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The War of Northern Aggression

Roundup
tags: slavery, Civil War



James Oakes teaches American History at the CUNY Graduate Center. His latest book is "The Scorpion's Sting: Antislavery and the Coming of the Civil War."

On November 6, 1860, the six-year-old Republican Party elected its first president. During the tense crisis months that followed — the “secession winter” of 1860–61 — practically all observers believed that Lincoln and the Republicans would begin attacking slavery as soon as they took power.

Democrats in the North blamed the Republican Party for the entire sectional crisis. They accused Republicans of plotting to circumvent the Constitutional prohibition against direct federal attacks on slavery. Republicans would instead allegedly try to squeeze slavery to death indirectly, by abolishing it in the territories and in Washington DC, suppressing it in the high seas, and refusing federal enforcement of the Slave Laws. The first to succumb to the Republican program of “ultimate extinction,” Democrats charged, would be the border states where slavery was most vulnerable. For Northern Democrats, this is what caused the crisis; the Republicans were to blame for trying to get around the Constitution.

Southern secessionists said almost exactly the same thing. The Republicans supposedly intended to bypass the Constitution’s protections for slavery by surrounding the South with free states, free territories, and free waters. What Republicans called a “cordon of freedom,” secessionists denounced as an inflammatory circle of fire.

The Southern cooperationists — those who opposed immediate secession — agreed with the secessionists’ and Northern Democrats’ analysis of Republican intentions. But they argued that the only way the Republicans would actually have the power to act on those intentions was if the Southern states seceded. If the slave states remained within the Union, the Republicans would not have the majorities in Congress to adopt their antislavery policies. And if the South did secede, all bets would be off. The rebellious states would forfeit all the constitutional protections of slavery. The South would get something much worse than a cordon of freedom. It would get direct military intervention, leading to the immediate and uncompensated emancipation of the slaves.

The slaves themselves seem to have understood this. They took an unusual interest in the 1860 election and had high hopes for what Lincoln’s victory would mean. They assumed that Lincoln’s inauguration would lead to war, that war would bring on a Union invasion of the South, and that the invading Union army would free the slaves. ...

Read entire article at Jacobin


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