On November 3rd Americans are set to go to the polls, (or maybe just mail in their ballots due to Covid), and for the 59th time vote for their choice as to who will become their president for the next 4 years. I think y’all know how I feel about presidential elections; they are a joke because nothing really changes afterwards; yet still they are fascinating to watch and study after they’re over.
For instance, if you are of voting age now you probably remember the whole Russia collusion story that dominated the last presidential election; but are you old enough to remember the hanging chad fiasco in 2000 when the Supreme Court stepped in and decided the election in favor of George W. Bush?
I’m old enough to remember when Ronald Reagan ran for president; how some people said an actor, (even though he had served as governor of California), did not have the credentials to become president. Even the movie Back to the Future made light of this when Doc Brown asked Marty McFly who was president. Marty answered that Ronald Reagan was president, and Doc Brown jokingly asked, “The actor?”
If you ask me, they are all actors, playing parts in a script we, as the voters, have no control over. All we see is what happens on the stage; the debates, the TV ads, the speeches, and the campaign rallies – we never get to witness the backroom dealings, the maneuvering and scheming that goes on; are these things that make the study of presidential elections so fascinating to me.
I may be going out on a limb here, but I think most Americans are stuck in a state of perpetual now. By that I mean they don’t think about what happened six weeks ago, six months ago, six years ago, and definitely not six decades ago. I think the attention spans of most Americans is such that they can’t recall what their candidate said six months ago; which makes the people easy to manipulate because candidates can waffle, or flip flop on the issues without ever being called on it.
I bring that up because I’ve been hearing people, and pundits, say that this upcoming election is likely to be very contentious. Although I’ve heard it numerous times before, both sides are claiming that this election may determine the future of this country; either we will keep Trump in office and he can continue with his promise of making America Great, or we can put Joe Biden in office and return to a state of normalcy; whatever the hell that might mean.
But that is right now, or at least in our immediate future; what about the past? How many of you are old enough to remember when a certain peanut farmer from Georgia was President and Iran was holding Americans hostage, and how ‘supposedly’ the Iranians were so scared of what an actor from California might do that they released their hostages the moment the actor was declared winner of the election? I use that as an example only to show that people tend to forget the past; unless of course it is their own past; then they call reliving it reminiscing.
Like it or not, history defines us. Just as your personal history made you into the person you are now, the history of your country made us into who and what we are today – and it deserves a thorough and truthful study if we are to understand how we got to where we are today.
It truly amazes me how naive people can be, to think that they can cram 200 plus years of history of their country into a 9 month class in high school; let alone the history of the entire world; regardless of the fact it is called U.S. or World History. What you are getting is, at best, a brief synopsis of the events that defined us, or the world; and more often than not the entire story is not told; for as the saying goes, “The victors of any conflict get to write the history of the conflict.”
Do you honestly think that history books would have called men like Jefferson, Washington, Adams and Henry patriots had they lost the War for Independence? America may have eventually become free and independent even if she’d lost the revolution; but then again slavery would have eventually ended on its own had the Civil War not happened either.
To me it is not so much the wars, or the elections, that I find fascinating; it is the thoughts of those participating in these events; their motivations, their beliefs, the things they stood for, as well as the maneuvering they utilized to achieve their goals that I find to be a fascinating study. And if you think you’re going to get all that in a history textbook, written by someone who wasn’t alive at the time, and probably biased, you’re sadly mistaken. The only way to get at the truth is to dig…dig deep.
People, as I said, are stuck in a perpetual now, thinking that what is going on now is either unique, or is of more concern that what happened years…decades ago. They see rioting and looting going on and they seek to place the blame for it somewhere; and will vote accordingly.
Yet it wasn’t that long ago that we were in a similar situation; after the verdict was handed down acquitting the police officers accused of beating the Rodney King. Los Angeles erupted into rioting, and at the same time we were in the middle of an election cycle that saw the incumbent George H.W. Bush trying to hold on against Bill Clinton.
Whether we are witnessing history repeat itself is a question only time will tell; but it does show how a thorough knowledge of our history disproves the belief that what is happening now is unique; which brings me right back to the subject of whether or not this particular election is going to be contentious.
People think that every election is contentious because they are personally motivated by their position on the issues and their support for whomever is running. But aren’t they all contentious if that is the only criteria used? If you want to see contentious, go back and do a thorough study of the election of 1800 that saw Thomas Jefferson become our 3rd President. There is a wonderful book called A Magnificent Catastrophe, written by Edward Larson that goes into great detail the political maneuvering between the Hamiltonian Federalists, the supporters of John Adams, and the rising Democratic Party which had formed behind the political ideology of Thomas Jefferson; not to mention how the election was finally decided after numerous ballots in the House of Representatives to resolve it.
