The Republican Party/Chapter III

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Chapter III

The Leadership of Lincoln

The crisis was at hand. The nation itself was at the parting of the ways. The Republican party also, after five years of partly tentative, partly formative endeavor had reached the point where it must definitively "find itself." It must adopt in the second national campaign which was before it the policy which would determine all its future destinies. The danger was in multiplicity of counsels. We have noted that it was composed of former members of three parties and that it included a large number of men of authoritative leadership. But among these, save on one or both of the paramount topics, there was far more disagreement than harmony. The supreme necessity was that some commanding leader should arise whose personality would draw all to him and therefore to one another, and who would be able to propound a policy upon which all could agree.

That leader was not lacking. In that crucial year of 1858 he came irresistibly to the fore. He had been among the earliest organizers of the party although by no means among the most conspicuous. Sumner, Seward, Trumbull, Giddings, Chase, Lovejoy, Bryant, Greeley and others were far more widely known than he. They were more experienced in public affairs. But they were not to be the leaders. While they hesitated, with divided counsels, Abraham Lincoln strode forward with the confidence of genius. With a prescience far surpassing that of any of his fellows he divined the situation and its imperious needs and with a sure voice sounded the keynote of victory. "A house divided against itself," he said "cannot stand. I believe this government cannot endure permanently half-slave and half-free." With characteristic directness he added that he did not expect it to fall and did not expect it to become all slave.

That utterance, one of the most epochal in the history of America, was made on June 17, 1858. It was made in the course of Lincoln's acceptance of the Republican nomination for the United States senatorship from Illinois as the competitor of Stephen A. Douglas who was seeking reelection. Months afterward, on October 25th, Seward adopted and repeated the same thought in a speech at Rochester, N. Y. in which he spoke of the "irrepressible conflict" which meant that the United States would "sooner or later become entirely a slaveholding nation or entirely a free labor nation." But in June Seward and others were not yet ready for that declaration. Nor were they inclined to approve Lincoln's candidacy against Douglas. They were so pleased with the revolt of Douglas and the Anti-Lecompton Democrats against the administration that they would have let Douglas be reelected to the Senate without opposition that he might continue there his hostility to Buchanan and thus increase the dissensions in the Democratic party.

Lincoln was wiser. He discerned the desirability of opposing Douglas on moral grounds and also on grounds of the most practical political strategy. On moral grounds he did not purpose that the Republican party should permit a man to be elected to the Senate unchallenged on a platform of indifference to slavery. That was a subject on which no man had a right to be indifferent or neutral. So he meant to compel Douglas to commit himself on it in some fashion one way or the other. That he regarded as a moral duty. But he was shrewd enough and wise enough to see, too, that by thus compelling Douglas to commit himself he would immeasurably widen the breach in the Democratic party.

So he entered the race for the senatorship against the judgment of Seward and Greeley and many others who could see in it nothing but defeat for him. Probably Lincoln expected nothing but defeat; but it would be a defeat in 1858 which would assure victory in 1860; and that was the victory which he wanted to win. He not only entered the race but he also challenged Douglas to stump the state with him in joint debate. Douglas of course accepted. He could not have done otherwise. In that moment Lincoln might well have exclaimed, "the Lord hath delivered him into my hands!" In the graces of oratory and the tricks and sophistry of rhetoric Douglas was the master. He was, too, a master of plausibility and evasion. But Lincoln, direct and remorseless as fate, kept pressing at the fatal flaw in his armor until at last in the debate at Freeport he pressed the point home. He there extorted from Douglas the admission, the declaration that, no matter what the Supreme Court might say, the people of a territory had the power to exclude slavery by hostile police regulations.

It was enough. Lincoln had won the fight. True he was defeated in the senatorial campaign. That Freeport declaration strengthened Douglas with the Democrats of Illinois and they returned him to the United States Senate. It also strengthened him with the Democrats of the North generally and made it practically certain that he would be their candidate for the presidency in 1860. But it made it absolutely certain that the entire pro-slavery South would repudiate and reject him. When this result of Lincoln's masterful leadership was appreciated by the Republican party throughout the land, and when Seward and others repeated the keynote of the conflict to which he had given voice there was no longer any uncertainty as to the future. Lincoln was the destined leader of the new party and his policy was to be its policy.

In the congressional elections of 1858 the Republicans made considerable gains. When the Thirty-sixth Congress met in December, 1859 the Democrats had control of the Senate, but the House was almost evenly divided. John Sherman was the Republican candidate for the Speakership and for eight weeks there was a deadlock over the election. Sherman finally withdrew in favor of William Pennington of New Jersey who was thereupon elected.

