I've just finished Doris Kearns Goodwin's Team of Rivals. The presentation of the book suggested that the Southern states seceded as a response to Lincoln's election.

I am confused by that timing: Lincoln seemed to have a very moderate anti-slavery position. He was staunchly opposed to the expansion of slavery to new states, but even years later did not believe that slavery could be interfered with in states where it was established (except as a war power; or unless there was a constitutional amendment).

  • Was the timing of secession and Lincoln's election a coincidence?
  • Were the states reacting to Lincoln as a person, or just to the election of a Republican?
  • If they were reacting to Lincoln as a person, what was it about him that provoked them?
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    Does the answer(s) to Why did the southern states secede from the U.S.? answer your question?
    – T.E.D.
    May 6, 2017 at 17:15
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    An additional point to recognize is that the South considered the further expansion of slavery to new states to be vital. If new states came in as free states, then eventually the South would be outvoted and slavery taken from them. So opposing the expansion of slavery was seen as tightening a noose around the South. Check this source out for the exact reasons they gave when declaring secession civilwar.org/learn/primary-sources/… . It contradicts most of the revisionist history about the civil war not being over slavery.
    – Joel
    May 7, 2017 at 22:01
  • @Joel I have to say that that's the answer that makes the most sense to me, because Lincoln was adamant on the expansion question, and adding only free states would tip the balance of power long term. I also wondered if they felt they needed a larger market in which to sell slaves.
    – adam.baker
    May 8, 2017 at 9:54

7 Answers 7


The tensions between North and South had been growing since long before Lincoln was elected. While it is true than many in the South believed that Lincoln supported the forced suppression of slavery, his election as a Republican president was simply the trigger for secession.

The story of John Brown's raid on Harper's Ferry in Virginia in October 1859 explains a great deal. Brown had planned to instigate a major slave rebellion in the South, but the raid was poorly planned and ill equipped (less than 20 men without adequate rations). Although the raid was doomed from the outset (he and his men were captured within 2 days), the response from many in the North was widespread admiration.

Brown was hanged for his actions in the raid, but came to be seen as a martyr by many in the North, including the popular poet, Ralph Waldo Emerson. This just fuelled the flames of outrage in the South.

Although the Republican party condemned Brown and the raid on Harper's Ferry, many individuals within that party did not. Again, this caused further outrage in the South. Several Southern politicians blamed the Republican Party for the attack and (falsely) claimed that that Abraham Lincoln supported Brown's intentions. Fake news is not a new phenomenon! As a result, the idea of Abraham Lincoln as President became intolerable to many in the south.

Both sides were becoming more and more polarised. Moderate voices on both sides were silenced (or perhaps simply not reported - moderate opinion rarely sells newspapers!)

Some of the key milestones on the road that led to the secession of the Southern states are discussed on this site, and are well worth reading.

For Abraham Lincoln's opinions on the subject of secession, this site, maintained by the National Park Service is also worth a read.

I'd also recommend watching the first episode of Ken Burns' 1990 documentary series The Civil War. Actually, I'd recommend watching the whole series. In my opinion, one of the best television documentaries ever made.

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    Upvote for sources.
    – MCW
    May 6, 2017 at 11:52
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    This is a great answer, but just to focus it a bit: are you saying that the election of any Republican would have prompted the same response?
    – adam.baker
    May 6, 2017 at 17:24
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    @adam.baker Very probably. It's likely that, whoever the Republican candidate was, Southern politicians would have claimed they supported Brown's intentions. However, it is also possible that another President might have accepted the secession as the Southern states' right under the Constitution. That's the problem with counter-factual history. It's all supposition. May 6, 2017 at 17:33
  • You could have written that last sentence "I'd recommend watching ANYTHING by Ken Burns" I really enjoyed "The Civil War" for it's ability to tell the stories of the Civil War from the perspective of the people living it at the time.
    – A Bailey
    May 18, 2017 at 17:45
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    @ABailey It would have been true too, but in this context I thought it better to be specific. May 18, 2017 at 18:01


Slavery and state's rights were an existential issue for the South; they could no longer contemplate "compromise" or "moderation".

