From the very founding of the nation, the North and the South were different in almost every way. They wore their hair differently, liked different bands, and even pronounced the word "creek" differently. They were as different as night and day.
Economically and politically, the South revolved around the institution of slavery and an agricultural economy that relied on slave labor. They were in the people business, you might say. By contrast, the North was less rural and depended more on free labor. It had also 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. This would destroy, in the eyes of southern plantation owners at least, the South's very way of life. Since we have the advantage of hindsight, we know that that was a well-founded concern. Before too long, those planters were going to have to get out there in the fields and do a little back-breaking work of their own. Or pay someone to do it, or whatever.
The Constitution, ratified in 1787, provided for some protections of the institution of slavery but also prohibited the importation of slaves after 1808. States north of the Mason-Dixon Line, the border between Maryland and Pennsylvania, began to outlaw slave labor by the first half of the nineteenth century. Now, the word "outlaw" makes it sound a bit more glamorous than it really was. There weren't any northern slave-owners named things like "Buckin' Bill Hucklehammer" who were on the run, just one step ahead of the authorities. It wasn't quite as "Butch Cassidy" as all that.
As tensions rose, political leaders hoped to reduce the soon-to-be boiling conflict to a low simmer. Their solution was to come up with the Missouri Compromise of 1820. It had the word "compromise" right in its name, so it was bound to work. As part of the Compromise, northern leaders accepted Missouri into the Union as a new slave state on the condition that another newbie state, Maine, come in as free territory. It was sort of like picking teams for dodge ball, except slaves definitelydid not want to be picked for the team on the southern end of the court.
The Compromise of 1850 (it had been a good 30 years since the last one), 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 and free states. It was a tit-for-tat scenario, basically, and the only real goal was to keep the scales from tipping too far in one direction.
Still, these compromises did not prevent divisions from growing deeper. In some cases, they actually made things even worse, like that bug bite on your foot. Oh, sure, it feels great to scratch it now,but just wait a week. You'll see.
For instance, the Fugitive Slave Act, a stipulation in the Compromise of 1850, required free states to assist in the capture of runaway slaves seeking asylum in free regions. The free North despised this law and the power it gave to the South. There were insults flung that we dare not repeat.
The South based many of its complaints on the doctrine of "states' rights." The Constitution had tried to create a middle ground between a strong federal government and individual states with enough freedom to make most decisions for themselves. Yes, that even included Florida, which to this day still hasn't moved out of America's basement. 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, foreign policy, and…not much else. Today, our Indian affairs department is slightly smaller.
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. Okay, so they didn't actually cry out "Give us states' rights or give us death!" as they rushed into battle. It just didn't have to same ring to it as "Yee-haw!"
When Abraham Lincoln beat three other candidates for the presidency in 1860 primarily due to his wicked jujitsu moves, the die was cast. Lincoln was not even on the ballot in nine southern states, so his victory was seen as the North cruelly imposing its will on the South. The South didn't like feeling shamed and marginalized, as if all of their major life decisions were being made for them, as if they weren't free to decide one measly thing without…okay, you see where we're going with this.
Lincoln himself was a moderate on the issue of slavery (say what?), and many northerners feared that he wasn't enough of an abolitionist for their tastes. His most famous speech, given in 1858, declared that "a house divided cannot stand," and Lincoln, with the aid of maybe a crystal ball, rightly predicted that America could not endure "half-slave and half-free." He denied that the first quote had anything to do with the White House remodel he had ordered, but we've seen the invoice.
During the campaign, though, Lincoln tried hard to keep the peace. He repeatedly insisted that he would not violate the doctrine of states' rights to impose northern sentiments on the South, but few in the South believed him. It was one of those things you say when you're running for President, like "I won't raise taxes," "I'm going to eliminate the debt," or "No, I never joined any socialist clubs in college." If we had a nickel for every fulfilled campaign promise, well…let's just say we wouldn’t be quitting our day jobs.
Within days of Lincoln's election, South Carolina seceded from the Union in a glorious temper tantrum, declaring that it was no longer under the jurisdiction of the federal government of the United States. Basically, they picked up their toys and went home. When six other states followed South Carolina's lead, the Confederate States of America were formed with Jefferson Davis of Tennessee as its president. Oh, great. This was really going to complicate the history books.
After his inauguration as President on March 4, 1861, Lincoln warned the South that secession was illegal under the Constitution and that he would declare war against the rebelling states if necessary. At the very least, he'd make sure their secession licenses were suspended. By April 1861, both sides were mobilizing for armed conflict. Blood pressures were high, threats were made, and no one wanted to take a time out or a reflective nap. War seemed inevitable.
The Revolutionary War wasn't actually won by the Americans alone. It was won by American soldiers and French ships. Wait. Why are we suddenly going back in time like some sort of magical time traveling Shmoop? Stay with us.
