Friday, October 29, 2010

Sesquicentennial, Part VI: Election 1860


One hundred fifty years ago, our ancestors were going to the polls during an election season far more contentious than the current one could ever dream of being, Glenn Beck's histrionics to the contrary. The four-way scrum that was the campaign of 1860 was coming to a close. But here's the odd thing: even though on paper we see four campaigns vying for the Presidency, only in a handful of cases were all four competing head-to-head. Because of the sectional nature of the parties in this election, it came down to two-way, or at most three-way races, depending on where you were. This election featured another novelty: two technologies were coming of age that would, between them, change the way elections were conducted forever.

But first, the contestants.

We've already covered the fratricidal Democratic convention of 1860, that produced two nominees for President: Stephen Douglas and John Breckenridge, representing the Northern and Southern wings of the party, respectively. And we've already covered the Republican convention of 1860, where the "dark horse" candidacy of Abraham Lincoln sprang from out of nowhere to seize the nomination. The fourth party in the fray was the Constitutional Union party, whose motto was "The Constitution As It Was, And The Union As It Was." They were the part of status-quo compromise, and they nominated John Bell from Tennessee as their candidate for President.

The Constitutional Union party was an interesting outfit. Basically, their goal wasn't to get John Bell elected President so much as it was to gain enough electoral votes that none of the other candidates could secure a clear majority of the Electoral College. In short, they were running as spoilers, but spoilers with a purpose. Their real goal was to throw the election into the House of Representatives, where they hoped cooler heads might prevail. It was an interesting theory.

Three of the four candidates ran a more or less traditional campaign for the day. Their candidates stayed home, while their men in each state went on the stump to give speeches. Lincoln stayed in Illinois for the most part. Breckenridge, as Buchanan's Vice President, stayed in Washington. Bell stayed at home in Tennessee. Stephen Douglas, however, did no such thing. Douglas hit the rails.

Of all the campaigns, the Northern wing of the Democratic party was the only one to mount a truly national campaign, and Douglas went out on the stump himself, trying to gather support. Ten years prior, this would never have been possible; but now, enough rail lines had been built to connect most of the country's major cities. Now, a candidate actually could canvass the length and breadth of the land. It was a grueling ordeal for Douglas, but he could at least claim to be the first to have done it. For the rest, Bell concentrated his efforts on the border states between North and South, while Breckenridge and Lincoln concentrated on the South and the North, respectively. So, in the North, you generally had a two-way race between Lincoln and Douglas, with a few old Whigs backing Bell. In the South, you had a two-way race between Douglas and Breckenridge, with (again) a few old whigs pulling for Bell. Only in the middle did you have a no-holds-barred full-contact four-way brawl. And, the funny thing was, the border states wanted none of it.

On November 6, 1860, the people went to the polls to decide the matter. And here is where the other new technology came into play. In years prior, it might take months to know who won an election. This is why the Electoral College doesn't even meet until two months after the election. They had to allow enough time for the votes to reach the county seats to be counted. Then they had to wait for the votes to reach the State capitals to be counted. Then the votes had to make it to Washington ... But that had all changed. With the telegraph, news could cross the land as fast as a spark could race down the wire. Mind you, the official tally would still take time to collate and send in; but an unofficial count would serve just as well to let you know how it's going to shake out. By and large, at least in the major cities, when their morning papers were delivered on November 7, citizens knew who had won.

The distribution of votes was interesting, and showed pretty clearly how people were thinking. Douglas only won two states, New Jersey and Missouri. In Missouri, his popular sovereignty platform resonated. But no one else was interested. Bell's Constitutional Union party won in Virginia, Kentucky, and Tennessee. This makes sense, when you realize that the Constitutional Union party was the choice for people who wanted to avoid war at all costs. The border states knew all too well who'd be hosting that party. Lincoln took every state north of Bell's winnings except only Maryland, and he also took Oregon and California. Breckenridge took the rest.

When the dust cleared, Lincoln took the lead, with 180 electoral votes. Breckenridge won only 72, Bell had taken 39, with Douglas winning 12.

The Fire-Eaters' worst fears had come to life. Come March 4 of 1861, Abraham Lincoln would be sworn in as the sixteenth President of the United States. In each of the Southern states, calls went out for a state convention, to consider bills of secession. The conventions would convene towards the middle of November, and tender their results sometime in December.

The match had now been lit and dropped. The fuse was burning.

1 comment:

Jack Jodell said...

Greatpresentation of historical fact and background, Tim. Thank you for this.