Negro and the Nation - G. S. Merriam

The Election of 1860

Now came on the battle in the Presidential convention. The Democratic convention was dramatic and momentous. It met at Charleston, S. C., in the last days of April, 1860. The struggle was between Douglas and the extreme South. The contest was not over the nomination, but on the resolutions. The Douglas party proposed the reaffirmation of the Cincinnati platform of 1856, of which the kernel lay in the words: "Non-intervention by Congress with slavery in State or Territory"; and to this they would now add only a clause referring doubtful constitutional points to the Supreme Court. But the Southern party would accept nothing short of an affirmation that in the Territories until organized as States, the right of slave-holding was absolute and indefeasible, and Congress was bound to protect it. On this issue the dispute in the convention was obstinate and irreconcilable.

The South had long held unbroken sway in the Democracy and in the nation. It had absolutely controlled the last two administrations, though headed by Northern men. Its hold on the Senate had been unbroken, and temporary successes of the Republicans in the House had borne no fruit. The Supreme Court had gone even beyond the demands of the South. Only in Kansas had its cause been lost, because the attempt to coerce a whole territorial population had at last provoked revolt in the Northern Democracy. The breach had been in some sort healed, but the leader of the revolt was not forgiven or trusted. Meantime the alarm at John Brown's raid had intensified the South's hostility to all opponents or critics. All through the winter there had been constant expulsion of anti-slavery men from that section. And now the Southern forces mustered in the convention of the party they had so long controlled, insistent and imperious, rejecting anything short of the fullest affirmation of their claims in the territories.

Douglas was not on the ground, but through his lieutenants, and still more through the spirit he had infused into his followers, he was a great and decisive power. In the Senate he had been almost isolated among the Democrats; of late only Senator Pugh of Ohio had stood with him against the administration. But he had appealed to the people, and they had answered the call of the sturdy, audacious leader. However he might at times court the favor of the South, he really stood for a broad and simple principle,—the right of the majority of white men to rule. For the negroes he cared nothing. But, in the territories, the majority of white men should have slavery or not as they pleased. In the Democratic party, the majority should control. And, in the last resort, in the nation itself the majority should rule. Douglas thus stood squarely for the rule of the majority within the white race. The Republicans coupled with the supremacy of the legal majority in the nation the right and obligation of the majority to maintain the personal freedom of the negro, except where the Constitution allowed the States to maintain slavery. The Southern Democracy asserted as its paramount principle the right of slave-holding wherever the flag flew, except where the State constitution forbade. If that right was denied or limited—by a majority in the Democracy, or by a majority in the nation—then beware!

The Douglas men met the threat with a defiance,—not wordy, but resolute. In Charleston, the stronghold and citadel of the South, with their leader absent, with the disruption of the party impending, they stood their ground. The majority should rule, or they would know the reason why! They decisively outvoted their opponents as to the platform. Then the delegates from South Carolina and the Gulf States deliberately and solemnly marched out of the hall, and organized a separate convention. With that act the rift began to open which was to be closed only after four years of war.

With what expectation did the extreme South thus break up the party? Did they believe that their Northern associates would again capitulate, as they had done so often before? Failing that, did they not know that a divided Democracy meant victory for the Republicans? and had they not committed themselves in that event to dissolve the Union? Were they deliberately courting disunion, and wilfully throwing away the large chance of continued dominance within the Union which a united Democracy might have? Did they really attach supreme importance to this dogma about the territories, when Kansas had shown how inevitably the local population must determine the question, even against the efforts of the Federal Government? Did the Southern leaders prefer the election of a Republican, their open opponent, to Douglas, their friend and half-ally? To such questions as these there can be little more than a conjectural answer. It would be most interesting to know the true thoughts and purposes of the leading delegates. We shall see a little later the interpretation given by one of their defenders. But the strong presumption is that their action was the fruit less of a policy than of a temper. They had long been growing into a disposition which could brook no resistance and no contradiction. The irresponsible power of the master over his slaves; the domination of the slave-holding class over the local communities, and the expulsion of their opponents; the control of the government by a united South over a divided North,—these things had bred a self-confidence and self-assertion which would stop at nothing. The slave-holding principle, in full flower, was a principle which recked nothing of legal majorities or governments. Its basis was force, and it would use whatever force was necessary to maintain itself.

