Why Worry About Lincoln’s Election?

At present I’m reading James Oakes’s The Scorpion’s Sting: Antislavery and the Coming of the Civil War (2014). I think it is a provocative argument expressed succinctly about the intentions of Republicans when it came to slavery. I found especially educational his treatment of John Gilmer’s letter to Abraham Lincoln, dated December 10, 1860. In it Gilmer, a North Carolinian, asked Lincoln what he planned to do when he became president when it came to slavery. You can read the original here, or read this transcription taken from the same site.

House of Reps. U. S.

December 10th 1860

Mr Lincoln.

The present perilous condition of the Country — threatening the destruction of the Union — must be my excuse for the unusual liberty I take in writing this letter.

Solicitous that the States may remain united, if by any fair means possible, and the honor and constitutional rights of all maintained and secured; and desirous to do all I can to preserve the public peace, I venture to express the hope that you may feel at liberty, in advance of your installation, to give the people of the United States the views and opinions you now entertain on certain political questions which now so seriously distract the country.

For one politically opposed to you, and representing a Southern constituency, who, together with myself, did all we could (I trust honorably) to defeat your election, I feel that I presume a great deal, perhaps too much in troubling you with any inquiries. But the dangers of the crisis, and my desire to have allayed, if possible, the apprehensions of real danger and harm to them and their peculiar institution which have seized the people of my section, I respectfully ask whether as, President you will favor the abolition of Slavery in the District of Columbia:

2d Whether you would approve of any law of Congress prohibiting the employment of Slaves in the Arsenals and Dock Yards where their location is in the Slave States; — or the transfer of slaves from one slave holding State or Territory to another of like character:–

3d Whether, in your opinion, Congress has the power, directly or indirectly to interfere with slavery in the States; and whether by any policy, or any system of appointment to office, Slavery agitation, or by other ways or means, you would in any way, directly or indirectly, attempt to lessen the value and usefulness of Slaves; — disturb the peace and quiet of their owners, or impair the institution of Slavery:–

4th Whether, on the application of any new State for admission into the Union, you would veto an act of Congress admitting the same because slavery was tolerated in her constitution — the same being the choice and fairly expressed will of the citizens making the application:– also indicate the policy, if any, which you would favor or recommend to settle and quiet the disturbing question of Slavery in the Territories:–

5th Whether you will enforce the fugitive slave law– whether you would favor its repeal. If not, whether you would suggest amendments impairing its efficiency or usefulness:–

6th Whether you will use the influence of your position to secure the repeal of all laws passed by any state, in conflict with the fugitive slave law and intended to defeat its peaceful and proper execution.

I address you from pure motives.– The times are alarming, and fully justify your speaking on the question mentioned now. You have in some degree my opinion of the excitement in my section, when I assure you that you hazard less to yourself, politically, in granting a request which I earnestly press solely for the sake of good, than I do in making it. But I am not without hope that a clear and definite exposition of your views on the questions mentioned may go far to quiet, if not satisfy all reasonable minds, that on most of them it will become plain that there is more misunderstanding than difference, and that the balance are so much more abstract than useful or practical; that as to them a generous and patriotic yielding on the part of your section, now so largely in the majority, would, on the one hand, be a mere sacrifice of opinion, and, on the other, the preservation of the best Government that has ever fallen to the lot of any people.1


Your obt servt.

John A. Gilmer

Nothing here about the tariff, by the way … but note that Gilmer is not even interested about the issue of the expansion of slavery into the territories. Rather, he’s asking about what Lincoln’s intentions were when it came to other issues related to slavery.

One of the reasons this letter is so revealing is that it suggests why the Corwin Amendment, so often misunderstood, was in fact irrelevant to many white southerners as a way to protect slavery. Often the claim is advanced by certain people that the fact that the states that formed the original Confederacy could not have done so to protect slavery (an argument that requires one to ignore a rather large amount of evidence to the contrary) is that had they wanted to protect slavery, they should have accepted the Corwin Amendment (which supposedly protected slavery where it already existed forever) and stayed in the Union. Thus, the fact that they rejected staying in the union under the Corwin Amendment shows that secession was not about slavery.

