In February 1854, at a school house in Ripon, Wisconsin, some discontented Northern Whigs held a meeting with antislavery Democrats and Free-Soilers to form a new political party. On July 6, the new Republican Party was formally organized in Jackson, Michigan.

Among its founders was Horace Greeley. The Republican Party was united in opposing the Kansas-Nebraska Act and in keeping slavery out of the territories. Otherwise, it embraced a wide range of opinions. The conservative faction hoped to resurrect the Missouri Compromise. At the opposite extreme were some radical abolitionists. The Republican Party’s ability to draw support from such diverse groups provided the party with the strength to win a political tug of war with the other parties.

The main competition for the Republican Party was the Know-Nothing Party. Both parties targeted the same groups of voters. By 1855 the Republicans had setup party organizations in about half of the Northern states, but they lacked a national organization. Then, in quick succession, came the fraudulent territorial election in Kansas in March 1855, and the sack of Lawrence, the Pottawatomi massacre, and the caning of Sumner in 1856. Between “Bleeding Kansas” and “Bleeding Sumner,” the Republicans had the issues they needed in order to unite antislavery vote and challenge the Democrats


On June 16, 1858, the Republican Party of Illinois nominated its state chairman, Abraham Lincoln, to run for the U.S. Senate against Democratic incumbent Stephen A. Douglas. That night Lincoln launched his campaign with a ringing address to the convention. It included a biblical quotation.

A house divided against itself cannot stand.’ 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 . . . or its advocates will push it forward, till it shall become alike lawful in all the States, old as well as new, North as well as South.

A self-educated man with a dry wit, Lincoln was known locally as a successful lawyer and politician. Elected as a Whig to one term in Congress in 1846, he broke with his party after the passage of the Kansas-Nebraska Act in 1854 and became a Republican two years later.


As the senatorial campaign progressed, the Republican Party decided that Lincoln needed to counteract the “Little Giant’s” well-known name and extensive financial resources. As a result, Lincoln challenged Douglas to a series of seven open-air debates to be held throughout Illinois on the issue of slavery in the territories. Douglas accepted the challenge, and the stage was set for some of the most celebrated debates in U.S. history.

The two men’s positions were simple and consistent. Douglas believed deeply in popular sovereignty, in allowing the residents of a territory to vote for or against slavery. Although he did not think that slavery was immoral, he did believe that it was a backward labor system unsuitable to prairie agriculture. The people, Douglas figured, understood this and would vote Kansas and Nebraska free. However, Lincoln, like many Free-Soilers, believed that slavery was immoral—a labor system based on greed. The crucial difference between the two was that Douglas believed that popular sovereignty would allow slavery to pass away on its own, while Lincoln doubted that slavery would cease to spread without legislation outlawing it in the territories.

In the course of the debates, each candidate tried to distort the views of the other. Lincoln tried to make Douglas look like a defender of slavery and of the Dred Scott decision. In turn, Douglas accused Lincoln of being an abolitionist and an advocate of racial equality. Lincoln responded by saying,

I am not, nor ever have been, in favor of bringing about in any way the social and political equality of the white and black races.” He did, however, insist that slavery was a moral, social, and political wrong that should not be allowed to spread.

In their second debate, held at Freeport, Lincoln asked his opponent a crucial question. Could the settlers of a territory vote to exclude slavery before the territory became a state? Everyone knew that the Dred Scott decision said no—that territories could not exclude slavery. Popular sovereignty, Lincoln implied, was thus an

empty phrase. Douglas’s response to Lincoln’s question became later known as the Freeport Doctrine. Douglas contended, “Slavery cannot exist a day or an hour anywhere, unless it is supported by local police regulations.” If the people of a territory were Free-Soilers, he explained, then all they had to do was elect representatives who would not enforce slave property laws. In other words, regardless of theory or the Supreme Court’s ruling, people could get around the Dred Scott decision.

Douglas won the Senate seat, but his response had worsened the split between the Northern and Southern wings of the Democratic Party. As for Lincoln, his attacks on the “vast moral evil” of slavery drew national attention, and some Republicans began thinking of him as an excellent candidate for the presidency in 1860.


The results of the Chicago Republican convention, surprised the whole nation. Abraham Lincoln, who despite the famous debates during his failed senatorial campaign, was a relative unknown beat Senator William H. Seward to become the Republican nominee.

Three major candidates vied for office in addition to Lincoln. The Democratic Party split over the issue of slavery. Northern Democrats backed Stephen Douglas and his doctrine of popular sovereignty. Southern Democrats backed Vice-President John C. Breckinridge of Kentucky. Former Know-Nothings and Whigs from the South, along with some moderate Northerners, organized the Constitutional Union Party, which ignored the issue of slavery altogether. They nominated John Bell of Tennessee.

Lincoln emerged as the winner, but like Buchanan in the previous election, he received less than half the popular vote. In fact, although Lincoln defeated his combined opponents in the electoral vote by 180 to 123, he received no electoral votes from the South at all. Unlike Buchanan, Lincoln had sectional rather than national support, carrying every free state but not even appearing on the ballot in most of the slave states. The outlook for the Union was grim.

Lincoln’s victory convinced Southerners that they had lost their political voice in the national government. Fearful that Northern Republicans would submit the South to what noted Virginia agriculturist Edmund Ruffin called “the most complete subjection and political bondage,” some Southern states decided to act. South Carolina led the way, seceding from the Union on December 20, 1860. Four days later, the news reached William Tecumseh Sherman, superintendent of the Louisiana State Seminary of Learning and Military Academy. In utter dismay, Sherman poured out his fears for the South.

This country will be drenched in blood…[T]he people of the North… are not going to let the country be destroyed without a mighty effort to save it. Besides, where are your men and appliances of war to contend against them? . . . You are rushing into war with one of the most powerful, ingeniously mechanical and determined people on earth—right at your doors. . . . Only in spirit and determination are you prepared for war. In all else you are totally unprepared.”
—quoted in None Died in Vain

Even Sherman underestimated the depth and intensity of the South’s commitment. For many Southern planters, the cry of “States’ rights!” meant the complete independence of Southern states from federal government control. Most white Southerners also feared that an end to their entire way of life was at hand. Many were desperate for one last chance to preserve the slave labor system and saw secession as the only way. Mississippi followed South Carolina’s lead and seceded on January 9, 1861. Florida seceded the next day. Within a few weeks, Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana, and Texas had also seceded.

On February 4, 1861, delegates from the secessionist states met in Montgomery, Alabama, where they formed the Confederacy, or Confederate States of America. The Confederate constitution closely resembled that of the United States. The most notable difference was that the Confederate constitution “protected and recognized” slavery in new territories. The new constitution also stressed that each state was to be “sovereign and independent,” a provision that would hamper efforts to unify the South.

Jefferson Davis

On February 9, delegates to the Confederate constitutional convention unanimously elected former senator Jefferson Davis of Mississippi as president and Alexander Stephens of Georgia as vice-president. Davis had made his position clear, noting that to present a show of strength to the North, the South should “offer no doubtful or divided front.” At his inauguration, Davis declared, “The time for compromise has now passed.” His listeners responded by singing “Farewell to the Star-Spangled Banner” and “Dixie.”

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