More Hot Water for Charles Sumner

Charles Sumner (Free Soil-MA)

Charles Sumner had a rough time of it from the summer of 1854. His party lost control of Massachusetts. The architect of the coalition that elected him defected to the Know-Nothings and then swept the state. He tried to get away from it all, and escape aligning himself with the nativists, with a vacation and managed to flip his carriage. But things did improve for him in the fall. The Know-Nothings lost the Virginia governor’s race, which gave hope that anti-immigrant, anti-catholic paranoia would not form the seed of a durable movement. The phenomenal showing in the Massachusetts legislature, where the Know-Nothings had almost unanimity, stumbled under the burden of amateur legislators and an investigation of the state’s Catholic religious institutions. By summer of 1855, Charles Adams thought that denouncing the nativists now would look like a desperate attempt to jump on the bandwagon.

Henry Wilson, who had gone over to the natvists for a shot at the Senate, promptly came back and set to forming a new coalition on strictly antislavery lines. The Know-Nothing governor would take support from anywhere and signed on. Wilson reached out to Robert Winthrop and his conservative Whigs. Throw in disorganized Know-Nothings, anti-Nebraska Democrats, and together they could all join the Republicans. All that might put Sumner in a bind. Governor Gardner obviously didn’t deserve his trust. Wilson promised Winthrop something substantial for joining. That could mean Sumner’s head. Then again, if the fusion plan failed then Sumner remained without party support back home.

Sumner’s enemies might have saved him. Winthrop’s Boston Whiggery sat out the planned convention out of distrust for the Senator and Wilson. That left Wilson with no one to support in the Senate except Sumner, who he endorsed for re-election when the time came. The convention kept nativism out of its platform and opted to support a new governor rather than the Know-Nothing incumbent. Gardner in turn quit his flirtation with the Republicans and ran as a pure Know-Nothing. The realignment shook out so that all the antislavery men lined up in the Republicans and the Know-Nothings boasted only old line Whigs. That left Sumner free to campaign for the Republicans and denounce the Know-Nothings without harming his own support.

Henry Wilson (American-MA)

The new alignment closely matched the old, Free Soilers back again with a few more Whigs in attendance. Bay State voters noticed and repeated their lack of enthusiasm. The Know-Nothings increased the pressure by asking for Sumner and Wilson’s resignations. If they didn’t oblige, then the legislature might instruct them out of office. That meant delivering binding instructions to the senators with which they couldn’t easily comply, essentially forcing their resignation. Failing that, they might even just elect two new senators and send them on. Gardner liked himself for the job.

Sumner tried to revive his prospects by close attention to constituent services and the usual quest to secure federal dollars for projects back home, to little avail. He struggled to find a publisher for a collection of his speeches, with printers informing him that the book had little potential unless they could say it included the Senator’s last oration. With nothing else working, he had to resume his attacks upon slavery.

 

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Threats, Dogs, and Whips

Charles Sumner (Free Soil-MA)

Charles Sumner damned Stephen Douglas as a Northern man with Southern principles, a doughface, for his Kansas-Nebraska Act. Douglas hit back, noting how Sumner had gone in all of a year from castigating the Compromise of 1850 to praising it as restoring the peace that Kansas-Nebraska would undo. The Massachusetts Senator had such purity of principle that he supported an old proslavery hand like Martin Van Buren for president in 1848. But Sumner’s oratory left a mark. Even a senator from North Carolina congratulated Sumner on everything about it save choosing the wrong side. The Masachusetts papers lit up with praise for Sumner again.

The satisfaction reached even into Bay State Whiggery. The Massachusetts Whigs supported the Compromise of 1850 with held noses, taking the lump on Daniel Webster’s word that they had to do it to save the nation. With the South bent on new conquests, Godlike Daniel safely in the ground, and land that Massachusetts farmers might want to move off to at stake, the situation changed. They turned on their man in the Senate, Edward Everett, when he came out against the bill in a late and feeble manner. Kidney stones took him off the floor for a vote and his former supporters mocked him for it. Adoring letters poured in for Sumner from old allies and former Everett men alike. Delighted, Sumner read them aloud to the Sewards. Inspired, he even entered into spontaneous debate for a while.

