Imagine trying to avoid a civil war and then having to figure out how to fight one—all in one’s first 100 days in office and all without Congress. That was what Abraham Lincoln’s first 100 days as president essentially looked like. From his first full day in office on March 5th, 1861 to his 100th day in the middle of June, Lincoln barely had time to handle the things presidents normally did, never mind relax.
On March 5th, one of the first items on his desk was a letter from Major Robert Anderson, the commander of Fort Sumter. Fort Sumter had been surrounded by Confederate troops since South Carolina seceded in December of 1860, and now the situation was desperate. According to Anderson, they had about six weeks’ worth of provisions left before they would have to surrender. Otherwise, based on Anderson’s estimate, reinforcing the fort was going to take 20,000 men—4,000 more than the entire army—and might trigger fighting. Lincoln’s general-in-chief, General Winfield Scott, recommended surrender. On his first full day in office, Lincoln was facing the possibility of having to break both of his electoral promises regarding war: holding onto government property and waiting for the Confederates to move first. Continue reading “Lincoln’s First 100 Days”
At around 5:20AM on March 4, 1861—Inauguration Day—the Senate voted 24-12 to pass a proposed amendment to the Constitution that would permanently preserve slavery in the states where it currently existed. If successfully ratified, it would become the 13th Amendment to the United States Constitution—and hopefully avert the secession crisis and the impending Civil War. However, only six states had ratified the amendment by early 1862, and the amendment died soon after. The last attempt to stop the Civil War, an attempt which had been in the works since shortly after the presidential election, had failed.
Two potential reasons for its failure were the speed with which the secession movement acted and the inability of Southern moderates to realize the threat the movement posed. In the almost immediate aftermath of Lincoln’s election as president in 1860, the secession movement was rapidly gaining steam in the Deep South. Just days after the election, South Carolina’s state legislature called for a state convention. A month later, South Carolinians elected delegates to the convention, and two weeks later—on December 20th—South Carolina seceded from the Union. Many Northerners—convinced most of the pro-Secession voters were being brainwashed by radical politicians—did not take this movement seriously at first and Republicans in particular saw no need to do anything about it, least of all compromise.
This past Saturday, I attended the very first Abolitionists Day here in Gettysburg. I wasn’t sure what to expect when I arrived at the Seminary Ridge Refectory, but the crowded room seemed like a promising sight to me. When the event started, I was greeted with the words of famous abolitionists—William Loyd Garrison, Frederick Douglass, and Harriet Beecher Stowe—being spoken by reenactors in period garb. As I listened, I couldn’t help wondering why now? This was a question I heard echoed by many of the other event goers. Why hold the first Abolitionist Day on March 4, 2017?
Texit and Calexit—catchy names that have been trending lately over states deciding they don’t want to be a part of the United States. Secession movements are not unique to today. The most famous act of secession involved the eleven states that would form the Confederate States of America, but even at the founding of the United States there were rumors that some states were going to secede and the country would become four different regional confederacies.
The legality of secession has been debated since the signing of the Declaration of Independence. When the United States was still under the Articles of Confederation, there were rumors that the United States would break up into multiple confederacies that could govern with more sovereignty than Congress could under the Articles. The move from the Articles to the Constitution was hotly debated. Some, like Judge St. George Tucker in 1803, argued that abandoning the Articles was the same as seceding from them. Therefore, according to Tucker, there was legal precedent for future secession.
On January 20, 2017, Chief Justice John Roberts administered the presidential oath of office to Donald Trump, making him the 45th President of the United States. Many Americans have variously perceived his election as “unprecedented,” “revolutionary,” and “terrifying.” Some historians found the turn of events leading up to and including Trump’s election to be rather familiar. In November, the Huffington Post ran a story titled “It Feels Like the Fall of Reconstruction.” In it, University of Connecticut professor Manisha Sinha outlined the parallels between 1877 and 2016. On Facebook, I have seen many of my liberal friends weigh in with similar analyses. This evaluation is misguided. To compare the rise of Trump to the end of Reconstruction is to undermine the chaos, violence, and widespread racial ambivalence that defined the Gilded Age.