Read both the Corwin Amendment and Gilmer’s letter carefully, and tell me how the ratification of that amendment would have addressed Gilmer’s inquiries.

20 thoughts on “Why Worry About Lincoln’s Election?

  1. John Foskett January 17, 2015 / 9:20 am

    Regarding Gilmer’s inquiries and whether the Amendment would have addressed them/reassured Gilmer: (1) no; (2) no; 3) first part yes, second part no; 4) first part no, second part no; 5) no; 6) no. The amendment was indeed consistent with Lincoln’s views of how the Constitution already addressed the issue of slavery where it existed and Congress’s power (and with, therefore, his efforts to persuade the Border States to abolish on their own in early 1862). Moreover, even an amendment which was ratified could later be repealed by another amendment when the popular climate changed. We’ve seen that in subsequent U.S. history. Last, the amendment would not address an action of the Executive based on insurrection and military necessity. I would add that Gilmer’s no. 4 does appear to show interest in territorial expansion – although he seems far less concerned about that than some of his Deep South brethren.

  2. neukomment January 17, 2015 / 1:46 pm

    Taking the words of the Corwin Amendment at face value; it only addresses domestic institutions in the existing states and says nothing about limiting Federal rule over domestic institutions in the territories. It is my understanding the 1860 Democratic convention split over the issue of slavery in the territories, and in so doing reflected the level of importance the slave states placed on the issue of the territories, a level of importance that would not be satisfied by the limited scope of the Corwin Amendment. It is not so clear how the Fugitive Slave act would have been protected by the amendment. Could not the free states argue that enforcement of the Fugitive Slave act would interfere with thier own “domestic institutions”?

    What we will never know is what would have happened to a Linclon presidency if the rebel states had not seceded, but stayed peacefully in the Union. I suspect he might have gone down in history as a one term president, but the fixation on expanding slavery into the territories seems to have made that scenario most unlikely.

  3. M.D. Blough January 17, 2015 / 1:52 pm

    I agree with John and, would add on (4) that Gilmer seems to be flirting with trying to get Lincoln endorse Popular Sovereignty which was anathema to the Fireaters. What is clear is that even for someone who clearly saw himself as being reasonable and conciliatory, Gilmer had the pro-slavery attitude towards federal power: they were fine with it, so long as it acted in support of slavery. In (6), he clearly wants Lincoln to use federal authority (impliedly by the Supremacy Clause) to void free state personal liberty laws and/or any other state actions that would limit the movement of slavery. I can’t see that ratification of the Corwin amendment would have any effect on most of Gilmer’s concerns.

  4. Christopher Shelley January 17, 2015 / 5:22 pm

    What John said.

    I assume that 3) refers indirectly to Lincoln’s power of patronage–that he could place anti-slavery Republicans in federal positions (especially the U.S. Post Office) all over the South. According to Freehling (Road to Disunion, Vol 2), the potential of these federal agents to agitate against slavery–perhaps even creating a viable Republican Party in the Border States– was much more important to secessionists closer to the Atlantic coast than a concern about the territories, which was a priority of slaveholders further west. Of course, the Corwin Amendment was silent on this.

    Also, the Corwin Amendment (as well as Lincoln in his inaugural) referred to slavery as “persons held to service,” and not “slaves.” According to Oakes (Freedom National), this meant that Republicans would continue to assert that “property in man” was not part of the Constitution–that slavery was well and truly a state institution, and the federal gov’t was not obligated to protect it as much as it was prevented from directly harming it where it existed. There’s no way that language would have mollified slaveholders. Quite the opposite: they would have seen it as a huge “FU to your chattel institution!”