Anthony Burns

The Kansas-Nebraska Act became law all the same. When the Anthony Burns affair erupted at almost the same moment, proslavery men blamed Sumner for inciting riot in Boston with his speeches in Washington. Sumner received threats on his safety, which prompted a future governor of Connecticut to offer his services as a bodyguard. Less reassuringly, a correspondent informed the Senator that if he died he would become a martyr to freedom.

Sumner, a large man, responded to the threats on his life by ensuring they reached the attention of the newspapers and otherwise ignored them. He walked about Washington, never a friendly place for outspoken antislavery men, unarmed and unaccompanied. He looked forward to stepping up his rhetorical attacks on slavery, but his new colleague from Massachusetts -Everett resigned courtesy of those kidney stones- got the jump on him with a new petition for repealing the Fugitive Slave Law. He promptly withered under a counterattack built around the fact that some of the signers participated in Burns’ rescue. Sumner stepped in to defend him.

Andrew Butler (D-SC)

As Sumner finished up his latest condemnation of the law, Andrew Butler came into the Senate chamber. He listened to his friend and the proverbial steam shot from his ears. Denouncing Sumner’s speech as one not becoming the Senate, he demanded to know if Massachusetts would render over a single fugitive if the Congress repealed the law. The state had a constitutional obligation, so would it do its duty? Trial or no, whatever process instituted, would Massachusetts deliver a person into slavery or would all that folderol just obscure a flat refusal to abide by the Constitution?

Sumner answered, “Is thy servant a dog, that he should do this thing?” Then the fireworks really started. Sumner profaned his oath to support and defend the Constitution. He had gone mad. The Senate should expel him. Sumner fought back, castigating his critics as men of “plantation manners” who treated the Senate itself like answered to their whips. The vicious debate spawned serious talk of expelling Sumner as a perjurer and traitor, but the matter dropped when the adherents learned they lacked the necessary majority.

 

Trouble for Sumner in Massachusetts

Charles Sumner (Free Soil-MA)

The session of Congress ended shortly after Sumner finished his Freedom National speech. He took his congratulations and condemnations from the Senate and eagerly passed the former on to correspondents back home, then set out in his letters’ wake. The conservative Bay State papers refused to print the oration, but Massachusetts read it in papers friendly to the Free Soil party and antislavery cause, as well as in pamphlets. They burned through five editions in short order. Sumner found himself restored to the good graces of his party, to the point that they staged a rally outside his house.

That didn’t last. Sumner endured a long session in Washington and wanted a vacation. He expected to dine with friends, going to off to Rhode Island and up into Canada, and generally enjoying the easy life for three months. The Free Soilers had elections coming up and they expected their hero to wear smooth as many stumps as Massachusetts could turn up for him. Supporters griped that he came home and vanished, doing nothing to help the party aside from a brief convention appearance. When the elections returned the Whigs to control of the State, Sumner took a share of the blame for his silence.

Sumner would endure the same pattern for years. He fought hard in Washington, or as hard as he felt he could, then returned to a Massachusetts that expected more of him on the home front. The more he did in the Senate, the more he obviously could do and so the more he should do for the Bay State. All through this, he believed that his speeches did the job just fine and his party should not ask more of him. They elected an orator, not a machine politician.

Henry Wilson (Free Soil-MA)

The party thought otherwise, and probably couldn’t do less. Sumner’s position as a leader in the creaky coalition could only draw distrust from many quarters. Whigs hated him as a traitor and took his antislavery speeches as the venal acts of an unregenerate office-seeker. Anti-coalition Democrats thought much the same, but also took him as an abolition fanatic. The men more properly construed abolition fanatics, for all we admire them, disliked Sumner for his failure to meet their standards of purity. Furthermore, Sumner’s personal friends included anti-coalition Whigs who kept trying to oust Henry Wilson so the pro-coalition element around him could never quite trust the Senator either.

