I Will Suffer Death Before I Consent

Articles began appearing in the press about threats of violence at the inauguration of President-elect Abraham Lincoln in March. Lincoln did not take these very seriously, but he did express a different concern to his Secretary of State-designate, William H. Seward:

“It seems to me the inaugeration (sic) is not the most dangerous point for us. Our adversaries have us much more clearly at disadvantage, on the second Wednesday of February, when the (Electoral College) votes should be officially counted. If the two Houses refuse to meet at all, or meet without a quorum of each, where shall we be? I do not think that this counting is constitutionally essential to the election; but how are we to proceed in absence of it? In view of this, I think it is best for me not to attempt appearing in Washington till the result of that ceremony is known.”

As the month progressed, southern politicians began leaving Washington to return to their seceding states and Lieutenant General Winfield Scott, general-in-chief of the U.S. Army, began bolstering the capital’s defenses. This prompted Illinois Congressman Elihu B. Washburne to write Lincoln from Washington: “The threat of the conspiracy to seize this city will be broken by the preparations of Genl. Scott and the going away of the members from the seceding States. The retiring of Toombs, Jeff. Davis, Clay, Brown and others weakens secession here very much… It looks to me now more favorable for quiet here than it has done for sometime.”

Part of the reason why southern politicians were leaving the capital was because compromise efforts had failed. When Senator John J. Crittenden’s proposals to preserve the Union were defeated in Congress, some urged Lincoln to reaffirm his pledge not to interfere with slavery where it already existed. But Lincoln felt that such a statement would make him look too desperate to appease the South. This feeling was affirmed by Republican Senator James Doolittle of Wisconsin, who told Lincoln that the “disease” of secession was “so deep seated” that any offer to compromise with the South now “would be treated with contempt as wrung from our fears.”

But others continued pressing Lincoln to try anything to keep the Union together. Seward, who had once called the division between North and South an “irrepressible conflict,” now advised Lincoln, “Every thought that we think ought to be conciliatory, forbearing and patient, and so open the way for the rising of a Union Party in the seceding States which will bring them back into the Union.”

Lincoln was less optimistic that southern Unionists could stop secession, and he remained firm on opposing the expansion of slavery. When Republican Congressman James T. Hale of Pennsylvania implored the president-elect to endorse extending the Missouri Compromise line to the Pacific in a last-ditch effort to avoid disunion, Lincoln replied:

“We have just carried an election on principles fairly stated to the people. Now we are told in advance, the government shall be broken up, unless we surrender to those we have beaten, before we take the offices. In this they are either attempting to play upon us, or they are in dead earnest. Either way, if we surrender, it is the end of us, and of the government. They will repeat the experiment upon us ad libitum (in accordance with desire). A year will not pass, till we shall have to take Cuba as a condition upon which they will stay in the Union. They now have the Constitution, under which we have lived over 70 years, and acts of Congress of their own framing, with no prospect of their being changed; and they can never have a more shallow pretext for breaking up the government, or extorting a compromise, than now. There is, in my judgment, but one compromise which would really settle the slavery question, and that would be a prohibition against acquiring any more territory.”

Another pro-compromise politician, Republican Congressman William Kellogg of Illinois, came to Springfield “in a great deal of anxiety” to plead his case to Lincoln. By that time, most of Lincoln’s supporters had grown to resent Kellogg for trying to appease “the most obnoxious wing of the Democratic party.” Kellogg’s arrival set off rumors that Lincoln would cave in to the “compromise at any cost” contingent.

This intense pressure from various sides took its toll on the president-elect. Illinois politician W.H.L. Wallace noted that Lincoln “is continually surrounded by a crowd of people… he looks care worn & more haggard & stooped than I ever saw him.” Republicans opposed to compromise if it meant expanding slavery lived in constant fear that Lincoln would go to the conciliation camp. C.H. Ray, abolitionist editor of the Chicago Tribune, wrote that to resist such temptations, “more iron would do him no harm.”

Senator Charles Sumner, a Massachusetts abolitionist, assured Massachusetts Governor John Andrew, also an abolitionist, that Lincoln would not accept the compromise plan submitted by Senator John J. Crittenden. Sumner forwarded what Lincoln had told him to Andrew: “Give them personal liberty bills & they will pull in the slack, hold on, & insist on the border state compromise—give them that, they’ll again pull in the slack & demand Crit’s comp.—that pulled in, they will want all that So. Carolina asks.” Lincoln said “he would sooner go out into his back yard & hang himself” than to endorse Crittenden’s plan, and he concluded: “By no act or complicity of mine shall the Republican party become a ‘mere sucked egg—all shell—no principle in it.”

Though Lincoln would not budge on the major issue of extending slavery, he did offer maneuverability on some minor ones. He told Kellogg that he would not be opposed to a convention of states “to remove any grievances complained of,” or to constitutional amendments providing “new guarantees for the permanence of vested rights.” But he reminded Kellogg that such proposals, which were “not mine to oppose” in the first place, would have to go through Congress, where now only the amendment submitted by Congressman Thomas Corwin remained unrejected.

The president-elect then made a dramatic announcement, which was published in the widely read New York Herald: “I will suffer death before I will consent or will advise my friends to consent to any concessions or compromise which looks like buying the privilege of taking possession of this government to which we have a constitutional right. I should regard any concession in the face of menace the destruction of the government itself.”



  • Catton, Bruce and Long, E.B. (ed.), The Coming Fury. New York: Doubleday & Company, Inc. (Kindle Edition), 1961.
  • 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.

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