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An Open Declaration of War: The South’s Exploitation of Lincoln the Abolitionist

During the build up to secession in 1860, and through the Secession Winter in 1861, many of the Southern slave states claimed that President-Elect Abraham Lincoln’s ultimate goal was to destroy slavery. Though Lincoln denied it, did the South have a point? Was Lincoln really willing to start a war to abolish slavery or were pro-slavery politicians deceiving the Southern people by playing into their racial prejudices and fear of equality for black Americans?

“Abolition Has Triumphed!” – Southern Fear Mongering After the Election

“He stands forth as the representative of the fanaticism of the North, which, for the last quarter of a century, has been making war upon the South, her property, her civilization, her institution, and her interest,” insisted Alabama’s secession commissioner, Stephen Hale, speaking before Kentucky’s legislature. And worst of all, Lincoln, along with the Republican Party rested “its claims to popular favor upon the one dogma, the equality of the races, white and black.”

A pictorial envelope urging the southern slave states to unite as it was the only way to preserve slavery.
A pictorial envelope urging the southern slave states to unite as it was the only way to preserve slavery.

The election of Lincoln, a Republican, was “nothing less than an open declaration of war, for the triumph of this new theory of government destroys the property of the South, lays waste her fields, and inaugurates all the horrors of a San Domingo servile insurrection, consigning her citizens to assassinations and her wives and daughters to pollution and violation to gratify the lust of the half-civilized Africans.” 1Stephen Hale, secession commissioner from Alabama, to Buriah Magoffin, Governor of Kentucky, December 27, 1860. Printed in Journal of the Senate of the Commonwealth of Kentucky (Kentucky Yeoman Office, 1861) 24.

Though Lincoln had repeatedly claimed that he had no plans to change slavery in the states where it already existed, the vast majority of Southern politicians weren’t buying it. Many believed that if Lincoln’s election were allowed to stand, the South would be “blighted – cursed with Black Republican politics and free negro morals, to become a cesspool of vice, crime and infamy!” 2Speech by John Jones Pettus, Governor of Mississippi, to the state Congress. Printed in Encyclopedia of Mississippi History, Vol. 2, edited by Dunbar Rowland (Selwyn A. Brant, 1907) 636.

“Abolition has triumphed,” fumed Jabez Curry, a lawyer and orator from Alabama. “The vox populi which created and must uphold Lincoln’s administration will still have the mastery, the development of northern ideas, the security of northern power, and the destruction of African slavery. The institution of slavery is put under the ban, proscribed, and outlawed.” 3Jabez L.M. Curry, “The Perils of Duty of the South,” Speech delivered in Talladega, Alabama, November 26, 1860. As printed in Southern Pamphlets on Secession edited by Jon L. Wakelyn (University of North Carolina Press, 1996) 39.

Jabez Curry
Jabez Curry

Howell Cobb, a Georgia politician, penned an open letter to his entire state, urging it to leave the Union. He insisted that the Republican Party had but “one dogma… that is worthy of serious consideration.” This was “The doctrine of negro equality.” Cobb was furious that “the stereotyped expression in the Declaration of Independence that ‘All men are born equal,’ has been perverted from its plain and truthful meaning, and made the basis of a political dogma which strikes at the very foundation of the institution of slavery. Mr. Lincoln and his party assert that this doctrine of equality applies to the negro, and necessarily there can exist no such thing as property in our equals.” 4Howell Cobb, “Letter to the People of Georgia,” December 1860. As printed in Em>Southern Pamphlets on Secession edited by Jon L. Wakelyn (University of North Carolina Press, 1996) 90-91.

Even in the various Declaration of Causes, which explained specifically why they were leaving the Union, it wasn’t merely slavery, but Lincoln’s presidency specifically that was the reason.

“A geographical line has been drawn across the Union,”read South Carolina’s Declaration,”and all the States north of that line have united in the election of a man to the high office of President of the United States, whose opinions and purposes are hostile to slavery.” 5“Declaration of the Immediate Causes Which Induce and Justify the Secession of South Carolina from the Federal Union”. December 24, 1860. This can be found pretty much anywhere, but see here if you can’t find it.


