December 7, 1860: A Nation on the Verge of Exploding

As Christmas approached in 1860, the United States was a very edgy nation. After decades of debate and compromise and political equivocation about the morality of legalized slavery, the issue of institutional bondage was pulling the country apart.

Many Southerners were incensed at the election of Abraham Lincoln a month earlier, and passions were so hot in South Carolina that the state legislature was seriously talking about leaving the Union. And they weren't angry because Lincoln had pledged to end slavery. Lincoln, a pragmatist to the core, hadn't said anything about ending the "unique institution" that underpinned the South's agrarian economy. South Carolinians were furious because he'd said he simply was opposed to the expansion of slavery into territories that weren't even states at the time.

So on Friday, December 7, 1860, the United States was a nation that was about to burst apart even though Lincoln would not take office until March 1861. The newspapers of the day were filled with stories about "the crisis of the Union" and the "disunion question" and worries about whether South Carolina's inflammed passions would spread and prompt other Southern states to withdraw from the Union.

In the South, slaveowners were terrified of an insurrection by their slaves. On December 7, 1860, the New York Times published a letter from an unnamed woman in South Carolina to her uncle in New York City.

"The country here is all aglow with the fires of revolution, and such is the intensity of excitement that we can scarcely find time or inclination to talk or think of anything else than the political topics of the day, and the moral and social consequences directly pertaining to secession," she wrote. "I fear that secession and revolution are, with our people, foregone conclusions; that we have gone too far, retraction and recession are impossible, and that civil war with all its consequent horrors is already upon us."

In that same issue, the Times also published a letter from a young man in Tennessee to his father in which the Tennessee resident worried about the fragmenting of the country and the possibility that slaves would take up arms against Southern slaveowners.

"(T)he passions of the people (are) being aroused, in both sections of the country, and ambitious demagogues (are) urging them on," he wrote.

The letter-writer told his father he had no particular desire to defend slavery but would take up arms to defend his family. "What do you think, father, of going to California?" he wrote. "Not to avoid danger, or to desert any to whom we owe help, but to go, all of us, where we shall be at peace from this question, which is so much to be lamented on all accounts."

The worst fears of these and other Americans came to pass. The Civil War would erupt in April 1861 when South Carolina troops fired on federal troops manning Fort Sumter in Charleston, South Carolina.

The war is still the bloodiest in the nation's history. And it still stirs passions and causes consternation 150 years later. For most of my adult life, I've been pondering my family's involvement in that war, and I'm still trying to make sense of it. As we observe the Civil War Sesquicentennial, I'm going to post some thoughts, comments and documented family history about that war. Please watch for those posts and comment on them where you think it's appropriate.

NOTE: The illustration at the top of this post is a political cartoon from 1860 commenting on how the election of Abraham Lincoln as president tore at the nation's political bonds.

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