John Brown's raid convinced many white Southerners that a majority of Northerners wished to free the slaves and incite race war. Southern extremists, known as "fire-eaters," told large crowds that the raid on Harpers Ferry was "the first act in the grand tragedy of emancipation, and the subjugation of the South in bloody treason." Increasingly, Southerners believed that secession was the South's only option. A Virginia newspaper noted that there were "thousands of men in our midst who, a month ago, scoffed at the idea of a dissolution of the Union as a madman's dream, but who now hold the opinion that its days are numbered."
In this letter, William Windom (1827-1891), a Republican who served as a U.S. Representative and a Senator from Minnesota, comments on the mood in the nation's capital, and suggests that southern threats of disunion are simply a negotiating ploy, a reenactment of similar bluffs made during the Missouri crisis, the Nullification crisis, and the crisis of 1850.
Document: We have a warm time here with the Southern fire eaters. They [are] so anxious...in the House...to kindle anew the fires of agitation and sectionalism, that they could not wait until the organization [of the leadership], but for a full week have delayed the business of the Country, for the purpose of making inflammatory, disunion Speeches. They openly avow their determination (in case of the Election of a Rep[ublican]. President) to dissolve the Union, that sentiment is loudly cheered from the "plug uglies" [anti-Republican gangs] of this City--who fill the galleries. Never until I came to a thoroughly Democratic district, did I hear a disunion Sentiment advanced or cheered but here both are very common. The whole thing is Simply a renewal of the old longtime threats--which have so long brought upon...the weak kneed gentlemen of the North. It is again having the same effect and in many parts of the Country the old fossils are calling "Union Meetings" for the purpose of propitiating the South. You will notice by the papers news the Republicans have all (or nearly all) kept silent thus far, and have not answered any of the Speakers. This is done by an understanding among our party for the purpose of affecting the organization as seen as terrible and for the purpose of showing to the Country who are really the slavery agitators.