Sectionalism is a time period in American history prior to the Civil War when the country became increasingly divided between the agricultural pro-slavery South and the industrial North. As sectional tension increased, the nation found itself at a crossroads with the election of Abraham Lincoln in 1860. Lincoln’s beliefs about slavery made his election intolerable to several southern states, resulting in seven of them seceding from the union to form the Confederate States of America. When shots were fired at Fort Sumter, South Carolina, April 1861, four more states seceded, and the Civil War began. For four years the nation was divided as the North fought the South. The war finally ended in April of 1865 with the South’s defeat and surrender. The challenge now was how to rebuild the nation.
Abraham Lincoln taught himself the law by reading Blackstone’s Commentaries on the Laws of England. He served in the Illinois House of Representatives and in 1846 was elected to U.S. Congress. He served one term in the U.S. House of Representatives before returning to his law practice. Lincoln’s concerns about the Kansas-Nebraska Act lured him back into politics. Lincoln challenged its sponsor, Stephen Douglas, in the 1858 race for the Senate. Lincoln lost the election but his performance in debates with Douglas gained him national attention. In 1860 he was elected President of the United States. Upon his election, seven southern states seceded from the Union, and others followed suit. In his First Inaugural Address, he argued that secession was not proper under the Constitution. He cited the Articles of Confederation as creating a “perpetual Union,” furthered by the Preamble’s goal of a “more perfect Union.” After the fighting began, Lincoln called for the suspension of writs of habeas corpus. This meant rebel fighters could be arrested and held without trial. The case of ex parte Milligan addressed the constitutionality of the suspension of habeas corpus. As the war continued, Lincoln consulted with Frederick Douglass about conditions faced by Army soldiers. He issued the Emancipation Proclamation in 1863 announcing that slaves in rebelling states were free and that the Union Army would enforce their freedom. Later that year Lincoln delivered the Gettysburg Address, invoking the spirit of the Declaration of Independence and its promise of equality. At his Second Inaugural Address in March of 1865, the war was coming to an end. Lincoln urged his countrymen to “bind up the nation’s wounds” and called the war God’s punishment to a country that tolerated the evil of slavery. When the Confederate capital of Richmond was captured, Lincoln made the symbolic gesture of sitting at Jefferson Davis‘ desk. Five days after General Robert E. Lee’s surrender in April of 1865, Lincoln was assassinated. His Vice President Andrew Johnson assumed the presidency. Later that year, the Thirteenth Amendment was ratified, abolishing slavery throughout the nation.
Documents/Supreme Court Cases
President Abraham Lincoln delivered his Gettysburg Address on November 19, 1863 in a short speech at the dedication of Soldiers’ National Cemetery in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania a few months after Union forces defeated Confederate forces at the Battle of Gettysburg. Lincoln defined the Civil War as a way of securing the Declaration of Independence’s promise of equality of all people. Victory for the Union, Lincoln said, was a way of making the country’s founding ideals a reality. The speech transformed the meaning of the Civil War, which had previously been about preserving the Union, and compelled a rethinking of the meaning of America’s Founding documents. Lincoln began his address with these words: “Four score and seven years ago, our fathers brought forth on this continent, a new nation, conceived in liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.’ He concluded the Address by saying: “It is for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us – that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion – that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain – that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom – and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.”
President Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation in 1863. It declared slaves in all rebelling states to be “forever free.” Of course, this would only occur if the Union won the Civil War. The Proclamation did not affect slaves in states like Kentucky, Missouri, or Maryland that had not seceded from the Union. It also exempted from its provisions some sections of rebelling states that were already under Union control. Because Lincoln believed that he lacked the constitutional authority to free slaves, he issued this document as a war measure in his capacity as Commander in Chief. One important result of the Emancipation Proclamation was that freed slaves were now welcomed into the Union’s armed forces. Further, the fact that some slaves were to be freed may have prevented Britain, where slavery was illegal, from entering the war on the side of the Confederacy. Historians argue that the Emancipation Proclamation added moral force to the Union cause and transformed the Civil War from a war to save the Union into a war for freedom and equality.