That was contentious exemplified, and the closest we’ve come to that in recent years is the Bush/Gore election of 2000; but that time it was the Supreme Court that decided the election, not the House of Representatives.
If you really want to undertake a study of a contentious presidential election, study the events leading up to the election of Abraham Lincoln; where Stephen Douglas almost singlehandedly destroyed the traditional Democratic party; the party of Jefferson. An argument could be made that if Stephen Douglas had not been so pig-headed and determined to win the Democratic nomination at all costs we could have avoided the Civil War.
Unless you’ve studied that period of American History extensively, you probably don’t know that Lincoln was the first sectionally elected president. By that I mean that Lincoln was elected president solely upon the votes of the Northern States; not a single Southern State voted for Lincoln.
Prior to the election of Lincoln, and the subsequent Civil War, there were Democrats both in the North and the South; although they were predominantly stronger as a political entity in the South. The contentions between Democrats and the up and coming Republicans were so strong that William Seward, who would go on to become Lincoln’s Secretary of State, said, “The Democratic party must be permanently dislodged from the government.”
Of course he would say that, he was a Republican after all; it would give the Republican party, which was also sectional, complete control over the government; allowing it to subjugate and oppress the Southern States; which it did with near impunity during the period of history known as Reconstruction.
The newly formed Republican Party had been growing in strength and solidarity for four years, and going onto the election of 1860 their rhetoric and animosity towards those in the South had created the perfect conditions for a purely sectional conflict between those in the North and those in the South.
At the heart of the issue was not the existence of slavery in the South as some would believe, it was whether slavery should be allowed to spread into new territories and States. As evil as slavery was, it was merely an issue used by both sides of the debate for the purpose of increasing their power in Congress and by diminishing the power of those who opposed them.
The Democrats wanted to allow a territory, or State, to be able to decide for itself whether to permit slavery to exist because the slave owning States predominantly held to the Jeffersonian line of thinking that the federal government should not interfere in the internal affairs of the States; plus slave owning States typically voted Democrat, which gave them more power in Congress to hold off the Whigs, and later the up and coming Republicans.
The Republicans opposed the spread of slavery for the same reason; to maintain their control in Congress AND, (and this is important), because they wanted newly admitted States to be free of indentured laborers to make it a place that was populated primarily by white European settlers; in short, they didn’t want blacks living among them.
This dispute dates back to at least 1820 when the Missouri Compromise was reached, establishing the 36° 30′ parallel that would divide slave owning states from free states. Slavery itself dates back to the very first settlers to this country and both those who fought the war for independence and those who drafted the Constitution chose to refuse to take any steps to end it; which could have prevented the Civil War.
In 1777 Massachusetts, which would later become the hub of abolitionism, would declare, “…we have such a sacred regard to the union and harmony of the United States as to conceive ourselves under obligation to refrain from every measure that should have a tendency to injure that union which is the basis and foundation of our defense and happiness.” (Source: Massachusetts Legislature letter to Continental Congress) In short, Massachusetts said, “We aren’t going to support anything that might piss those guys in the South off.” Those who drafted the Constitution did pretty much the same thing, ignoring the issue of slavery because to address it would doom their consolidated government to an almost certain defeat.
So slavery continued to exist as an institution in America, regardless of how evil an institution it was. The Constitution, as written and ratified in 1789, does not mention slavery, and it does not mention blacks or whites. The Constitution states things such as ‘other persons’ or those ‘held in service’; no reference is made to skin color or country of origin.
Although they weren’t as numerous as the Africans held in bondage, there were whites also held in bondage during the history of this country; particularly the Irish who came over as indentured servants until they could pay off the cost of transporting them from Ireland to the U.S.; and they were cheaper than the African slaves, therefore they were often treated much more harshly by their masters. I’ll bet you weren’t taught that in school!
The Constitution itself was, intentionally I might add, muddied on the subject of slavery. For instance, Article 1, Section 9 simply states, “The Migration or Importation of such Persons as any of the States now existing shall think proper to admit, shall not be prohibited by the Congress prior to the Year one thousand eight hundred and eight, but a Tax or duty may be imposed on such Importation, not exceeding ten dollars for each Person.”
What that means is that prior to the year 1808 Congress could not enact any law that banned the importation of slaves into America; but it sure as hell could charge a tax for doing so. It also does not prohibit slaves after 1808; it only says that new ones can’t be brought into the country.