    • M.D. Blough January 17, 2015 / 11:25 pm

      I think that’s putting a little too much weight on the phrase, which, in fact, is the language that is in the US Constitution at the time of the Corwin Amendment. Article IV of the US Constitution stated in the Fugitive Slave Clause, “No Person held to Service or Labour in one State, under the Laws thereof, escaping into another, shall, in Consequence of any Law or Regulation therein, be discharged from such Service or Labour, but shall be delivered up on Claim of the Party to whom such Service or Labour may be due.” Article I, Section 9’s provision barring any Congressional legislation on the international slave trade was even more constrained in its language, “The Migration or Importation of such Persons as any of the States now existing shall think proper to admit, shall not be prohibited by the Congress prior to the Year one thousand eight hundred and eight, but a Tax or duty may be imposed on such Importation, not exceeding ten dollars for each Person.” And during the Constitutional Convention, in response to a motion by Gouvernor Morris who wanted Article 1, Section 9 to read “importation of slaves into N. Carolina, S. Carolina & Georgia shall not be prohibited &c.”, Madison responded that he “thought it wrong to admit in the Constitution the idea that there could be property in men. The reason of duties did not hold, as slaves are not like merchandize, consumed, &c” (Madison, Notes of the Debates in the Federal Convention of 1787, August 25, 1787).

      I agree about Section 3 in the Gilmer letter. Slave states were fearful of the power of patronage being in a Republican’s hands, particularly the position postmaster.

      • Christopher Shelley January 18, 2015 / 10:55 am

        MD, to be clear, this is according to Oakes. He argues that this “non-chattel,” natural rights interpretation became the mainstream Republican argument in the 1850s.

      • Joshism January 18, 2015 / 12:34 pm

        “Slave states were fearful of the power of patronage being in a Republican’s hands, particularly the position postmaster.”

        Yes, if a local postmaster were a Republican he might actually deliver all the mail addressed to a person, even the mail they might not like because it disagree with their present institution.

  5. Stefan Jovanovich January 18, 2015 / 11:47 am

    Of course, slavery was the banner under which the Confederacy was formed; one only has to read its Constitution to answer that question. What seems equally obvious is that “Union”, not “anti-slavery” or, if your prefer, “abolition”, was the banner that so many men in the North volunteered to defend. Before Fort Sumter there is no rush to enlist, and Grant has no reason to go to Springfield to help organize Illinois’ contribution to the war of the loyal states to defend the Union.

    For me Professor Simpson’s question raises what is the most important puzzle about the Civil War: how was “slavery” so defined in the minds of Southerners that the election of rail fence sitter on the question of abolition could lead to immediate secession and an undeclared act of war that was Constitutional treason? One of the answers is the issue M. D. Blough notes – patronage. I think the attention given in modern scholarship to “the tariff question” often misses the point; it was far less the rates than the revenue itself that was the contentious issue. Who would hold the money and who would control the spending and the parceling out of the jobs that went with supervising the collection, custody and disbursement of the revenue? Most of that Federal work and spending – on the military, the Post Office and post roads, et. al. – had gone to the South and New York, places that were – independent of any questions about slavery – controlled entirely by the Democratic Party. The election of a Midwestern believer in Clay’s notions about internal improvements (one who wanted the railroad to take the Northern route, not the one outlined by Davis) was the most serious threat that the Democratic monopoly on Federal patronage had ever faced. It added insult to injury that Lincoln would be the first elected President whose party platform contained even the mention of the word “abolition”. But was that insult to “the Southern way of life” really as important as the fact that the import duties largely paid by Southerners would now be in the hands of the Yankees? One is tempted to wonder.

    • Brooks D. Simpson January 18, 2015 / 12:34 pm

      I’d be interested in documentation pointing in that direction. I haven’t seen any.

    • John Foskett January 18, 2015 / 2:07 pm

      Why, oh why, is this the deep,dark, unspoken secret of secession? There’s this bizarre oddity that the promoters had a perceived need to articulate to their constituencies something that would appeal to them as a justification and, indeed, a sine qua non, for the extreme act of disunion. Same with the Deep South secessionists’ “constituency” of those who had yet to be persuaded. Yet they repeatedly chose slavery and the implied/putative threat to its expansion/continued existence as their rationale rather than the tariff – or its revenues – or whose hands those revenues were being controlled by. At some point you have to come up with more than speculation which avoids the big bad slavery elephant.

      This is, of course, all the more puzzling because the Breckinridge wing of the Democratic Party in its 1860 platform opposing that loathsome Republican platform, stated its explanatory resolutions as follows:

      “1. That the Government of a Territory organized by an act of Congress is provisional and temporary, and during its existence all citizens of the United States have an equal right to settle with their property in the Territory, without their rights, either of person or property, being destroyed or impaired by Congressional or Territorial legislation.

