Civil War Causes: The tumultuous 1850s.

The 1850s were a tumultuous time for America and for both Lincoln and Grant. Although he encountered political defeats in Illinois, Lincoln nevertheless ascended to national prominence and the presidency. Grant, on the other hand, met nothing but failure in that decade. Separated from his wife and affected by alcohol, he resigned from the army in disgrace in 1854 and then proceeded to fail at every civilian occupation he undertook for the next six years. Yet, this turbulent decade, one of the civil war causes, proved to be a crucial one in the effect it had on the two men who together would shape their nation’s future.



In 1849, his last year as a congressman, Lincoln had developed a complex bill calling for the gradual, compensated abolition of slavery by referendum in the District of Columbia—coupled with strong fugitive slave provisions which are considered to be one of the main civil war causes. After he had obtained support from the city’s mayor and other key public officials, Southern congressmen convinced them to reverse their positions. Therefore, Lincoln never introduced his bill. But his proposal to abolish D.C. slavery eventually became a reality when as president he signed such a bill on April 16, 1862—almost exactly a year after the firing on Fort Sumter.

The Compromise of 1850, engineered by a dying Henry Clay with assistance from Stephen Douglas, was the last major action taken by Congress to avert a national clash over the divisive issue of slavery. A series of separate laws provided for a free California to become a state greatly strengthened enforcement of fugitive slave laws, provided for popular sovereignty in New Mexico and Utah, abolished the slave trade (but not slavery) in the District of Columbia and resolved a Texas/New Mexico territorial dispute.

By 1854, however, a Democratic-dominated Congress, catering to its Southern element, passed the divisive, Stephen Douglas–inspired Kansas-Nebraska Act. That law repealed the Missouri Compromise of 1820 (which forbid slavery in territories north of Missouri’s southern border), authorized slavery in previously off-limits territories under the banner of “popular sovereignty,” and another one of the Civil War causes. Lincoln was angered by the substantive effect of the new law on slavery in the territories and was no doubt upset that it was the creation of Douglas, a long-standing Illinois political and social nemesis. These factors were sufficient to cause Lincoln to re-enter the political arena.

In the fall of 1854, therefore, Lincoln aggressively campaigned for the U.S. Senate seat held by Douglas’s ally from Illinois, James Shields. He attacked the Kansas-Nebraska Act for undercutting the Founding Fathers’ intent to ultimately eliminate slavery and for depriving blacks of their right, espoused in the Declaration of Independence, to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. Whigs and anti-Douglas Democrats seized control of the state legislature, which was responsible for electing a U.S. senator. Lincoln had the support of all the Whigs but was essentially betrayed by a friend, Democrat Lyman Trumbull, who refused to support Lincoln and leveraged the few anti-Douglas Democrats’ votes to gain the senate seat for himself. Trumbull’s small group deadlocked the proceedings by refusing to provide either Lincoln or his primary foe with the votes necessary for a majority. Trumbull wanted the office for himself.

Lincoln, but never his wife Mary, eventually forgave Trumbull for his political ploy. Lincoln continuously and fiercely opposed and denounced the Kansas- Nebraska Act but believed he was bound by the Constitution to support Southern states’ right to slavery and enforcement of fugitive slave laws. His opposition to that Act’s territorial provisions and his advocacy against the extension of slavery to U.S. territories became hallmarks of his political position and led him down the path to the presidency. This also is one of the civil war causes.

In 1856 he took his first practical step in that direction by joining the new Republican Party, which was attracting Northern Whigs and Democrats to its no-slavery-in-the-territories position. His May 29, 1856, adjournment speech at the first Illinois Republican Party convention provided him with an opportunity to lambaste slavery and thereby achieve national fame and notoriety. There is little record left of what may have been one of his finest speeches ever—one that so mesmerized reporters that they stopped taking notes.

The Republicans were shocked and then motivated to action by the Supreme Court’s notorious Dred Scott decision in 1857. That decision, apparently cleared with new President James Buchanan, held that American blacks, free or slave, were not citizens of the United States or any of the states and thus could not bring a federal lawsuit. But Chief Justice Roger B. Taney and his colleagues did not stop there. They also gratuitously stated that taking a slave into a free state or territory did not result in the slave’s emancipation and that Congress had no power to prohibit slavery in U.S. territories. This logic meant that the Missouri Compromise of 1820 had been unconstitutional and raised the specter of a future decision that states themselves could not prohibit slavery.

