Sunday, May 16, 2010

Sesquicentennial, Part II: RNC 1860


American politics in the 1850s were very chaotic. The Whig Party had enjoyed some modest success as a bulwark against the Democratic Party, electing two Presidents, but began to unravel in 1852. The Compromise of 1850 was the proximate cause. The Kansas-Nebraska Act sealed it. Whigs could not settle amongst themselves the question of whether or not to allow slavery in the new territories, and the question tore the party apart. Pro-slavery Whigs found a natural home among the Democrats, while anti-slavery Whigs had nowhere to go. Yet.

Another of the era's many splinter parties was the Free Soil Party, whose name tells you all you need to know: they were dead-set against the expansion of slavery. In 1854, ex-Whigs met with Free Soilers and anti-slavery activists in Jackson, Michigan to discuss how they might be able to work together. They had few differences, easily reconciled, and the Republican Party was born. Only two years later, John Fremont stood for the Presidency as the first Republican candidate for that office. Fremont only won New England and the northernmost states, but he polled 33% of the popular vote, an extraordinarily strong showing for what was to all intents and purposes a new party.

The Republicans convened for their second convention in May of 1860 in Chicago, having been handed what looked like a golden opportunity. The fratricidal disaster that was the Democratic convention of the previous month was all over the papers. To put it bluntly, they smelled chum in the water. With a divided opponent, they need not poll a majority nationally, a mere plurality would do, provided that they got their Electoral Votes in all the right places. To seal the deal, all they needed to do was select the right candidate.

Three men were favorites going into the convention: William H. Seward of New York, Salmon P. Chase of Ohio, and Edward Bates of Missouri. But a funny thing happened on the way to the nominating floor. For one, Seward, Chase, and Bates had each alienated important factions within the Republican party base. For another, this being Chicago, the convention was taking place on the home turf of an opponent that none of the three took seriously. Seward was ahead after the first ballot, but holding on at a strong #2 was one Abraham Lincoln. Two ballots later, Lincoln was the nominee. There was a vicious rumor to the effect that Lincoln's campaign had packed the venue with supporters using counterfeit tickets. I do not know if this rumor has any truth to it or not ... but, if true, it highlights something of Lincoln's character that we would see later on: he would do what was necessary, ruthlessly, and without compunction.

The party platform was almost a foregone conclusion: the party stood four-square against any expansion of slavery into the territories. They also supported a tariff in protection of domestic industry, and a homestead law to grant free land out West to settlers. None of these provisions were greeted with much joy down South. In the event, the Lincoln-Hamlin ticket wouldn't appear on the ballot in any Southern state.

The stage was set now for what would be at least a three-way race in November: Lincoln representing the Republicans, Douglas representing the Northern Democrats, and Breckenridge representing the Southern Democrats. What remained to be seen was if the loser would abide by the decision of the electorate...


Jack Jodell said...

Thank you for that excellent summation of the early Republican Party. Who'da ever thunk they'd become what they are today, huh? You are a man who knows his history. Great job!

Tim McGaha said...

Thanks for the kind words ... I don't know enough, though. I'm an engineer who was once an officer cadet, and that's the angle I generally approach things from. There are details I'll miss. Hopefully, as we close on some of the key anniversaries this fall and next spring, we'll get some other writers joining in on their sites.

John said...


I was very engrossed in this tale, when it suddenly stopped.

"It highlights something of Lincoln's character that we would see later on: he would do what was necessary, ruthlessly, and without compunction."

Obviously, we know what it did later, but illiterates like me would have loved for you to continue. It was very interesting.


Tim McGaha said...

I fully intend to continue this series, but in real time. Over the summer, I'll write some about the Presidential campaign of 1860, then the election itself in the fall. It'll take about five years to play out.