The "wedges of separation" caused by slavery split large Protestant sects into Northern and Southern branches and dissolved the Whig party. Most Southern Whigs joined the Democratic party, one of the few remaining, if shaky, nationwide institutions. The new Republican party, heir to the Free-Soil party and to the Liberty party, was a strictly Northern phenomenon. The crucial point was reached in the presidential election of 1860, in which the Republican candidate, Abraham Lincoln, defeated three opponents—Stephen A. Douglas (Northern Democrat), John C. Breckinridge (Southern Democrat), and John Bell of the Constitutional Union party.
Lincoln's victory was the signal for the secession of South Carolina (Dec. 20, 1860), and that state was followed out of the Union by six other states—Mississippi, Florida, Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana, and Texas. Immediately the question of federal property in these states became important, especially the forts in the harbor of Charleston, S.C. (see Fort Sumter). The outgoing President, James Buchanan, a Northern Democrat who was either truckling to the Southern, proslavery wing of his party or sincerely attempting to avert war, pursued a vacillating course. At any rate the question of the forts was still unsettled when Lincoln was inaugurated, and meanwhile there had been several futile efforts to reunite the sections, notably the Crittenden Compromise offered by Sen. J. J. Crittenden. Lincoln resolved to hold Sumter. The new Confederate government under President Jefferson Davis and South Carolina were equally determined to oust the Federals.
The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2012, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.