Then there is Article 5, Section 2, which states, “No person held to service our labor in one state, under the laws thereof, escaping into another, shall, in consequence of any law or regulation therein, be discharged from such service or labor, but shall be delivered up on claim of the party to whom such service or labor may be due.”
Although it does not specifically come out and say it, the first part of that clause infers that it is up to the States themselves to pass laws either permitting or abolishing slavery within their borders. The second part clearly states that those held in service [slaves] were considered property, and if they escaped into a state where slavery had been eliminated, it did not free them from their bondage, and that the state they had escaped to was obligated to return them.
Aside from the 3/5’s clause for determining representation in the House, the Constitution did not address slavery again until it was again addressed with the 13th Amendment. So basically, the Constitution permitted slavery, and left it up to each State to decide for itself whether or not it would allow that institution to exist within its borders.
As far as what the Constitution specifically says about slavery, it treated slaves as if they were property of their owners; no different than horses, cattle or hogs. Yes that is a horrible way to look at the enslavement of men by others, but that’s how the Constitution treated the subject of slavery, and that is the law by which Congress was bound to what they could or could not do about slavery unless the Constitution were modified; i.e. amended.
So, from a purely constitutional viewpoint, Congress, and the Northern States who favored abolition, had no authority to enact laws that prohibited settlers from moving to new territories with their slaves as part of their possessions. Yet they did; particularly when it came to Kansas. When settlers came to Kansas from the South, bringing their slaves, they were subject to harassment and often violence by those who favored abolishment or exclusionism; which meant no blacks at all.
The subject of statehood for Kansas was also the cause of many heated debates in Congress between those who favored allowing a territory/State to decide for itself whether to permit slavery, or whether or not to prohibit it. Although slavery itself is/was wrong, and while those who protested against the expansion of slavery into new territories/States claimed it was wrong; underlying all their noble and honorable words lay the truth – that slavery was just a tool they were using to divide the people and amass more power.
Many of these noble abolitionists even felt that, although slavery itself was evil, that the black men were inferior to them. Some of them lived in States that did not allow free blacks to migrate to; such as Lincoln’s home State of Illinois. Sure, they wanted to abolish slavery, but they damned sure did not want those freed slaves living among them; competing for jobs against the whites.
Such was the political climate, and attitudes towards slavery leading into the presidential election of 1860; the Republicans, for the time being anyway, wanted to keep slavery within the States where it already existed, and the Democrats wanted to allow it to expand to wherever the people of such territories or States decided for themselves it should or should not be permitted to exist as an institution.
I know it’s hard to put aside your emotions on this, but from a purely Constitutional standpoint, the Democrats were standing on solid ground, while the Republicans were attempting to give to Congress powers that they simply did not have. For years leading up to this election those promoting an abolition/exclusionist agenda had been stirring up hatred towards the South; amassing and consolidating their power, often through deceit and less than legal means.
By 1860 they had grown into a solid block of voting power, and were the party to beat in the upcoming presidential election. One other thing, they were purely sectional; meaning the Republican Party did not exist in any of the Southern States. There were Democrats in the North; although they were not nearly as strong as were the Republicans; but there were no Republicans in the South; so this election would be a North vs. South election; the first of its kind in America.
Coming into the 1860 election the Democrats, instead of presenting a united front, were splintering apart over differences in beliefs regarding the issue of slavery in new territories. Stephen Douglas, a northern Democrat out of Illinois, favored the doctrine of popular sovereignty; meaning a territory be allowed to decide for itself whether or not to allow slavery…without interference by the federal government. It was this policy, primarily, that led to terrorism and violence in Kansas.
Douglas was opposed by the Democrats from the South, who supported the recent Supreme Court decision in the Dred Scott case, saying that the Constitution protected slavery in all federal territories. The Southern Democrats had caucused prior to the 1860 Democratic Convention and came up with a pro-slavery platform which they presented to the convention.
The Northern delegates, standing united behind Stephen Douglas, opposed that platform; instead choosing to support the Douglas position of popular sovereignty. Douglas, and his supporters, refused to budge from their position; feeling that their position was the only tenable one which could defeat whomever the Republicans chose to run for president.
Prior to beginning the Democrats had passed a resolution requiring that for a person to obtain the Democratic nomination they MUST obtain 3/4 of the votes of all the delegates in attendance. When the Southern delegates saw that the Northern ones would not seek to compromise, they walked out of the convention completely and held their own. So what had effectively happened was the Democratic Party had split into Northern Democrats and Southern Democrats.
