No, The Civil War Wasn’t About “States’ Rights” — Just Slavery

Published September 26, 2017
Updated July 10, 2018
Published September 26, 2017
Updated July 10, 2018

The Election Of 1860

Abraham Lincoln

Library of CongressAbraham Lincoln. 1861.

For their part, the Republican Party nominated Abraham Lincoln. The party itself had only just been formed in 1854, as a response to the Kansas-Nebraska Act, because Republicans opposed allowing slavery in the territories.

The Democrats, however, could not agree on a position. In fact, Southern leaders walked out of the first Democratic Convention because of their disgust with the leading candidate, Senator Stephen A. Douglas.

Stephen A. Douglas

National Archives and Records AdministrationStephen A. Douglas. Circa 1860-1865.

Douglas believed in “popular sovereignty” when it came to slavery in the territories. In other words, he believed that the territories should have the right to decide the slave issue for themselves. This went against the beliefs of the Southern radicals who were against any restrictions on slavery.

Nevertheless, Douglas was nominated at the Democratic Convention. However, Southern leaders then split from the party and nominated their own candidate, John C. Breckinridge, who believed that territories did not have the right to outlaw slavery and that only a state could have that right.

Finally, the Constitutional Union Party also jumped into the race with slave-owning candidate John Bell. Had those who supported slavery been able to unite behind a single candidate, we may have had a different 16th president. But they didn’t, and Abraham Lincoln won the 1860 election with just 39.9 percent of the vote.

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