The next Senate session brought little to relieve Sumner of the problem. He fought the acquisition of Cuba, but those battles took place in closed sessions. Democrats and Whigs agreed that Sumner belonged to no party, so he deserved no committee postings where he could at least look busy. At home the abolitionists decided that Sumner’s embrace of the Constitution made him toxic. The Massachusetts legislature introduced resolutions to protest his exclusion from committee work, but the coalition dropped them because he hadn’t done enough to earn the party’s defense.

The Example of Louis XIV: Sumner’s Freedom National Speech, Part 3

Charles Sumner (Free Soil-MA)

Parts 1, 2

Charles Sumner made no bones about how politicians had nationalized slavery. He declared to the assemblage of National Whigs and Democrats in the Senate that to a man, Americans should rightly see them as Slavery Whigs and Slavery Democrats. One could argue with the details of Sumner’s history, but as a practical matter he had them dead to rights. Time and time again, they have capitulated to demands for slavery’s advance and made concessions taking almost useless fig leaves back to their angry voters in trade. Sumner, however, saw

Slavery as a sectional institution, within the exclusive control of the States, and with which the nation has nothing to do.

That makes him sound a bit like a reverse fire-eater. Sumner didn’t argue for disunion, but he believed in the rightness of state noncompliance in fugitive slave renditions and that the national government had no rightful power to impose any part of slavery upon a state. Enslavers and their allies could point to the specific grant of power to do just that in the Fugitive Slave Clause, finding themselves the virtues of a muscular national government coercing mere provinces. Everyone, then and now, chooses to prefer a form or level of government from policy outcomes. The what and how of politics concern us much more than the where and who.

The world had turned upside-down, by Sumner’s lights:

by an equally strange perversion, Freedom is degraded to be sectional, and all who uphold it, under the national Constitution, share this same epithet. The honest efforts to secure its blessings, everywhere within the jurisdiction of Congress, are scouted as sectional and this cause, which the founders of our National Government had so much at heart, is called sectionalism.

Sumner had the right of it there. Slavery agitation, allegedly either way but mostly to the antislavery side, won its practitioners condemnation as sectional men, fanatics, and obsessives bent on the Union’s destruction. One can’t get more anti-national than that. All this, Sumner attributed to the nature of slavery itself:

herein is the power of Slavery. According to a curious tradition of the French language, Louis XIV, the grand monarch, by an accidental error of speech, among supple courtiers, changed the gender of a noun; but Slavery has done more than this. It has changed word for word. It has taught many to say national, instead of sectional, and sectional instead of national.

No one would have missed Sumner’s allusion to monarchical power. Americans then still ardently feared kings and treasured their republican tradition in a world largely hostile to such things. To invoke a famous autocrat like Louis XIV and his pliable band of well-dressed lackeys, not a single backbone to share amongst them, Sumner cast slavery as fundamentally alien, dangerous, and authoritarian. He turned the insult back on its purveyors: Antislavery agitation did not imperil the Union, but rather the demands of despotic, unrepublican slavery had corrupted and perverted popular understandings. Slavery itself made men into monarchs, endowing them with a power like the Sun King’s.

“The extravagance of this error can hardly be surpassed.” Sumner’s Freedom National Speech, Part 2

Charles Sumner (Free Soil-MA)

We left Charles Sumner proclaiming himself an independent man, not bound by any party and free to act in the United States Senate as his conscience dictated. His conscience and his political circumstances happened to agree on his making an antislavery speech when he got the chance on August 26, 1852. A slave to his own principles, he had no other choice than to declaim on the theme of freedom national, slavery sectional. After some further throat-clearing about how Sumner had to make the speech and he did not accept the dogma of the day that the Compromise of 1850 forever settled all slavery questions, he dug into the subject in detail:

The relations of the Government of the United States -I speak of the National Government- to Slavery, though plain and obvious, are constantly misunderstood. A popular belief at this moment makes Slavery a national institution, and, of course, renders its support a national duty. The extravagance of this error can hardly be surpassed. An institution, which our fathers most carefully omitted to name in the Constitution, which, according to the debates of the Convention, they refused to cover with any “sanction,” and which, at the original organization of the Government, was merely sectional, existing nowhere on the national territory, is now above all other things blazoned as national.

