The Growing Secession Movement

November 7, 1860 – Citizens of Charleston, South Carolina raised the state’s palmetto flag in defiance of Abraham Lincoln’s victory in yesterday’s presidential election.

The South Carolina Flag | Image Credit:
The South Carolina Flag | Image Credit:

As news of Lincoln’s election reached local bulletin boards, mass hysteria swept the country. Northerners wondered if a Republican victory would mean disunion. Southerners crowded city streets and talked secession. Many of the most vocal secessionists gathered in Charleston, South Carolina.

When a Federal military officer tried transferring supplies from the Charleston arsenal to Fort Moultrie in the harbor, city authorities arrested him. Businesses closed down, and a judge announced to his court, “So far as I am concerned, the Temple of Justice raised under the Constitution of the United States is now closed. If it shall never again be opened I thank God that its doors have been closed before its altar has been desecrated with sacrifices to tyranny.”

That night, Charlestonians assembled in a torchlight parade that featured slaves carrying an effigy of Lincoln with a sign reading, “Abe Lincoln, First President Northern Confederacy.” The slaves hoisted the figure onto a scaffold, where people set it afire and watched as it was “speedily consumed amid the cheers of the multitude.” The next day the Charleston Mercury proclaimed, “The tea has been thrown overboard, the revolution of 1860 has been initiated.”

In Washington, President James Buchanan held a cabinet meeting to plan his annual message and discuss secession. Adhering to the Constitution’s founding principles, Buchanan proposed calling a general convention of the states to try reaching a compromise. The cabinet members offered their opinions:

  • Secretary of State Lewis Cass of Michigan denied the right of secession and proposed using Federal force to keep states in the Union
  • Attorney General Jeremiah S. Black of Pennsylvania opposed secession and supported sending Federal troops to Charleston to stop South Carolina’s threats
  • Postmaster General Joseph Holt of Kentucky opposed secession and a convention of states
  • Treasury Secretary Howell Cobb of Georgia supposed secession as legal, necessary, and desirable
  • Interior Secretary Jacob Thompson of Mississippi declared that the use of Federal troops would force his state out of the Union
  • Secretary of War John B. Floyd of Virginia opposed secession only because he expected the incoming Lincoln administration to fail
  • Navy Secretary Isaac Toucey of Connecticut supported the convention of states

The cabinet reflected the growing sectional rift: all northern officers opposed secession while all southerners opposed forcing states to remain in the Union.

But not all northerners opposed secession. The influential New York Tribune, published by Republican supporter Horace Greeley, published a widely read editorial calling for northerners to let the “erring sisters” of the South leave in peace:

“We hold, with Jefferson, to the inalienable right of communities to alter or abolish forms of government that have become oppressive or injurious; and, if the cotton States shall decide that they can do better out of the Union than in it, we insist on letting them go in peace. The right to secede may be a revolutionary right, but it exists nevertheless; and we do not see how one party can have the right to do what another party has a right to prevent. We must ever resist the asserted right of any State to remain in the Union and nullify or defy the laws thereof: to withdraw from the Union is quite another matter. And, whenever a considerable section of our Union shall deliberately resolve to go out, we shall resist all coercive measures designed to keep her in. We hope never to live in a republic whereof one section is pinned to the residue by bayonets.”

Meanwhile, South Carolinians continued pushing for disunion. Robert Barnwell Rhett, Sr., editor of the Mercury, followed up the proclamation of November 8 with an editorial two days later: “There exists a great mistake… in supposing that the people of the United States are, or ever have been, one people. On the contrary, never did the sun shine on two people as thoroughly distinct as the people of the North and… South.”

That same day, the South Carolina legislature approved a resolution calling for a convention to assemble on December 17 to consider seceding from the Union. Legislators also approved raising 10,000 militiamen for state defense. Both James Chesnut, Jr. and James H. Hammond resigned their seats in the U.S. Senate. People clamored for Lincoln to issue a statement assuring the South that he would not assail their way of life. But Lincoln responded:

“I could say nothing which I have not already said, and which is in print, and open for the inspection of all. To press a repetition of this upon those who have listened, is useless; to press it upon those who have refused to listen, and still refuse, would be wanting in self-respect, and would have an appearance of sycophancy and timidity, which would excite the contempt of good men, and encourage bad ones to clamor the more loudly.”

Georgia legislators also spoke of seceding, but U.S. Representative Alexander H. Stephens warned against hasty action: “Good governments can never be built up or sustained by the impulse of passion…” Acknowledging that Republican principles represented “antagonism to our interests and rights” and would “subvert the Constitution under which we now live,” Stephens declared, “Let the fanatics of the North break the Constitution, if such is their fell purpose.”

Some Republicans seemed intent on doing just as Stephens said. Senator Lyman Trumbull delivered a speech at a Republican victory celebration in Lincoln’s hometown of Springfield. Lincoln did not attend, but he inserted a provocative passage in Trumbull’s speech that the senator omitted: “I am rather glad of this military preparation in the South. It will enable the people the more easily to suppress any uprisings here, which their misrepresentation of purposes may have encouraged.”

But then Trumbull undermined the omission’s purpose by condemning secession as terrorism and vowing to support forceful action against southern “traitors.” A more moderate passage from Lincoln pledged that “each and all of the states will be left in as complete control of their own affairs respectively, and at as perfect liberty to choose, and employ, their own means of protecting property, and preserving peace and order… as they have ever been under any administration.” This did nothing to dispel southern angst.

In late November, President James Buchanan asked Attorney General Jeremiah S. Black to offer a legal opinion on secession. Black declared that states had no right to secede, but the Federal government would legitimize secession if it tried to force states to stay in the Union. Buchanan had the right to use force to collect customs duties, but he could not wage an offensive war against a state. This left him with little power to address the situation.

By month’s end, five states (South Carolina, Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi, and Louisiana) had approved forming conventions to consider secession. Meanwhile, President-elect Lincoln remained at his Springfield home and continued assurances that he would not interfere in state affairs. But southerners continued doubting his sincerity since he expressed little concern about the South’s resolve to leave the Union.



  • Davis, Jefferson, The Rise and Fall of the Confederate Government (Kindle Edition, 2008, 1889), Loc 4430-40
  • Donald, David Herbert, Lincoln (Simon & Schuster, Kindle Edition, 2011), Loc 5437-49
  • Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 3
  • Goodwin, Doris Kearns, Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln (New York: Simon and Schuster, 2005), p. 293
  • Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 3-6
  • McPherson, James M., Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era (Oxford History of the United States Book 6, Oxford University Press, Kindle Edition, 1988), p. 251-52
  • Wagner, Margaret E., The American Civil War in 365 Days (Abrams, NY: Library of Congress)


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