Texas complained that for years, the people of the northern states proclaimed “the debasing doctrine of equality of all men, irrespective of race or color– a doctrine at war with nature, in opposition to the experience of mankind, and in violation of the plainest revelations of Divine Law.” The northern states demanded, said Texas, “the abolition of negro slavery throughout the confederacy [meaning the United States], the recognition of political equality between the white and negro races, and avow their determination to press on their crusade against us, so long as a negro slave remains in these States.” In Texas’ view, the states which elected Lincoln had “proclaimed, and at the ballot box sustained, the revolutionary doctrine that there is a ‘higher law’ than the constitution and laws of our Federal Union, and virtually that they will disregard their oaths and trample upon our rights.” 6A Declaration of the Causes which Impel the State of Texas to Secede from the Federal Union. December 29, 1860. Again, this can be found almost anywhere, but see here if you can’t find it.

These several examples are a minuscule portion of the volumes upon volumes written by pro-slavery secessionists between the period of Lincoln’s election in November of 1860, and when he took office in March of 1861. But why?

Lincoln statue in Freeport, Illinois.
Lincoln statue in Freeport, Illinois.

Lincoln’s Fluid Views on Race

To most of the nation, prior to his 1858 Senate run against Stephen Douglas, Lincoln was an unknown. In a way, his coming out was the “House Divided” speech. Given in June of 1858 immediately after accepting the Republican Party’s nomination for the Illinois Senate Seat, his rhetoric swiftly inflamed the South.

“A house divided against itself cannot stand,” he said. “I believe this government cannot endure, permanently, half slave and half free. I do not expect the Union to be dissolved — I do not expect the house to fall — but I do expect it will cease to be divided. It will become all one thing or all the other. Either the opponents of slavery will arrest the further spread of it, and place it where the public mind shall rest in the belief that it is in the course of ultimate extinction; or its advocates will push it forward, till it shall become lawful in all the States, old as well as new — North as well as South.” 7Abraham Lincoln, “A House Divided”: Speech at Springfield, Illinois, 16 June 1858, Collected Works, Vol 2 (Rutgers University Press, 1953) 461-69. The entire speech can be read here.

This introduction to Lincoln in 1858 was not forgotten in late 1860. South Carolina referenced it in their “Declaration of Causes,” as did the above-mentioned Jabez Curry. Despite Lincoln’s efforts to clarify his position, it was far too late. Nevertheless, many in the South understood, as Douglas had intimated, that Lincoln was going to abolish slavery in order to keep the Union whole. 8See Douglas’ Speech in Springfield, July 17, 1858. Along with flat out denying any such intention, Lincoln openly expressed his views on slavery during these debates. Too often for our ears, he hardly sounded like a radical abolitionist.

Lasting August through October in 1858, Lincoln and Douglas traveled to seven towns throughout Illinois, debating the issues of the time – mostly having to do with slavery. For instance, in the debate in Charleston, Illinois, Lincoln made his feelings on racial equality clear:

“I will say then that I am not, nor ever have I been in favor of bringing about in any way the social and political equality of the white and black races, – that I am not nor ever have been in favor of making voters or jurors of negroes, nor of qualifying them to hold office, nor to intermarry with white people; and I will say in addition to this that there is a physically difference between the white and black races which I believe will forever forbid the two races living together on terms of social and political equality.” (Ibid., 293.))

And yet, this was not enough to convince the South that, as Mississippi insisted in their Declaration of the Immediate Causes that Lincoln and the Republican Party “advocates negro equality, socially and politically…” 9“A Declaration of the Immediate Causes which Induce and Justify the Secession of the State of Mississippi from the Federal Union.” Journal of the State Convention, (Jackson, MS: E. Barksdale, State Printer, 1861), 86-88. Available here.

The Coles County Court House in Charleston, Ills., in which Lincoln often practiced law and before which he made a short speech in the evening after his fourth joint debate with Douglas, Sept. 18, 1858
The Coles County Court House in Charleston, Ills., in which Lincoln often practiced law and before which he made a short speech in the evening after his fourth joint debate with Douglas, Sept. 18, 1858

Lincoln, in the same speech in Charleston, claimed that while the races might remain together, “there must be the position of superior and inferior, and I as much as any other man am in favor of having the superior position assigned to the white race.” 10Political Debates, 207. And still the South refused to believe him.