Lincoln’s Republican Party activities led to his 1858 candidacy for an Illinois seat in the United States Senate. His opponent was Stephen A. Douglas, who supported popular sovereignty on the slavery issue and had engineered passage of the divisive Kansas-Nebraska Act. That Senate campaign included the most famous political debates in American his- tory—the Lincoln-Douglas Debates. In this series of seven debates, Lincoln forced Douglas to take a position on the slavery issue that would result in Douglas’s obtaining the Senate seat but undercutting his Southern political base for a possible 1860 presidential candidacy.

Specifically, at the Freeport debate, Lincoln asked Douglas how popular sovereignty could be implemented and how a territory could ban slavery prior to statehood in light of the Dred Scott decision. Douglas responded that local enforcement laws would be necessary to protect the existence of slavery in each jurisdiction and that failure to pass such local laws would de facto exclude slavery. That answer preserved his popular sovereignty position critical to an 1858 victory in Illinois but doomed his 1860 presidential prospects. Southern Democratic politicians, after their huge Dred Scott victory, would not countenance any legal or political theory that would prohibit slavery in any of the territories.

Lincoln earned national fame from the 1858 debates—a fame that would lead to the Republican nomination for president in 1860. Lincoln’s Republicans actually outpolled the Douglas Democrats in the 1858 Illinois popular vote, 190,468 to 166,374 in the state house and 53,784 to 44,750 in the state senate. But Lincoln was not elected to the U.S. Senate by the unrepresentative, Democrat-controlled Illinois General Assembly in its January 1859 vote.4 Nevertheless, Republican politicians and newspaper editors began promoting Lincoln for president immediately after the Illinois election. In the words of William C. Harris, Lincoln emerged as the “Republican Champion of the Great West.” One Illinoisan wrote from Washington that “many of the leading papers of the country” were proclaiming Lincoln “the leading spirit of the great west.” In the fall of 1859, Lincoln burnished his Western presidential credentials by speaking on behalf of Republican candidates in Iowa, Ohio, Indiana, and Wiscon- sin. Lincoln arranged for the 1860 printing of the Lincoln-Douglas Debates of 1858; this popular publication probably aided in his nomination and election.

In fact, “It was primarily his mobilization of language that lifted him into contention for the presidency even though he had held no public office for a dozen years and been defeated twice as a senatorial candidate.” Although he had suffered in-state political defeats in 1855 and 1859, Lincoln, primarily through his 1858 debates with Douglas, had achieved such national renown by the end of the 1850s that he was a respected dark-horse candidate for the 1860 Republican presidential nomination.

In February 1860, the Chicago Herald and Tribune, in the course of endorsing Lincoln for the Republican nomination, perceptively noted that Lincoln was a man of “great breadth and great acuteness of intellect. Not learned, in a bookish sense, but master of great fundamental principles, and of that kind of ability which applies them to crises and events.”

At the 1860 Republican National Convention, Lincoln’s managers deftly assembled a coalition against front-runner William Seward of New York and then amazingly succeeded in defeating not only Seward, but also Salmon P. Chase of Ohio, Edward Bates of Missouri, and Simon Cameron of Pennsylvania. As the outcome became clear, B. Gratz Brown of Missouri announced the anti-climactic change of that state’s votes: “ I am instructed to cast the entire vote of Missouri—eighteen votes for that gallant son of the West, Abraham Lincoln.”

Lincoln’s nomination stirred a sense of pride throughout the West. Indiana’s LaPorte Herald praised Lincoln as a man of the West who had risen from poverty and obscurity “by the most intense labor and application” to become a “tower of strength” in the region. Iowa’s Davenport Gazette raved that “the people of the West will feel in voting for him as though they were elevating from their own ranks one who thoroughly understands their interests and will faithfully represent them.” St. Louis congressional candidate Frank Blair praised the “Rail Splitter’s” Western virtues to a crowd celebrating Lincoln’s nomination. His Western roots even received a backhanded compliment in the Richmond Daily Dispatch, which credited Horace Greeley with throwing William Seward“ underfoot by the backwoodsman of the West, a flat-boatman, a mauler of rails, and, worse than all, a man suspected of being ‘honest.’”