The Douglas Democrats were still patient. Left with the original convention in their hands, they declined to press their advantage. The traditional rule required a two-thirds vote to nominate; and it was agreed that for this purpose the seats left vacant by the seceders must be counted,—which would prevent the nomination of Douglas. Administration men from the North had stayed in the convention when their Southern friends left. The body adjourned, to meet in Baltimore in the last of June. The rival convention met in Richmond only to adjourn to the same time and place. But any hopes of reunion were vain. Neither side would yield. In the regular convention, to some of the vacant seats Douglas delegates had in the interim been chosen. They were admitted, against the protest of the administration minority, who found in this a pretext for withdrawing and joining the seceding convention. With these went a majority of the Massachusetts delegates, including Benjamin F. Butler and Caleb Cushing; Cushing had been president of the Charleston body. The two conventions now made their respective nominations. With Douglas was joined for Vice-President Herschel V. Johnson of Georgia. The seceders nominated John C. Breckinridge of Kentucky and Joseph Lane of Oregon. Breckinridge was Vice-President under Buchanan; a man of character and ability, of fine presence and bearing, a typical Kentuckian, afterward a general in the Confederate service.

Alexander H. Stephens in his War Between the States—perhaps the best statement of the Southern side of the whole case that has ever been made,—says that this secession from the party was made (against his own judgment) not recklessly, nor to provoke disunion, but with the expectation of electing Breckinridge. The calculation was that with four Presidential candidates there would be no choice by the people, and, the election being thrown into the House, Breckinridge would be chosen; or, if the House could not choose, Lane would surely be elected by the Senate. This, says Stephens, was the view of President Buchanan, of Breckinridge, Davis and a great majority of the Charleston seceders. Stephens himself considered this a most precarious and hazardous calculation, wholly insufficient for so grave a step. So obviously sound was this judgment, that we inevitably recur to the belief that the Southern secession was inspired not by calculation, but by a temper of self-assertion, which fitted its hopes to its wishes.

The "Constitutional Union" party—legatee of the Whig and American parties—held a convention at Baltimore in May; resolved simply for the maintenance of the Union and Constitution and the enforcement of the laws; and nominated John Bell of Tennessee and Edward Everett of Massachusetts. It was the refuge of those who disliked the whole sectional controversy, and were indifferent to both pro-slavery and anti-slavery claims in comparison with peace and union. It held a middle position, geographically as well as in sentiment, and was strong in the border States.

The Republican convention met in Chicago in May. It was a more sophisticated body than its predecessor of 1856; with less of youthful and spontaneous enthusiasm for a principle, and more of keen maneuvering for the candidates. But it represented a disciplined and powerful party, clear and strong in its essential principles, and looking confidently to a national victory as almost within its grasp. The platform affirmed its familiar doctrines as to slavery, and threw out various inviting propositions as to foreign immigrants, a homestead law, a Pacific railroad, etc. The vote of Pennsylvania being important and doubtful, a bait was thrown out in a high-tariff resolution. When a year or two later the exigencies of the war demanded a large revenue, this was obtained partly by a high tariff. In these circumstances originated the Protectionist character of the Republican party; a character confirmed by the natural alliance of the favored interests with the favoring power.

The most prominent and in a sense logical candidate was William H. Seward. As Governor and then Senator of New York, as a polished and philosophic orator, as a man whose anti-slavery and constitutional principles were well understood,—he was easily in the popular estimate the foremost man of the party. Lincoln was in comparison obscure; his fame rested mainly on his achievements as a popular debater; he was wholly unversed in executive work and almost equally so in legislation; highly esteemed in his own State, but little known beyond its borders. He had been proposed for the Presidency only a week before in the State convention, with great hurrahing for "the rail-splitter," "honest old Abe." It seemed hardly more than one of the "favorite son" candidacies which every canvass knows in plenty. But he was supported by a group of very skillful Illinois politicians. They worked up the local sentiment in his favor; they filled the galleries of the Wigwam at daylight of the decisive day, and they took quieter and effective measures. Simon Cameron claimed to control the vote of Pennsylvania in the convention, and a bargain was made with him that if Lincoln were elected he should have a seat in the Cabinet. Lincoln was not a party to the compact, but when informed of it afterward he reluctantly made good his part. The same thing was done with the friends of Caleb B. Smith of Indiana, and with a like sequel.

