October 23, 1860. As the presidential election on November 6 approached, Southern talk of secession and anxieties about a Lincoln victory increased dramatically. The political parties had split into four and there were four candidates — Abraham Lincoln (Republican), John C. Breckinridge (southern states Democratic), John Bell (Constitutional Union), and Stephen A. Douglas (Democratic).
Lincoln’s efforts to reassure or placate the South were numerous if futile, and Lincoln was urged to reassure the South that his election would not be cause for secession.
On this date, Lincoln replied to a letter from a William S. Speer, Esq.:
My dear Sir Yours of the 13th was duly received. I appreciate your motive when you suggest the propriety of my writing for the public something disclaiming all intention to interfere with slaves or slavery in the States; but in my judgment, it would do no good. I have done this many–many, times; and it is in print, and open to all who will read. Those who will not read, or heed, what I have already publicly said, would not read, or heed, a repetition of it.
In succeeding days, Lincoln repeated similar sentiments in other letters.
He thought he had made his position abundantly clear and did not want to appear weak or to provide fodder for those who would seek willfully to distort his words or position.
For example, on October 27 he wrote George T. M. Davis:
“. . .What is it I could say which would quiet alarm? Is it that no interference by the government, with slaves or slavery within the states, is intended? I have said this so often already, that a repetition of it is but mockery, bearing an appearance of weakness, and cowardice, which perhaps should be avoided. Why do not uneasy men read what I have already said? And what our platform says? If they will not read, or heed, then, would they read, or heed, a repetition of them? Of course the declaration that there is no intention to interfere with slaves or slavery, in the states, with all that is fairly implied in such declaration, is true; and I should have no objection to make, and repeat the declaration a thousand times, if there were no danger of encouraging bold bad men to believe they are dealing with one who can be scared into anything. . . .”
As the apparent likelihood that Lincoln would be elected president grew, emotions grew even higher in the South.
Anxiety and uncertainty bred hysteria and paranoia, and emotions vacillated between elation and despondency. In this climate rumors of slave uprisings and attacks were many and widespread, and they were taken seriously even by serious people.
South Carolina Congressman Lawrence M. Keitt took such stories at face value, writing on this date to James H. Hammond,
“I see poison in the wells in Texas–and fire for the houses in Alabama. How can we stand it? . . . It is enough to risk disunion on.”
Historian James M. McPherson notes that even a southern conservative pointing out that “most of these atrocity stories ‘turned out, on examination, to be totally false, and all of them grossly exaggerated'” had little or no effect in calming Southern fears.
Lincoln Speeches and Writings 1859-1865, Library of America 1989, p. 182, 183
Battle Cry of Freedom, James M. McPherson (New York: Oxford University Press, 1988), p. 229.