For what reasons did seven southern states secede from the Union shortly after Lincoln's election in 1860?

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The Southern states wrongly believed that Lincoln was planning to abolish slavery outright. In actual fact, the Republican Party platform on which Lincoln was elected was merely opposed to the spread of slavery. But to most Southerners, this was bad enough, and they genuinely feared the worst. As slavery was...

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The Southern states wrongly believed that Lincoln was planning to abolish slavery outright. In actual fact, the Republican Party platform on which Lincoln was elected was merely opposed to the spread of slavery. But to most Southerners, this was bad enough, and they genuinely feared the worst. As slavery was the linchpin of Southern society and the Southern economy, a growing consensus quickly emerged that the South should secede from the Union in order to protect its way of life.

The Southern states justified their secession on the grounds of protecting states' rights. But in actual fact, there was only one right they were seeking to protect, and that was the right to maintain the institution of slavery. They felt that that institution was under threat with the election of Lincoln, so they seceded and, in doing so, precipitated the Civil War.

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The American Civil War was the culmination of more than a century of debate in the United States regarding the institution of slavery. An abolitionist movement comprised primarily of Quakers emerged in North America during the 17th century and the issue of slavery was heatedly and repeatedly debated during the Constitutional Conventions with the division between northern and southern colonies already taking shape. The seeming intractability of the issue resulted in it remaining unresolved. The South’s intransigence forced the northern states to accede, at least temporarily, to southern demands in the interest of developing a sense of national unity among the colonies.

While slavery was the key issue dividing the North from the South, the broader issue of “states’ rights” provided the foundation for much of the political debate that took place during the 19th century. What that means is that a debate over the power of the federal or central government relative to the power enjoyed by the individual states remained highly divisive, with slavery representing the single most pressing “state right.” The southern states remained adamant that they be allowed to continue to own slaves because the region’s agricultural industry profited from the free labor. As the 19th century progressed, however, the abolitionist movement in the North grew and pressure from Britain, which outlawed slavery in 1833, to similarly ban the practice also increased.

The election of Abraham Lincoln to the presidency served as a final warning to the South that the Union’s patience with the South over the issue of slavery had exhausted itself. Slavery was only finally abolished with the Emancipation Proclamation signed by President Lincoln—a proclamation rejected by the southern states. The Civil War ended the matter in the North’s favor.

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