In 1861, Stephen A. Douglas (pictured), 16th president of the United States, died.
The Death of President Douglas by Eric LippsIn the divisive four-way 1860 election, in which his opponents were the Republican Abraham Lincoln, Southern Democrat John C. Breckinridge and John Bell of the Constitutional Union Party, Douglas had been seen as a unifying figure who could head off the threat of Southern secession. And indeed it seemed as though he might succeed.
When South Carolina demanded that the U.S. government turn over its outpost fort Sumter to the state, Douglas managed to pacify Charleston by assuring the state legislature that the Sumter garrison would not be used against its people. "The United States are united because they stand together of their own free will," he declared in his inaugural address on March 4, 1861. "The moment the government of this Union must use force to hold the country together, the bonds which hold the states together shall have dissolved. Such differences as we have must be resolved by peaceful means".
Douglas's words angered many in the North, as did his announced refusal to send reinforcements to Fort Sumter when its commander requested them in early April.
"The United States are united because they stand together of their own free will. The moment the government of this Union must use force to hold the country together, the bonds which hold the states together shall have dissolved. Such differences as we have must be resolved by peaceful means" ~ President DouglasDouglas's death brought Vice-President Herschel V. Johnson to the White House. A native Georgian, he was if anything more sympathetic to the South than his predecessor had been. He became an outspoken opponent of abolitionist "radicalism," declaring that the states must decide the issue of slavery individually. "I am confident," he declared in a speech at Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, on July 4, 1863, "that good faith and good judgement shall prevail in this vexing matter if allowed to do so under law and the Constitution".
President Johnson's pro-Southernism would lead to an unsuccessful attempt at his impeachment in early 1864, spearheaded by former Attorney General Edwin M. Stanton, who after Johnson's acquittal in the Senate would declare his own candidacy for the presidency. Capitalizing on Northern resentment of Johnson's "softness" toward the south, Stanton would defeat the Georgian that November.
Stanton's election would burst the dam which had been holding back secession, and in March of 1864, just after his inauguration, the War of the States would begin. By the time it ended, five bloody years later, it would have taken over 700,000 lives.