Sumner rightly noted, and would go on to document exhaustively, that the framers declined to name slavery in the Constitution. Instead they resorted to circumlocutions about people held in service and otherwise carefully ensured that they referred to slaves as persons, not property. This allowed them to argue, and Sumner to carry on decades later, with the notion that the United States did not affirm a right to property in man. Not everybody at Philadelphia had such scruples, of course. The slavery language usually originated in a more direct way and the convention revised it to something more oblique thereafter.

On the point of slavery not existing on the national territory, Sumner almost had it right. The national territory at the time of ratification included only the Old Northwest, from whence I write this. The famous ordinance organizing it did ban slavery, but neglected to do anything about the slaves already present in the territory. Their owners petitioned the Confederation Congress for a guarantee of their property, or at least a clear explanation of its status, and got silence. As a practical matter, that permitted slavery to continue. Well into the nineteenth century, freedom suits in the area could hinge on whether someone was brought into the territory and its successors before or after the ordinance took effect. It ended up functioning as no more than a marginal ban on introducing additional slaves.

Sumner may not have known that; the Northwest Ordinance remains an understudied subject to this day. He and his generation of antislavery activists took from it the precedent of the nation’s first slavery ban. The law still has a plausible claim to that on paper, which sufficed for rhetorical purposes whether Sumner knew better or not. Thus he emphasized just how the national men of the time used “national” as a practical synonym for “slavery,” whatever their party, had misunderstood the nation’s history and constitution. For a group heavy with lawyers and other men of letters, that did make an extravagant error.

Charles Sumner and the Underground Railroad

Charles Sumner (Free Soil-MA)

Since coming to Washington, Charles Sumner had learned he could make friends with slaveholding Southerners and that he could make speeches which would please critics, as well as the kind that set them against him. His ability to speak eloquently, if not always with the most graceful style, set him apart from the crowd. He prided himself on his erudition and a complete lack of anything resembling a joke. Having the advantage of considerable height and good looks didn’t hurt either.

Sumner exercised his talents in finessing Lajos Kossuth and on behalf of a land grant for a railroad, but managed to avoid speaking on slavery. The coalition which elected him on the basis of his antislavery politics had reason to expect something on that front and feared he may go soft on the cause. Conservatives in Massachusetts hoped that Sumner would soon betray those who elected him. We may remember Sumner as the man of three backbones and steadfast foe of slavery, but they didn’t know how things would turn out. In late 1851 and early 1852, Sumner appeared bent on living down to expectations.

Sumner had damned Millard Fillmore for signing the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850. When Fillmore visited Boston, Sumner made a courtesy call. When the elections of 1851 came around, Sumner avoided campaigning for his own coalition. As the presidential campaign of 1852 heated up, he refused to support Winfield Scott despite Scott’s soundness on slavery specifically on the grounds that he expected more antislavery action on the Democratic side. He believed his Free Soil party should stand apart even when the Democracy chose Franklin Pierce as their man, instead throwing himself behind John P. Hale in a hopeless cause. Sumner refused to act even on a petition sent by his constituents for the release of two men who tried to smuggle fugitive slaves out of Washington.

