When A Party Divides: The Democrats in 1860

Stephen Douglas and James Buchanan as cocks fighting to the death.
This masterly drawing from 1860 captures the terror and ugliness of the break-up of the then-dominant Democratic party.  At the time, the Democrats were by far the nation’s oldest political party.  In fact, since the break-up of the fitfully successful Whig party a few years earlier, the Democrats had faced only a fractured opposition, a situation that the emergence of a new, national, anti-slavery party was about to change.  Shortly before this print was struck, the nascent Republican party had met in a convention at Chicago, where they had chosen an outlier, Abraham Lincoln, as their presidential nominee.

The Democrats had flourished by being laissez-faire on slavery.  They stood for a limited federal government, which, in their view, meant leaving slavery and slave-owners strictly alone.  The entire party had been organized around the goal of keeping the federal government from ‘interfering’ with slavery, a goal which enjoyed broad appeal in both North and South.  As slavery became more controversial, however, it became more difficult to rally around this leading idea.  Democrats had controlled the White House since 1852, but who could they put up to succeed the incumbent president, James Buchanan, an elderly former diplomat, who alone could conciliate the party’s fractious northern and southern wings?

In the presidential election of 1860, Democrats watched their party collapse, as its leading figures fought one another for the nomination and the power to chart the party’s future.  By Election Day, the Democrats had split into three parts, backing three rival candidates, opening the way for Lincoln’s unlikely victory.

Stephen Douglas, the strongest of the Democratic contenders, was so controversial a pick that the Democrats’ first nominating convention in Charleston, adjourned without selecting anybody.  Douglas had kept his lead through 18 ballots but could not muster the support needed for victory.  The party convened a second time in Baltimore, where Douglas was finally nominated. His opponents rebelled.  Fire-eaters who wanted a more vociferously pro-slavery candidate bolted to form the Southern Democratic Party, choosing Vice President John C. Breckinridge of Kentucky as their nominee.  A third faction, alarmed at the prospect of a national schism over slavery, eschewed these choices, banding together to form the Constitutional Union party, with Tennessee’s John Bell as their nominee (and the northerner Edward Everett as his running-mate).

The Democrats’ crisis hinged on a failure of leadership and ideology.  The party’s main idea was exhausted and untenable, while its chief figures, though able and patriotic, stubbornly clung to incompatible strategies.  None had the genius, nor the humility, to reconcile the party’s increasingly discordant aims.  Even as the crisis unfolded, observers knew it signified diminishing prospects for ‘the Democracy.’  The party was going to be smaller and weaker, a reality that the creator of the Currier and Ives ‘cartoon’ captures very effectively.

In the ensuing election, Lincoln would win, though receiving just 39.8 percent of all the votes cast.  The Democratic vote would have swamped him if combined.  Douglas won 1,380,202 votes; Breckinridge, 848,019; and Bell 590,901, for a total of 2,819,122, whereas Lincoln polled just 1,865,908.  He won in the North but nowhere else, leading Southerners to style his an illegitimate presidency.  By Lincoln’s inauguration, the Southern states had begun to secede.  With the bombardment of Fort Sumter on April 12, 1861, the American civil war got underway.

Democrats felt justified in breaking with their party, but, in all of American history, no election-year choice proved more costly.  The Democrats feared the end of slavery, but, had they ignored their differences and rallied around Douglas, the transition to freedom might have been far less catastrophic and bloody.  Lincoln would not have been elected, and the Civil War as we know it might not have occurred.

As it was, an estimated 620,000 Americans lost their lives.  The Democratic party was dishonored and eclipsed.  It was not until 1885, with the victory of Grover Cleveland, that a Democrat again occupied the presidency.

Image from this source.

The cartoon, published just after Stephen Douglas’s nomination at Baltimore, portrays the struggle within his party as a life-or-death blood sport.  The triumphant ‘Illinois Bantam’ (Douglas) crows over a prostrate ‘old cock’ symbolizing President Buchanan.  The old bird is dying, his great size signifying the power of a united party.  Douglas, flush with victory, boasts of his ability to beat both Lincoln and Breckinridge, the head of the strongest rival Democratic faction.  But just as the victorious Douglas is much smaller than the tough old bird he defeated, so Breckinridge is much smaller than he.  The ‘Kentucky chicken’ looks openly afraid as his handler puts him in the ring.  On the left is a philosophical figure who might represent the machine politicians of Tammany.

2 responses

  1. Gee, what a “cartoon !” Very powerful and sobering. Your caption is extremely well written and informative…….A great post !

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