Lincoln Attacks Slavery
Abraham Lincoln had long regarded slavery an evil. In a speech in Peoria, Illinois, in 1854, he had declared that all national legislation should be framed on the principle that slavery was to be restricted and eventually abolished. He contended also that the principle of popular sovereignty was false, for slavery in the western territories was the concern not only of the local inhabitants but of the United States as a whole. This speech made him widely known throughout the growing west.
In 1858, Lincoln opposed Stephen A. Douglas for election to the U. S. Senate from Illinois. In the first paragraph of his opening campaign speech, on June 17, Lincoln struck the keynote of American history for the seven years to follow:
". house divided against itself cannot stand.' I believe this government cannot 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."
Lincoln and Douglas engaged in a series of seven debates in the ensuing months of 1858. Senator Douglas, a sturdy five-footer known as the "little giant," had an enviable reputation as an orator, but he met his match in Lincoln, who eloquently challenged the concept of popular sovereignty. In the end, although Douglas won the election by a small margin, Lincoln had achieved stature as a national figure.
Sectional strife again became acute. On the night of October 16, 1859, John Brown, an antislavery fanatic, who had struck a bloody blow against slavery in Kansas three years before, with the help of a few abolitionist extremists seized the federal arsenal at Harper's Ferry in what is now the state of West Virginia. When dawn came, armed citizens of the town, aided by some militia companies, began a counterattack, and Brown and his surviving men were taken prisoner.
Alarm ran through the nation. For many southerners, Brown's attempt confirmed their worst fears. Antislavery zealots, on the other hand, hailed Brown as a martyr to a great cause. Most northerners repudiated his exploit, seeing in it an assault on law and order and on democratic methods of obtaining social progress. Brown was tried for conspiracy, treason, and murder, and on December 2, 1859, he was hanged. To the end, he believed he had been an instrument in the hand of God.
In the presidential election of 1860 the Republican Party nominated Abraham Lincoln as its candidate. Party spirit soared as leaders declared that slavery could spread no further. The party also promised a tariff for the protection of industry and pledged the enactment of a law granting free homesteads to settlers who would help in the opening of the west. The disunity of the opposing Democrats, led by Stephen A. Douglas, helped the fledgling Republican Party win the election.
South Carolina's secession from the Union, if Lincoln were elected, was a foregone conclusion for the state had long been waiting for an event that would unite the south against the antislavery forces. Once the election returns were certain, a specially summoned South Carolina convention declared
"that the Union now subsisting between South Carolina and other states under the name of the .nited States of America' is hereby dissolved."Other southern states promptly followed South Carolina's example, and on February 8, 1861, they formed the Confederate States of America.