A president is elected. States secede. What next?
The election of a Republican as president of the United States quickly led southern states to consider breaking up the nation. Illinoisans held many different views of the crisis and what should be done, and they would continue to do so through the months and years that followed.
As southern states declared independence from the United States, many in Illinois thought that they should be allowed to leave. Some antislavery men did so with an attitude of “good riddance” to what they saw as a way of life that made a mockery of American ideals of freedom. Others saw secession as the only way that slaveholding states could react to a radical party taking power in Washington. A Democratic editor in Belleville wrote shortly after the election that the choice of a Republican president proved “that the North is hopelessly abolitionized,” and that the question “to submit…or secede, is forced upon the South… Thus far, they have justice and right on their side.” The Rockford Register disapproved of secession but worried over the idea of forcing states to remain in the Union- “If a separation must come, let it be a peaceful one.”
Others thought secession to be disruptive of business, misguided, or downright illegal. Some farmers and others who shipped produce and other goods via New Orleans, worried about a foreign power controlling the Mississippi River. However, most Illinois Democrats, though disappointed over the Republican election victory, thought that seceding before Abraham Lincoln was even inaugurated would be foolish. Democratic leader and Illinois Senator Stephen A. Douglas argued for the principle of majority rule—that the constitutional election of a president provided no excuse for disunion. Beyond that, he believed that no state could on its own decide to leave the Union. The Constitution, he reasoned, is a contract between all of the states, and a state can break from that contract only with the agreement of all the other parties.
Prairie State Republicans tended to be of one mind concerning secession. They had won an election and would not compromise their policies in order to quiet southern radicals. This view was expressed by W. H. Hanna of Bloomington, who wrote to Senator Lyman Trumbull: “I am in favor of 20 years of war rather than the loss of one inch of territory or the surrender of any principal that concedes the right of secession, which is the disruption of the government.”
As the crisis deepened with the secession of more states, many hoped for some compromise. Senator Douglas, a strong nationalist who believed secession to be illegal, seems to hope for a cooling-off period. He feared that if war began it could end only with the complete, crushing defeat of one side or the other. Even if the Union was maintained by such a war, he thought that bitterness between the sections would be felt for years. Illinois Republicans continued to refuse serious consideration of compromise. Abraham Lincoln’s inaugural speech, denying the right of states to leave the Union and promising to “hold, occupy, and possess” federal property throughout the United States, suited them perfectly
The firing on U. S. troops and their flag at Fort Sumter on April 12, 1861, forced Americans to take sides after months of discussion about the wisdom or the legality of secession. The majority of Illinois residents saw the attack as an outrage that could not be justified. A few Democrats continued to strongly support a right of secession, and others remained unsure as to just what stand they should take, looking to Senator Douglas for an answer. He gave it to them in speeches in Springfield and Chicago, calling on all, regardless of party, to stand for the Union and the preservation of majority rule through the ballot box. Douglas died weeks later, with his last words telling his sons to “obey the laws and support the Constitution of the United States.”
Fort Sumter brought Illinoisans together in support of Abraham Lincoln’s effort to preserve the Union. As time passed, as costs in blood and treasure grew, and as African Americans became more visible players in the conflict, the united front of Spring 1861 broke. The state’s residents again divided, this time over exactly how the nation should be preserved.
Read letters from an American Revolutionary War veteran from Quincy, Illinois and others on the secession of southern states from the February 7th, 1861 edition of the Quincy Daily Herald.
A dated but still worthwhile look at the many shades of opinion in Illinois during the secession and Fort Sumter crises is found in Arthur C. Cole, The Era of the Civil War, 1848-1870 The Sesquicentennial History of Illinois, volume 3 (Urbana and Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 1987), chap. 11.