When Political Parties Implode: “I refused to unite with a bunch of traitors and disunionists…” The 1860 Election

election-results-1860-map

Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

Instead of making direct comments regarding the developments in the current 2016 Presidential campaign, especially the repeated charges by Donald Trump that the election is rigged and continuing threats of violence coming from many of his supporters I have decided to push on with the series that I began last Friday which is excerpted from my draft book “Mine Eyes Have Seen the Glory” Race, Religion, Ideology, and Politics in the Civil War Era. The past three articles dealt with the breakup of the Whig and Democratic Parties and this one deals with the final break in the Democrats during the election of 1860. I took the title from what Stephen Douglas, the leader of the Northern Democrats and one of the two Democrat Presidential nominees said when Southern Democrats asked him to drop out of the race. I hope that you enjoy.

Peace

Padre Steve+

The crisis continued to fester and when Lincoln was elected to the Presidency in November 1860, with no southern states voting Republican, the long festering volcano erupted. The various crises of the 1850s had brought the political emotions nation to a fever pitch and 1860 election season saw a dramatic rise in the overtly racial invective of the pro-slavery Democrats, including many in the North. It was also the election that “marked the crystallization of two fully sectionalized parties,” [1] neither of which could find a place of compromise in order to save the Union. A Mississippian observed that “the minds of the people are aroused to a pitch of excitement probably unparalleled in the history of our country.” [2]

Like the present time where the rise of the internet, social media and other platforms allows people, including radical ideologues of various stripes an unparalleled opportunity to spew hate, the changing nature of technology made the campaign one of the most merciless in American history. “Cheap printing and the telegraph made it easier and easier for the shrillest of ideologues to find audiences, even national ones.” [3] As such the campaign prefigured those of the present time. The newspapers and the ideologues may not have changed many the minds of many voters, most of whom were by now hardened in their position, but “they likely helped spur a gigantic voter turnout – some 80 percent of eligible white males nationwide – which was deemed crucial to Republican success in swing states like Indiana and Pennsylvania.” [4]

Lincoln had run a masterful campaign, rising from a comparatively unknown to a national figure due to his debates with Stephen Douglas during the 1858 Illinois Senate campaign. The Republican Party that he represented was a “coalition of old Democrats, former Whigs, and members of the nativist American Party.” [5] Lincoln defeated the odds on favorite to win the Republican nomination, Senator William Seward, as well as Senator Salmon Chase and Missouri’s elder statesman Edward Bates. Lincoln took the nomination on the third ballot and then went on to defeat a fractured opposition which was composed of three different tickets, those of the Northern Democrat Stephen Douglas, the Southern Democrat John C. Breckenridge, and the third, a fusion Constitutional Union Party ticket of John C. Bell and Edward Everett.

The split in the Democrat ticket won the election for Lincoln and was in part the idea of fire-eaters in the South, especially those in South Carolina who could not abide the candidacy of Douglas. These Southern Democrats envisioned “the destruction of the national Democratic Party – and its powerful contingent of moderates in the state – as a visible vehicle for protecting slavery in the Union.” [6]   These men hated Douglas, a man that they once cheered, for his opposition to the Lecompton Constitution and the admission of Kansas as a Slave state.  When the Democratic national convention met to nominate a presidential candidate the delegates especially the leaders of the Gulf state delegations “redoubled their sworn efforts to keep the nomination away from Douglas.” Douglas and his team of advisors attempted to work out a deal to secure the nomination with them, but they met with a stubborn refusal to cede the nomination to Douglas. The result was “an open party rupture” [7] which destroyed any chance of defeating Lincoln and the Republicans. The ever pragmatic Unionist Alexander Stephens “who stood with Douglas to the last, despaired, not only for his party but for his country: “There is a tendency everywhere, not only in the North, but the South, to strife, dissention, disorder, and anarchy.” [8]

Opponents of Lincoln turned the election to a referendum on race. The New York Herald, which was a strongly Democrat paper and had the largest circulation of any paper in the nation was typical of papers that used race to attack the Republicans. The Herald served up “a patented blend of sarcasm and sensationalism. The Herald’s editorial page cracked wise almost every day about “the Eternal nigger,” the “Almighty nigger,” the “Irrepressible nigger” and the “nigger-loving black republicans.” [9] In both the North and South opponents of Lincoln and the Republicans conjured up the fear of a future black president in order to further stoke the flames of racial hatred and division.