In a broad scope, it is not difficult to see some similarities. By and large, the end of Reconstruction was brought about by rising indifference among white liberal Republicans toward continuing Reconstruction. Support for federal occupation of the South was growing stale ten years after Appomattox, and economic woes in 1873 distracted many business-minded Republicans from continuing to advocate for black civil rights in the South. In the election of Trump, perhaps we can see a parallel in many white voters’ ambivalence to candidate Trump’s pejorative statements on women, people of color, Muslims, and queer Americans as well as his prospective policies that would harm these groups. The majority of Trump voters likely did not vote for Trump because of these statements or policies, but they were at least indifferent enough toward them to vote for him anyway. Continue reading “No, Trump’s Election Does Not “Feel Like the Fall of Reconstruction””
Over the course of this year, we’ll be interviewing some of the speakers from the upcoming 2017 CWI conference about their talks. Today we are speaking with Dr. Rachel Shelden, Assistant Professor of American History at the University of Oklahoma. Dr. Shelden specializes in the long nineteenth century. Her research and teaching interests include slavery and abolition, the Civil War, the U.S. South, and political and constitutional history. She is the author of Washington Brotherhood: Politics, Social Life, & the Coming of the Civil War (UNC Press, 2013), which received honorable mention for the Wiley-Silver Prize for the best first book on the American Civil War. Dr. Shelden is also co-editor, with Gary Gallagher, of A Political Nation: New Directions in Mid-Nineteenth-Century American Political History (University of Virginia Press, 2012). Her current project explores how judicial ethics influenced Supreme Court decisions and federal governance in the nineteenth century, particularly in cases of race, gender, and class.
CWI: What role did social politics play in antebellum political life in Washington, D.C.?
SHELDEN: The social life of congressmen and other members of the federal government was critically tied to politicking in antebellum Washington, D.C. Politicians who came to the capital city were expected to participate in the vibrant social life of Washington, attending parties, balls, and dinners, calling on (paying respects to) neighbors and other political actors, and generally engaging with the most prominent city residents. These politicians also typically lived with men from across the political and geographical spectrum, making bi-partisan and cross-sectional social life a critical part of the daily experience in Washington. Partially as a result of these social experiences and partially because of the difficult nature of hammering out policy in the public spaces of the Capitol, congressional business often happened in social settings rather than official political ones.
Over the course of this year, we’ll be interviewing some of the speakers from the upcoming 2017 CWI conference about their talks. Today we are speaking with Mr. Harold Holzer, one of the nation’s leading authorities on Abraham Lincoln and the political culture of the Civil War era. A prolific writer and lecturer, as well as a highly sought-after guest on television, Mr. Holzer served for six years as the Chairman of The Lincoln Bicentennial Foundation and for ten years as the co-chair of the U.S. Abraham Lincoln Bicentennial Commission. In 2008, he was the recipient of the National Humanities Medal. He currently serves as the Jonathan F. Fanton Director of Hunter College’s Roosevelt House Public Policy Institute. Mr. Holzer has authored, co-authored, or edited 52 books and 560 articles and reviews for both popular magazines and scholarly journals. His most recent major work, Lincoln and the Power of the Press: The War For Public Opinion (Simon & Schuster, 2014), won numerous prestigious awards, including the Lincoln Prize from the Gilder Lehrman Institute.
CWI: How did Lincoln’s relationship with the Constitution, the American people, his political allies and adversaries change or evolve over the course of the war? What were Lincoln’s priorities as a wartime president, and how did he strive to balance conflicting priorities?
HOLZER: Lincoln did a Blondin-like tightrope act as Civil War President—Blondin, by the way, was the most famous tightrope walker of his day—most adroitly when he tried to balance the interests, and maintain the support, of both abolitionists and conservatives. Nowhere was this delicate touch more urgently required than in his effort to maintain the loyalty of the slaveholding Border States, many of whose residents were dubious about Union, and certainly opposed to emancipation. That Lincoln actually gained support over the years in a once-hostile state like Maryland, where he had been driven in 1861 to wearing a disguise and sneaking through the state to reach Washington for his inaugural, represented one of his greatest political triumphs. He thought so, too. Continue reading “Abraham Lincoln as Wartime President: 4 Questions for Lincoln Scholar Harold Holzer”
This alone might sound like a good indication of the turbulent politics of 1860, but there is more to the story. Three of the 1860 nominating conventions were Democratic, one was Republican, and one was Constitutional Unionist. They ultimately produced four candidates for president, two of them Democrats.