Meantime, Seward met such difficulties as always beset the first favorite in a race. The old alliance between Seward, Weed and Greeley, had been broken, with anger and resentment on Greeley's part, and he was now on the floor of the convention actively opposing his old ally. William M. Evarts led the New York delegation for Seward. Edward Bates of Missouri had some support, as more moderate than Seward in his anti-slavery principles, but he was too colorless a candidate to draw much strength. One of Seward's friends, in seeking to win over the Bates men, declared that Lincoln was just as radical as Seward. A newspaper containing this being shown to Lincoln, he penciled on the margin a reply which was forwarded to his supporters, "Lincoln agrees with Seward in his irrepressible-conflict idea, and in negro equality; but he is opposed to Seward's higher law." The "irrepressible conflict" was the exact counterpart of the "house divided against itself." "Negro equality" marked a distinct advance since the Douglas debate two years before, and such advance, gradual but steady, was characteristic of Lincoln. It was no less characteristic of him to disclaim the "higher law" doctrine,—an obligation recognized by the individual conscience as paramount to all human enactments. Indeed Seward, though the phrase was his, was as little an idealist of the individual conscience as was Lincoln.

Of the circumstances just mentioned, a part belongs to the undercurrents which few spectators at the time discerned. What the crowd and the world saw was three successive ballots. First, Seward, 173-1/2; Lincoln, 102; Cameron, 50-1/2; Chase and Bates following close. Then Cameron's name was withdrawn, and Lincoln shot up abreast of Seward. A third ballot, and Lincoln went up, up till he touched the line of a clear majority. Then the Wigwam roared; the guns boomed; in the first subsidence of the cheering Evarts gallantly moved that the choice be made unanimous,—and the tall, homely Illinois lawyer was the Republican candidate for the Presidency. If the result was not without its illustrations of his own definition of politics—"the combination of individual meannesses for the general good,"—he at least had sacrificed nothing of his convictions, had not worked for his own elevation, or smirched his hands. And, unproved though he was as to administrative power and seamanship in a cyclone, there was yet a singular and intrinsic fitness in his candidacy. His recognized quality was that which is basal and dear to the common people, honesty; honesty in thought, word and act. In his convictions, he was near to the great mass of the party of freedom as it actually was; frankly opposed to slavery, but reverent and tenacious of the established order, even though it gave slavery a certain standing-ground. He had, too, that intimate sympathy with the common people, that knowledge of their thoughts and ways, that respect for their collective judgment and will as the ultimate arbiter—which are the essential traits in a great leader of democracy.

In the four-sided canvass which followed, the lines were not strictly geographical. The Republican party indeed took its Vice-Presidential candidate from the North—Hannibal Hamlin of Maine; for no Southern man was likely to invite exile or worse by taking the place; and the Republican electoral tickets had no place or only a nominal one south of Mason and Dixon's line, except in Missouri, where the emancipation idea was still alive. But the three other parties contested with each other in all the States. In Massachusetts, the Breckinridge party had as its candidate for Governor the unscrupulous Butler; and among its supporters was Caleb Cushing, erudite, brilliant, conscienceless, and a pro-slavery bigot. At the South, the Douglas party had considerable strength. The hot-heads who had split the Democracy and were ready to divide the nation had by no means an undisputed ascendency. Stephens and Toombs parted company; they headed respectively the Douglas and Breckinridge electoral tickets in Georgia. Davis spent part of the summer in privacy at the North; he saw enough to convince him that the North would fight if challenged, but the warning was in vain.

