The Atlantic

The Conspiracy Theories That Fueled the Civil War

The most powerful people and institutions in the South spread paranoia and fear to protect slavery. Their beliefs led the country to war—and continue to haunt our politics to this day.

Photo-illustration by Damon Davis

I leading up to the Civil War, fear festered in southern living rooms and legislative chambers. Newspapers reported that the newly elected president, Abraham Lincoln, held a “hatred of the South and its institutions [that would] cause him to use all the power at hand to destroy our country”and that his vice president, Hannibal Hamlin, was not only sympathetic to the plight of black Americans but was himself part black—“what we call,” the editor of one Charleston, South Carolina, paper stated, “a mulatto.” Warnings circulated in pamphlets and the press that an antislavery federal government would inspire a wave of violent slave revolts and then allow the South to burn, rather than stepping in to quell resistance. asserted that northern abolitionists had for decades been sending “emissaries” to “bring blood and carnage to our firesides.” that the “avowed purpose” of Republican leaders was to “subvert our society and subject us not only to the loss of our property but the destruction of ourselves, our wives, and our

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