It all started with the Democratic nominating convention in Charleston, South Carolina. As the delegates gathered, several things became evident: Charleston was a poor choice for hosting, party unity was the key to victory, having any kind of slave code plank in the platform would guarantee defeat, and agreeing on a single candidate would be difficult. The northwestern delegates supported Stephen Douglas, but the others were divided between Senator R. M. T. Hunter of Virginia, Vice-president John Breckinridge, former Secretary of the Treasury James Guthrie, and Senator Jefferson Davis of Mississippi. Perhaps more concerning than this was the rumor that Alabama delegate W. L. Yancy had convinced his delegation to threaten to withdraw from the convention if they could not get a slave-code plank—Congressional protection of slavery in the Territories—into the platform.
Eventually, that happened. From April 23rd to May 3rd, the convention struggled to agree on much of anything. Despite their belief in the importance of party unity, the delegates spent three days arguing about basic organizational matters before turning their attention to the platform and nominations on April 26th. On the 27th, the platform committee presented one majority and two minority reports. The majority report reaffirmed the 1856 platform, with several additions: no abolition of slavery in the Territories, some state legislatures’ attempts to avoid the fugitive slave law were hostile to the Constitution. It also stated that the government had a duty to protect property wherever it had authority and naturalized citizens in foreign countries, as well as to acquire Cuba as soon as possible. The principle minority platform affirmed the 1856 platform. It proclaimed that the Democratic Party would hold to court decisions on property rights, promised protection to all citizens at home and abroad, pledged government aid for a Pacific railroad, pushed for the acquisition of Cuba, and proclaimed resistance to the fugitive slave law unconstitutional. The other minority report merely repeated the 1856 platform. Continue reading “Five Conventions, Four Candidates, and Three Parties: Chaos before the Election of 1860”
Last semester, Gettysburg College was abuzz with controversy over the ultra-conservative messages that the Young Americans for Freedom organization was spreading around campus. As the Compiler’s unofficial, wannabe muckraker, I wanted to dive into the discussion. My entry point was a rumor that a reactionary Gettysburg College alumnus helped establish the organization in the 1960s. I jumped at the opportunity to uncover the link.
The only information I had to work with was his name, Charles A. Willoughby, and the fact that he was one of General Douglas MacArthur’s prodigies. A quick Google search revealed that Willoughby was indeed involved in YAF. However, the only sources were blogs and books that also claim that Willoughby was involved in the assassination of President John F. Kennedy. These are obviously not the most reliable sources. The search also revealed ample evidence that Willoughby was an ultra-conservative with connections to fascists. He was good friends with conservative icons like Billy Hargis and John Rousselot and even testified before Joseph McCarthy’s House Committee on Un-American Activities to try to label an elderly woman as a “communist subversive.” He also idolized Francisco Franco and Benito Mussolini. Yet this doesn’t prove he was involved in YAF; it merely proves that he was an extreme right-winger. I was determined to find hard evidence to support a link to YAF. Continue reading “The Missing Link: The Search for the Connection Between Young Americans for Freedom and Charles Willoughby”
Amid the increased use of political campaign attack ads, congressional gridlock, and far-right calls to impeach the president, it seems that divisive conflict is the only adjective that can describe the United States in 2015. A recent nationwide poll conducted by Susquehanna Polling and Research reveals that a majority of Americans tend to agree with this assessment of the political climate; 61% feel that we are a more divided nation than ever before, and things are only getting worse. But have we reached rock bottom? Is it true that the U.S. faces unprecedented division, never before known to Uncle Sam? Civil War historians would agree that the answer is a firm ‘no.’