The United States faced its
greatest crisis in the late 1850s as the slavery question
tore the nation asunder. The Lincoln-Douglas Debates of
1858 brought Americans' divisions over slavery into sharp
focus. Douglas insisted that a heterogeneous nation could
survive only if each locality determined its own institutions.
Lincoln replied that slavery must be placed "in the
course of ultimate extinction" by prohibiting its further
The debates marked Lincoln's
emergence as a leader who epitomized the Republican party's
essential values: opposition to the expansion of slavery,
devotion to free labor, and reverence for the Union. He also
accepted without challenge many of the racial prejudices of
his day, reflecting that antislavery sentiments and racism
coexisted in the Republican Party and throughout the North.
Douglas's principle of Popular
Sovereignty, which allowed a territory to decide whether to
establish slavery, was as unacceptable to the South as Lincoln's
position. After the Supreme Court ruled in the Dred Scott
case (1857) that Congress could not bar slavery from any territory,
Southern political leaders demanded that the federal government
protect the institution throughout the West.
Sectional hostilities were
intensified when abolitionist John Brown led an armed assault
on the federal arsenal at Harper's Ferry, Virginia, as part
of a plan to incite a slave rebellion. Brown's trial and execution
made him a martyr to many in the North, while Southerners
saw his raid as a portent of what they might expect under
In 1860 the Democratic Party
split into Northern and Southern wings, the last great bond
of Union to be shattered by the sectional conflict. Republican
presidential candidate Lincoln carried the entire North and,
winning virtually no votes in the slave states, was elected.
Fearful for slavery's future in a Republican-dominated nation,
the Lower South seceded from the Union. Within six weeks of
Lincoln's inauguration, Civil War had begun.