The United States had backers during the Revolution. Anyone who had beef with Britain (everyone) was in a hurry to help chip away a lucrative piece of their empire. In addition to the French and their ships, Spain provided cash money and ammunition, and the Netherlands gave the new American nation really big payday loans to keep them fighting. The South was keeping its fingers crossed that, eighty years later, the major powers of Europe would intervene again and decided to back them. After all, is someone really a friend if he doesn't have your back for at least a century?
The South hoped that 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 grind to a halt. We can all appreciate how rough it would be on the British if they couldn't have their turtlenecks and cardigans.
For that reason, Britain should have had a major interest in supporting the South, at least according to the South. France also had some interest in keeping the U.S. divided since a warring America would have allowed them to continue meddling in Mexico undisturbed. Everyone was waiting to see which horse to bet on, though. They watched and waited for one major southern victory, withholding aid until the South proved they could win the race. Without their help, however, the South could never quite manage to win that all-important victory. Well, that's certainly not going to help them overcome their daddy issues.
For the North, foreign diplomacy meant keeping European powers from intervening in the war on the southern side by preventing them from winning any decisive battles that might turn the heads of any would-be European backers.
When it became clear later in the war 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. He also considered suspending the writ of hoboas corpus, which was the right of homeless persons to a hot meal, but he ultimately decided that might be pushing it. It would have been a bad public relations move.
Lincoln's actions meant that the Union could arrest citizens who were suspected southern sympathizers and hold them without a trial, or visitors, or cupcake day in the prison cafeteria. Needless to say, it was a controversial decision. Lincoln always maintained that it was an unfortunate but necessary measure to save the Union, and no one did more saving of the Union than Lincoln. That guy was a superhero in a stovepipe hat.
By 1864, after three bloody and inconclusive years of war, many in the North were fed up with the struggle and wanted peace. War and death are fun and all, but sometimes you just need a break, and plenty of people saw the war as Lincoln's fault. This is why the election of 1864 was a close race, with Lincoln winning reelection by only a small margin. In fact, we heard they even had to go to the Photo Finish camera, and it turns out Lincoln only won by the tip of his rather sizeable shnoz.
The Democrats, who demanded peace, had nominated General George McClellan to run against the Republican Lincoln. McClellan was a popular general whom Lincoln had fired in 1862 for failing in his duties, but it seems that where one door closes, another one opens.
With Lincoln's popularity waning, McClellan attacked the president's handling of the war and even questioned its goals. Lincoln eventually resorted to somewhat nefarious tactics. We imagine he likely cackled maniacally and drummed his fingertips together, but there is no evidence to support it.
We know that he did, however, give soldiers in swing states the day off on Election Day, hoping they would go to the polls to vote for him. Sly dog. General Sherman's capture of Atlanta, an important victory that boosted northern support of the war, ultimately saved Lincoln's campaign and tuckus. We're confident Sherman got a really big bonus for that one, or at least a pat on the back and a $10 Starbucks gift card. Maybe it was a plaque. We don't know.
Looking haggard and worn after bossing a war for four long years (at least that's what Abe told himself about all that gray hair), Lincoln delivered his Second Inaugural Address on March 4, 1865. In it, he affirmed his commitment to winning the war and restoring peace to the nation. He also resolved to fit back into his size 32 jeans, but that one he kept to himself.
"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."
In modern translation: "Okay, you guys. Seriously. This is getting ridiculous."
A month later, on April 9, 1865, General Robert E. Lee surrendered to Grant in Appomattox Court House, Virginia. We'd surrender too if we heard a speech like that one.
Just five days later, on April 14, 1865, Lincoln and his wife Mary Todd drove to Ford's Theater on 11th street in Washington, D.C. to watch a play called Our American Cousin. They were usually big theater lovers, but this one didn't exactly get a glowing review from them.
The city of Washington was in a state of euphoria since Lee had surrendered and the war seemed to be over. As Lincoln sat in his box seats relaxing and taking in the show with the wifey, things went downhill fast. Actor John Wilkes Booth, a southern sympathizer and not the world's greatest actor from what we hear, snuck into the box and shot Lincoln in the head. Cue: hysteria.
Booth then jumped from the balcony onto the stage, breaking his ankle in the process. (Karma's rough, Booth.) He hobbled to the front of the stage and shouted in his loudest stage voice, "Sic semper tyrannus!" which is Latin for "Thus always to tyrants!" It's too bad he had just assassinated the president because it really was the most believable delivery he'd ever made on stage. Stanislavsky would have been proud, except for the cold-blooded murder part. Booth wisely fled the theater.
Twelve days later, after the largest manhunt in American history, Booth was shot and killed in a burning barn. We don't know if Booth was raised in a barn, but he certainly died in one.
After the attack, 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. In the South, there might have been a party or two, but we can't swear to it.
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 dark cloud over victory. It was like winning the Super Bowl but losing the star quarterback in a freak victory dance accident, but a lot worse. That is, unless we're talking about Tom Brady or Peyton Manning, in which case it's pretty close.