1860’s Politics: Context! Context! I Tell You!

Emerging Civil War 1860's Politics HeaderNetwork News, Then and NowAs someone who loves the politics of the Civil War just as much as the battles, I have learned a few things that I would like to share as we begin our series of posts about the presidential elections of 1860 and ’64, and perhaps some of those in between.

One of the best things about studying historical politics is doing it on the Internet: it makes access to speech texts and images fast and thorough, and newspaper accounts, the 19th century version of television talking heads, are readily available as well. One of the worst things is also using the Internet, for exactly the same reasons. When it takes a researcher less than five minutes to call up 100% of the Lincoln-Douglas debates, including the videos of a televised recreation of this series of events (https://www.c-span.org/series/?LincolnDouglas). It is very easy to forget that these were not presidential debates in 1860.

unknownFor instance, Lincoln’s famous “House Divided” speech was not made when he was a political candidate for president in 1860. Nor was it part of an exchange during the Lincoln-Douglas debates. It was made on June 16, 1858 at Springfield, the then-state capitol of Illinois, when Abraham Lincoln accepted the nomination of the state Republican Party’s nomination to run for senator. He ran against Stephen Douglas, and lost, although this speech and its reporting in the newspapers catapulted candidate Lincoln to national attention.

talkingheads_twopanel_6101Another Lincoln speech that gets misquoted or misplaced in the presidential timeline is Lincoln’s speech at New York’s Cooper Union. According to Lincoln historian Matt Pinsker, Lincoln’s Cooper Union speech offers “the best and most comprehensive statement of Lincoln’s political beliefs on the eve of his nomination for president.” The Cooper Union speech was made twenty-two years after Lincoln’s speech to the Young Men’s Lyceum of Springfield, Illinois. The Lyceum Address, delivered in 1838, was the first time Lincoln publically expanded upon his belief in America’s self-government.  In this speech, Lincoln spoke about the dangers of slavery in the United States. Lincoln warned that mobs or people who disrespected American laws and courts could destroy the United States, referring directly to incidents currently taking place in the southern states. Remember as well that the Lyceum Address was made when Lincoln’s political affiliation was the Whig Party. Both speeches clarify Lincoln’s growth in anti-slavery thinking, but none of these–not the Lyceum Address, the Cooper Union Speech, or the Lincoln-Douglas debates–took place during Lincoln’s run for the presidency in 1860.

One more interesting example of political confusion. . . John C. Frémont’s seemingly out of 3bab14dca8b15cec52c143f5edbdb63bnowhere decision to free slaves in Missouri. This little act of insubordination cost Frémont his career, and often seems to have come out of nowhere, even being cited as an indication of Frémont’s lack of mental stability. I am not defending Frémont’s actions, but I would like to point out that there is much in his past to make this action almost predictable. After all, he was the man chosen to run as the first presidential candidate of the brand new Republican Party, created in the vacuum left by the dissolution of the Whigs: a party, remember, which was created to limit and eventually abolish slavery in America. He lost by 2/3rds of the popular vote, but he did win a third–not an insubstantial showing for a new political entity and a regional candidate.

Life in the 21st century, helped in great part by technology, can collapse time into such small bits–twenty-two years between speeches can seem like a few days, and four years of politicking and a year or so of campaigning can seem like an instantaneous occurrence. Before we judge any era–ours, or that of Lincoln and Company–look at a time line. Slavery was an issue from the “Three-Fifths Compromise” of the Constitution forward. 1793 was when the Fugitive Slave Law was passed, the First Missouri Compromise was in 1820, and the South Carolina Ordinance of Nullification was enacted in 1832. By the late 1850s and early 1860, the air in America had endured the poison of the slavery controversy for almost three quarters of a century. One flash, and the entire thing ignited, but there was really nothing sudden about any of these issues.attack-ad

Context, context!








6 Responses to 1860’s Politics: Context! Context! I Tell You!

  1. The Nebraska Bill blew-up politics in Illinois in 1854. In particular since Douglas was its progenitor it caused politicians to align as either pro- or anti- Nebraska. It marked Lincoln’s active return to politics and he participated in a debate with Douglas in Oct 54 in Springfield. Lincoln’s debate speech was largely repeated and subsequently published as the so-called “Peoria speech” and helped launch him into prominence.

    The Illinois legislature consisted of 100 (25 Sen 75 Reps) with the reps and 13 senators standing for election in 1854. Whigs / anti-Nebraska Dems or Free-soilers held the house, but Dems controlled the Senate (9 Whigs, 14 Dems, 3 anti-Nebr Dems). Under these circumstances, there was no guarantee that the two houses would meet in joint-session to select a Senator for the seat currently held by Dem Shields. However, one Dem senator defected and voted with the Whigs / ani-Nebr Dems to convene the joint session.

    This session met Feb 8, 1855 to vote for a new US Senator. Lincoln was the candidate of the Whigs, Shields the Dems, and Trumbull the anti-Nebr Dems. The initial vote was:
    Lincoln 45
    Shields 41
    Trumbull 5
    Others 8

    With no majority, thus began the politicking. In general Lincoln lost votes, but still no majority. The Dems pulled out Shields in favor of Gov Matteson in the theory that he wasn’t “tainted” by the Nebraska bill. Matteson was able to get to 47 votes, but no higher. Assessing the political situation, Lincoln (perhaps with help of his friends) decided to throw the Whig vote to anti-Nebr Dem Trumbull. In this he was largely successful, and Trumbull amassed 51 votes to Matteson’s 47, thus being elected to the US Senate for the new term (nominally to begin Mar 4 1855, but IAW the then Constitutionally-mandated times for meeting, the first session did not meet until Dec 3 1855).

    Thus Lincoln had established himself and gained some IOUs for the future. Of course in the intervening period before the end of Douglas’ term the Republican party formed in Illinois which confirmed the political re-alignment.

    1. Oh dear!! Who are you and why haven’t we met before?? Thanks so much for this–I often err on the side of not enough information, thinking that no one much cares any more, so this was a wonderful thing to read! Huzzah!

  2. There were no presidential debates in 1860 and Lincoln did not make campaign speeches because presidential candidates were not expected to actively campaign for themselves in those days. The very idea of face-to-face debates was brought up in the 1858 senatorial contest by Lincoln, still very unknown as compared to Douglas. He had been following Douglas around and speaking after him to leverage off the crowds Douglas attracted. Douglas only reluctantly agreed to a few because he didn’t think Lincoln had a chance anyway. But, Lincoln’s speeches were intended to advance his political career. In the 1838 Lyceum address, Lincoln was trying to establish himself in local politics and speaking in general about his concern for lack of civility and mob behavior in politics. He alluded to, but did not specifically address, recent riots and the murder of an abolitionist editor right in southern Illinois. However, the speech was not specifically anti-slavery. Cooper Union might as well have been a campaign speech as his whole intent, brilliantly realized, was to introduce himself to and get the attention of New England Republicans in the lead up to the convention. Here again, one should classify it as not so much anti-slavery as opposing extension of slavery in the territories. He had to be careful not to associate himself with abolitionism, a charge which would not improve his prospects either in 1858 or in 1860, and which got him into a lot of difficulty.

    1. Huzzah! I was looking at a series of speaking dates (for Lincoln surrogates, NOT Lincoln) in central Illinois and was struck by how close to the actual election they were. A much smaller window of opportunity back then, which would certainly be welcome now.

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