Lincoln's Personal Life HTML version

The Crisis
Though Seward and other buoyant natures felt that the crisis had passed with the election,
less volatile people held the opposite view. Men who had never before taken seriously the
Southern threats of disunion had waked suddenly to a terrified consciousness that they
were in for it. In their blindness to realities earlier in the year, they were like that brilliant
host of camp followers which, as Thackeray puts it, led the army of Wellington dancing
and feasting to the very brink of Waterloo. And now the day of reckoning had come. An
emotional reaction carried them from one extreme to the other; from self-sufficient
disregard of their adversaries to an almost self-abasing regard.
The very type of these people and of their reaction was Horace Greeley. He was destined
many times to make plain that he lived mainly in his sensibilities; that, in his
kaleidoscopic vision, the pattern of the world could be red and yellow and green today,
and orange and purple and blue tomorrow. To descend from a pinnacle of self-
complacency into a desolating abyss of panic, was as easy for Greeley as it is--in the
vulgar but pointed American phrase--to roll off a log. A few days after the election,
Greeley had rolled off his log. He was wallowing in panic. He began to scream
editorially. The Southern extremists were terribly in earnest; if they wanted to go, go they
would, and go they should. But foolish Northerners would be sure to talk war and the
retaining of the South in the Union by force: it must not be; what was the Union
compared with bloodshed? There must be no war--no war. Such was Greeley's terrified--
appeal to the North. A few weeks after the election he printed his famous editorial
denouncing the idea of a Union pinned together by bayonets. He followed up with
another startling concession to his fears: the South had as good cause for leaving the
Union as the colonies had for leaving the British Empire. A little later, he formulated his
ultimate conclusion,--which like many of his ultimates proved to be transitory,--and
declared that if any group of Southern States "choose to form an independent nation, they
have a clear moral right to do so," and pledging himself and his followers to do "our best
to forward their views.
Greeley wielded through The Tribune more influence, perhaps, than was possessed by
any other Republican with the single exception of Lincoln. His newspaper constituency
was enormous, and the relation between the leader and the led was unusually close. He
was both oracle and barometer. As a symptom of the Republican panic, as a cause
increasing that panic, he was of first importance.
Meanwhile Congress had met. And at once, the most characteristic peculiarity of the
moment was again made emphatic. The popular majorities and the political machines did
not coincide. Both in the North and in the South a minority held the situation in the
hollow of its hand. The Breckinridge Democrats, despite their repudiation in the
presidential vote, included so many of the Southern politicians, they were so well
organized, they had scored such a menacing victory with the aid of Rhett in South
Carolina, they had played so skilfully on the fears of the South at large, their leaders were
such skilled managers, that they were able to continue for the moment the recognized
spokesmen of the South at Washington. They lost no time defining their position. If the
Union were not to be sundered, the Republicans must pledge themselves to a new and
extensive compromise; it must be far different from those historic compromises that had