The Civil War
The Civil War
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Politics in The Civil War

Looking at the Past Through the Lens of Politics

A House Divided

From the very founding of the nation, the North and the South were different in almost every way. Economically and politically, the South revolved around the institution of slavery and an agricultural economy that benefited from slave labor. By contrast, the North, less rural and depending far more on free labor, had become the industrial and financial center of the country by the early nineteenth century. As the abolitionist movement gained strength in the North, the South became increasingly concerned that the North would find a way to put an end to slavery, thus destroying—in the eyes of southern plantation owners—their very way of life.

The Constitution, ratified in 1787, provided for some protections of the institution of slavery, but also prohibited the importation of slaves after 1808. By the first half of the nineteenth century, states north of the Mason-Dixon Line, the border between Maryland and Pennsylvania, began to outlaw slave labor. Political leaders hoped to temper the brewing sectional conflict. In the Missouri Compromise of 1820, northern leaders accepted into the Union a new slave state, Missouri, on condition that another addition, Maine, gain statehood as a free territory. The Compromise of 1850, in which politicians negotiated the status of territory gained after the Mexican-American War (1846-1848), was also aimed at maintaining the balance of power in Congress between leaders of slave states and of free states. Still, these compromises did not prevent divisions from growing deeper, and in some cases further facilitated the rift. For instance, the Fugitive Slave Act, a stipulation in the Compromise of 1850, required free states to assist in the capture of runaway slaves who might seek refuge in those regions. The free North despised this law and the power it gave to the South.

The South based many of its grievances on the doctrine of "states' rights." The Constitution aimed to carve a middle ground between a strong federal government and the freedom of individual states to make decisions for themselves. In fact, the federal government before the Civil War looked nothing like the federal government of today; almost all decisions were made at the state level, with the government in Washington responsible for the army, Indian affairs and foreign policy, and not much else. As time went on, the doctrine of states' rights—a founding principle upon which the United States was established—became the battle cry of the South in its struggle to prevent the North from imposing anti-slavery measures upon it.

When Abraham Lincoln beat three other candidates for the presidency in 1860, the die was cast. Lincoln was not even on the ballot in nine southern states so his victory was seen as the North imposing its will on the South. Lincoln himself was a moderate on the issue of slavery, and many northerners feared that Lincoln was not enough of an abolitionist for their tastes. His most famous speech, given in 1858, declared that, "A house divided cannot stand," and promised that America could not endure "half-slave and half-free." Still, during the campaign, he repeatedly insisted that he would not violate the doctrine of states' rights and impose northern sentiments on the South. Few in the South believed him.

Within days of Lincoln's election, South Carolina seceded from the Union, declaring that it was not under the jurisdiction of the federal government of the United States. When six other states followed South Carolina's lead, the Confederate States of America were formed with Jefferson Davis of Tennessee as its president. After his inauguration as President of the United States on 4 March 1861, Abraham Lincoln warned the South that secession was illegal under the Constitution and that he bring war against the rebelling states if necessary. By April 1861, both sides were mobilizing for armed conflict and war seemed inevitable.

The War and Diplomacy

The Revolutionary War was won by American soldiers and French ships. Spain provided money and ammunition, and the Netherlands gave the new American nation large loans to keep them fighting. The South had good reason to hope that eighty years later, the major powers of Europe would intervene on their side. The South hoped cotton would be the key to European aid. Its leaders knew that with no cotton coming from southern fields, the textile mills of Britain would shut down. Britain, then, should have had a major interest in supporting the South. France had some interest in keeping the U.S. divided, since a warring America would allow the French to continue meddling in Mexico undisturbed. Throughout the war, the European powers watched and waited for one major southern victory, withholding aid until the South proved they could win the war. Without help from abroad, however, the South could never quite manage to win that all-important victory.

For the North, foreign diplomacy meant keeping European powers from intervening in the war on the southern side. Later in the war, when it became clear that Europe was going to stay out of the conflict, the North focused its attention on domestic politics. Always fearful of the threat of southern sympathizers in northern states, Lincoln, for the first time in American history, used his authority to suspend the writ of habeas corpus—the right of prisoners to a trial. Thus, the Union could arrest citizens who were suspected southern sympathizers. It was a controversial decision at the time, but Lincoln always maintained that it was an unfortunate but necessary measure to save the Union.

The Election of 1864

By 1864 after three bloody and inconclusive years of war, many in the North were fed up with the struggle and wanted peace. For this reason, in the election of 1864 was a close race, with Lincoln winning reelection by only a small margin. The Democrats, who demanded peace, nominated General George McClellan to run against Lincoln, the Republican candidate. McClellan was a popular general whom Lincoln had fired in 1862 for failing in his duties. But with Lincoln's leadership waning, McClellan attacked the president's handling of the war, and even questioned its goals. Lincoln eventually resorted to somewhat nefarious tactics. For instance, in swing states he released soldiers from their duties on election day hoping they would go to the polls to vote for him. Ultimately, General Sherman's capture of Atlanta, an important victory that boosted northern support of the war, saved Lincoln's campaign.

The End Comes

Looking haggard and worn after bearing the burdens of war for four long years, Abraham Lincoln delivered his Second Inaugural Address on 4 March 1865. In it he committed himself to winning the war and restoring peace to the nation. "With malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right," he said, "let us strive on to finish the work we are in, to bind up the nation's wounds, to care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow and his orphan, to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations." A month later, on 9 April 1865, General Robert E. Lee surrendered to Grant at Appomattox Court House, Virginia.

Just five days later, on 14 April 1865, President Lincoln and his wife Mary Todd Lincoln drove to Ford's Theater on 11th street in Washington, D.C. to watch a play called Our American Cousin. The city of Washington was in a state of euphoria since Lee had surrendered and the war seemed to be over. But as Lincoln sat in his box watching the show, actor John Wilkes Booth, a southern sympathizer, snuck into the box and shot Lincoln in the head. Booth jumped from the balcony onto the stage, breaking his ankle in the process, walked to the apron and shouted in his loudest stage voice, "Sic semper tyrannus!" ("Thus always to tyrants!") He then fled the theater and, twelve days later, after the largest manhunt in American history, was shot and killed in a burning barn.

Lincoln was carried to a nearby house where he died the next morning. An unprecedented period of national mourning ensued—at least in the North. Millions of people watched as the special train carried the president's body from Washington, D.C. to his final resting place in Illinois. In the North, Lincoln's assassination cast a pall over victory.

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