Rather, and despite this white superiority, people such as South Carolina’s John McQueen, secession commissioner to Texas, broadly declared that Lincoln and his party would dominate the South “upon the single idea that the African is equal to the Anglo-Saxon, and with the purpose of placing our slaves on [a position of] equality with ourselves and our friends of every condition.” 11Charleston Daily Courier, December 29, 1860. As printed in Charles B. Dew Apostles of Disunion (University Press of Virginia, 2001) 48.

Again, we must ask why they would not take Lincoln at his word that he did not see the black man as an equal. They did not believe him when he promised in August of 1858 that he had “no purpose, directly or indirectly, to interfere with the institution of slavery in the States where it exists. I believe I have no lawful right to do so, and I have no inclination to do so.” 12Political Debates, 114. He would reiterate this sentence, often verbatim, over the next two years. And yet, by Secession Winter, it was as if he had never said it at all.


Remembering the Fear

By the time South Carolina seceded from the Union, Lincoln’s more conservative speeches were all but forgotten in the South. All that remained in the memories of pro-slavery secessionists were his House Divided Speech and his Chicago Speech – the latter possibly the most radical of Lincoln’s orations.

Curiously, the Chicago Speech was given between the House Divided Speech and the debates with Douglas. Nearly all of the criticism thrown at Lincoln by the pro-slavery secessionists during the winter of 1860-61 was based upon this speech.

The speech, given on July 10, 1858, was actually a response to Stephen Douglas’ critique of the House Divided Speech, given in the same forum the day previous. This was a chance for Lincoln to clarify his position – to either double down or soften his expressed views on both slavery and equality, on disunion and civil war.

Douglas focused upon two of Lincoln’s main points. First, he addressed the House Divided Speech. “Mr. Lincoln,” Douglas began, “advocates boldly and clearly a war of sections, a war of the North against the South, of the Free States against the Slave States, – a war of extermination, – to be continued relentlessly until one or the other shall be subdued, and all the States shall either become free or become slave.”

Stephen Douglas, 1858.
Stephen Douglas, 1858.

He also took issue with Lincoln’s opinion of the Dred Scott decision, in which the Supreme Court ruled that African-Americans could not be American citizens, and that the Federal government had no right to keep slavery out of the Federal territories. “I have no warfare to make on the Supreme Court of the United States,” Douglas claimed, going on to explain the court’s role given in the Constitution. He criticized Lincoln and the Republicans for even questioning the decision. “I respect the decisions of that august tribunal,” he mused, “I shall always bow in deference to them. I am a law-abiding man.” Douglas insisted that Lincoln disagreed with the decision “because it deprives the negro of the privileges, immunities, and rights of citizenship, which pertain, according to that decision, only to the white man.” Never one to hide his prejudices, Douglas held that the government had been “made by white men for the benefit of the white man.” 13Stephen Douglas, “Speech in Chicago, July 9, 1858.” As printed in Political Debates Between Abraham Lincoln and Stephen A. Douglas (The Arthur H. Clark Company, 1902.) 18-19.

In his rebuttle, given the following day, Lincoln addressed both of Douglas’ points. When Douglas had insisted that Lincoln was advocating war, Lincoln reiterated that he was not actually advocating anything at all in his House Divided Speech.

“Now, it is singular enough,” he replied, “if you will carefully read that passage over, that I did not say that I was in favor of anything in it. I only said what I expected would take place. I made a prediction only, – it may have been a foolish one, perhaps.”

Going farther, Lincoln clarified that he didn’t even say that “slavery should be put in course of ultimate extinction. I do say so now, however, so there need be no longer any difficulty about that.”

It was at that point exactly where Lincoln could have stopped and moved on to addressing the Dred Scott decision. Instead, he made clear his opinion on slavery, declaring and resolving that it should be put on a course to extinction. And he was not finished.

