SAN JOSE, Calif., April 18, 2016 – Over 150 years ago, American citizens were in a state of grave uncertainty over the future of the nation by mid-April. Tensions had increased in the United States over the drastic action of the first of the seven southern states that seceded from the Union in what seemed to be a protest over Abraham Lincoln’s election as president of the United States.
Lincoln had traveled with his family and friends from Springfield, Illinois, in February for his inauguration on March 4. On that date, the new president had delivered an incredibly impressive inaugural address, famed for the conciliatory nature of handling such a national and constitutional crisis.
Lincoln’s inaugural address was intended to set a tone for his coming administration with a point blank attention to the issue of slavery and the divisiveness it had caused. Lincoln directed most of his speech toward the southern people and explained that the Republican Party still supported the right of individual states to determine the issue of slavery without coercion from any government. But the leaders in the Deep South did not believe him. Their course had been set, and on April 12, 1861, the nation learned of the terrible course the Confederacy had decided upon. On that day in Charleston, South Carolina, Confederate leadership initiated the most deadly war in which Americans have ever fought.
The election of Abraham Lincoln as president seemed to force entrenched white southern slave owners out of the shadows, “out of the closet.” Just after the election of 1860, leaders in South Carolina began orchestrating the secession of the seven southern states. In that time, it just seemed to be a protest over Abraham Lincoln’s election. In that time, the world was waiting and watching for Lincoln’s reaction. His inaugural address was meant to assure the southern community that he respected their rights under the Constitution. In all honesty, it would not have mattered to the Confederacy what Lincoln promised or what he said about national unity.
In Lincoln’s address, he promised that he would not use force against the Confederacy; yet he clarified that, if it became necessary for him to fulfill his obligation to “hold, occupy, and possess the property and places” belonging to the U.S. government, he would do so. He also promised that, while his administration would never attack the Confederacy first, if the Confederate States attacked the U.S., there would be an armed and forceful response. In the Deep South, especially in South Carolina, it seemed like a challenge, not an assurance.
Ironically, although many of the newspapers in northern states had praised Lincoln’s inaugural address, and today historians look at it as a masterpiece, a newspaper in South Carolina, the Charleston Mercury denounced Lincoln’s address as a speech of “insolence” and “brutality.” The newspaper attacked the Federal government as “a mobocratic empire.” It is quite revealing that slavery was so pervasive in the South that any hint of a threat to the established political structure and culture could not be tolerated, despite how eloquent or reasoned the words.
Down in the Deep South, at the time of the construction of the Confederacy, the newly elected officials were already proclaiming their values and expressing their ideals. On Feb. 18, 1861, only six days after Lincoln’s birthday, Jefferson Davis had delivered his own inaugural address as the new president of the Confederate States of America. Davis did not hesitate to repudiate the concept that “all men were equal.” Alexander Stephens, the vice president of the Confederacy, in a speech on March 21, 1861, proclaimed that there “scientific proof” existed that the black man was not equal to the white man. In essence, the political leaders came out of the closet to demonstrate their true colors and express values that were totally opposite of declared American values.
These deep-seated internal values had pre-existed the American War for Independence by at least 160 years. Slavery was introduced into North America in 1615 and was accepted by most in the British colonies before the War for Independence and tolerated in America after the Articles of Confederation went into effect. Yet it only took less than four score years after independence for such hypocrisy to be challenged by a president who appeared to the white southern aristocracy to be their most serious threat to their fiefdoms in the Deep South. Such deep beliefs had not been eradicated during the American Revolution; they were shaken, but they did not die.
The initial and enduring fight over the wording of the Declaration of Independence is a very good example in and of itself of the struggle to retain the “right to own” human beings. From 1776 and through the mid-1800s, there were many wealthy families in the Deep South that did not honestly share the ideals of the founding fathers – especially the belief that “all men were created equal” as expressed in the Declaration of Independence. Their forefathers had not believed in what Jefferson wrote, and their rationale was that all “free men” were created equal – it had nothing to do with slaves. This was reiterated by Jefferson Davis after he resigned his U.S. Senate seat and became the main leader of the insurrection.
It was Jefferson Davis who had advocated secession and approved the attack on Fort Sumter; yet he was just the point man for what the white southern aristocracy intended to do. As long as no one “rocked the boat” of southern tyranny, all had remained fairly calm. Yet this man Lincoln was saying that Jefferson and the Founders actually meant what they said in the Declaration of independence. In June 1857, after the Dred Scott Decision, Lincoln responded to the Supreme Court’s decision that he felt was erroneous:
Chief Justice Taney, in his opinion in the Dred Scott case, admits that the language of the Declaration of Independence is broad enough to include the whole human family, but he and Judge (Stephen) Douglas argue that the authors of that instrument did not intend to include negroes.
I think the authors of that incredible instrument intended to include all men, but they did not intend to declare men equal in all respects.
[but] …equal in certain ‘inalienable rights among which are life. Liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.’ This they said, and this they meant.
Unfortunately, the Confederacy, aware of Lincoln’s beliefs, answered the words of his inaugural address in a most dramatic and destructive way and rejected his words of reconciliation. It is clear that, if Americans started to actually believe the Founding Fathers had meant what they said in the Declaration and America was actually founded upon such self-evident truths, the white southern aristocracy would soon be doomed. So, the Confederacy was formed and it was forced to respond to Abraham Lincoln in the only way they felt that was left open to them: armed aggression to defend their “rights.”
While March 31, 1861, saw Easter Sunday come and calmly pass, less than two weeks later, all hell broke loose in the United States. The American Civil War exploded with the bombardment of Fort Sumter in the harbor of Charleston, South Carolina. On April 12 Charleston shore batteries under the command of Gen. Pierre G. T. Beauregard commenced firing on the federal fort, which initiated the most deadly war America has ever fought. The fort fell into the hands of the Confederates two days later, when Major Robert Anderson surrendered.
The time of words had passed — war had begun!