After November elections, the new US President is installed in January—but before the Constitutional Amendment of 1933 the transition lasted until March. In the past this long interregnum could prove fateful when the country was ill at ease. On 6th November 1860, Abraham Lincoln (below) was elected president, the candidate of the Republican Party (founded in 1854), which opposed slavery in new states. His election caused immediate uproar in the Southern slave-owning states and threats of secession. Meanwhile President James Buchanan, a Democrat, remained in the White House until Lincoln’s inauguration on 4th March 1861.
The Virginian planter and slaveholder Edmund Ruffin was one of the radical pro-slavery “Fire-Eaters.” He wrote to a friend:
“I cannot doubt that you will view this result as I do, of the clear and unmistakable indication of future and fixed domination of the Northern sections, its abolition policy… and the beginning of a sure and speedy progress to the extermination of negro slavery and the conquest and utter ruin of the prosperity of the South. I cannot doubt that you see the one passage for escape from this impending and awful danger and calamity by secession.”
In late November 1860, journalist Donn Piatt interviews Lincoln in his home in Springfield, Illinois, and finds no sign he knows what is about to happen:
“His low estimate of humanity blinded him to the South. He could not understand that men would get up in their wrath and fight for an idea. He considered the movement South as a sort of political game of bluff, gotten up by politicians and meant solely to frighten the North. He believed that when the leaders saw their efforts in that direction were unavailing the tumult would subside.”
On 5th December 1860, the New York Herald wrote:
“There is only one man who has it in his power to restore the country to its happy and prosperous condition and that man is the president-elect. If Mr Lincoln will speak out in a manner to reassure the conservative masses in all the States, the present cloud will pass away like a summer shower.”
On 10th December 1860, President Buchanan wrote to a friend:
“I am truly sorry to say that South Carolina will secede about the 20th and the other cotton states will, in all probability follow. The contagion of disunion is spreading fast… The Black Republicans say nothing and I fear will do nothing to arrest the impending catastrophe.” (Lincoln made no public announcement and his private letters, when known, spread the impression he opposed any conciliation. He had said almost nothing about slavery since 1858. As a presidential candidate he had not campaigned or indeed made any speeches as was common at the time).
On 20th December 1860, South Carolina leaves the Union. Edmund Ruffin, present in Charleston, later recorded:
“The signing occupied more than two hours, during which time there was nothing to entertain the spectators except their enthusiasm and joy. Yet no one was weary & none left. Clapping & cheers were frequent—& when all the signatures had been affixed & the President holding up the parchment proclaimed South Carolina to be a free and independent country, the cheers of the whole assembly continued for some minutes.”
Another South Carolina citizen, James Petigru, observed: “South Carolina is too small for a republic and too large for an insane asylum.” Over the next two months Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia, Florida, Louisiana and Texas also seceded.
On 22nd December 1860, Lincoln replies to Alexander H Stephens, a Georgian politician later Vice-President of the Confederacy:
“I fully appreciate the present peril the country is in, and the weight of responsibility on me. Do the people of the South really fear that a Republican administration would, directly, or indirectly, interfere with their slaves, or with them, about their slaves? If they do, I wish to assure you, as once a friend, and still, I hope, not an enemy, that there is no cause. The South would be in no more danger in this respect, than it was in the days of Washington. I suppose, however, this does not meet the case. You think slavery is right and ought to be extended; while we think it is wrong and ought to be restricted. That I suppose is the rub. It certainly is the only substantial difference between us.”
On 11th January 1861 Illinois politician WHL Wallace observes Lincoln under pressure:
“He is continually surrounded by a crowd of people… he looks careworn & more haggard & stooped than I ever saw him.”
On 24th February 1861, after a 12-day journey from Springfield Mr and Mrs Lincoln visit the White House. Harriet Lane, the niece of the bachelor president, who acted as his official hostess, took Mary Lincoln on her own tour.
She later confided that Lincoln looked like the “tall, awkward Irishman who waits at the door,” and predicted his wife would prove “awfully western, loud & unrefined.”
On 4th March 1861, in his first inaugural speech Lincoln again states:
“I have no purpose, directly or indirectly, to interfere with the institution of slavery in the States where it exists. I believe I have no lawful right to do so, and I have no inclination to do so.”
But by June 1863, Lincoln reflected on the crisis of his presidential transition:
“Prior to my installation it had been inculcated that any State had a lawful right to secede from the national Union, and that it would be expedient to exercise the right whenever the devotees of the doctrine should fail to elect a president to their own liking. I was elected contrary to their liking; and, accordingly, so far as it was legally possible, they had taken seven States out of the Union, had seized many of the United States forts, and had fired upon the US Flag, all before I was inaugurated, and, of course, before I had done any official act whatever. The rebellion, thus began, soon ran into the present civil war; and, in certain respects, it began on very unequal terms between the parties. The insurgents had been preparing for it more than 30 years, while the government had taken no steps to resist them.”