The Free Soilers had not voted for anything like this. Four and a half months into his tenure, Sumner had done nothing on his signature issue but sit idle. His public did not know that he had taken up lobbying Fillmore in private for the release of the men. Sumner well knew that if he told any Garrisonian, the news would appear in the Liberator almost before the ink on the letter dried. Then Fillmore would look like a man capitulating to the radicals and refuse to act. The President showed no eagerness on that front even without the publicity problem, not delivering pardons until August. The release of fugitive-abettors in Washington risked their rearrest by southern partisans, maybe even mob action, so as soon as Sumner had the news he drove to their jail. He packed the newly freed men into a carriage with a friend of his and the friend’s gun, then sent them off to the North in haste.

Railroads and Rhetoric

Charles Sumner (Free Soil-MA)

Charles Sumner went to Washington deeply unsure that he would make a good Senator. He had not liked the city or the political class on his one previous visit. He would enter the Senate as the result of what many considered a corrupt bargain and be only the third senator of his party. As such, he could hope for little in the way of distinguishing himself except rhetoric until the composition of the chamber changed dramatically. Despite his fears and some initial snubs, Sumner found himself relatively welcome in the Washington social scene. He got on well with southerners, which probably no one saw coming. His careful welcome of Lajos Kossuth that managed not to endorse the revolutionary’s cause won him wide plaudits.

With all that under his belt, Sumner might have hoped the worst behind him. In his ongoing quest to prove he had opinions on more than slavery, he rose to speak in debate over an Iowa land grant meant for a railroad. Sumner endorsed it heartily and caught fire for his trouble. The westerners might like development, but more eastern states cared much less for projects that did not benefit them directly. The Whig press in Massachusetts, so recently praising Sumner’s handling of Kossuth, turned on him. The papers castigated the new senator for favoring the West at the expense of New England.

That may seem strange, given the Whig’s enthusiasm for internal improvements, but more than partisanship probably went into it. Whigs wanted internal improvements in part because they would concentrate the population to the point where it could support the other improving projects they had in mind for the nation. A railroad in Iowa would serve the expansion of white America and consequent diffusion of white men across the continent in an unending sprawl of subsistence farming. In addition, the faster the west grew the more largely Democratic states would enter the Union. Opposing a far-flung railroad fit well into that strain of Whig orthodoxy.

Sumner pretended he didn’t care and griped that most of the papers didn’t even print his speech, but he put considerable effort into trying to convince his friends back home that he hadn’t made a blunder. Instead, as David Donald quotes him, Sumner believed he had made an “original and unanswerable” argument that constituted “the most important speech for the West uttered in Congress for 10 years.” Per Donald, Sumner had actually given the issue little thought. He mainly wanted to use the speech as a showpiece for his peers.

Senator Sumner, like many before and since, cared deeply for his image. A large man, six-two and 185 pounds, Donald has Sumner dress for the stage:

At a time when most senators wore black frock coats, Sumner affected light-colored English tweeds; his “favorite costume was a brown coat and light waistcoast, lavender-colored or checked trousers, and shoes with English gaiters.

A big man in purple pants would draw some eyes. Sumner reinforced his imposing figure with closely rehearsed, memorized speeches in an era when most men simply read theirs. (Spontaneous debate rarely visited the Senate.) Sumner accessorized with forceful gestures and by throwing his hair back. He chose an oratorical model deeply informed by the Classics, contrary to my previous impression that he had a bit of a common touch. This made Sumner a clear speaker, but also a repetitive one. He deliberately eschewed neologisms to make himself sound still more formal. After writing and revising before speaking, Sumner took another round of revisions before his work appeared in the Congressional Globe, and then would polish them again for published collections. In an age where public men took rhetoric seriously, Sumner took it more seriously than many.

Senator Sumner Goes to Washington

Charles Sumner (Free Soil-MA)

Henry Adams, the fourth generation of his family to appear in this blog, brought the good news to Charles Sumner twice: Massachusetts chose him as its new senator. Sumner, with no previous experience in office and a stormy career as a spokesman and activist for prison reform and against war and slavery, had reason to doubt his abilities. Winning appeared relatively easy. Governing, if Sumner had any opportunity to at all, would prove harder. Washington and its politicians had displeased a much less radical Sumner on his one prior visit and he had come to public life only with some reluctance and the encouragement of John Quincy Adams.