Then came the fateful year of 1860. In his commanding place as a Senator from the State of New York Seward seemed to be the foremost Republican candidate for the Presidency. But his very prominence counted against him since it meant that he had incurred strong antagonisms. There were many who thought him too radical in some of his views. The same was true of Salmon P. Chase of Ohio who was also prominent as a candidate. But Lincoln was looked upon as more conservative, as free from enmities and rivalries and as the most "available" of all. Besides, his debate with Douglass had indubitably marked him as the logical and real leader of the party. There was not one of the component elements of the party, not yet fully fused together, to which he would not be acceptable.

The Democrats were, thanks to Lincoln's strategy, hopelessly divided. There were the administration Democrats, comprising practically all the voters in the South and many in the North, and all the office-holders everywhere. There were the Douglas or "Popular Sovereignty" Democrats, forming the vast bulk of the party in New England, the great majority in New York and the West and a large part in Pennsylvania. The latter were determined to nominate Douglas and the former were equally determined not to support him. As for the remnants of the Whig and American parties they dropped their old names and united under the title of Constitutional Union party, a party of unquestionable patriotism and fine intellectual quality but in a hopeless minority.

The first nominating convention that year was the Democratic at Charleston, S. C. on April 23d. Douglas was the leading candidate but could not get the needed two-thirds vote for nomination and after many fruitless ballots the convention adjourned to meet again at Baltimore on June 18th. Meanwhile a large number of the southern delegates opposed to Douglas seceded, organized a rival convention and adjourned to meet at Richmond, Va. on June 11th. When the convention reassembled at Baltimore Douglas was eventually nominated. But there was another secession of administration Democrats who organized a rival convention and nominated John C. Breckinridge of Kentucky for President. The other seceding convention at Richmond also nominated Breckinridge. The chief difference between the Douglas and Breckinridge platforms was in the planks relating to the extension of slavery. The Douglas platform referred the whole question to the Supreme Court and promised acceptance of its judgment. The Breckinridge platform insisted upon regarding the Dred Scott decision as conclusive of the whole matter. Both demanded enforcement of the fugitive slave law and urged the acquisition of Cuba and government aid for the Pacific Railway.

The Constitutional Union party held its convention at Baltimore on May 9th and nominated John Bell of Tennessee for President and Edward Everett of Massachusetts for Vice-President. It adopted no platform except a reaffirmation of the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution and an exhortation to their loyal fulfillment.

Then came the Republican convention. To it the whole nation had looked with an intensity of interest far surpassing all that the others commanded. The Republican party had in 1859 carried every northern state in which an election was held except four. One was California which was assumed to be hopelessly Democratic. The second was Oregon which went Democratic by only 59 votes. The third was New York where there was some dissension between Seward and Greeley and which the Republicans lost by fewer than 2,000 votes. The fourth was Rhode Island where the Republicans were defeated by a fusion of all other parties. Taken all together the northern states had given a heavy Republican majority. In these circumstances there was general expectation that the Republican convention would name, as it did, the next President of the United States.

The convention met in a huge structure called the "Wigwam" in Chicago on May 16th. Though the second national convention of the party it was the first that called itself by the name of Republican. It was national in scope, containing delegates from slave states in the South as well as from free states in the North. All the free states were represented and also Delaware, Maryland, Virginia, Kentucky, Missouri and Texas. Although their citizens could have no votes delegates were admitted from the territories of Kansas and Nebraska as well as from the District of Columbia. The temporary chairman was David Wilmot of Pennsylvania, author of the famous "Wilmot Proviso" against slavery. The permanent chairman was George Ashmun who had been a Representative in Congress from Massachusetts. A significant question was raised early in the session as to whether a majority of the delegates present should be sufficient to nominate or there should be required a number of votes which would be a majority if all the states of the Union had been represented. The adoption of the latter rule would in that case have been practically equivalent to that which has always prevailed in Democratic conventions requiring a two-thirds majority to nominate. But the question was overwhelmingly decided in favor of the former principle making a majority of the delegates actually in attendance sufficient. That principle of simple majority rule has ever since prevailed in Republican conventions.

The platform was adopted before the nominations were made. It called the convention "the delegated representatives of the Republican electors of the United States" and declared that the record of the last four years had demonstrated the necessity of the perpetuation of the Republican party and its peaceful and constitutional triumph. It reaffirmed the principles of the Declaration of Independence relating to the equality of men and their rights and the purpose of government to secure those rights. It demanded the maintenance of the Union and the rights of states to order their own domestic affairs. It scathingly condemned the Buchanan administration for its course toward Kansas and by direct implication denounced and repudiated the Dred Scott decision. There was no hint of interference with slavery in any state where it already existed, but inexorable opposition to its extension into the territories was expressed and the reopening of the African slave trade was denounced as a crime against humanity.

