I’ve always been amazed about how much history never makes it into the schoolbooks.
We all know how Abraham Lincoln’s election in 1860 triggered Southern states leaving the Union, and the Civil War. But go back four years to the election of 1856. The winner was James Buchanan, who had been born in Pennsylvania but had clear Southern sympathies. His election caused some abolitionists to seriously consider launching a campaign to break up the Union from the Northern side.
On December 26, 1856, a meeting was proposed by The Liberator, the leading anti-slavery and mouthpiece of abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison. Since Buchanan’s election meant, in The Liberator’s opinion, “four years more of pro-slavery government, and a rapid increase in the hostility between the two sections of the Union,” it was time to consider “The practicability, probability and expediency, of a Separation between the Free and Slave States.”
Garrison was passionately anti-slavery and had founded The Liberator in 1831. As early as the 1840s, Garrison was promoting the idea of “disunion.” “He developed this doctrine called ‘no union with slave owners,’” says Bruce Laurie, a professor emeritus of history at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, “by which he meant that the North would secede from the South and it would become a haven for runaway slaves and all people of goodwill.”
Garrison’s views were certainly extreme, but they did force the country to confront the issue of slavery and pressure Southern politicians like John C. Calhoun who had been advocating Southern secession.
So a meeting was indeed held by a group of New England activists at Old City Hall in Worcester, Massachusetts, in January 1857. Speeches were made, the rhetoric was impassioned, and resolutions were passed. But a widespread campaign never took hold and the idea was soon overtaken by events, like the election of Abraham Lincoln in 1860. So it’s the South that gets the blame for the nation’s breakup.
Such is history.