Special to The Globe
The Republic had not even survived a century.
So it was in 1860, when Abraham Lincoln was elected president. The country founded on the declaration that all men are endowed with “certain unalienable rights” was splintering over a question its forefathers, despite their collective wisdom, had been unable to solve – slavery.
“I tremble for my country when I reflect that God is just, that his justice cannot sleep forever,” wrote Thomas Jefferson, a slave owner and author of the Declaration of Independence, who personified the contradiction at America’s heart.
Compromises in 1820 and 1850 avoided fracturing the nation. But the 1854 Kansas-Nebraska Act and a slave case out of Missouri during the period undid those compromises and put slavery on a course that would have it expand, not contract, as its opponents hoped.
Deciding the fate of a slave named Dred Scott, the U.S. Supreme Court declared blacks “had no rights which a white man was bound to respect.”
It had become impossible for the nation to live any longer with this Jeffersonian contradiction.
Lincoln told the nation it must answer the question of “whether the Negro is not or is a man ...”
“If he is not a man ... he who is a man may, as a matter of self-government, do just as he pleases with him,” Lincoln argued in Peoria, Ill., in 1857. “... But if the Negro is a man ... why then, my ancient faith teaches me that ‘all men are created equal,’ and that there can be no moral right in connection with one man making a slave of another." In February 1861, following Lincoln’s election, delegates from seven Southern states made good on their threats of secession. More states would follow.
Lincoln made his case in his inaugural address the following month, as war loomed: “Plainly, the central idea of secession, is the essence of anarchy.”
Yet even then he referred to secessionists as “countrymen” and appealed to their shared memories and experiences, which he said stretched from every patriot grave to every living heart.
“In your hands, my dissatisfied fellow countrymen, and not in mine, is the momentous issue of civil war ... You have no conflict, without being yourselves the aggressors. You have no oath registered in heaven to destroy the government, while I shall have the most solemn one to preserve, protect and defend it.”
His vow of protection would extend to an island in the mouth of Charleston, S.C., harbor, where stood a masonry fort with a name honoring one of those patriot heroes: Thomas Sumter. Quick Fact: Becoming Their Enemy
South Carolina’s “Declaration of Secession” cited Abraham Lincoln’s election in 1860 and noted: “The slaveholding states will no longer have the power of self-government, or self-protection, and the federal government will have become their enemy.” Photos
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Abraham Lincoln (Library of Congress)