Lincoln’s humble Western roots, however, posed a threat to his credibility as president. His background, gangly appearance, and Western twang made him an easy target for criticism by the Eastern elite. The name-calling included “gorilla,” “third-rate lawyer,” “nullity,” “duffer,” “rough farmer,” “the original baboon,” “a western hick,” and “a man in the habit of making coarse and clumsy jokes.” Jay Winik summarized his credibility problems: “His high-pitched twang was an oddity in the genteel salons and artful councils of official Washington. The real Lincoln, a curious amalgam of candor and obfuscation, country boy and learned lawyer, was—and would remain —alien to the city’s elite.”

The 1850s were a disappointing yet glorious time for Lincoln. While beginning the decade as an ignored ex-congressman and suffering political defeats along the way, he had latched onto a new political party and a potent political issue (prohibiting slavery in the territories) that propelled him to the threshold of the presidency of the United States, which later became one of the civil war causes.


Grant, on the other hand, started the decade as a heroic Mexican War officer with a bright military future, yet experienced personal embarrassment and failure again and again, and finished the decade with virtually no prospects for a successful life.

Grant had married Julia Dent on August 22, 1848, with West Point friend James Longstreet at the ceremony as his best man. Grant and his wife visited his family in Ohio and then moved on to duty stations in Sackets Harbor, New York (on Lake Ontario) and Detroit, Michigan. They lived together until mid-1852 except when one or the other went to visit family, such as Julia’s giving birth to their first child back in Missouri.  Their togetherness ended when he received orders to the Pacific Northwest and decided against taking his pregnant wife and infant son on the dangerous journey to frontier country.

At Sackets Harbor, Grant realized he had a drinking problem, joined the Sons of Temperance, and apparently benefited from their support until he was transferred. He may have had drinking problems in Detroit. That at least was the impression generated when he fell on an icy sidewalk in January 1851 and sued the merchant who owned the sidewalk. The merchant said of Grant, “If you soldiers would keep sober, perhaps you would not fall on people’s pavement and hurt your legs.” Grant won the case but came under suspicion in the military community.

Before sailing for the West from New York in July 1852, Grant visited Washington in an unsuccessful effort to resolve the quartermaster funds issue. He was stymied by the fact that the entire city was closed for the funeral of Senator Henry Clay for much of the time Grant was there.

Crossing Panama during the journey to the Pacific, Grant heroically helped fight a cholera epidemic, took extraordinary steps to hasten his group’s trip and was saddened by the death of a hundred persons,  including friends and their children. After staying at the Presidio in San Fran- cisco, he traveled north and assumed his duties as quartermaster at Columbia Barracks (Fort Vancouver), where he invested in a store, cattle, hogs, and a farm. These investments, a common practice among officers in those days, brought only losses to Grant. He sold firewood to steamers and rented horses, but the farm was flooded by the Columbia River. Separated from his family, Grant joined many of his fellow officers in excessive drinking. His small size and apparent sensitivity to alcohol made him more likely to become intoxicated, and his behavior was observed by visiting officers such as future general George B. McClellan.

His September and October 1853 requests to go to Washington to settle the old $1,000 claim were denied. Instead, he received orders that took him to Fort Humboldt in northern California, where he reported on January 5, 1854. As a company commander there in 1854, Grant served under an officer with whom he had feuded in Missouri. That officer, Lieutenant Colonel Robert Buchanan, made life miserable for Grant. Receiving little mail and anxious to return home, Grant was lonely and depressed, and reportedly often drank heavily.

Separated from his wife and family, Grant reflected his depression in his letters to Julia. He sorely missed the “highly intelligent, lively, affectionate woman who adored him as he adored her.”14 On February 2, he wrote to her, “You do not know how forsaken I feel here. . . . I got one letter from you since I have been here but it was some three months old.” Four days later he voiced greater concern and frustration:

A mail come in this evening but brought me no news from you nor nothing in reply to my application for orders to go home. I cannot conceive what is the cause of the delay. The state of suspense that I am in is scarsely [sic] bearable. I think I have been from my family quite long enough and sometimes I feel as though I could almost go home “nolens volens [whether willing or not].” I presume, under ordinary circumstances, Humboldt would be a good enough place but the suspense I am in would make paradice [sic] form a bad picture.

