The Road to 1860

A House Divided

Not until April 12, 1861, when Confederate guns fired upon Fort Sumter, did America's sectional conflict bloom into organized political violence. But the Civil War was decades in the making. The seeds were planted at the nation's founding, watered with pride, jealousy and racism, tended by the balance of power between North and South, and brought into the full light of day by the degeneration of compromise and of the will to compromise.

Delegates to the Constitutional Convention in 1787, committed above all else to the creation of a viable union, effectively finessed the already divisive issue of slavery. In the first of many compromises, delegates gained Southern support for the Constitution by recognizing and protecting slavery, both in the three-fifths clause and in the Constitutional provision for the return of runaway slaves. The "peculiar institution," already structurally present in the nation's economy and psyche, was thus textually instantiated in the nation's founding document. The decision by the Convention delegates to leave the slavery question unresolved may have guaranteed union in 1787 but would return to haunt the country and threaten to tear the union apart in the 1860s.

As the nation matured during the first half of the 19th century, the respective economies of the North and the South -- one extolling the benefits of capitalism and free labor, the other based on the international demand for such labor-intensive cash crops as cotton, indigo and rice -- grew further apart and became more entrenched. These two systems might have been able to coexist were it not for the ever-present fact of Southern slavery, which bred opponents almost as quickly as it made money. With opposition came political conflict, and by the 1830s and 1840s, American politics, economics, and slavery were inextricably intertwined.

The westward expansion of the young country did more than anything else to exacerbate the sectional conflict. Since the status of territories -- whether they would be free states or slave slates -- remained unclear, they emerged as the central battleground on which the future of slavery would be contended. Southerners began to feel more and more embattled as Northern abolitionists stepped up their rhetorical attacks and as they became increasingly isolated on the world stage as a slave economy. In response, Southerners began to develop active defenses of slavery, going so far as to promote the institution as a positive good (whereas in the 18th century the more common attitude was to regard it as a cross that must be borne). A central tenet of the proslavery argument was the notion that blacks, being unfit for participation in a free society, belonged in slavery.

Despite efforts to reconcile the positions of North and South -- notably the Missouri Compromise and the Compromise of 1850 -- Americans could not settle the conflict. Since the legacy of the revolutionary era rhetorically condemned yet systemically validated slavery, and since that legacy remained inscribed in the Constitution, any compromise would necessarily be a temporary palliative: the fundamental contradiction would not go away, and would continue to breed conflict.

Abraham Lincoln, in his "House Divided" speech of 1858, when he accepted the Republican Senate nomination in Illinois, expressed precisely the impossibility of lasting compromise. "Either the opponents of slavery will arrest the further spread of it, and place it where the public mind shall rest in the belief that it is 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 -- North as well as South."

Lincoln said he did not expect the divided house to fall, the union to dissolve, but he could not have foreseen how close the country would come to the precipice.

The Burns Affair

Of the numerous causes of sectional tension in the antebellum years, one of the most difficult and divisive issues involved fugitive slaves. Laws providing for the capture of slaves who had escaped to the North, and for their return to the South, had undergone various iterations since the Constitution (Art. IV, sec. 2) specified that fugitives "shall be delivered up on claim of" the owner. Several Northern legislatures, in an effort to counteract the fugitive slave laws, had passed "personal liberty laws" designed to prevent forcible kidnappings of escaped slaves on northern soil and to provide certain legal protections for those who were captured.

In 1850, Congress sought to settle the issue, but did just the opposite, by passing the Fugitive Slave Act. The new law created a class of federal officers empowered to hunt fugitives and to deputize citizens for aid in the hunt, denied captured fugitives the right to testify, and accepted the word of the owner as sufficient evidence on which to return the slave. The Act provoked outrage and outright resistance in many quarters of the North, especially since it sparked an increase in the number of manhunts conducted on Northern soil. Although moderates urged compliance with the law, it served mainly to antagonize the North and further polarize the nation.

The political heat generated by the Fugitive Slave Act reached a critical level in 1854, with the capture in Boston of escaped Virginia slave Anthony Burns, pictured in the following print:

Burns' arrest, carried out in the clothing store where he worked, quickly became a cause celebre for Northern antislavery forces and, simultaneously, an opportunity for the Pierce administration to prove that it would enforce the controversial law. As abolitionists organized rallies and marched on the courthouse where Burns was being held, the city of Boston offered to buy the fugitive's freedom, but to no avail. Within days, the administration had federal marshals put Burns on a ship bound for Virginia, and the case appeared to be over.

