As 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.
For 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.
Another 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 nowhere 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.