After Abraham Lincoln became president-elect in November 1860, Southern states, economically dependent on slavery, worried that the balance of power in the Union would soon tip irrevocably in favor of the industrial North. To avoid suffering the consequences of such a political shift, Southern states, began to secede, with South Carolina leading the way on December 20, 1860. By February 1, 1861, Mississippi, Florida, Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana, and Texas had also severed their ties to the United States.

On February 11, 1861, Jefferson Davis and Abraham Lincoln each embarked on a journey that would end in a presidential inauguration. Davis, a West Point graduate and a former U.S. secretary of war and senator, recognized the challenges confronting the government he would lead. The newly formed Confederate States of America (C.S.A.) would need the strength and resources of the eight remaining Southern and border states if it was to succeed as a separate political entity.

Lincoln firmly believed that the Union was fixed and permanent, and it would be his principal duty as president to ensure its preservation. In his inaugural address, delivered on March 4, 1861, he went straight to the heart of the nation’s sectional conflict: “One section of our country believes slavery is right, and ought to be extended, while the other believes it is wrong, and ought not to be extended. This is the only substantial dispute.”

Distribution of Slavery in the Southern States

According to the 1860 census the population of the United States was 31,429,891. Of that number, 3,952,838 were reported as enslaved. This landmark map, published by the U.S. Coast Survey in 1861, provided a graphic breakdown of those census returns, specifically focusing on percentage of slave population per county amongst the total population in the southern portion of the country. Shading from lower percentages per county in light grey to higher percentages illustrated in darker tones provides a dramatic representation of slavery in the southern states. This map was, by some accounts, consulted by Abraham Lincoln throughout the course of the Civil War.

Edwin Hergesheimer. Map Showing the Distribution of the Slave Population of the Southern States of the United States Compiled from the Census of 1860. Washington: Henry S. Graham 1861. Printed map. Geography and Map Division, Library of Congress (001.00.00) [Digital ID# cw0013200]

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Torn Asunder

This print satirizing all four of the 1860 presidential candidates depicts the foregone conclusion that the results of the election would irreparably divide the nation. As Abraham Lincoln and Stephen Douglas, the Republican and Democratic candidates respectively, wrench the western part of the map apart, Lincoln raises his hands as if to stop Southern Democratic Party candidate John C. Breckinridge (center) from carrying away the South. The fourth candidate from the Constitutional Union party, John Bell (right), vainly attempts to repair the northeastern section of the United States with a jar of Spalding’s glue, while hopelessly staring down at Breckinridge.

Unattributed. [Dividing the] National [Map], 1860. Lithograph. Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress (002.00.00) [Digital ID# LC-DIG-ppmsca-33122]

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Union is Dissolved!

South Carolina was the first state to make good on its threat to secede from the United States after Lincoln was elected president in November 1860. A special secession convention met in Charleston to decide the issue and quickly passed an “Ordinance of Secession” with a vote of 169 to 0. Within minutes of the convention’s vote, Robert Barnwell Rhett Sr., owner of the Charleston Mercury, distributed printed broadsides on the city streets announcing the dissolution of the federal union. Four days later the South Carolina legislature passed a more formal “Declaration of Secession.”

Charleston Mercury Extra, December 20, 1860 . . . Union Dissolved! Broadside. John G. Nicolay Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress (003.00.00) [Digital ID# cw0003]

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An Anxious Christmas Eve

Like many other Americans, Benjamin Tucker Tanner approached Christmas 1860 with both rejoicing for the religious celebration and trepidation over the troubled state of the country. South Carolina had voted to secede from the United States just days earlier, and it appeared that after decades of political turmoil, the nation was indeed on the brink of civil war. For Tanner, a powerful church leader and later a bishop in the African Methodist Episcopal Church, the decisive issue was clear: slavery.

