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September 5, 2012

Hopefully Not A Repeat of 1860ís Election

Kevin E. Dayhoff

In sharp contrast to the carefully scripted and highly choreographed Republican and Democratic National Conventions this year, on September 5, 1860, politics in our great nation approached a state of anarchy as one of the four candidates for president, Stephen A. Douglas stopped by Frederick to deliver a speech.


The official proceedings of the 2012 Democratic National Convention began yesterday and will, no doubt, continue smoothly through tomorrow when it is expected that President Barack H. Obama will accept the nomination of his party to run for re-election in November.


However, in 1860, our nation stared into the abyss of chaos. The nation was reeling from the abrupt, sudden, and unexpected horror, death, and destruction of John Brown’s Raid in Harpers Ferry in October 1859.


The political and social result of the ill-fated raid was not statesmanship and diplomacy. Rather “the nation was teetering on the brink of disunion, perhaps even civil war,” according to my Elon College American history textbook, The American Nation, by Dr. John A. Garraty.


“Radicals, North and South, were heedlessly provoking one another…” according to Dr. Garraty. “In the Deep South more and more people talked about leaving the Union and in February 1860 the legislature of Alabama formally resolved that the state ought to secede if a Republican was elected President in November…


“The decline of slavery in the border states from Maryland to Missouri… and the increasing worldwide condemnation of the institution (of slavery) added a further psychological burden.


“John Brown’s Raid, with its threat of black insurrection, reduced (the South) to a state of panic…”


By spring 1860, much of the nation considered Mr. Douglas to be “the last hope” of avoiding a civil war, according to many historians, including Dr. Garraty.


But the wheels came off the cart, according to my notes from the classroom of Dr. George Troxler in the fall of 1971, when in 1860; the Democrat Party had not one, but two conventions and yet still “failed to agree upon a candidate…”


The first of the two Democratic National Conventions took place on April 23, 1860, in Charleston, SC. According to The Complete Book of U.S. Presidents, by William A. DeGregorio, “Douglas led on each of 57 ballots, with R.M.T. Hunter, of Virginia, and James Guthrie, of Kentucky, far behind exchanging second and third places.


“Southern extremists, angered over the conventions’ refusal to include in the platform a plank calling for the federal protection of slavery in the territories, walked out in protest…”


Dr. Garraty adds that without the southern delegates “Douglas could not obtain the required two-thirds majority and the convention adjourned without naming a candidate…”


In June, the Democrats met again in Baltimore where they failed to nominate a candidate. The two opposing wings of the Democrat Party then met separately.


The northern wing of the party nominated Mr. Douglas. The southern wing picked the vice president of the outgoing 15th president, James Buchanan, John C. Breckinridge, from Kentucky.


As an interesting aside, the platform of both wings of the Democrat Party called for the “acquisition of Cuba… at the earliest practicable moment…,” according to Michael A. Powell and Bruce A. Thompson, the authors of Mid-Maryland: A Crossroads of History, published December 30, 2005.


Meanwhile, the Republicans conducted a convention that ran like clockwork in Chicago, beginning May 16. “Skillfully they drafted a platform attractive to all classes and all sections of the northern and western states…,” reports Dr. Garraty.


However, as supported by Messrs. Powell and Thompson in Mid-Maryland, contrary to what has become widely popularized today, Abraham Lincoln “was not the party’s first choice. William H. Seward, of New York, went into the convention as the most well-known and respected Republican of the time…”


Nevertheless, to muddy the political waters that much more, a fourth candidate was nominated when the “die-hard Whigs and the remnants of the Know-Nothing (Party) formed the Constitutional Union Party and nominated John Bell, of Tennessee, for President…” and Edward Everett, of Massachusetts, for vice president.


By September it had begun to be obvious that Mr. Douglas, long considered the front-runner to become the 16th president of the United States, was not going to prevail. Dr. Garraty adds: “With four candidates in the field, no one could win a popular majority, but it soon became clear that Lincoln was going to be elected…”


According to John W. Ashbury’s chronicle of Frederick County, Maryland, “… and all our yesterdays,” on September 5, 1860, Mr. Douglas “arrived in Frederick at about 2 p.m. and was met at the train station by many notable citizens.


“He was escorted to the City Hotel … he was rushed to Courthouse Square, where a large public meeting had been organized by Col. John McPherson. When he appeared on the podium, he was greeted by William Pickney Maulsby…


Mid-Maryland reports, “For the most part, Douglas was ignored by the local press.” (At the time, four newspapers were printed in Frederick City and two papers were printed in the county, close to the city…) One paper reported that Mr. Douglas had “no higher ambition than mutual destruction.”


It should also be noted, that according to Mid-Maryland, the Constitutional Union candidates, Messrs. Bell and Everett, came to Frederick, on September 6, for a “parade, consisting of over a hundred vehicles and three bands … over one mile long…”


Nevertheless, Mr. Lincoln, the Republican candidate for president, maintained a well-organized campaign and captured 180 electoral votes to Mr. Douglas’ 12 votes, Mr. Breckinridge’s 72, and Mr. Bell’s 39 electoral votes.


Mr. Douglas, long considered the frontrunner, came in last after all the votes had been counted – and the Democrats had successfully snatched defeat from the jaws of victory.


… I’m just saying.


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