      2. That it is the duty of the Federal Government, in all its departments, to protect, when necessary, the rights of persons and property in the Territories, and wherever else its constitutional authority extends.

      3. That when the settlers in a Territory, having an adequate population, form a State Constitution, the right of sovereignty commences, and being consummated by admission into the Union, they stand on an equal footing with the people of other States, and the State thus organized ought to be admitted into the Federal Union, whether its Constitution prohibits or recognizes the institution of slavery.

      4. That the Democratic party are in favor of the acquisition of the Island of Cuba, on such terms as shall be honorable to ourselves and just to Spain, at the earliest practicable moment.

      5, That the enactments of State Legislatures to defeat the faithful execution of the Fugitive Slave Law are hostile in character, subversive of the Constitution, and revolutionary in their effect.

      6, That the Democracy of the United States recognize it as the imperative duty of this Government to protect the naturalized citizen in all his rights, whether at home or in foreign lands, to the same extent as its native-born citizens.

      Whereas, One of the greatest necessities of the age, in a political, commercial, postal and military point of view, is a speedy communication between the Pacific and Atlantic coasts. Therefore be it

      Resolved, That the National Democratic party do hereby pledge themselves to use every means in their power to secure the passage of some bill to the extent of the constitutional authority of Congress, for the construction of a Pacific Rail road from the Mississippi River to the Pacific Ocean, at the earliest practicable moment.”

      Crickets on tariff, revenues, Yankee patronage, etc. Nothing but silence. Now if the concern was that the tariff revenues might be spent on getting rid of the “institution”………….

      • Stefan Jovanovich January 19, 2015 / 6:08 am

        Let me try again. The political South – the men who were elected as state legislators and governors and U.S. Congressmen and Southerners and Presidents – saw plantation slavery as essential to their wealth and well-being. They could no more imagine “the South” without slaves than without levees. But that fact does not begin to answer the question of how these people defined the issue and where they thought their commercial advantages lay? We have already discussed the question of the import slave trade. Somehow, the same South Carolina legislature that later voted for secession rejected utterly Brooks’ statements in favor of the revival of the slave trade. The same politicians who ranted about the abominations of the tariff were in favor of an absolute quota ban on more slave imports. We have already discussed why; it would have cut into the political South’s profits to have the supply of slaves increased and they would have seen little, if any, of the revenues from the sales of those new slaves.

        Then, why would Breckenridge’s platform be in favor of the rights of “naturalized citizens”? Even though the South had, by far, the fewest number of new immigrants, the political South saw it to be a clear advantage to be in favor of suitably white immigration. Why? Because the new immigrants were not going to be in favor of Negro liberation – as Grant anticipated and as the appeal of the post-war Democratic Party proved. “Lily-white” was a winner. Yet, you will find nothing in any of the writings of Southerners that even hints at this underlying political logic. Why would there be? When, as she did last week, the new Senator from Hawaii got up on the Senate floor to speak in favor of the renewal of the Jones Act, she did not say that restricting interstate ocean trade to U.S. built, crewed and owned vessels was the source of Matson interests’ advantage; she spoke entirely about America’s interest. Asking politicians to declare their lobbies’ actual interests goes contrary to their nature; it is precisely what they are not ever to disclose.

        Of course, “slavery” was the “issue” at the heart of secession; the question that is still worth asking is how did the election of Lincoln bring things to a boil, given the fact that Lincoln and Douglas’ positions on the mattered differed only on the question of popular sovereignty. Some of us think the tariff added part of the necessary heat because (1) Southerners thought they were the ones paying it, (2) it was the source of the revenue that the Southern-controlled Congress spent, and (3) Lincoln and the Republicans’ platform made it clear that the money was going to be taken out of the Southerner’s hands.

        • John Foskett January 19, 2015 / 12:06 pm

          ” Some of us think the tariff added part of the necessary heat.”

          And yet the “Southerners” said nothing about that. I can think that a belief in extraterrestrials “added part of the necessary heat.” In fact I can “think” anything that I want. But my “thinking” isn’t entitled to much, if any, credence without some objective evidence of the expressed thoughts of those folks we’re referring to. Otherwise it’s unvarnished speculation.