No fewer than five of the planks were devoted to matters other than those pertaining to the contest over slavery, indicating the purpose of the party to undertake the general work of constructive statesmanship for the Nation. Of these the first related to the tariff. At that time the nation was suffering great distress and depression, due largely to the non-protective tariff policy of the Democratic party. The Republican platform called for such an adjustment of duties on imports as would "encourage the development of the industrial interests of the whole country" and for a policy which would secure "to the workingmen liberal wages, to agriculture remunerative prices, to mechanics and manufacturers adequate reward for their skill, labor and enterprise, and to the nation commercial prosperity and independence." The second plank demanded a proper homestead act for the distribution of public lands to actual settlers. The third condemned "Know Nothingism" by implication, opposing any change in the naturalization laws or discrimination against naturalized citizens, and demanded equal protection for all, native and naturalized, at home and abroad. The fourth approved national aid for river and harbor improvements of a national character. The fifth called for the establishment of a daily overland mail to the Pacific Coast and the construction of a transcontinental railroad as soon as possible. Thus at its first national convention held under its own name the Republican party committed itself to broad principles of national welfare without discrimination as to geographical section or social rank or class. It emphasized its essential character as a national party devoted to the Res Publica, the common weal of all the people.

Upon this platform the nominations were made. No nominating speeches were made, but the names of numerous candidates were formally placed before the convention and then a ballot was taken. It resulted as follows: William H. Seward, 173½; Abraham Lincoln, 102; Simon Cameron of Pennsylvania, 50½; Salmon P. Chase, 49; Edward Bates of Missouri, 48; William L. Dayton of New Jersey, 14; John McLean of Ohio, 12; Jacob Collamer of Vermont, 10; and scattering votes, 6. The whole number of delegates was 465, and 233 were necessary to a choice. On the second ballot Cameron was withdrawn and most of his votes with some others went to Lincoln, giving him 181, while Seward, gaining a smaller number, had 184½. On the third ballot about half the support of Bates and Chase and nearly all of Dayton's went to Lincoln and almost nominated him with 231½ votes to Seward's 180. Instantly four Ohio votes were transferred to him, giving him a majority, and other changes ran his vote up to 354. On motion of William M. Evarts, who had originally presented Seward's name, the nomination was made unanimous amid universal enthusiasm. A little later nominations were made for Vice-President and Hannibal Hamlin, United States Senator from Maine, was chosen on the second ballot.

The electoral campaign which followed was by far the most fiercely contested that the country had ever seen. The Republicans adopted the methods that had been used in the Fremont campaign and also in the Harrison campaign of 1840; of mass meetings, torchlight processions of marching clubs and similar demonstrations. There was scarcely a hamlet or cross roads in the northern states where a mass meeting or a parade was not held. In the South the Democrats—of the administration faction, supporting Breckinridge— worked furiously for victory but threatened to secede in case of defeat. In the North both Democratic factions worked hard. Efforts were made for a fusion of their electoral tickets with an agreement that all the votes should be given to the candidate who came nearest to election. This course was pursued in several states.

The early elections in September and October foreshadowed Lincoln's election and the November elections confirmed the forecast. The Republicans carried every northern state except New Jersey, where the result was so close that the electoral vote was divided, Lincoln receiving four and Douglas three. Oregon and Minnesota had been admitted to the Union since the last presidential election and thus thirty-three states voted. Douglas carried only Missouri in addition to his New Jersey votes and had twelve votes in all. Breckinridge carried eleven southern states with 72 votes. Bell carried Virginia, Kentucky and Tennessee with 39 votes. Lincoln carried seventeen states beside New Jersey and secured 180 electoral votes. He had a large plurality though not a majority of the popular vote which was divided as follows: Lincoln, 1,866,452; Douglas, 1,376,957; Breckinridge, 849,781; Bell 588,879. At the same time Republican control of the next Congress was assured, a control which became overwhelming upon the withdrawal of Senators and Representatives from the seceding states. Thus the Republican party completed its formative period. It became a permanent, homogeneous organization. It adopted a policy for dealing with the transcendant issues of the day and also for serving the permanent interests of the country. It entered upon control of the executive and legislative branches of the national government at the most crucial crisis the United States had ever known. Its task was to save the Union, to free the slave and to reconstruct the nation.