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National Park Service

The Eve of War

In 1858, Abraham Lincoln warned that "A house divided against itself cannot stand," but most Americans were confident that the forces of cohesion in the young republic would continue to triumph over the forces of division.

Cotton Pickers

The United States on the Eve of the Civil War

Edward L. Ayers, University of Richmond

The four-year war that eventually descended on the nation seemed impossible only months before it began. Powerful conflicts pulled the United States apart in the decades before 1860, but shared interests, cultures, and identities tied the country together, sometimes in new ways. So confident were they in the future that Americans expected that the forces of cohesion would triumph over the forces of division.

The 1850s were not merely the "antebellum" years, years when everything aligned toward the war. In fact, precisely because people did not know a war was coming, because Americans had always found a way to compromise their conflicts, and because the North and South had in many ways never been more integrated or more reliant on one another, people talked recklessly about each other. With the United States booming, its population racing westward, new territories being settled, California offering bright prospects, gold mines and silver mines promising unlimited wealth, immigrants pouring in from Europe and Asia, almost no external enemies threatening from any direction, and religious revivals attesting to the faith of its people, Americans did not believe it was possible for them to fall into a devastating conflict in which everything, including the very existence of their nation, would be put at risk.

The United States presented a contradictory picture in the 1850s, even on the issue that most starkly divided the country: slavery. No politician in the slave states could survive without defending the institution in word and in deed, no matter what party label he might bear, but some did so with calls for Union and compromise rather than secession and defiance. In the free states, bitter conflict raged between those who sought to confine the spread of slavery and those who sought to placate slaveholding allies. The Democrats, defending the rights of slaveholders, prided themselves on being the only truly national party by the late 1850s. Controlling the presidency and the Supreme Court, the Democrats were strong throughout the North and increasingly dominant in the South, where opposition faded away throughout the 1850s.

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