          As for bringing matters to a “boil”, the Lincoln-Douglas harmony is superficial. Douglas’s wing of the Democratic Party was hardly pushing abolition or looking to evade/eviscerate the Fugitive Slave Law. Many of Lincoln’s “Black Republicans” were. Even without the benefit of hindsight, were I a slavery-supporting Southron in the winter of 1860-61, I’d laugh at anybody who told me that as it augured for slavery, the result of Lincoln’s election was no different than if Douglas had prevailed.

          • Stefan Jovanovich January 19, 2015 / 2:14 pm

            There were, even then, some other believers in extraterrestrials, John. Robert M. T. Hunter, for one.


            The wikipedia article on the Morrill Tariff has an excellent summary of Hunter’s actions as Chair of the Senate Finance Committee.


            Hunter and I and the other wearers of tinfoil hats have even made the argument that the passage of Morrill’s bill through the Senate on March 2 helped push the remaining 6 states to secession. The abolition of the Warehousing Act certainly did not help.


        • John Foskett January 19, 2015 / 3:40 pm

          Out of curiosity, who are the “others”? Hunter’s an interesting case. He, to be sure, had a long history of weighing in on tariff-related issues. He also, of course, was a “Douglas Democrat” and a reluctant secessionist. But if – and I use that word advisedly – his focus in 1860-61 was on those issues as driving secession, he was in a very small minority. In fact, he issued a speech/pamphlet in connection with the Fort Sumter Crisis in which his repeatedly-expressed concern about federal/northern “power” was uniformly tied to slavery, the Fugitive Slave Law, etc. As I suggested earlier in a closing sentence….

        • John Foskett January 20, 2015 / 9:04 am

          Nobody’s debating whether there was opposition to the Tariff. But we’re getting away from the core issue – what was the “heat” that drove secession/civil war,/caused things to “boil over” following Lincoln’s election. There;’s simply nothing showing that the tariff/revenues/how revenues would be distributed was a “heat”-inducing factor factor. Hence its complete subordination to slavery-related issues/wholesale absence in the words of secession’s promoters. The hotly-contested election of 1860 featured two wings of the Democratic Party. The platform of neither mentioned this subject, while the platforms of both contained provisions directly tied to slavery. In fact, the candidate of the northern wing was a vigorous opponent of the Morrill Tariff. Yet his platform said nothing about it. That speaks volumes.

          • M.D. Blough January 20, 2015 / 10:39 am

            Also, there was very little chance that the Morrill Tariff would have passed Congress if almost all of the Representatives and Senators representing the states which had already joined the rebellion at the time of its passage hadn’t already resigned. It wasn’t just a matter of votes but in removing critical opponents of the Morrill Tariff’s passage. Furthermore, the President who signed it into law and who could have vetoed it instead was James Buchanan, not Abraham Lincoln.

            Remember that James Otis’s famous cry was “Taxation WITHOUT representation is tyranny.” (Emphasis added). For most of the first half of the 19th Century, the slave states and their Northern Democratic allies not only were fully represented in Congress, they dominated all three branches of government. The last tariff passed before the Morrill Tariff, the Tariff of 1857, put the rates so low and exemptions so high that many in the free states, whether rightly or wrongly, blamed the Tariff of 1857 for the panic of that year and the ensuing depression in the North.

            Finally, in his September 28, 1828, letter to Joseph Cabell (written at the beginning of the tariff controversy that culminated in the Nullification Crisis), James Madison definitively rebutted the idea that protective tariffs were unconstitutional (of course the South had no objections to tariffs on sugar and hemp and most slave states supported the continuing ban on the African slave trade which would have undercut prices in the overheated interstate internal slave trade). His reasoning is quite detailed and can hardly be squeezed into a short quotation. Anyone who is interested in reading it can find it at http://www.constitution.org/jm/18280918_cabell.htm.

