The Revolution of 1860 Has Been Initiated

News of Abraham Lincoln’s presidential victory spread as fast as the telegraph and railroad lines could carry it. As it soon as it started hitting local bulletin boards early on the 7th, mass hysteria swept the country. The Pennsylvania Daily Telegraph of Harrisburg reflected the festive mood of most northerners with the headline: “The Union Saved! Lincoln Elected President!”

Slavery opponents celebrated this victory over the “Slave Power” that had supposedly dominated the Federal government since the country’s founding. Charles Francis Adams, the abolitionist son of John Quincy Adams and grandson of John Adams, wrote in his diary, “The great revolution has actually taken place… The country has once and for all thrown off the domination of the Slaveholders.”

Lincoln’s victory met with mixed reaction in the South. Some were depressed by the result, while others celebrated because it finally gave the southern states definitive reason to leave the Union. Southerners crowded city streets and excoriated northerners for supporting such a radical candidate as Lincoln. As the Richmond Enquirer explained: “Lincoln owed his election to the worst enemies of the South… he would naturally and necessarily select his counsellors from among them, and consult their views in his administration of government.”

According to the Richmond Examiner: “The idle canvass prattle about Northern conservatism may now be dismissed. A party founded on the single sentiment… of hatred of African slavery, is now the controlling power.” The Fayetteville North Carolinian predicted that “if we submit now to Lincoln’s election… your home will be visited by one of the most fearful and horrible butcheries that has cursed the face of the globe.” The New Orleans Delta urged readers not to “be deluded… that the Black Republican party is a moderate” faction. “It is, in fact, essentially a revolutionary party.” And the Washington Constitution could see nothing but–

“…gloom and storm and much to chill the heart of every patriot in the land. We can understand the effect that will be produced in every Southern mind when he reads the news this morning–that he is now called on to decide for himself, his children, and his children’s children whether he will submit tamely to the rule of one elected on account of his hostility to him and his, or whether he will make a struggle to defend his rights, his inheritance, and his honor.”

Animosity toward Lincoln and the Republicans was especially strong in Charleston, South Carolina. Citizens there raised the palmetto flag in defiance of the election results, while some cheered Lincoln’s victory only because they hoped it would give their state the push it needed to secede from the Union.

Businesses in Charleston closed, and city authorities arrested a Federal military officer trying to transfer supplies from the Charleston arsenal to Fort Moultrie in the harbor. The Federal district judge and attorney resigned their posts, and another 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.”

On the night of the 7th, Charlestonians held a torchlight parade that featured slaves carrying an effigy of Lincoln with a sign reading, “Abe Lincoln, First President Northern Confederacy.” The slaves put the figure on a scaffold, where it was lit on fire and “speedily consumed amid the cheers of the multitude.” The Charleston Mercury, a newspaper that had long favored secession, proclaimed: “The tea has been thrown overboard, the revolution of 1860 has been initiated.”

Anti-Republican sentiment also ran high in Georgia. People in Savannah rallied and raised a secession flag over the monument of Nathaniel Greene. The banner featured the War for Independence rallying cry of, “Don’t tread on me,” along with, “Our Motto, Southern Rights, Equality of the States.” The Georgia legislature drafted a declaration of independence from the U.S., which would be acted upon later.

Georgia Governor Joseph E. Brown declared that the states should begin considering secession immediately rather than wait to form a convention of states to discuss the matter. Brown announced, “The argument is exhausted and we now stand by our arms.” Other southern states hurried to follow the lead of South Carolina and Georgia.

In Springfield, Lincoln went to his office in the governor’s suite at the Illinois State House on the morning after the election, where he was congratulated by a massive throng of friends, admirers, supporters, and newspaper correspondents. And now that Lincoln had won, the crowd also included job-seekers and those urging him to say something to placate the South.

One of Lincoln’s former political colleagues wrote him a letter “of great delicacy & importance” that read in part, “Many of our friends speak lightly of the threatened disorders of the South, but I shall not be surprised should we meet with very serious difficulties from that Quarter. Possibly these may be encountered even before your advent to office.” The writer called on Lincoln “to counteract falsehood and allay excitement, particularly at the South… allay causeless anxiety” and “induce all good citizens” to “judge the tree by its fruit.”

Lincoln read the letter and then responded: “It is with the most profound appreciation of your motive, and highest respect for your judgment too, that I feel constrained, for the present, at least, to make no declaration for the public.” Lincoln feared that the extremists on either side would misconstrue anything he might say, so he opted for now to say nothing.


  • Holzer, Harold, Lincoln President-Elect: Abraham Lincoln and the Great Secession Winter of 1860-1861. New York: Simon & Schuster Paperbacks, Reprint Edition, 2008.
  • Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day. New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971.
  • 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.
  • Pollard, Edward A., Southern History of the War (facsimile of the 1866 edition). New York: Fairfax Press, 1990.
  • Rhodes, James Ford, History of the Civil War, 1861-1865. New York: The MacMillan Company (Kindle Edition, Reservoir House, 2016), 1917.

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