Democracy: How 1860 Connects to 2020

tags: Congress, Civil War

Dan Crofts's 2016 book, Lincoln and the Politics of Slavery: The Other Thirteenth Amendment and the Struggle to Save the Union (UNC Press), was awarded the University of Virginia’s Bobbie and John Nau Book Prize in American Civil War Era History.

This is not the first time in American history when democratic governance appeared to be under assault. In the years before the Civil War, just as today, minority rule was the norm. White Southerners dominated the Democratic Party, and the Democratic Party dominated the federal government. In this way, what Republicans derisively dubbed the “Slave Power”—a small minority of aristocratic slaveholders—managed to maintain its grip in a country that increasingly viewed slavery as an obstacle to national progress. But in 1860, a juncture point was reached. Republicans appeared ready to break the Democratic stranglehold. And that is what brought John Sherman to Philadelphia.

A high-profile member of the U.S. House from Ohio, Sherman arrived at Philadelphia’s National Hall on Wednesday evening, September 12, 1860. He was escorted to the stage by uniformed “Republican Invincibles” who marched in “military order” and held aloft “four silken banners” as the band played “Hail Columbia.” A huge throng “rapturously” greeted the visitor and responded to his speech with “almost deafening” shouts and applause. It was “a reception we have seldom seen accorded to any politician,” reported the Philadelphia Press.

Sherman’s rock-star status resulted in part from an epic two-month brawl the previous winter when Republicans attempted to make him Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives. That contest, he recalled, unfolded amid “wild confusion” as desperate Southerners tried to block him. He finally gave way to a different Republican, who eked out just enough support to prevail. But it had been a close call. “You know very well,” Sherman reminded the crowd, “that nothing but the extreme moderation, prudent forbearance, and good temper of the Republican party, saved the country from scenes that not only would have been disgraceful, but would have endangered the existence of the Government itself.” If potential disunionists could obstruct the selection of “an officer infinitely inferior in dignity and importance to the President,” it was imperative that a decisive popular vote determine the outcome of the upcoming presidential election.

American voters faced three actual choices, Sherman insisted. Only the Republican candidate, Abraham Lincoln, could win an electoral college majority “by the direct vote of the people.” None of Lincoln’s three rivals—Northern Democrat Stephen A. Douglas, Southern Democrat John C. Breckinridge, or Constitutional Unionist John Bell—had any comparable hope. If Lincoln failed to secure an electoral college majority, the next president either would be selected by the U.S. House, through “trade and barter” to cobble together “an unnatural combination of hostile elements,” or, more likely, by the Democratic-dominated U.S. Senate, which would perpetuate the disgraced Buchanan administration and keep the South in power. Rule-or-ruin Southerners who had threatened to “break up the Union” if they did not get their own way, Sherman warned, would dictate the Senate outcome.

Read entire article at Muster

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