The question whether slavery should be allowed in territories acquired by the U.S. was a controversial one prior to the Civil War. Dred Scott, a slave, was taken by his master from Missouri (a slave state) first to Illinois (a free state) and then to Wisconsin Territory where slavery under the Missouri Compromise of 1820 was forbidden. Later, with his owner, Dred Scott returned to Missouri. Dred Scott and his wife filed a petition in a Missouri court requesting permission to file suit in order to establish their right to be freed since they had resided on free soil. After two trials and the Scotts temporarily winning their freedom, the Missouri Supreme Court reversed the lower court’s judgment and held that the Scotts’ residence on free soil had not changed their status as slaves. The Scotts then brought suit in a U. S. Circuit Court where the verdict once more was that they were still slaves. The case was then appealed to the U. S. Supreme Court. Seven of the nine Supreme Court Justices concluded that the Scotts remained slaves. Chief Justice Roger Taney authored the most important opinion for a majority of the Court. Taney first addressed the question of whether the Scotts were citizens and thus entitled to bring suit in a U. S. court. He wrote: “We think they are not, and that they are not included, and were not intended to be included, under the word ‘citizens’ in the Constitution and can, therefore, claim none of the rights and privileges which that instrument provides for and secures to citizens of the United States.” Still writing for a majority of the Court, Taney also wrote: “…it is the opinion of the Court that the Act of Congress (the Missouri Compromise of 1820) which prohibited a citizen from holding and owning property of this kind in the territory of the United States north of the line therein mentioned, is not warranted by the Constitution, and is therefore void.” The Court thus declared the Missouri Compromise unconstitutional and in the process emphasized the importance of protecting property rights, in this case property being slaves. The first sentence of Section 1 of the Fourteenth Amendment added to the Constitution in 1868 declares that “all persons born or naturalized in the United States and subject to the jurisdiction thereof, are citizens of the United States and of the state wherein they reside.” It was written and added to the Constitution for the specific purpose of overruling the Supreme Court’s decision in Dred Scott v Sanford.
In 1890, the Louisiana legislature passed the Separate Car Act which required railroads “to provide equal but separate accommodations for the white and colored races” in order to protect the safety and comfort of all passengers. In 1891, a group of African Americans and Creoles formed the “Citizens Committee to Test the Constitutionality of the Separate Car Law.” The Committee chose Homer Plessy, who was one-eighth African American, to test the law by violating it. He bought a first-class ticket on the East Louisiana Railway that traveled from New Orleans to Covington, Louisiana. He boarded the train, walked past the coach clearly marked “For Coloreds Only,” and took a seat in the coach clearly marked “For Whites Only.” When the train conductor asked Plessy to move to the other coach, he refused, was arrested, and charged with violation of the Separate Car Act. Tried in a Orleans Parish court, Plessy was found guilty and sentenced to jail. After his conviction was upheld by the Louisiana Supreme Court, he appealed to the U. S. Supreme Court. By a 7-1 vote, with only Justice John Marshall Harlan I dissenting, the Supreme Court upheld the Louisiana law and Plessy’s conviction. The majority concluded that the Louisiana law requiring “separate but equal” facilities for African Americans and whites did not violate either the Privileges and Immunities Clause or the Equal Protection of the laws Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. The law mandating racial segregation, the majority reasoned, was in line with “the established usages, customs and traditions of the people, and with a view to the promotion of their comfort, and the preservation of the public peace and good order.” In his powerful solo dissent, Justice Harlan I wrote: “In view of the Constitution, in the eye of the law, there is in this country no superior, dominant, ruling class of citizens. There is no caste here. Our Constitution is color-blind, and neither knows nor tolerates classes among citizens.” The Supreme Court’s decision in Plessy v Ferguson upholding racial segregation by law under the so-called “separate but equal rule” led more states to enact such laws. Plessy remained the law until the Supreme Court overruled the decision in 1954 in the case of Brown v Board of Education.
In the presidential election of 1860, there were four candidates: Abraham Lincoln of Illinois, Republican Party; Stephen Douglas of Illinois, Northern Democrats; John C. Breckinridge of Kentucky, Southern Democrats; and John Bell of Tennessee, Constitutional Union Party. Lincoln won a majority of the electoral vote, and thus became President even though he won only about 40 percent of the popular vote. His election prompted South Carolina immediately to secede from the Union on December 20, 1860. By the time Lincoln was inaugurated on March 4, 1861, seven states had seceded from the Union and formed the Confederate States of America.
During Reconstruction, President Andrew Johnson and the Radical Republicans in Congress differed strongly on how to treat the South. Among other things, in opposition to President Johnson, Congress passed the Tenure of Office Act. This law required the President to consult with Congress before firing a cabinet member. When President Johnson fired his Secretary of War without consulting Congress, he violated the Tenure of Office Act. In 1868, the Radical Republicans in the House of Representatives impeached (voted charges against) President Johnson. Johnson was the first president to be impeached. In accordance with the Constitution, the Senate tried President Johnson on the charges voted by the House. The final vote in the Senate was one short of the two-thirds majority needed for conviction and removal from office, and thus, Johnson remained President.