In the 1860 Republican National Convention, a dark horse candidate holding no elective office captured the presidential nomination, and despite being reviled by a large swath of the country, went on to victory in the general election, securing only 40 percent of the vote. Elected with a minority of the vote, Abraham Lincoln sought to unify a deeply fractured nation, going to extraordinary lengths to persuade those who opposed his election.
Even before the election, Lincoln addressed his fellow citizens in the southern states in a speech that catapulted him into contention for the Republican nomination. He carried on an imaginative conversation with southerners, both presenting and refuting their claims. In one such argument he said, “You say that you are conservative — eminently conservative — while we are revolutionary, destructive.” Lincoln demonstrated that he had adopted the position of the Founding Fathers in opposing the extension of slavery into the territories, making his position conservative and theirs revolutionary.
In his first inaugural address after several states had already seceded, Lincoln presented arguments to allay southern apprehension that a Republican administration would end slavery. “I have no purpose, directly or indirectly, to interfere with the institution of slavery in the states where it exists. I believe I have no lawful right to do so, and I have no inclination to do so.” He also pledged to uphold the fugitive slave law.
Lincoln cautioned his southern neighbors to think through the risks of destroying the national fabric. “The ills you fly from have no real existence … the certain ills you fly to are greater than all the real ones you fly from.” Lincoln asked southerners to specify the constitutional rights they had been denied, confident they had not been harmed.
Lincoln maintained that the states entered into a union with the Articles of Association in 1774, and the bonds were strengthened with the Declaration of Independence in 1776, the Articles of Confederation in 1778, and the Constitution in 1787. He argued that no one state or several states could dissolve the union without consent of all the states, which is why he never referred to seceded states but only the “so-called” seceded states.
Lincoln refuted the logic of secession by drawing out its practical consequences. Where does the process of secession end? he asked. Is there such perfect unity among the southern states as to produce only harmony and no differences? What if one state defects at some point? Secession, he argued, is nothing more than legitimizing anarchy, which no government can condone. It is a self-defeating principle, he warned, that will ruin the southern states as it tears apart the country.
Lincoln succinctly summarized the disagreement: one section of the country considers slavery right and that it ought to be extended, while the other believes it wrong and ought to be contained. He did not contrast the pro-slavery position with abolition, but advocated a middle ground that contained slavery within the southern states with the hope that if contained it would be placed on course to ultimate extinction.
By taking the opposing northern and southern positions to their logical conclusion, Lincoln sought to create in the minds of those contemplating secession an undesirable future. Geography made separation between the North and South impossible. Lincoln asked southerners to consider whether they would really be advantaged in dealing with the North as a separate nation or as fellow countrymen with constitutional rights.
Finally, Lincoln urged the South to delay judgment. “No administration by any extreme of wickedness or folly can very seriously injure the government in the short space of four years.” He pointed out that southerners had taken no oath to destroy the nation, but he had taken an oath to preserve, protect and defend it. He thus shifted the burden of the decision to the South: “In your hands, my dissatisfied fellow countrymen, and not in mine, is the monstrous issue of civil war.”
Despite these arguments to reassure his countrymen, Lincoln failed to convince the South. As the Civil War came to a close, Lincoln again sought to bring the country together by persuading the victorious North to bind up the nation’s wounds, with malice toward none and charity for all. Thus, Lincoln established a precedent for presidential leadership: to unite the country.
Joseph W. McDonnell is a professor of public policy and management at the Edmund S. Muskie School of Public Service at the University of Southern Maine in Portland.
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