By Charles A. Morse
web posted March 26, 2001
Abraham Lincoln was the nation's greatest president because he saved the Republic from it's gravest crisis. In the process of doing so, he abolished the barbarous institution of slavery. Lincoln confronted an extensive conspiracy to destroy the Union and through the force of his leadership, personality, perseverance, and courage, he saved the day. While Lincoln condemned slavery, he viewed it as a states right at the time of his election in 1860. This raises questions concerning why, upon his election, some states chose to secede from the Union.
Lincoln on February 5, 1865
The issue of slavery was pulling the nation apart in the decades leading up to the secession crisis of 1860-1861. There was a growing awareness that slavery, the idea of a human being owning another human being as property, was immoral and contradicted stated American precepts. The practical maintenance of slavery was requiring an expansion of federal power. Slave states, while advocating states rights, demanded federal intervention in support of slavery.
The Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 required federal marshals to hunt down and arrest slaves who had escaped to free states. In Boston, soldiers battled an angry crowd who were trying to stop the arrest of an escaped slave. A policemen was killed in the melee and the escaped slave was hauled back to captivity. Essentially, slavery was extended into the free states through federal enforcement. This added fuel to the abolitionist fire.
The Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854 gutted laws going back to the Northwest Ordinance, enacted by the pre-Constitution Articles of Confederation, which prohibited slavery in certain territories. After 1854, all territories could choose slavery which led to virtual war in Kansas between pro- and anti- slave forces. As a result of the infamous Dred Scott decision of 1857, by the Supreme Court, no Black, slave or free, living in a slave or free state, had any rights at all. This was the most blatant act of judicial activism in American history.
Slavery, over time, resulted in the development of two separate cultures and economies. Slave states tended to be agrarian with wealth and power concentrated in the hands of large plantation owners. Free states increasingly industrialized and experienced an emerging middle class with the proliferation of small business and small property ownership. Civil War historian Bruce Catton quotes Lincoln on the cause of secession: "[C]ombinations too powerful to be suppressed by the ordinary machinery of peacetime government had assumed control of various Southern states."
Based on contemporary writings, Lincoln was most likely referring to the Knights of the Golden Circle, a secretive fraternal organization that counted amongst it's over 65 000 members, the "brains" of the south as well as influential northerners. KGC founder, Dr. George W.L. Bickley derived the name for his organization from his plan to create a huge slaveholding empire stretching from the southern states through Mexico and Central America and circling Cuba in the center. Bickley stated that if Lincoln was elected president, "Washington, not Mexico, would become the target."
Britain and France positioned themselves to enter the war on the side of the South. Britain sent 11 000 troops to Canada while France installed Archduke Maximilian as emperor of Mexico. French troops were poised on the Texas border. America was encircled. Lincoln responded with a naval blockade and a military alliance with Russia. Russian ships would make their way to New York and San Francisco harbors.
Lincoln also faced draft riots in major northern cities the most deadly occurring in Manhattan. Pro- southern Copperheads, with ties to the Confederate KGC, conspired to create a "Northwest Confederacy" in Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, Minnesota and Michigan by seizing federal arsenals and releasing Confederate prisoners. Lincoln stated "The enemy behind us is more dangerous to the country than the enemy before us."
Lincoln, before being sworn in as president, was faced with the rebellion of eleven southern states. He faced a subversive conspiracy in the north that would make the Communist conspiracy of the 20th century look like child's play. He faced a military threat from Britain and France, the world's two superpowers at the time, both of whom were siding with the insurrection. He was also faced with intrigue from the international banking establishment, a subject that will be covered at a later date. Lincoln faced down all of these threats and triumphed. He was an indispensable man and we owe him an enormous debt of gratitude.
Chuck Morse is the author of Thunder out of Boston which you can buy at Amazon.com.