During the campaign Lincoln was careful to not to go beyond the printed words of his published speeches and he refused to issue any statements to mollify the conspiracy theory hysteria that was enveloping the South. “What is it I should say to quiet alarm?” he asked in October. “Is it that no interference by the government, with slaves or slavery within the states, is intended? I have said this so often already, that a repetition of it is but mockery, bearing an appearance of weakness.” [10] To be frank, Lincoln and other Republicans misread the true feelings of the South and “considered the movement South as sort of a political game of bluff, gotten up by politicians, and meant solely to frighten the North. He believed that when the leaders saw their efforts in that direction unavailing, the tumult would subside.” [11] William Seward equated the Southern threats to cries of “wolf” which had little meaning and told a gathering in New York, “For ten, aye twenty years, these threats have been renewed in the same language and in the same form, about the first day of November every four years. I do not doubt that these Southern statesmen and politicians think that they are going to dissolve the Union, but I think that they are going to do no such thing.” [12]  The editor of a Tennessee paper admitted “the cry of disunion had been raised so often that few had taken it seriously in the campaign. Evidently, the ‘Northern sectionalists’ had believed it to be ‘all talk’… while most intelligent Southerners had assumed that it was ‘an idle menace, made to sway Northern sentiment.’” [13]

The Republican Party itself was a coalition of individuals who often held opposing views, and Lincoln understood that the election, as nearly every election tends to be, was not going to be about one issue alone and even the Republican doctrine of Free Soil was seen by them more as “an economic policy than an anti-slave policy.” [14] As important as abolition was to the founding of the Republican Party, other interests had to be taken into account. These included protective tariffs, infrastructure and railroads, and homestead legislation. Thus he could not go too far in any direction that might deviate from the party platform without risking a fracture in his own party He noted: “It would be both impudent, and contrary to the reasonable expectation of friends for me to write, or speak anything upon doctrinal points right now. Besides this my published speeches contain nearly all I could willingly say.” [15]

The Presidential campaign of 1860 was unique since it had four different tickets vying for the office and it unfolded into “three distinct campaigns: Douglas against Lincoln in the North; Breckinridge versus Bell in the South; and Douglas contesting Bell in the border states, with Lincoln and Breckinridge hoping for some support there as well.” [16] As purely sectional candidates Breckinridge had no hope of winning in the North and Lincoln no chance of winning in the South.

In the South politicians, preachers and newspaper editors sounded the alarm at the possibility of a Lincoln presidency which bordered on outright paranoid hysteria. Conspiracy theories and outright falsehoods about Negro atrocities were flouted as truth in the South, whipping up passions and stoking rampant fear, “R.S. Holt, a wealthy Mississippi planter and brother of the U.S. postmaster general, reported that “we have constantly a foretaste of what Northern-brotherhood means, in almost daily conflagrations & in discovery of poison, knives & pistols distributed among our slaves by the emissaries sent out for that purpose…. There cannot be found in all the planting States a territory ten miles square in which the footprints of these miscreants have not been discovered.” [17]

One of the most consistent defenders of slavery and long term proponents of secession, Virginia Edmund Ruffin wrote to Yancey that “a Republican victory was obviously coming and that it would be “a clear and unmistakable indication of future & fixed domination of the Northern section & its abolition party over the Southern states & their institutions, & the speedy progress to the extermination of Negro slavery & and the consequent ruin of the South.” [18] A newspaper editorial in Georgia warned “Let the consequences be what they may – whether the Potomac is crimsoned in human gore, and Pennsylvania Avenue is paved ten fathoms deep with mangled bodies…the South will never submit to such humiliation and degradation as the inauguration of Abraham Lincoln.” [19]

