Even after rejecting the Crittenden Compromise, Lincoln did not believe war inevitable. When he became president, eight slave states of the Upper South remained in the Union. Here, slaves and slaveholders made up a considerably lower proportion of the population than in the Deep South, and large parts of the white population did not believe Lincoln’s election justified dissolving the Union. Even within the Confederacy, whites had divided over secession, with considerable numbers of non-slaveholding farmers in opposition. In time, Lincoln believed, secession might collapse from within.

In his inaugural address, delivered on March 4, 1861, Lincoln tried to be conciliatory. He rejected the right of secession but denied any intention of interfering with slavery in the states. He said nothing of retaking the forts, arsenals, and customs houses the Confederacy had seized, although he did promise to “hold” remaining federal property in the seceding states. But Lincoln also issued a veiled warning: “In your hands, my dissatisfied fellow countrymen, and not in mine, is the momentous issue of civil war.”

In his first month as president, Lincoln walked a tightrope. He avoided any action that might drive more states from the Union, encouraged southern Unionists to assert themselves within the Confederacy, and sought to quiet a growing clamor in the North for forceful action against secession. Knowing that the risk of war existed, Lincoln strove to ensure that if hostilities did break out, the South, not the Union, would fire the first shot. And that is precisely what happened on April 12, 1861, at Fort Sumter, an enclave of Union control in the harbor of Charleston, South Carolina.

A few days earlier, Lincoln had notified South Carolina’s governor that he intended to replenish the garrison’s dwindling food supplies. Viewing Fort Sumter’s presence as an affront to southern nationhood, and perhaps hoping to force the wavering Upper South to join the Confederacy, Jefferson Davis ordered batteries to fire on the fort. On April 14, its commander surrendered. The following day, Lincoln proclaimed that an insurrection existed in the South and called for 75,000 troops to suppress it. Civil war had begun. Within weeks, Virginia, North Carolina, Tennessee, and Arkansas joined the Confederacy. “Both sides deprecated war,” Lincoln later said, “but one of them would make war rather than let the nation survive; and the other would accept war rather than let it perish. And the war came.”

Bombardment of Fort Sumter, a lithograph by Nathaniel Currier and James Ives depicting the beginning of the Civil War.

In 1842, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow published Poems on Slavery, a collection that included a work entitled simply “The Warning.” In it, Longfellow compared the American slave to the mighty biblical figure of Samson, who after being blinded and chained, managed to destroy the temple of his tormentors:

There is a poor, blind Samson in this land,

Shorn of his strength, and bound in bonds of steel,

Who may, in some grim revel, raise his hand,

And shake the pillars of this Commonweal,

Till the vast Temple of our liberties

A shapeless mass of wreck and rubbish lies.

In 1861, Longfellow’s warning came to pass. The Union created by the founders lay in ruins. The struggle to rebuild it would bring about a new birth of American freedom.


1. Explain the justifications tortile doctrine of manifest destiny, including material and idealistic motivations.

2. What economic forces promoted continental expansion in the 1830s and 1840s?

3. Why did many Americans criticize the Mexican War? How did they see expansion as a threat to American liberties?

4. How did the concept of “race” develop by the mid nineteenth century, and how did it enter into the manifest destiny debate?

5. Explain the factors behind the creation of the Republican Party.

6. What three questions did the Supreme Court address in the Dred Scott case? Assess the Court’s arguments.

7. Based on the Lincoln-Douglas debates, how did the views of both men differ on the expansion of slavery, equal rights, and the role of the national government?

8. What were the international implications of southern nationalism?

9. Explain how sectional voting patterns in the 1860 presidential election allowed southern “fire-eaters” to justify secession.


1. How did Americans argue that conquering Texas and other parts of Mexico was “extending the area of freedom”?

2. Explain how both northerners and southerners believed winning the struggle over the expansion of slavery was the key to preserving their freedoms and to preventing their domination by the other section of the nation.

3. According to the Republican Party, how was “free labor” the key to preserving American freedoms, and the free society threatened by the Slave Power?

4. How did southern nationalists justify independence as “freedom” from northern “bondage”?

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