“I have always hated slavery, I think, as much as any Abolitionist,” said Lincoln. In the past, he had distanced himself from Abolitionists of any stripe. But now, though he wasn’t quite calling himself one, he was picking a side. In the past, he said, he had “always believed that everybody was against it, and that it was in the course of ultimate extinction.” Now, with the contest taken to the territories, he was admitting that he was wrong. Slavery was not actually on its way to extinction, but was expanding.

Lincoln then corrected Douglas’ assertion that he was “in favor of setting the sections at war with one another.” As he had said before, and as he would continue to say: “I believe there is no right, and ought to be no inclination, in the people of the Free States to enter into the Slave States, and interfere with the question of slavery at all.”

Of course, the Republican Party position understood that the Constitution allowed for slavery to exist as a states rights issue. Lincoln believed that nobody had the right to tell the Carolinas or Virginia that they could not have slaves. Instead, he and the Republicans wished to keep the institution from expanding into the territories that slavery might, essentially, choke itself to death, unable to grow. This was what was meant by putting slavery “on the road to ultimate extinction.”

Abraham Lincoln, 1858.
Abraham Lincoln, 1858.

When it came to the Dred Scott decision, Lincoln took no issue with the Supreme Court itself, but with “the sacredness that Judge Douglas throws around this decision.” It was “a degree of sacredness that has never been before thrown around any other decision.”

He then pitched into the decision itself. “It is a new wonder of the world,” he began. “It is based upon a falsehood in the main as to the facts; allegations of facts upon which it stands are not facts at all in many instances….”

Lincoln explained that the support of slavery was akin to the support of a tyrant king. It was the “same old serpent that says, ‘You work, and I eat; You toil, and I will enjoy the fruits of it.'” To him, it hardly mattered whether such rhetoric came from a king or an enslaver.

Still touching upon the Dred Scott decision, Lincoln wondered where the exceptions to the idea that “all men are equal,” as declared in the Declaration of Independence, would ultimately stop. “If one man says it does not mean a negro, why not another say it does not mean some other man?”

He understood that true equality was not something that could be gained overnight – perhaps not ever. This did not mean, however, that the nation as a whole should not strive toward it. “So I say in relation to the principle that all men are created equal, let it be as nearly reached as we can. If we cannot give freedom to every creature, let us do nothing that will impose slavery upon any other creature.”

Even in closing, he could not back down:

“Let us discard all this quibbling about this man and the other man; this race and that race and the other race being inferior, and therefore they must be placed in an inferior position; discarding our standard that we have left us. Let us discard all these things, and unite as one people through this land, until we shall once more stand up declaring that all men are created equal.” 14Abraham Lincoln, “Speech in Reply to Senator Douglas, July 10, 1858.” As printed in Political Debates Between Abraham Lincoln and Stephen A. Douglas (The Arthur H. Clark Company, 1902.) 22-33.

This was the Lincoln that pro-slavery secessionists would remember and fear. They would make no reference to his assurances that he would not touch slavery within the slave states, just as they reminded nobody of Lincoln’s admission that, in his opinion, the white race was superior. All they cared to see was his shades as a Radical Republican, an Abolitionist.

In the end, of course, the South was right. Lincoln became all that they feared he would. By war’s end, it was because of his administration that the slaves across the entire nation were free. His inertia lasted long enough to cause the passage of the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments. However, it was also these same anti-Lincoln, pro-slavery forces of the late 1850s that would regroup themselves in the late 1860s to undo nearly all that had been accomplished.

We must understand that while Lincoln’s opinion on slavery changed almost not at all through the late 1850s and Civil War years, his views on race were swiftly evolving. By the time of his assassination, he was even advocating for the right for black people to not only have citizenship, but to have the vote. When considering Lincoln, we must necessarily take him as he was – a man often full of contradictions, and a man who rarely said precisely what anyone wished for him to say.

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Has always had a love for history and the Civil War. During the 150th anniversary of the war, writing the Civil War Daily Gazette blog, which published daily for nearly five years. Wishing to continue the exploration, following the Charleston murders in 2015, and the activism around removing the Confederate Battle Flag, decided to dig a little deeper into the causes and repercussions of the War.