Prominent Southern ministers, though more cautious than the newspapermen and politicians sounded the alarm. Evangelical “proslavery had popularized the South’s unique approach to the Bible and the founding of the nation. The bible supported slaveholding; God supported the South. The formula was clear. Right made might. The South had to triumph.” [20] A Presbyterian editor counseled prayer to deal with the crisis but added: “An agitation that perpetually sends dread and disturbance in to every hamlet, and to every home and fireside in the land is intolerable. No people can abide it long. They will prefer the hazard of any convulsion, the perils of any terrible adventure, to a life of anxiety and disquiet. The instincts of nature will drive them to seek relief by any, even the most dangerous means.” [21]  A prominent Southern journal remarked “In religious sentiment the South stands as a unit. Its pure doctrines are linked insuperably, though not by legal constraint, with the laws of the land. No isms and schism rankle our hearts. Christ is acknowledged as the common bond of union.” [22] Prominent church leaders like Leonidas Polk Episcopal Bishop of Louisiana made outright demands for secession if the Lincoln won. As it had so many times in the past two decades, religious sentiment helped fuel the Southern fire.

The only hope for the Democrats was for a “fusion” of the three opposition in key northern states to deny Lincoln their electoral votes and throw the election into the House.” [23] But this was not to be as there was far too much bad blood between the Buchanan faction headed by Breckinridge and Douglas, as well as distrust of the Bell ticket due to its connections with the earlier Know Nothing Party and movement. Jefferson Davis, long a proponent of secession went to Douglas to try to sway him from dropping out of the race in favor of a fusion ticket that could unite the Southern vote. Douglas recalled the conversation “If the Democrats run two candidates,” he said, “the Black Republicans will win the election. In that event the slave states will secede…” [24] Davis tried to convince Douglas to drop out saying that Breckinridge and Bell had agreed to if he would, and Douglas, who had a long standing enmity with the Mississippian wrote:

“This was strange talk from Davis, and I was damned suspicious that it might be a trap. It was all I could do to control my hatred for the Goddamned bastard. “The plan is impractical I said coldly. “If I withdraw, my friends in the North will go over to Lincoln. I’m in the hands of my friends and they won’t accept this proposition.

“Then I’ve done all that I can,” he said, rose and walked out.

Why the Goddamned hell should I withdraw? I asked my aides. I was a matter of honor with me. I had won my nomination fairly, on the basis of the party’s time honored principles. I refused to unite with a bunch of traitors and disunionists…

Others pressed me to unite with the “vandals,” as we called the Breckinridge party, but I answered with a thundering no. “I’m utterly opposed to fusing with any man or party who’ll not enforce the laws, maintain the Constitution, and preserve the Union in all contingencies,” I said. I wish to God Old Hickory was still alive, so that he could hang northern and southern traitors from the same gallows.” [25]

The split in the Democratic Party was irrevocable. While all factions of the party had some measure of responsibility for the party’s implosion in 1860, it was the old Southern leaders whose actions doomed the party. Bruce Catton wrote:

“Primary responsibility for the Democratic split in 1860 – the act that ensured a Republican triumph and left the South no cohesive national institution through which it could hope to share or regain power – belongs to those respected Southern leaders whose threats of party rupture and secession as political tactics, in the vain hope that a majority in the party and nation would fall in behind them before the tactic got out of hand. Because they would not adjust to circumstances they were engulfed by them – all without understanding that they were the leading architects of their disaster.”  [26]

Despite the cleavage in the Democratic Party, the election of 1860 enthralled the nation as candidates and their surrogates made the cases for each.  “Americans everywhere – North and South, men and women, slave and free – took an active part in the four-way campaign of 1860. Issues, platforms, speeches, and candidates were reviewed and debated in corn fields and cotton fields, workshops and markets, family gatherings, churches, picnics, races, sewing circles, family gathering, schoolhouses, slave quarters, taverns and beer gardens.” [27]

Unlike now when all states vote the same day for President, the elections of 1860 consisted of votes over a two month period of time in the different states. When Lincoln began to win early contests in the Northern states Douglas took his campaign south where he did not mince words and defied secessionists in his stated desire to preserve the Union. He told his secretary “That does it…Lincoln is the next President. We must try to preserve the Union. I’ll go to the Deep South where the secession spirit is strongest.” [28] In the South the Little Giant was met with scorn.

