What Lincoln Meant

Most elections do not represent the dawn of something new in a nation’s politics. Lincoln’s election did. None of the fifteen men to hold the presidency before Lincoln had been a Republican. But Lincoln brought more to the table than the first win for his party.

Of the fifteen men who preceded Lincoln in the nation’s highest office, nine (60%) owned slaves.

Together those nine gave the United States a slaveholding president for fifty of its seventy-two (69%) years under the Constitution.

Furthermore, no man won the presidency without the support of at least one slave state’s electoral votes.*

The waves of immigration that followed Washington’s day came largely to the free states. Most immigrants started out as cheap labor and the slave states had ample reserves of that. Their growing populations swelled their influence in the House of Representatives and Electoral College. That trend appears in the election results:

Of the five men elected to the presidency and six who held it without owning slaves, half (Pierce, Fillmore, and Buchanan) came in a streak immediately before Lincoln’s election. All three were doughfaces, northerners who skewed southern on policy.

No man had ever been president, elected or otherwise, who had not been born in the thirteen original states or the colonies that preceded them.

Of those who moved west, none save William Henry Harrison hailed from a free state. Harrison was born in Virginia and moved to the Northwest Territory (Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, Michigan, Wisconsin, and part of Minnesota) where he served as territorial governor and got Congress to suspend the Territory’s ban on slavery for ten years, 1803-1813. He went further and tried to institute slavery, twice.

The other men who moved west and established careers there before becoming president all moved to slave territories and slave states: Jackson and Polk to Tennessee, Taylor to Louisiana.

We must resist the temptation to take this as trivia, like how Lincoln was the first man to take the oath of office wearing a beard. These facts tell the story of where power lay in the United States and how it moved. For the nation’s entire history, the South had been the dominant bloc and any man who sought the presidency had to court it or at least make himself acceptable to southern interests.

Lincoln, though born in Kentucky, was not from the South. He declared himself against its most paramount interest: the expansion of slavery. He won without a single southern electoral vote, not even appearing on the ballot in any state that would later join the Confederacy, save Virginia. In the four slave states that kept to the Union, he came in fourth of four in all save Delaware. (There he managed third.) But Lincoln swept the north, carrying every free state’s electoral votes save for the smaller fraction of New Jersey’s split vote. Lincoln won enough electoral votes to defeat his three opponents even united in a single ticket against him.

Whatever Lincoln said about slavery, in the territories or elsewhere, his election marked a new nadir in southern influence. To the men who built their self-image as a class around their dominance of the nation, lean times had come.

*NB: I am treating the elections of Thomas Jefferson and John Quincy Adams by the House of Representatives as surrogate electoral votes for the purposes of simplicity, as the effect is the same.

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