But the fallout from the Burns Affair continued, as nine Northern states passed stronger personal liberty laws designed to prevent or at least render very difficult future captures. And as it turned out, Burns was the last fugitive returned to the South from any New England state.

The "Anthony Burns" image is one of the rare prints of the era showing a black person in a favorable light. Most representations of African Americans invoked the usual stereotypes: bare feet, exaggerated features, poor English, and so forth. The stereotypes ran counter, however, to the goals of the artist: to engender sympathy for an intelligent, worthy, handsome, hard-working escaped slave.

Around the formal portrait of Burns that occupies the center of the print appear labeled scenes representing the narrative of his enslavement, escape and capture. Clockwise from the lower left corner are: the sale of Burns at auction; a whipping post; his arrest in Boston; his escape on shipboard; his departure from Boston; a hoe and basket; his address to the court; and, after all that, his imprisonment.

The Burns Affair did have a happy ending: A group of Boston abolitionists was eventually able to purchase his freedom.

The Election of 1860

The election that raised Abraham Lincoln to the presidency is one of the defining moments in American politics. The stakes have rarely been higher. The election capped a decade of increasingly strident rhetoric regarding slavery and was hoped by people on both sides of the political aisle to herald a definitive conclusion to the slavery issue, one way or the other.

The following print, "The Political Quadrille, music by Dred Scott," captures the complexity of the campaign and the degree to which race played a central role in the American political consciousness:

The four caricatured candidates are pictured dancing with their respective allies or constituencies (see below), while Dred Scott fiddles the tune. By tying the 1860 contest to the Supreme Court's notorious Dred Scott decision of 1857, the artist efficiently and insightfully reveals the extent to which the slavery dispute dominated the election.

Dred Scott was a Missouri slave who sued for his freedom after the death of his original owner, who had taken him for an extended residence during the 1830s in the free states of Illinois and Wisconsin. Scott and his lawyers argued that this residence made him a free man, and the case quickly assumed a national and symbolic importance.

Rather than limiting itself to the specific question of Scott's freedom, the Court decided to issue two sweeping rulings: first, that Scott's suit for his freedom was prima facie invalid because a slave was not a citizen, and second, that Congress did not have the authority to outlaw slavery in the territories. Although the decision was not unaninmous, and although modern legal scholars generally dismiss it as a poorly reasoned patina for the proslavery sympathies of Chief Justice Roger Taney, it nonetheless represented a major victory for the South by effectively declaring slavery legal.

But instead of resolving the slavery issue or demoralizing the North, the Dred Scott decision galvanized antislavery forces and gave a significant boost to Lincoln's Republican party, which was committed to keeping slavery out of the territories. The decision also became an issue among the presidential candidates in 1860.

The intensifying sectional conflict signalled by the Dred Scott decision helped to splinter the Democratic party into three factions, each of which nominated a candidate to oppose Lincoln. The Democratic split probably did more than anything else to ensure the election of Lincoln.

Northern Democrats generally supported Stephen Douglas, Lincoln's old rival from Illinois, who supported the notion of popular sovereignty and opposed a move by Southerners to include a repressive slave code plank in the Democratic platform. In the "Political Quadrille," Douglas dances with a dissolute Irishman (lower left), in an apparent reference to his support among that group, and his reputed Catholicism.

After the Democrats nominated Douglas, a group of Southern delegates left the convention, adopted their own, more stringent proslavery platform, and eventually nominated John C. Breckinridge, Buchanan's Vice President. Breckinridge is shown in the upper left with President Buchanan, represented as a goat or "Buck" (his nickname).

An effort to reunite the party at a new convention failed when Douglas supporters blocked a move to readmit the Southern "bolters" who left the first convention. The more moderate Southerners, claiming a power base located mainly the northern areas of the South, called themselves the Constitutional Union party and nominated John Bell of Tenessee on a platform calling for preserving the union and enforcing its laws. Bell, at the lower right, dances with a Native American, presumably to reflect his interest in issues surrounding the meeting of whites and Indians on the frontier.

And Lincoln, finally, at the upper right, dances arm-in-arm with a smiling black woman. Despite the fact that the Republicans nominated Lincoln precisely because he was the consummate moderate on the issue of slavery, and therefore stood the best chance of carrying critical Northern states, associating Lincoln with blacks was a favorite theme of Southerners and satirists alike. The party's (admittedly mixed) support among abolitionists, and its official stance opposing the spread of slavery into the territories, prompted the widespread use of the pejorative sobriquet "Black Republicans."