Barely elected at all, after great struggle, and by a coalition damned by members of both national parties, Sumner lacked the wind at his back that a newly-elected man might hope for. Nor could he dream of putting his stamp on the nation while he remained a member of a tiny minority. His rhetoric, the one area where he might reasonably expect to excel, would now face opposition from skilled proslavery debaters. To employ it to any use, Sumner would have to master the Senate’s arcane rules and traditions or risk making a fool of himself.

Sumner’s embarrassments began as soon as he presented his credentials. By Senate tradition, the senior senator for one’s state presented a newcomer to the chamber. Sumner’s Massachusetts peer chose to oversleep rather than risk the wrath of Daniel Webster, leaving him to hunt down Lewis Cass and beg an introduction. Instead of the customary phrasing where a Senator begged leave to present a colleague, Cass informed the others only that

I have been requested to present the credentials of Charles Sumner, a Senator elect from the State of Massachusetts.

John Hale

Thomas Hart Benton, just defeated for re-election courtesy of David Rice Atchison, had a more sympathetic but just as disheartening welcome for Sumner. He told the new senator that all the great men had gone and taken the great issues of the day with them. Settling down into the desk previously occupied by Jefferson Davis, Sumner could look across a chamber with few allies. New Hampshire’s John Hale seemed like a shady character despite their shared party. He got on better with Salmon P. Chase. Sumner feared William Seward, who he otherwise liked, would always put Whiggery above antislavery. Hamilton Fish, Seward’s New York colleague, lamented Winthrop’s lost seat but went out of his way to make Sumner welcome.

Sumner found unlikely friends among the chamber’s Southern contingent. They knew many Yankees made antislavery speeches back home, but what went on back home didn’t necessarily translate to personal relationships in Washington. Soon Massachusetts antislavery extremist claimed Pierre Soulé as his best friend. He likewise befriended Andrew Pickens Butler, who sat next to him. Seeing in Sumner a man who knew his classics, Butler relied on him to check the quotations he planned to use in speeches. In these situations, and otherwise socially, Sumner declined to raise his antislavery opinions and instead talked or history and far-off happenings.

Soon Sumner settled, if not entirely comfortably, into the regular spin of Washington society. With everyone far from home, the political class formed their own small world with an unending cycle of dinners and other social occasions where they entertained each other in small groups for a large portion of the week. A single week of his first month saw Sumner hosted by Millard Fillmore, the French Minister, and Francis Blair. His party might earn him political isolation, and a few men rubbed Sumner wrong or took a dislike to him, but he didn’t suffer much from personal ostracism.

The Breathless Henry Adams: Electing Charles Sumner, Part 5

Charles Sumner (Free Soil-MA)

Parts 1, 2, 3, 4

We left Charles Sumner at the end of a long campaign for the United States Senate. His coalition fractured, his fortunes declined, and long periods passed with few votes held. But on April 23, 1851, the Massachusetts Whigs split and the anti-Daniel Webster faction cast their lot with Sumner. That put him over the top and celebrations began at once. Supporters came to Charles Francis Adams’ home, where Sumner then dined, to congratulate their man. After so long, Massachusetts had chosen Sumner as its next senator.

Or had it? News soon came that the legislature had not adjourned after the vote as expected. Charles Adams sent his son Henry, thirteen and a few months, out to learn what had happened. Henry did as told and found out that when the members of the Massachusetts House cast their ballots, someone had lightly written in another man’s name on one also bearing Sumner’s. The anti-Sumner Whigs insisted on counting that one for the other man, which left Sumner still short of a majority. Hearing the news, the Adamses vented their displeasure. Sumner maintained a cool detachment which impressed his host.

