Historian: Slavery key issue in days before Civil War began

By W. WINSTON SKINNER winston@newnan.com The central issue that led to the Civil War was slavery -- with regional differences in the concept of liberty and a unique presidential election as catalysts, as well. "The main political issue dividing the nation was slavery," said Dr. Gordon L. Jones of the Atlanta History Center. Speaking in the restored Coweta County Courthouse's main courtroom on Monday evening. Jones said slavery as a political issue "in itself is indicative" of other issues that were dominant in the political landscape of that time.
Jones' talk was the first event sponsored by the local Civil War Sesquicentennial Committee. Jones described the Civil War as "the seminal event in American history, the seminal event in determining the country we live in today." Jones said 1860 was "probably the most volatile year" politically in U.S. history. For the first and only time, "the political structure put in place by the U.S. Constitution fails to contain the political strife," he said. "The political system breaks down." In 1861, there were 11 Southern states that left the Union -- leading to the Civil War. "The issue of whether slavery should be allowed in the western territories" had been an ongoing political issue for several decades, Jones explained. The 1820 Missouri Compromise set an arbitrary line -- allowing new territories to have slavery below that line but not above it. In 1854, the Kansas-Nebraska Act was passed -- allowing the voters in those areas to choose or reject slavery, even though Kansas was north of the Missouri Compromise line. "There was a possibility it (Kansas) would be entered as a slave state," Jones said. Kansas-Nebraska "really cuts to the issue of what we are as Americans," he said. Supporters of both sides of the slavery argument sent people to Kansas in an effort "to get enough voters to decide the issue." The Republican Party -- "the only successful third party in American history" -- was formed "to oppose the idea of popular sovereignty," Jones said. He said the early Republicans did not oppose slavery but simply the concept that people in each state might choose to vote for or against slavery. Two politicians from Illinois, Stephen Douglas and Abraham Lincoln, championed opposite sides of the popular sovereignty issue. Douglas was an urbane, longtime U.S. senator who stood five feet, four inches and weighed about 90 pounds. He was known as "the little giant." Tall, gangly Lincoln was "a self-educated lawyer whose entire political experience up to that time had been four terms in the Illinois legislature and one term in the U.S. Congress," Jones said. The tenor of the entire nation was "white supremacist," Jones said. The voices for full Civil Rights for blacks were few. The idea of freedom for those in slavery was one that evolved for Lincoln, but even early in the process he "sees something more significant at stake" than many of his peers, Jones observed. Many politicians said that the references to "all men" in the Constitution were meant to refer to white men only. Lincoln questioned that somewhat -- noting there were those opposing the wave of immigrants who would also exclude people born abroad and Catholics. "Fundamentally, it's a question of rights and liberties," Jones said. "Who gets to play the game? Who gets to participate? Who's in? Who's out -- and why?" Outside the South, the idea of "natural rights" was taking form. This concept stated "a man should be able to profit from the fruit of his own labors," Jones said. In 1856, the Dred Scott decision by the U.S. Supreme Court found Scott, a slave who lived in a free state, was not free. Roger Taney, chief justice, "resoundingly said 'no,'" Jones said. The ruling stated Congress had no right to regulate slavery in the territories, which opposed what Lincoln and the Republicans believed. "What Lincoln and the Republicans are afraid of is the slave power conspiracy," Jones explained. That concept suggested slaveholders intended to make all the United States -- perhaps even the entire hemisphere -- a place where slavery would flourish. In 1859, abolitionist John Brown led an attack on the armory at Harper's Ferry -- in what was then Virginia, now West Virginia. "Some would call him fanatic. He was a little bit mentally disturbed," Jones said. Brown and a group of 21 men -- white and black -- sought to get guns from the arsenal and distribute them to slaves -- their intention being to spur an insurrection. "In this way, slavery would be ended by the slaves themselves," Jones said. "You couldn't think of anything that would send more fear through the white population" in the South. Brown's effort failed, and he was hanged. It was later discovered that six wealthy people had bankrolled Brown's plan -- which Southerners saw as emblematic of "a conspiracy of the abolitionists to take over their country," Jones said. The speaker explained that the concept of liberty in America at the time -- particularly in the South -- did not preclude the idea of owning slaves. Most white Americans saw blacks as "not quite human," Jones said, and Southerners viewed slaves as property, much as they did cattle or oxen. Constitutional protections of property were invoked by Southern slaveholders. Also, there was the idea that "you as a free man can only maintain your freedom if you are not beholden to anyone who can influence your vote," Jones said. The goal was to "be your own man, own your own land, own your own farm," he said. To make that concept reality, white landowners required "this servile laboring class." As 1860 arrived, there was a realization among Southerners that -- to survive -- slavery must expand. The limitation on slavery in new states meant there could eventually be enough free states to pass a Constitutional amendment eliminating slavery. The feeling of many Southerners was, "If you take away our slaves, we will be enslaved," Jones said. They felt that -- without slaves -- they would be "unable to live the American dream" as envisioned by their fathers and grandfathers, he explained. The 1860 election offered four presidential candidates -- Lincoln, Douglas, John C. Breckinridge and John Bell. Lincoln was not on the ballot in the South. The Democrats split on the issue of whether Congress should intervene to preserve slavery. The Northern Democrats did not favor that idea, and Douglas was their candidate. One of his campaign planks was to annex Cuba, which would "perhaps allow the slave state another slave state," Jones said. Breckinridge, who had been James Buchanan's vice president, was the Southern Democratic candidate. Bell's Constitutional Union Party had as its sole plank "the preservation of the Constitution" and "the enforcement of laws," Jones said. There was "a very intense election" with "a sharply divided electorate," Jones said. A total of 85 percent of the potential voters participated in balloting. The two Democratic candidates got 47 percent of the electoral votes, but Lincoln got 38 percent. In Southern eyes, "a purely regional candidate representing purely regional interests" was headed to the White House, Jones said. "The election of Lincoln was like a thunderbolt in the South." In Georgia, Gov. Joseph Emerson Brown called for a meeting in Milledgeville. The essential question was whether to secede immediately or see how the situation would unfold. Brown feared Lincoln would use federal appointments to push an end to slavery, while Alexander Stephens suggested Lincoln's power would be checked by federal legislators. Thomas R.R. Cobb argued the election was invalid because there were votes from Northern states openly flouting the Fugitive Slave Act and votes by black voters not -- in his view -- allowed by the U.S. Constitution. The Georgia leaders left Milledgeville without making a decision -- only to return on Jan. 19, 1861, to vote for secession. "When the South does secede, it's seen as an act of treason by the North," Jones said. The feeling in the South was: "We formed the new nation. We can dissolve the new nation." Some of the basic issues from that time -- who may participate politically, who is entitled to protection under the law -- are still around, Jones noted. "We need to remember and think about those issues," he said. The Coweta Courthouse courtroom was packed with a standing room only crowd of about 220 for Monday's talk. Jan Bowyer, who chairs the sesquicentennial committee, noted the courthouse is located on the site of a previous courthouse -- around which temporary hospital facilities were erected during the Civil War. Jones praised the restoration of the courthouse. "This is a treasure," he said.

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