt closer to Methodists in New York than to their Roman Catholic neighbors. Yet when war came in 1861, it pitted one section against another, and the chief difference between those two sections was the institution of slavery. How did one axis of conflict—sectional division—transcend and eventually overpower the numerous axes of conflict that dominated much of the antebellum United States?

The two factors that did the most to engender sectional conflict were the booming growth of slavery itself and territorial expansion. In just two generations, the number of slaves exploded from 800,000 to 4,000,000. Most worked as agricultural laborers, but slaves were also profitably employed in factories and mines and could be rented out for various forms of labor, which made them extremely valuable commodities to their owners. The enormous prosperity of the southern states depended on enslaved labor, and that reliance made the dependence of the southern social structure on slavery all the deeper and more inescapable. The northern economy also benefited from slave-grown staples. White Americans were too deeply dependent on the institution to want to talk about slavery.

Territorial expansion forced them to, because it raised the questions of whether slavery should expand, and what the federal government’s role should be. As the 1850s progressed, white Northerners and Southerners argued over a Fugitive Slave Law, the Kansas-Nebraska Act, and the Dred Scott decision. Proslavery forces seemed to be gaining the upper hand and slavery’s spread looked as though it would be almost impossible to stop. The Republican Party gained quick popularity in the North by touting the dangers of a Slave Power, intent on spreading slavery and costing white northerners their own liberties. Illinois Whig Abraham Lincoln was attracted to the Republican Party because it reflected his own hatred of slavery and bedrock belief in the right of individuals to rise by dint of their own labor. Lincoln’s eloquent ability to articulate the Free Labor ideology of the Republicans soon propelled him to prominence within the party.

Meanwhile, white southerners demanded greater federal protection for slavery, and those demands fractured the Democratic Party just in time for the 1860 election. Southern Democrats insisted on a platform pledged to a federally enforced Slave Code in all United States territories. Northern Democrats espoused popular sovereignty. The party split. Fearful that the radical nature of the southern Democrats’ demands would rupture the Union, some southern voters supported a new Constitutional Union Party, which stood for ignoring the slavery issue. The divided electorate virtually assured that Abraham Lincoln, the Republican candidate for president running on a platform of halting the westward expansion of slavery, would win. Public meetings throughout the South warned that if Lincoln won, their state would leave the Union.

When Lincoln won the election of 1860, seven states from the Deep South seceded to form the Confederate States of America. The slaveholding states of the Upper South (Virginia, North Carolina, Arkansas, and Tennessee) and Border States (Delaware, Maryland, Kentucky, and Missouri) opted not to secede, but the Upper South states passed “Coercion Clauses” pledging to side with the Confederacy if the federal government coerced the slaveholding states. As Abraham Lincoln assumed the presidency, a stand-off was in progress.

Chandra Manning is Associate Professor of History at Georgetown University and author of What This Cruel War Was Over: Soldiers, Slavery, and the Civil War (2007).

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