Henry Wilson (Free Soil-MA)

Without a majority, the House had to vote again. Two more ballots ensued on the twenty-third. Further irregularity ensued, with one of the votes having more ballots cast than representatives. Someone had taken to outright cheating, with both sides accusing the other. At least half the House went home displeased that night. They reconvened on the twenty-fourth for another round and came up with two extra votes again. Further recrimination gave way in the end to a Whig proposal that the legislators cast their votes in sealed envelopes, so no one could slip in an extra. That did the trick, delivering Sumner the 193 votes he needed and not a single extra. Because of the secret ballot, we don’t know who delivered that last vote to put him over the top.

Charles Francis Adams

Henry Adams watched it all and ran home. He found Sumner at the family table and burst out with the news, which he still recalled decades later as one of the proudest moments of his life. The mainline Whigs went home in a poor mood while Free Soilers and Democrats started a fresh celebration. The coalition’s newspaper, the Commonwealth, soon had thousands of people gathered outside its offices. Revelers set off rockets and Henry Wilson, who had masterminded the coalition, gave a speech. Hecklers called for Daniel Webster, at which point Wilson declared that his party owed their success to Webster’s Seventh of March speech for the Compromise of 1850. Webster’s admirers could call Wilson many things in all fairness, but not wrong. Sumner’s less rowdy foes got together and drafted an indictment of the coalition that elected him as an illegal conspiracy.

Sumner, ill at ease with the press of admirers, beat a quiet retreat to Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s house. There he escaped the crowd, but not fears over what he had gotten himself into. Sumner had never held public office before, yet now he would go into the national spotlight as the representative of his great cause, with all the responsibility that entailed. The man of three backbones now felt unsure of the load.

 

Was Lincoln A Third Party Candidate?

LincolnGentle Readers, I don’t intend today’s post as a commentary on the election come Tuesday. Anybody who reads me for any length of time can figure out who I think you should also support. But I do hope you vote, even if you vote differently. Refraining from exercising your franchise does not make you innocent of any consequences, upon yourself or others. When one doesn’t act to stop something, one has acquiesced in its happening. That’s true no matter how you would cast your ballot.

That said, you often hear that Lincoln ran as a third party candidate or that the Republicans constitute the nation’s only successful third party. These two claims rely on largely the same facts, so I shall treat them together.

When we refer to a third party, we mean a party beyond the big two of the Democrats and Republicans. Every other party counts as a third and just which of the big two holds the top spot can vary from cycle to cycle. The same definition would hold for the nineteenth century, which had its own plethora of small political movements. Lincoln and his generation came of age during the Second Party System, which pitted the Democrats against the Whigs. Most of the time, the Democrats had the upper hand and the Whigs had a remarkably poor run of luck with their presidential candidates. They elected two presidents, both of whom died in office and thus gave way to a vice-president of rather different ideological cast.

Knowing about the Democrats and the Whigs, and knowing Lincoln and many other Republicans as former Whigs, we might assume we have found a third party movement. A closer look reveals something different. The Whig coalition collapses over the course of the early 1850s. They elected a president, Zachary Taylor, in 1848. They tried to elect another, Winfield Scott, in 1852. Come 1856, no one runs for the White House on the Whig ticket.

The end of a movement always involves endless complexities and we can find old school Whigs holding on or trying to revive conservative Whiggery (by no means the only form) in various ways up through 1860. The Republicans themselves thought they had a chance at it during Reconstruction. But as a practical matter, the national party dies at some point between 1854 and 1856. Slavery in the territories killed it. The prolonged crisis over slavery in the Mexican Cession demonstrated to the Lower South that Southern Whigs could not control or restrain their antislavery counterparts in the North, gravely wounding a party that already had a northward tilt. The Kansas-Nebraska Act extended the process to the Upper South, if not quite so completely, and produced the nation’s first lasting and avowedly antislavery party: the Republicans.