The special interest of the campaign centered in the menace of disunion. The territorial question in itself had grown almost wearisome, and had no immediate application. The fugitive slave law had fallen into the background; renditions were so uncertain and dangerous that they were seldom attempted. John Brown's foray was to the North a bygone affair, with no dream of its repetition. The few promoters of his project had shrunk back at the catastrophe; the mass of the people had always looked on it as a crazy affair; and with personal sympathy or honor for him, the raid was almost forgotten,—but the South could not so easily forget. But the living and burning issue was the threat of secession if Lincoln should be elected,—a threat made openly and constantly at the South. The campaign was full of bitterness. "Black Republicans" was a term in constant use. The violent language was not all at the South. Cushing declared, when in the preceding autumn Massachusetts re?lected Banks as governor, "A band of drunken mutineers have seized hold of the opinion of this commonwealth—the avowed and proclaimed enemies of the Constitution of the United States,"—with further hysteric talk about the ship of state, with the pirate's flag at the masthead, drifting into the gulf of perdition. The New York Herald was full of wild and inflammatory words. Papers of a different character—like the Boston Courier, representative of the party which included Everett and Winthrop—habitually charged the Republican party with John Brownism and disunionism. The South not unnaturally believed that the North was seriously divided, and could never hold together against its claims. But most Northern people regarded the disunion threats as mere gasconade,—meant only to carry an election, and then to be quietly dropped. But if they were meant in earnest—well, there would be something to be said, and done too, on the other side.

Douglas, with almost no chance of success, made a bold and active canvass. Through this year he showed a courage far higher than the mere dexterity which had been his chief distinction before. In part, it was an expression of a changing temper in the people. He stood openly and stoutly for the principle of majority rule. While speaking at Wheeling, Va., he was questioned as to whether he held that the election of Lincoln would justify secession. He answered promptly that it would not, and if secession were attempted, he would support a Republican President in putting it down by force. That pledge to the country he redeemed, when at the outbreak of the war he gave his immediate and full adherence to President Lincoln,—representing and leading the "War Democrats" who practically solidified the North, and insured its victory. At Wheeling, he passed on the question answered by him for Breckinridge to answer. But Breckinridge ignored the challenge,—a silence which was what the lawyers call a "pregnant negative."

November brought victory to the Republicans. In the popular vote, Lincoln had about 1,860,000; Douglas, 1,370,000; Breckinridge, 840,000; and Bell, 590,000. The electoral votes stood—or would have stood, if the electoral conventions had all met—Lincoln, 180; Breckinridge, 72; Bell, 39; Douglas, 12. Lincoln carried every Northern State except New Jersey; Douglas, only part of New Jersey and Missouri; Bell, Virginia, Kentucky and Tennessee; Breckinridge, all the rest of the South. The successful candidate was thus in a popular minority,—no new thing. The distinctively Southern candidate was doubly in a minority. The supporters of Lincoln, Douglas and Bell, were all to be counted against the extreme Southern claim, and much more against any assertion of that claim by secession. Unitedly, their support outnumbered that of Breckinridge by more than four to one. If ever a party was fairly and overwhelmingly out-voted, it was the party whose central doctrine was that slavery must be protected in the United States territories.

Now the question was, would that party acquiesce in the decision of the majority? At every previous election in the nation's history the minority had acquiesced promptly and loyally. When Jefferson was elected, New England looked on the new President as a Jacobin in politics and an infidel in religion. But New England acquiesced without an hour's hesitation. When Jackson was chosen, his opponents saw in him a rude and ignorant demagog. But the anti-Jackson people accepted the new President as they had accepted Monroe and Adams. In the choice of Buchanan, the Republicans saw an assertion of the nationalism of slavery, and a menace of the subjugation of Kansas. But the supporters of Fremont recognized Buchanan as unhesitatingly as if he had been their own choice. What was the meaning of popular government, except that the minority should submit to the legitimate victory of the majority? On what did the nation's existence rest, but the loyalty of its citizens to the nation's self-determination in its elections? And now, would the minority resist the decision of the majority? Would the Southern States attempt to break up the Union? The North could not and would not believe it. But there was a strong party at the South which was fully convinced that the election of Lincoln was the crown of a series of grievances which justified the South in withdrawing from the Union; that such withdrawal was a clear constitutional right; and that the honor and interest of the South demanded that it be made.