Disunion: The Sectional Crisis Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

When Abraham Lincoln delivered his Cooper Union address as the Republican presidential candidate in 1860, he was already aware of the delicacy that would be required of a president who would lead a nation so deeply divided over the question of slavery. He also felt very strongly that slavery was a moral wrong, as did the majority of his supporters. A year later, when Lincoln gave his first inaugural address, seven states had already seceded from the Union, and it was his job as the leader of the nation to put the country back together. Less than two weeks later, Confederate vice president Alexander Stephens presented the essence of the Confederacy’s new and improved constitution. Both Lincoln and Stephens used a similar argument in their speeches: the holder of the opposing point of view was arguing with great conviction based on a false premise.

When Abraham Lincoln delivered his Cooper Union address as the Republican presidential candidate in 1860, he was already aware of the delicacy that would be required of a president who would lead a nation so deeply divided over the question of slavery. He also felt very strongly that slavery was a moral wrong, as did the majority of his supporters. A year later, when Lincoln gave his first inaugural address, seven states had already seceded from the Union, and it was his job as the leader of the nation to put the country back together. Less than two weeks later, Confederate vice president Alexander Stephens presented the essence of the Confederacy’s new and improved constitution. Both Lincoln and Stephens used a similar argument in their speeches: the holder of the opposing point of view was arguing with great conviction based on a false premise.

Lincoln’s Cooper Union speech is very careful to lay out the Confederate error as a misunderstanding of the intentions of the framers of the Constitution. Proslavery decisions had been made based on the belief that the Constitution did not specifically address slavery, and that therefore the men who used their best judgment to write it must have believed that it was outside the purview of the federal government to prohibit or regulate it. Not so, Lincoln replied. In this case, deeds stand in for words, as Lincoln made the case that, when given the chance to vote, the majority of the original framers of the Constitution had voted against the spread of slavery, or had seen fit to regulate and restrict it in the case of Louisiana. Though there is clearly precedent for the regulation of the spread of slavery, Southerners will not accept anything but a full declaration that slavery is right, and a moral good. Lincoln makes it clear that, though he does not agree, if there is to be a war, it will be started by the South.

Stephens’s speech describes another false premise, one that was removed from the new Confederate constitution. The flaw in the United States Constitution, and the reason that Southerners and Northern “fanatics” could not come to terms, was that the “negro” was not an equal to the white man, and slavery was not an evil to be tolerated, but the natural state in which an inferior people are most comfortable. Stephens pays homage to the Founding Fathers and the US Constitution, but declares that it was based on the assumption of equality between the races and the eventual end of slavery, and that was simply an error.

Lincoln’s inaugural address was his last great chance to save the Union, and he argued persuasively that his administration would uphold the interpretation of the Constitution and, despite his own views, the laws that protected slavery. He urged Southern states to rethink secession as a descent into anarchy. He asks one last time that the bonds of friendship that united North and South be considered before any rash decisions were made. It was, however, too late.

Cover for sheet music celebrating the South Carolina state convention on December 20, 1860, where an ordinance of secession was passed unanimously, thereby severing the state’s ties with the Union. Document on the South Carolina Convention appears on page 137. Source: Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division, LC-USZ62-10917

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