In a March 6 letter, he said he was “almost tempted to resign,” and on March 25 he wrote that he had received only one letter from Julia at Fort Humboldt (written the prior October) and added, “How very anxious I am to get home once again. I do not feel as if it was possible to endure this separation much longer.”

By April 11 Grant had reached his breaking point. Upon receiving notice of his promotion to captain and possibly a threat from Buchanan of a court-martial for being intoxicated while on duty, Grant acknowledged receipt of his new commission, resigned his Army commission (effective July 31, 1854), and requested a leave of absence.18 He then returned to New York via Nicaragua with funds raised for him in California. Grant’s public drinking throughout much of his fifteen-year army career and the circumstances surrounding his resignation had tarred him with a reputation as a heavy drinker.19 His financial situation deteriorated as he was unable to collect a $1,750 debt owed him in San Francisco and $800 owed to him by an Army sutler. He ended up borrowing $500 from a friend, Captain Simon Bolivar Buckner, to get home from New York.

Joan Waugh perceptively observed, “One can only speculate about the humiliation that Grant endured during this period. He had enjoyed an elite education, proved himself an able and brave soldier in a major war, and compiled a solid record in the peacetime army, at least until the end. Now, at age thirty-two, he returned home in the eyes of many a poverty-stricken failure.”

After reentering civilian life, Grant endured the most trying and frustrating years of his life. For several years his primary source of income came from sales of firewood in St. Louis. The firewood had been cut by Grant on land that had been given to Julia by her father, Frederick Dent. Grant was unsuccessful as a farmer and rent collector. He built a ramshackle house—appropriately named Hardscrabble— that Julia despised. He tried to borrow money from his father. A particularly low point occurred in the midst of the 1857 depression when he pawned his gold watch for $22. Between 1854 and 1860 Grant was quite dependent upon Julia’s father, with whom he had an acrimonious relationship. After giving up farming in 1858, Grant dabbled in real estate sales until 1860. Due to the lack of political connections, Grant twice was unsuccessful in obtaining the position of St. Louis County engineer. All in all, these were depressing times.

Although it was difficult for him to do so, Grant went to his own father for help and finally escaped the clutches of Frederick Dent. In May 1860, Ulysses began working under his younger brothers, Simpson and Orvil, in the Grant family’s successful leather-goods store in Galena, Illinois. He moved his family into a rented house, led a sober life, and apparently began rebuilding his self-respect.23 Although he became friends with attorney John A. Rawlins, a Federal elector pledged to the Democrat Stephen A. Douglas, Grant did not meet the Illinois residency requirement for voting in the November 6, 1860, presidential election.

On the eve of the Civil War, therefore, Grant had a less-than-successful record as a peacetime Army officer, a distant history of Mexican War heroism, and a well-known drinking problem when separated from his wife and children. He had proven his dogged determination and persistence, but there was no indication of the military greatness he would demonstrate during the nation’s greatest war.

However, Grant’s less-than-a-year residency in Galena proved fortunate because there he became acquainted with not only Rawlins, his future chief of staff but also with Elihu B. Washburne, Galena’s Republican congressman and a former Whig who was a long-time political associate of Lincoln. Washburne would become Grant’s Washington, D.C. political advocate, protector, and liaison to Lincoln.


Joan Waugh compared Lincoln’s and Grant’s pre–Civil War experiences: “Like Lincoln, Grant was an uncommon common ‘western’ man who had known both hard times and hard labor. Unlike Lincoln, Grant endured a decade in his middle years soured with abject public failure.” Indeed, both these Westerners had worked diligently all their lives, had failed in business ventures, and suffered from depression during challenging times.

By early 1860, however, Lincoln had rebounded from his earlier failures and defeats and had bright national political prospects. The younger Grant had not escaped his troubles and was desperately seeking some way to make a decent living to support his family. Prospects for Grant to resume his military career, which had been terminated in disgrace, seemed nonexistent.

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