Secession and Civil War

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What event prompted Southern states to secede from the Union?

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The event that caused the Southern states to secede was Abraham Lincoln's victory in the election of 1860. This election, contested by four separate presidential candidates, was ultimately divided along sectional lines, with Abraham Lincoln dominating the northern states while John Breckinridge won the South. As Abraham Lincoln and the Republican Party were known for their opposition to slavery, the South responded by seceding.

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The election of Abraham Lincoln as president, without one vote in favor from a southern state, was the key event in a long series of events that ultimately led to war. However, it was not until his inauguration in March of 1861, when he emphasized that war could be averted depending on the actions of the South, that the war actually began.

Tensions had been building within the country for a long time before the Civil War actually began. In fact, conflict from the abolitionists, primarily of the North, and the slave owning states of the South can clearly be seen in the writings of prominent abolition supporters such as Emerson and Thoreau in the decade leading up to the war (Thoreau’s “Slavery in Massachusetts” essay of 1854 is one example).

Several events exacerbated the tensions and ultimately led to war. The Mexican-American war was extremely polarizing with regard to slavery. America’s victory in that war led to the conquest of vast new territories that nearly doubled the size of the country and intensified debates about which states could or could not ban slavery. At the conclusion of the war, the Wilmot Proviso sought to ban slavery in all the territories the U.S. won in the war. The proviso never passed, but it spurred a debate between North-South interests that sparked serious talk of the south’s secession from the nation. John Brown’s raid at Harpers Ferry, Virginia, in October of 1859, which incited an uprising to end slavery, was another element that moved the nation closer to a violent resolution of the North-South conflict.

When Abraham Lincoln was elected with no support from the South in November of 1860, the southern states saw it as a clear sign that they had no voice in national politics and regulations and that their interests were too different from those of the Union.

However, the war did not begin immediately after Lincoln's election, although in the next few months seven states would secede from the Union, and the South would form the Confederate States of America on February 4, 1861.

In Lincoln's inauguration on March 4, 1861, he sent a clear message of his intention to preserve the Union, and the war broke out just a few short weeks later. Lincoln said:

“In your hand, my fellow countrymen, and not in mine, is the momentous issue of civil war. The government will not assail you. You can have no conflict without being yourselves the aggressors. You have no oath in Heaven to destroy the government, while I shall have the most solemn one to preserve, protect, and defend it … We are not enemies, but friends. We must not be enemies. Though passion may have strained, it must not break our bonds of affection. The mystic chords of memory, stretching from every battlefield and patriot grave, to every living heart and hearthstone, all over this broad land, will yet swell the chorus of the Union, when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature.”

The war began on April 12, 1861. Soldiers from the newly-formed Confederates States of America attacked Fort Sumter, South Carolina.

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Secession was instigated by the results of the 1860 election, won by Abraham Lincoln of the Republican Party. This election actually saw four separate candidates, with the Democratic Party split between Stephen Douglas and John Breckinridge (the later of whom had the support of the South). Finally, there was a Constitutional Union Party which ran candidate John Bell. This election was decided along sectional lines, with Breckinridge sweeping most of the south while Lincoln dominated the North. Stephen Douglas, who finished second behind Lincoln in the popular vote (Lincoln won approximately forty percent of the popular vote), actually finished last in the electoral college.

For the South, secession ultimately boiled down to their defense of slavery. Remember, the election of 1860 should not be isolated from the larger political context that preceded it: it ultimately represented the culmination of an extended political and ideological struggle that ran across the entire decade of the 1850s and saw a series of confrontations between opponents and defendants of slavery. At the same time, Lincoln and the Republican Party were well-known for their opposition to slavery. The southern states responded by seceding from the United States, beginning with South Carolina in December of 1860. They formed the Confederate States of America. This was the political crisis that led to the Civil War.

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It was the election of Abraham Lincoln as president which caused the Southern states to secede. Lincoln was elected president on November on November 6, 1860, and secession began just a few weeks later: South Carolina went first, on December 20, followed by Mississippi on January 9, 1861, and then by Florida on the next day.

For the Southern states, secession from the Union was about saving slavery. They felt that Lincoln wanted to bring this practice to an end and they were prepared to take extreme action to prevent this from happening. By the time of Lincoln's inauguration, for instance, seven of the Southern states had already seceded from the Union and war was just one month away. 

Lincoln's personal views on slavery were, therefore, one of the most important causes of the Civil War. 

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The event that caused the Southern states to secede was the election of Abraham Lincoln as the President of the United States. 

The presidential election of 1860 was held on November 6th.  By December 20th, South Carolina became the first state to secede.  Many others followed in January.  The reason for this was that the South felt that Lincoln’s election meant the end of slavery.  While Lincoln was personally opposed to slavery, he felt that the US government did not have the right to ban it.  However, Southerners were certain that he would move to end slavery.  They were also unhappy about the fact that Lincoln was elected even though he did not get any votes in the South.  They felt that this showed that they had lost all power in the country and that the North would eventually ban slavery.  Because they felt that they had lost power and would have abolition imposed upon them, the seceded.  The event that was the immediate cause of this was the election of Abraham Lincoln.

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