Divided they stood no chance of defeating whomever the Republicans chose to run against them. However Douglas was so firmly set in his position, and the Southern Democrats felt that their political future and the concept of State’s Rights was threatened so severely by the position held by the Democrats in the North, that the party splintered in two; handing the election to Abraham Lincoln; a person who had held no political office other than one term, ten years prior in the House of Representatives. The United States had just elected its first purely sectional President without a single vote for him by any Southern State; a president who firmly supported an abolitionist/exclusionist agenda.
Douglas was so infuriated with the Southern Democrats that he campaigned in areas in the North were he stood no chance of winning, just to crush out of existence the Southern Democratic Party. It’s ironic that, had Douglas won the 1860 Presidential Election, he would not have served his full term; for he would die on June 3, 1861 from Typhoid Fever. It’s even more ironic due to the fact that the man who did win that election would also die in office; at the hands of the assassin John Wilkes Booth. It almost seems that, no matter which candidate won that election, they were destined to die in office.
The Democrats could possibly have won against Lincoln had they chosen Jefferson Davis, instead of splintering in to two factions and running both John Breckinridge AND John Bell against Lincoln. Davis was a southerner from Mississippi who was well liked and respected in the North, and he could have posed a strong enough candidate to defeat Lincoln; for he would have assuredly taken all the Electoral Votes from the South as well. Had Stephen Douglas not been so intent upon beating the Republicans at all costs, the Democrats could have won, and the Civil War could have been, at least, avoided.
I have left out a lot of the day by day political maneuvering that went on in the election of 1860 for fear of boring you. What I have presented is enough to, hopefully, show you that people living today have no idea of what a truly contentious presidential election is like. Not only did the election of 1860 rip the Democratic Party in two, it ripped the country in two as well; leading to 4 long years of war, and forever ending the belief that we have government by consent of the people; for Lincoln proved beyond a doubt that if you do not consent to governments authority over you, it will use the sword, the cannon and the bayonet to compel your obedience to it.
That was the ultimate legacy of the 1860 Presidential Election; not what ultimately would happen to slavery; which would have ended on its own peacefully if they would have just let it.
What I have tried to do is to provide you with the history of that election in as unbiased a narrative as I could; sticking as much to facts as possible. Yes slavery was an issue that was at the forefront of the 1860 Presidential Election; yes the differing opinions on it led to the division of, not only the Democratic Party, but the Union itself. But it was protected by the Constitution, and the Republicans used it as a weapon against the States that practiced it to gain control of the government; which in turn led the Southern States to secession, and the end result, the Civil War. Slavery was crucial to the Southern economy, and to its ability to hold its own against the industrial North who sought to impose high import tariffs to benefit Northern business interests; tariffs which hurt the South much more than they did the North. In support of this position is the fact that when the Southern States seceded New York City considered secession as well; for their textile mills relied upon the cotton the Southern States produced; their sympathies were for the South, not the radical abolitionists in states like Boston.
I will never say that slavery was not an issue leading up to the Civil War; it was. What I will say is that it was not why the South seceded; they seceded because there were two competing trains of thought as to what purpose government should serve; whether government should be kept limited as the founder of the Democratic Party Thomas Jefferson believed, or whether it should be used to help American, (meaning Northern), business interests as did Jefferson’s arch rival Alexander Hamilton.
Slavery was just one piece of a very complicated puzzle that has as its origin the very drafting of the Constitution itself. Had the Constitution been written in such a way as to clearly protect or seek to abolish slavery the Civil War could have been avoided. But it was written in such an ambiguous way so as to make the Civil War all but inevitable. Had that document clearly come out stating that its ultimate goal was to end slavery, it would never have been ratified and the South would never have been part of the Union in the first place; making a ‘civil war’ all but impossible. Also, any invasion by the North would therefore have been seen as an act of war by one hostile nation against another.
History is never cut and dried; it is often complex and takes a lot of study to understand. It is when emotions come into play, rather than a careful examination of facts, that history loses its value and becomes meaningless. But history is what made us who we are, and for it to be of any use it must be studied in an unbiased and emotion free mindset. All that matters is the truth; and you have not been taught the truth about slavery, the South, or the Civil War.
What I hope I’ve done here is provide a slice of the truth; an appetizer so to speak, so that you might seek out the remainder of it for yourself. For history does have a way of repeating itself; and if that is the case, we may very well be on the cusp of repeating it again as we watch as monuments dedicated to both Confederate leaders and founding fathers are being torn down and defaced at an alarming rate.
You can only push a people so far before they push back. The North learned that in 1861; please don’t make the same mistake they did. They may have won the war, but at what cost? Please, learn from history before future historians write that your ignorance of it led to history repeating itself in 2020.