The process by which that party came together involves quite a bit more than old Whigs just changing names. Former Democrats came over into the party, as did many supporters of the much more fringe Liberty Party. Together with northern Whigs, generally but not always those more to the left than the rest, they created a party which had plenty of Whiggery in it but also important infusions of Democratic antislavery thought. In the South, most ex-Whigs either quit politics or went into the Democracy, Alexander Stephens’ path, or joined with more conservative Whigs in the Know-Nothing movement in the middle years of the decade. Northern Know-Nothings usually ended up Republicans a bit further down the line. During the transition, a confusing morass of political labels abounded and it seemed for a time that the Know-Nothings might take the Whigs’ place as the nation’s second party. In the end, antislavery proved a more potent platform than nativism.

That leaves us with the Republicans, arguably as of 1856 and definitely by 1860, at least the nation’s second party. That they formed out of fragments of prior coalitions doesn’t materially change that. The GOP contended with the Democrats for control of the nation’s course, possessing as they did sufficient influence to shoulder aside and consign other competitors to marginal status, precisely as the principals in a two-party system do.

Of course, none of those means we should overlook the complexity of the 1860 election. Four men won electoral votes in that race, or rather two each won votes in two parallel races. In the free states, Lincoln faced off against Stephen Douglas of the northern Democracy. In the slave states, where for the most part Lincoln didn’t even appear on the ballot, John C. Breckinridge competed against John Bell of the Constitutional Union party. If one wants to find third party candidates in the race, then all three of Lincoln’s opponents have a case for them.

Stephen Douglas

Stephen Douglas

Stephen Douglas went to the Democratic National Convention at Charleston, South Carolina as the favorite for the nomination. However, he had turned against the proslavery government in Kansas and split from the national party over the issue. In order to prove his bona fides, southern delegates wanted Douglas to sign on to a slave code for the territories. Douglas refused and they walked out. Attempts to get the southerners back into the room failed, which eventually left a rump to nominate Douglas as arguably the regular Democratic candidate. His supporters didn’t walk out, after all. Douglas came in dead last in the electoral vote, winning only Missouri and part of New Jersey’s slate, a decidedly third party sort of performance. But Douglas did represent the ordinary Democracy and garnered second in the popular vote.

John C. Breckinridge

John C. Breckinridge

The Democrats who seceded from the party, most of them soon to secede from the Union too, nominated John C. Breckinridge. As a splinter of a still-extant party, Breckinridge’s looks like a third party movement. He came in third in the popular vote, but second in the electoral college. However, Breckinridge also represents the long-dominant constituency within the Democracy. If Douglas came to the polls at the head of the institutionally regular Democracy, then Breckinridge represented the beating heart of the coalition: Southerners committed to slavery’s perpetuation and expansion.

John Bell (Whig-TN)

John Bell

Which leaves us with John Bell. Bell, like Lincoln, hailed from the Whig Party back in the day. His Constitutional Union party aimed to revitalize conservative Whiggery and its platform as an alternative to the slavery question, containing and frustrating agitation on, and functionally against, the issue through a kind of revitalized Second Party System. Bell won his own Tennessee, as well as Virginia and Kentucky. Both of the latter had long Whiggish associations. While Bell would surely have liked to see a president in the mirror come March of 1861, the realistic hope of his movement involved denying both Lincoln and Breckinridge an electoral college majority. That would have thrown the presidency into the House, where his candidacy might seem like the best compromise to keep the Union together by the skin of its teeth rather than burst it asunder. If we consider third parties oriented around disruption of the dominant political system and aimed at reorienting it from its dominant issues, Bell makes the best third party candidate in the race.

Abraham Lincoln ran as and considered himself a Whig until the Whigs expired. He then made himself a Republican and remained with the party until Ford’s Theater. In both cases, he consciously chose a position as a regular, loyal party man for one of the two dominant parties of the era. Of all the men who sought the nation’s highest office in 1860, Lincoln deserves the third party title least of all. If a third party designation means anything useful at all and we care about understanding the past through it, then it must mean the opposite of Lincoln.