In the eyes of many white southerners, Lincoln’s victory placed their future at the mercy of a party avowedly hostile to their region’s values and interests. Those advocating secession did not believe Lincoln’s administration would take immediate steps against slavery in the states. But if, as seemed quite possible, the election of 1860 marked a fundamental shift in power, the beginning of a long period of Republican rule, who could say what the North’s antislavery sentiment would demand in five years, or ten? Slaveowners, moreover, feared Republican efforts to extend their party into the South by appealing to non-slaveholders. Rather than accept permanent minority status in a nation governed by their opponents, Deep South political leaders boldly struck for their region’s independence. At stake, they believed, was not a single election, but an entire way of life.
An 1860 engraving of a mass meeting in Savannah, Georgia, shortly after Lincoln’s election as president, which called for the state to secede from the Union. The banner on the obelisk at the center reads, “Our Motto State’s Rights, Equality of the States, Don’t Tread on Me”—the last a slogan from the American Revolution.
In the months that followed Lincoln’s election, seven states stretching from South Carolina to Texas seceded from the Union. These were the states of the Cotton Kingdom, where slaves represented a larger part of the total population than in the Upper South. First to secede was South Carolina, the state with the highest percentage of slaves in its population and a long history of political radicalism. On December 20, 1860, the legislature unanimously voted to leave the Union. Its Declaration of the Immediate Causes of Secession placed the issue of slavery squarely at the center of the crisis. The North had “assumed the right of deciding upon the propriety of our domestic institutions.” Lincoln was a man “whose opinions and purposes are hostile to slavery.” Experience had proved “that slaveholding states cannot be safe in subjection to nonslaveholding states.” Secessionists equated their movement with the struggle for American independence. Proslavery ideologue George Fitzhugh, however, later claimed that southern secession was even more significant than the “commonplace affair” of 1776, since the South rebelled not merely against a particular government but against the erroneous modern idea of freedom based on “human equality” and “natural liberty.”