When all was said and done “some 4,700,000 Americans – well over two thirds of the electorate – marched to the polls and cast their ballots. By the early hours of November 7th it was clear that Lincoln had won, and when the final results were tallied it was clear that he had won rather decisively,” [29] at least in the Electoral College. Douglas received twenty-nine percent of the national vote, Breckinridge eighteen percent, and Bell thirteen. “Lincoln carried seventeen free states and no slave states; Breckinridge, eleven slave states and no free states, Bell three slave states and no free states.” [30] Douglas only won the embattled state of Missouri despite having more of the national popular vote than either Bell or Breckinridge. Lincoln captured forty percent but took 180 electoral votes, far more than the minimum of 152 needed to elect. Lincoln’s gains among former Whigs who were attracted to him by economic versus anti-slavery policies allowed Lincoln to sweep the Northern states and secure the electoral majority. When Douglas heard the final results he was in Mobile Alabama. He told his friend John Forsyth, “Well, John, I am beaten, I said hoarsely. “Lincoln will win by a big margin in the Electoral College. Even if Breckinridge, Bell, and I had withdrawn and united behind a single Democratic candidate, Lincoln would still have won a majority of electoral votes.” [31]

For decades “Southerners had shown how minorities dominate majoritarian processes. The overwhelmingly anti-Slave Power North had now shown how an awakened majority routs a minority.” [32] Even so by November the new President elect realized that the South was not bluffing in terms of secession. “The election had clarified nothing. It simply meant that a nation which had spent a long generation arguing about slavery had grown tired of talk and wanted something done – without specifying what that something might be.” [33] The process “of sectional polarization was almost complete, and it remained to see what the response would come from the section that was at the losing end of the axis.” [34] The answer was not long in coming, in the South those who had talked threatened secession for years now put their words into action as the leaders of states of the Lower South met to plan their exit from the Union.

Notes

[1] Ibid. Potter The Impending Crisis p.447

[2] Ibid. McPherson The Battle Cry of Freedom p.229

[3] Ibid. Goodheart 1861 p.45

[4] Holzer, Harold Lincoln and the Power of the Press: The War For Public Opinion Simon and Schuster, New York 2014 p.255

[5] Ibid. Goodwin Team of Rivals p. 267

[6] Ibid. McCurry Confederate Reckoning p.44

[7] Ibid. Catton Two Roads to Sumter p.202

[8] Ibid. Goldfield America Aflame p.168

[9] Ibid. Goodheart 1861 p.45

[10] Ibid. McPherson The Battle Cry of Freedom p.231

[11] Ibid. Potter The Impending Crisis p.432

[12] Ibid. Catton The Coming Fury p.95

[13] Ibid. Goodwin Team of Rivals pp.274-275

[14] Ibid. Egnal Clash of Extremes p.255

[15] Ibid. Goodwin Team of Rivals p. 266

[16] Ibid. Goldfield America Aflame p.168

[17] Ibid. McPherson The Battle Cry of Freedom p.229

[18] Ibid. Catton The Coming Fury p.97

[19] Ibid. McPherson The Battle Cry of Freedom p.230

[20] Ibid. Daly When Slavery Was Called Freedom p.135

[21] Ibid. Rable God’s Almost Chosen Peoples pp.34-35

[22] Ibid. Daly When Slavery Was Called Freedom p.135

[23] Ibid. McPherson The Battle Cry of Freedom p.232

[24] Ibid. Oates The Approaching Fury p.329

[25] Ibid. Oates The Approaching Fury pp.329-330

[26] Ibid. Catton Two Roads to Sumter p.211

[27] Ibid. Levine Half Slave and Half Free p.223

[28] Ibid. Oates The Approaching Fury p.331

[29] Ibid. Catton Two Roads to Sumter p.243

[30] Ibid. Potter The Impending Crisis p.447

[31] Ibid. Oates The Approaching Fury p.337

[32] Ibid. Freehling The Road to Disunion Volume II pp.338-339

[33] Ibid. Catton The Coming Fury p.119

[34] Ibid. Potter The Impending Crisis p.447

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