From before the foundation of the Republic, there was an existential tension between the Southern vision of the future and the Northern vision of the future. The only thing keeping them together was the desire to be independent and the leadership of politicians. Their positions on slavery and states rights diverged even more sharply in the pre-war period.

From the South's point of view, there was no such thing as a moderate anti-slavery position. They believed that slavery was culturally and economically vital to their existence; they believed that the North would continue to undermine and eliminate their peculiar and essential institution. More importantly than that, if the North demanded to control the South to the extent of destroying this institution, then there was no limit to what the North would do. From the South's point of view, "moderate anti-slavery" was like "a moderate bit of cyanide" - on existential issues, one cannot be moderate.


Nо, the timing of secession and Lincoln's election are not coincidence, and Southern states were not reacting to Lincoln as person; they were reacting to political platform of winning party.

Southerners were threatening succession in 1856, if Republican Fremont elected president.

Obviously threats of secession from southern states if Fremont were elected had frightened a considerable number of conservative northern voters

The 1856 Presidential Election

During 1850 crisis (ended with compromise), Mississippi state convention declared what actions (toward the slavery) would trigger state resistance and possible secession; among them:

  1. The passage of any law by Congress prohibiting slavery in any of the territories

Journal of the convention of the state of Mississippi, and the act calling the same, Pg 20

After 1860 election, it was very possible that such law would be passed, and not vetoed by president. Instead of fighting this in Congress, Southerners (at the urge of fire-eaters) decided on immediate extralegal secession and formed new country with slavery constitutional perpetuation.

UPDATE: Forgot to mention, that prohibiting slavery on federal territories was major plank of Republican platform, in both 1856 and 1860

  • @Mark C. Wallace Done; sources added Jun 4, 2017 at 4:06
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    As Lincoln himself pointed out in an 1860 speech, Congress had been voting on and deciding the disposition of slavery in Federal Territories since 1789 when the first Congress to sat under the constitution. (In that case, prohibition in the NW Terr.) So it is not true that voting on the disposition slavery in Federal Territories was a change in status quo. [edchange.org/multicultural/speeches/… I believe the OP is asking whether there was an imminent change in status quo as a result of Lincoln's election, and I think your answer does not address that. Jun 6, 2017 at 1:22
  • @Craig Hicks There are 3 very specific questions in OP; I was just answering them. Your implication is that “OP is asking whether there was an imminent change in status quo as a result of Lincoln's election”; I don’t see it, and we can ask him (adam baker) to clarify. Jun 6, 2017 at 23:12
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    @Craig Hicks Speaking about status quo: after slavery prohibition in the NW Terr., status quo was changed multiple times (by Missouri compromise, Kansas-Nebraska act, Dred Scott decision); so election of president whose platform prohibits slavery in all territories was dramatic status-quo change in 1860. Jun 6, 2017 at 23:13

In 1860, with 40% of the vote, Abraham Lincoln won a victory in the electoral college by sweeping nearly all of the Northern states, as well as the two Western states (California and Oregon). Not a single "Southern" state voted for Lincoln, and yet suddenly this abolitionist was declared President. Yes, the South wanted to save the institution of slavery, but they were also tired of the relatively wealthy and semi-industrialized North dictating politics, culture and morality to the poorer and largely agricultural South. Talks of secession had been brewing for years; Lincoln's purely Northern election was merely the straw.

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    Confederacy Vice President Alexander Stephens:: "Our new government is founded upon exactly the opposite ideas [to the US constitution]; its foundations are laid, its cornerstone rests, upon the great truth that the negro is not equal to the white man; that slavery, subordination to the superior race, is his natural and normal condition. This, our new government, is the first, in the history of the world, based upon this great physical, philosophical, and moral truth. This truth has been slow in the process of its development, like all other truths in the various departments of science." May 7, 2017 at 5:32

Lincoln, like the majority of the North, likely believed that abolishing slavery would lead to civil war, and so did not consider it a practical option. Of course, once the South seceded and initiated the Civil War, that impediment to abolishing slavery vanished.

So your question is well founded - it seems that secession and initiating civil war was counter to the South's aim of preserving slavery, so why did it happen?