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  • Benjamin Tucker Tanner (1835–1923). Diary entry, December 24, 1860. . Carter G. Woodson Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress (004.00.00) [Digital ID# cw0004]

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  • Benjamin Tucker Tanner (1835–1923). Diary entries, November 23–24, 1860. Carter G. Woodson Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress (004.00.00) [Digital ID# cw0004p2]

  • Benjamin Tucker Tanner (1835–1923). Diary entries, December 20–21, 1860. Carter G. Woodson Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress (004.00.00) [Digital ID# cw0004p1]

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Lincoln's First Inaugural Address

In composing his first inaugural address, delivered after Hannibal Hamlin was sworn in as vice president, Abraham Lincoln focused on shoring up his support in the North without further alienating the South, where he was almost universally hated or feared. The final address avoided any mention of the Republican Party platform, which condemned all efforts to reopen the African slave trade and denied the authority of Congress or a territorial legislature to legalize slavery in the territories. The address also denied any plan on the part of the Lincoln administration to interfere with the institution of slavery in states where it existed. To Lincoln, the Union, which he saw as older even than the Constitution, was perpetual and unbroken, and made secession legally impossible.

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"I Do Solemnly Swear"

On March 4, 1861, Chief Justice Roger B. Taney administered the oath of office of president of the United States to Abraham Lincoln. Lincoln swore the oath upon this Bible, which was provided by William Thomas Carroll, clerk of the Supreme Court, because the Lincolns' family Bible was packed with other belongings that were still en route to Washington from Springfield, Illinois. On January 20, 2009, this same Bible was used at the historic inauguration of President Barack Obama, and it was used again, on January 21, 2013, for his inauguration to a second term.

Holy Bible. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1853. Page 2. Alfred Whital Stern Collection, Gift of Mrs. Robert Todd Lincoln, Rare Book and Special Collections Division, Library of Congress (005.01.00) [Digital ID# al0102_01, al0102_02]

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President and Vice President of the Confederate States of America

In February 1861, Jefferson Davis and Alexander Stephens were chosen as provisional president and vice president of the Confederate States of America (C.S.A.). Official elections would be held one year later. Both men had served in the United States Congress before the war, and both had initially opposed secession. However, their pro-slavery and states rights views, political experience, and moderation appealed to potential Confederates, particularly those in the upper South states, such as Virginia, still undecided about secession. The lithograph depicts Davis’s inauguration as the provisional president of the Confederate States of America on February 18, in Montgomery, Alabama. Davis, flanked by the vice president and secessionist leaders, addressed a modest crowd gathered before the portico of the new Confederate Capitol saying: “Obstacles may retard, they cannot long prevent the progress of a movement sanctified, by its justice and sustained by a virtuous people.”

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Seal of the Confederate States of America

Supporters of both the Union and the Confederacy saw their respective sides as heirs to the Revolutionary generation. Unionists felt they were saving the democratic republic created by the nation’s founders, while Confederates looked to George Washington as their inspiration in rebelling against an oppressive government. The Confederate seal, commemorating the C.S.A. elections of 1862, was formally adopted in 1863. It featured the George Washington statue at the Virginia State Capitol in Richmond, surrounded by examples of Southern cash crops, including cotton, tobacco, sugar and rice, and the motto Deo vindice (God is our Vindicator).

Wax impression of the Great Seal of the Confederate States of America, postwar impression. John T. Pickett Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress (009.00.00) Digital ID# cw0009]

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Point of No Return

Any lingering hopes of reconciliation between the North and South were dashed in February of 1861, when delegates from six of the seceded Southern states gathered in Montgomery, Alabama, to form a new government. Working with great speed and unanimity of purpose, the convention adopted a provisional constitution after being in session for only four days. Using the United States Constitution as a model, the permanent Constitution of the Confederate States was passed on March 11 and ratified by the required five states by the end of the month. Among the changes implemented was a single six-year term for president and vice president. To the consternation of the radicals, the foreign slave trade was prohibited.

Acts and Resolutions of the First Session of the Provisional Congress of the Confederate States. Montgomery, Alabama: Barrett, Wimbish & Co., 1861. Rare Book and Special Collections Division, Library of Congress (008.01.00) [Digital ID# cw0008_01]

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