A Political-Historical Mental Exercise

I’ve been thinking through the 1860 presidential election a lot recently.

The background: In 1857 the Supreme Court ruled in the terrible Dred Scott case that the U.S. Constitution did not protect the rights of black people, free or enslaved. It also invalidated the Missouri Compromise as an illegitimate extension of congressional power. The Missouri Compromise had prohibited slavery in the northern U.S., except for Missouri, and was intended to balance the power of slave and free states. Along with the Kansas-Nebraska Act (1854), this meant each new territory became slave-holding or free based on the votes of that state’s population, which inevitably lead to armed conflicts (notably Bleeding Kansas) between abolitionists and pro-slavery settlers, with abolitionists often winning out. In 1850 the Fugitive Slave Act passed Congress, requiring northern states to return runaway slaves to the south, something abolitionists obviously refused to do. The country was at a breaking point.

So, I’ve been wondering what I would do if I was teleported back to 1860 and able to vote.

The Presidential candidates:

  • Abraham Lincoln was a one-term Representative and failed Senate candidate from Illinois. He was an abolitionist who supported the tactic of manumission (purchasing slaves and freeing them). Lincoln was nominated by the Republican Party, founded only 6 years before in order to oppose slavery’s expansion. Generally considered radical, the Republican platform in 1860 attempted moderation by blocking the expansion of slavery in western states rather than immediate emancipation.
  • Stephen Douglas was a Senator and former Representative from Illinois nominated by the Democratic Party, the oldest political party in the United States which represented the mainstream of American sensibilities. He took the comparably moderate position that slavery should be settled on a state-by-state basis, as reflected in the Kansas-Nebraska Act, of which he was the principal author. He personally didn’t care about slavery, but thought that white people should have the choice to allow or disallow it.
  • John C. Breckinridge was the sitting Vice President, and former Senator and Representative from Kentucky. He supported slavery, and when the Democratic Party nominated Douglas and declined to make a federal, pro-slavery code part of their platform, the Southern delegation nominated Breckinridge as their alternative candidate.
  • John Bell was a Senator from Tennessee, and former Representative and Secretary of War. He was nominated by the Constitutional Union Party, the remnants of the southern members of the defunct Whig Party. They took the bold position of not changing anything about the country, and not addressing slavery at all.

The tensions in the country were at an incredible high, and the southern secessionists who were backing Breckinridge declared that a Lincoln election would necessitate secession to preserve slavery in the south. Military preparations were underway in southern states to that effect, meaning the dissolution of the Union in the event an abolitionist was elected was not an idle threat. Would I vote to end the evil of slavery by electing Lincoln, knowing that his election could also facilitate the fracturing of the country? I find this exercise clarifying: Possibly great evil would come from secession and civil war, but great evil was already happening in the practice of slavery. Voting with the party that opposed evil, even if such a vote risked the breakup of the country, was the right and proper thing to do.