            Finally, leading fireaters, including Lawrence Keitt (who was later killed in action as a Confederate officer at the Battle of Cold Harbor), denied during their secession conventions that tariffs had anything to do with secession. As Keitt bluntly stated during the speeches (there really wasn’t a debate, per se on WHETHER to rebel):

            >>Mr. KEITT. I agree with the gentleman from Richland, that the power of taxation is the central power of all governments. Put that power into my hands, and I care very little what the form of government it is; I will control your people through it. That is the question in this address. We have instructed the Committee to present a summary of the reasons which influenced us in the action we have now taken. My friend from Richland said that the violation of the Fugitive Slave Laws are not sufficient, and he calls up the Tariff. Is that one of the causes at this time? What is that cause? Your late Senators, and every one of your members of the House of Representatives, voted for the present tariff. [Mr. Miles. I did not.] Well, those who were there at the time voted for it, and I have no doubt you would, if you were in it. The question of the tariff did agitate us in 1832, and it did array this State against the Federal Government.

            I maintain, and do always maintain, that this State triumphed then. Mr. Clay said, before nullification, that the protective tariff system had been established for all time. After the Nullification Ordinance, Mr. Clay did say that the State had accomplished the destruction of that system, and that the State had triumphed. The history of that time has never been written. It is true, we were cheated in the compromise; and really, sir, in what single compromise have we not been cheated? My opinion is, that the State of South Carolina and every other Southern State have been dealing with faithless confederates.

            But the Tariff is not the question which brought the people up to their present attitude. We are to give a summary of our causes to the world, but mainly to the other Southern States, whose co-action we wish, and we must not make a fight on the Tariff question.

            The Whig party, thoughout all the States, have been protective Tariff men, and they cling to that old issue with all the passion incident to the pride of human opinions. Are we to go off now, when other Southern States are bringing their people up to the true mark? Are we to go off on debateable and doctrinal points? Are we to go back to the consideration of this question, of this great controversy; go back to that party’s politics, around which so many passions cluster? Names are much — associations and passions cluster around names.

            I can give no better illustration than to relate an anecdote given me by a member from Louisiana. He said, after the election of Lincoln, he went to an old Whig party friend and said to him: We have been beaten — our honor requires a dissolution of the Union. Let us see if we cannot agree together, and offered him a resolution to this effect –Resolved, That the honor of Louisiana requires her to disrupt every tie that binds her to the Federal Government. [Laughter.]

            It is name, and when we come to more practicability we must consult names. Our people have come to this on the question of slavery. I am willing, in that address to rest it upon that question. I think it is the great central point from which we are now proceeding, and I am not willing to divert the public attention from it. I believe the address, in this respect, cannot. The gentlemen from Chesterfield (Mr. Inglis) says that certain constructions of the Act of Pennsylvania are denied. He might have gone further and have said that certain constructions of the Personal Liberty Bills are denied. I have never seen any Abolitionist yet who did not say that these Acts had no reference to fugitive slaves.

            I, myself, have very great doubts about the propriety of the Fugitive Slave Law. The Constitution was, in the first place, a compact between the several States, and in the second, a treaty between sections, and, I believe, the Fugitive Slave Law was a treaty between sections. It was the act of sovereign States as a section; and I believe therefore, and have very great doubts whether it ought not have been left to the execution of the several States, and failing of enforcement , I believe it should have been regarded as a causi belli.

            I go for the address, because, I believe it does present succinctly and conspicuously what are the main primary causes.<<

    • chancery January 18, 2015 / 6:09 pm


      I’m tempted to wonder whether you can point to any evidence that import duties were “largely paid by Southerners.”

      • Stefan Jovanovich January 19, 2015 / 5:11 am

        Thanks for giving in to the temptation. I put things badly; I should have written that the Southerners and many others thought.that the Southerners’ exports for cash were the source of the specie that paid the import duties. The U.S., then as now, had a negative flow of currency; even with the discovery of gold in California, more coin was being sent to America than exported from it. What the U.S. also had then was dependency on foreign credit for much of its internal dealings; the bills of exchange that businesses relied on for trade were largely from foreign banks or their New York counter-parties. The Southerners were the only people who were selling stuff abroad for “cash”. Therefore, said the consensus opinion, it was the Southerners’ coin that ended up paying roughly 90% of the Federal government’s expenses in 1850s. It is the reason that Wood, as the Mayor of New York, thought the city needed to secede from both the United States and the rest of New York State.

    • neukomment January 19, 2015 / 10:12 am

      So when the Secession Commissinsers ran around urging other slave states to seceed, did they argue that the reasons for doing so was tariff issues and Republican patronage?

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