Of course, Lincoln managed to ride out all such criticism and become the 16th President. With only about 40 percent of the popular vote, Lincoln garnered 180 of the 303 electoral college votes, a testament to the comparative power of the Northern states. The splintering of the opposing party undoubtedly contributed to his victory; if the Democrats had pooled their votes, they may have been able to swing a sufficient number of Northern states their way.

Black Republicans

A common tactic of Democratic propaganda during (and, indeed, after) the election of 1860 was to portray the Republicans as the party which sought to elevate both slaves and freedmen at the expense of whites and of the country as a whole. Abraham Lincoln, in the world conjured up by these satirists, was the candidate preparing to spring upon an unsuspecting nation the horror of full racial equality. A logical, if abhorrent, rhetorical move was, therefore, to depict blacks as degraded and inferior beings unfit for participation in a complex democracy. The following lithograph, titled "AN HEIR TO THE THRONE, or the next Republican candidate," carries the notion to an extreme:

Here, Horace Greeley, editor of the New York Tribune , and candidate Lincoln contemplate a knock-kneed, diminutive black man holding a spear. On the wall behind the three is an advertisement for P.T. Barnum's "What-is-it" exhibit at his Museum on Broadway, which had recently featured a similarly deformed African man.

Greeley gestures toward the black man, declaring: "Gentlemen allow me to introduce to you, this illustrious individual in whom you will find combined, all the graces, and virtues of Black Republicanism, and whom we propose to run as our next Candidate for the Presidency." Lincoln chimes in: "How fortunate! that this intellectual and noble creature should have been discovered just at this time, to prove to the world the superiority of the Colored over the Anglo Saxon race, he will be a worthy successor to carry out the policy which I shall inaugurate." And the object of their parodied praise responds: "What, can dey be?"

Somewhat surprisingly, this print was not published in the South, but by Currier & Ives in New York -- Northern Democrats were as capable as their Southern brethern of playing upon racist fears in order to tar their opponents. In fact, racist anti-Republican satire enjoyed a heyday in New York during the election campaign. (To "substantiate" their charges against the Republicans, propagandists often pointed to an unpopular ballot proposal introduced by the Republican legislature of New York, which would revoke the $250 property qualification for black voters.) Another print, again published by Currier & Ives, and again depicting Lincoln and Greeley as crypto-abolitionists, lampoons the candidate's "rail-splitter" image:

Lincoln sits atop the "Republican Platform," while Greeley converses with a man identified as "Young America." Lincoln: "Little did I think when I split these rails, that they would be the means of elevating me to my present position." Greeley: "I assure you, my friend, that you can safely vote our ticket. for we have no connection with the Abolition party, but our Platform is copmosed entirely of rails, split by our Candidate." The Young American replies: "It's no use old fellow! you can't pull that wool over my eyes, for I can see "the Nigger" peeping through the rails."

As we have come to expect of political campaigns, the partisans of 1860 were happily indulging in a high degree of distortion. For the purpose, cartoons possessed the advantage of imagination: caricaturists could create images that had no obligation to respect "reality." They could make a point without strenuous textual argument and without the confining realism of photography. Fears and hatreds became images; complex issues reduced to still-life pictures; individuals came to stand for types or for enemies.

Contrary to the suggestion of many political prints, the Republicans were by no means a party uniformly committed to abolition or even to equal rights for freed blacks. It is true that in New England, the Republicans and abolitionists were close in spirit and in policy; indeed, a number of abolitionists ran for local political offices as Republicans. In the lower parts of the North, however, the most salient issues of the campaign did not involve slavery or racism, but such economic measures as a homestead act (by which the Republicans would facilitate expansion into the Midwest) and a protective tariff (to raise the value of goods produced primarily in Pennsylvania and New York).

The national platform of the Republican party called not for the destruction of slavery, but only for its restriction to the Southern states. The party had toned down the language in its platform from that of 1856, which had referred to the "twin relics of barbarism -- Polygamy, and Slavery." Lincoln himself took relatively conservative positions on key racial issues, supporting enforcement of the Fugitive Slave Act and opposing both the abolition of interstate slave trading and emancipation in the District of Columbia.

Despite the deliberate moderation of mainstream Republicans, the South viewed Lincoln as an abolitionist in disguise. Perhaps political cartoons helped to foster and perpetuate this image. But remembering such occasions as the "House Divided" speech, when Lincoln expressed the hope that slavery would someday be banished forever, slaveholders faced the prospect of Lincoln's election with fear and trembling, and ineradicable hostility. The nation's age-old conflict was coming to a head.

  • Continue
  • Return to introduction
  • Return to main menu