The answer to that lies in balance of Free and Slave states. Even before Lincoln's election, the balance in senate had shifted in favor of free states. While Lincoln's election posed no immediate threat to slavery, it certainly emphasized the fact that slavery was already an anachronism headed for extinction.

It is often seen human nature to blame others for your own problems. The South blamed the North for the fact that slavery was doomed. Just consider, if the South had won the civil war, would there still be slavery in the South? Definitely not.


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It's important to understand just how little support Lincoln had in the south. This map shows the proportion of the population voting for Lincoln. The results on this map are hard to fathom with a modern understanding of politics. It wasn't that a huge majority of Southerners didn't want Lincoln, it was almost unanimous. In a two party system where candidates usually move towards the middle and have somewhat similar opinions and broad appeal, it was shocking to see a leader with no support in the South. Obviously the results would be very different if a huge portion of the southern population were not held in bondage and denied suffrage, but slaves were not consulted about the decision to secede. Southern voters were, and they saw Lincoln's election as a very clear symbol of how different the interests of the union government were from the interests of southern voters.


Question: Why did Lincoln's election prompt the Southern states to secede? I am confused by that timing: Lincoln seemed to have a very moderate anti-slavery position. He was staunchly opposed to the expansion of slavery to new states, but even years later did not believe that slavery could be interfered with in states where it was established (except as a war power; or unless there was a constitutional amendment).

Successions began(Nov 10 1860) when South Carolina became the first state to leave the union before Lincoln even took office(Mar 4, 1861). I think Lincoln's election(Nov 6, 1860) was part of the provocation, perhaps the lesser part. The Republican party was founded to end slavery and the election of a President even a moderate one empowered the radicals who made up the majority of his party. It was an affront to southern political leaders who had fought a generational battle over slavery with northern politicians. This generational struggle had radicalized both factions.

Besides that, and perhaps the greater provocation was the result of Kansas Nebraska's statehood. The Kansas Nebraska Act was at first heralded as a victory for the South. It proclaimed for the first time popular sovereignty would decide if states entered the union as slave or free. Prior to this act statehood was bestowed in pairs to keep the slave/ free state equilibrium in the senate in tact. This ensured the slave states could protect slavery from federal action. After this act it eventually became apparent when given a choice new states would all choose to be free and not slave. This is because the settlers for these states overwhelmingly came from the more populous north, or from Europe where slavery was already illegal. Also the blue collar manual laborers who overwhelmingly went west, saw slaves as competition for jobs.

The south fought a losing 7 year war in bleeding Kansas in an attempt to coerce an pro slavery popular mandate but ultimately failed. In April of 1860 the US House of Representatives had voted on a state constitution previously ratified by the Kansas state legislature. One of the final acts for Kansas to achieve statehood. This constitution would make Kansas a free state. The South blocked Kansas's admission with their votes in the Senate, but that was always going to be a short term solution. When it became apparent the South would not be able to continue to block Kansas, the die was cast.

This is what symbolized for Lincoln and the South the beginning of the end of Slavery. The vast western territory was going to yield another 7 states and all of them were likely to be free states. The South's power and influence to protect slavery was broken and it was only going to get weaker. Slavery would end, whether Lincoln ended it in 1861 or not and everybody knew it. That is ultimately why the South seceded. It is also why you view Lincoln as a moderate. The North had won, Lincoln's only moderation was his unwillingness to fight a war, the most costly war in american lives in order to end it a decade or two earlier. It is why for Lincoln, the civil war was about preserving the union and not ending slavery. Because thanks to Kansas Nebraska preserving the Union was synonymous with ending slavery. For the south this meant either leave the union or give up slavery. Else slavery would die a death of a thousand cuts as it would be undefended on Capital hill. Likely even more bitter than that for southern leadership was to lose the bitter generational war they had waged with the north in the political arena.


  • April, 1860 the U.S. House votes to admit Kansas under the Wyandotte Constitution (free state)
  • November 6, 1860 Lincoln is elected
  • November 10, 1860 South Carolina leads 11 states into succession freeing the senate deadlock to admit Kansas.
  • January 29, 1861 Kansas enters the Union as a free state
  • March 4, 1861 Lincoln's inauguration (when he takes office).
  • April 12, 1861 - battle of fort Sumpter the first shots of the American civil war are fired.

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