Posts Tagged ‘Abraham Lincoln’

The Election of 1860

June 17, 2017

The Election of 1860 was, without doubt, the most contentious election in American history, ending as it did with the secession of the South and the Civil War. For democracy to work, the loser of an election, along with his supporters have to be willing to concede to the winner. This can happen as long as the consequence of an election is not an existential threat to the lives and liberties of the losers. For the first, and so far only, time in the history of the United States a large portion of the electorate simply refused to accept the results of a democratic election, in part because they feared the results would be destructive to their way of life.

How did it come to this, that the South so feared the election of Abraham Lincoln that it was willing to secede from the Union and risk war? Slavery had been an increasingly divisive issue for decades, yet the nation had always managed to find some sort of compromise to pull back from the brink. There had been talk of secession since the beginning of the Union, but it was mostly talk. No one seemed willing to take the fateful step to dissolve the Union before 1860. After his election in 1856, President James Buchanan had even dared to hope that the contentious slavery debate would be settled by the of his term and peace and prosperity would be the rule. He could not have been more wrong. In fact, it was during President Buchanan’s administration that a series of events occurred that made Civil War if not inevitable, certainly increased sectional tensions to the breaking point.

Historians generally hold that the Civil War began when Confederate Army fired on Fort Sumter on April 12, 1861, yet in a way the Civil War had actually started almost a decade earlier in Kansas. As early as 1854 fighting had broken out between pro and anti-slavery settlers in the Kansas Territory. The Kansas-Nebraska Act had called for popular sovereignty to decide whether Kansas would be Slave or Free. Settlers from North and South poured into Kansas attempting to get a majority for their side. Election fraud was rampant and neither side was willing to concede to the other, resulting in two separate territorial legislatures. It wasn’t long before violence broke out, egged on by radicals back east only too willing to supply arms.

Then there was the Supreme Court’s decision in Dred Scott vs. Sanford, announced just two days after President Buchanan’s inauguration. This decision which overturned the Missouri Compromise of 1820 and denied the right of Congress to outlaw slavery in the territories delighted the South and infuriated the North. Because of this ruling, slavery could no longer be contained to southern territories but could spread north. Even worse, because the Court decided that Dred Scott was not free just because his master had taken him to a state where slavery was illegal, opened the door to the possibility that state laws forbidding slavery might be effectively overturned since freeing the slaves of a person who moved North could be construed as unlawfully depriving him of his property. Chief Justice Roger Taney and President Buchanan hoped that the Dred Scott decision would settle the issue of slavery once and for all, but the uncompromising nature of the decision only made things worse.

Finally, there was John Brown’s raid on the federal arsenal at Harper’s Ferry on October 19, 1859. I don’t think the Northern abolitionists had any idea how afraid the slave owners of the South were of their own slaves. While Southern apologists depicted the Blacks as simple minded creatures, perfectly content with slavery in their propaganda, anyone who had much contact with the slaves must have known how much they resented their servitude. They had good reason to fear that the Black slaves would take a terrible revenge if they ever got the chance. When the abolitionists demanded that slavery be ended, the Southern Whites, only heard a call for their own destruction. When a terrorist from Kansas tried to incite a slave insurrection only to be hailed as a hero and a martyr by sympathetic Northerners, the Southerners must have seen their worst fears confirmed.

By the election of 1860, it must have seemed that the United States could no longer be half Free and half Slave. Either slavery would be abolished, along with a way of life that benefited the Southern elite, or slavery must spread to every part of the nation. Little wonder a Civil War resulted.

The Democratic convention was held in Charleston South Carolina in April. Since President Buchanan declined to run for reelection, the most obvious candidate was Stephen Douglas from Illinois. Douglas had served in the House of Representatives from 1843 to 1847 and then in the Senate from 1847 until his death from typhoid fever in 1861. Stephan Douglas is best known today for his famous debates with Abraham Lincoln during the Senatorial election of 1856. He was a great believer in democracy, believing that popular sovereignty should settle the slavery issue in the territories. Douglas tended to oppose the Dred Scott decision, but had to be careful lest he alienate the South.

This “pro-choice” did not please the Southern delegates at the convention who wanted a party platform that specifically protected slavery. This Douglas and the Northern delegates would not agree to and the convention broke up. This was not a good sign.

The Democrats met again the following month in Baltimore. Again the Northern and Southern delegates could not agree on a candidate or a platform, so they held separate conventions. The Northern delegates nominated Stephen Douglas, as expected, and selected Herschel V. Johnson, the governor of Georgia from 1853-1857. Their platform called for popular sovereignty in the territories.

The Southern delegates nominated Vice-President John C. Breckinridge for President and Joseph Lane, one of Oregon’s first two senators, for Vice-President. They supported a platform demanding federal protection of slavery in the territories.

Meanwhile, the Republicans held their convention in Chicago from May 16 to 18. Abraham Lincoln was not really one of the leaders of the Republican Party. The more prominent Republicans who were expected to get the nomination included Senator William Seward of New York. Governor Salmon P. Chase from Ohio, and Senator Simon Cameron from Pennsylvania. Lincoln’s political resume was thin compared to these leaders having only served in the House of Representatives from 1847-1849 and in the Illinois Legislature form 1834-1842. However, each of these leaders had made enemies and had alienated one faction or another of the party. Lincoln, in contrast was well liked and known to be a good debater. The Lincoln-Douglas debates of 1856 had attracted national attention. Lincoln was also a shrewd politician and while he was against slavery, he was not as radical as some Republicans. Lincoln was nominated on the third ballot and Senator Hannibal Hamlin of Maine was selected as his running mate.

Then, because things were not confusing enough with three candidates, a group of former Whigs, along with a few Democrats and former Know-Nothings met in Baltimore on May 9 to organize the Constitutional Union Party. This party was for preserving the Union at any cost, and not much else. They were silent on the slavery question, perhaps hoping to make the controversy go away. The Constitutional Union Party nominated John Bell, who had served as Senator from Tennessee from 1847-1859. Bell had begun his political career as a Democratic supporter of Andrew Jackson, then he split with Jackson to become the leader of the Whig Party in Tennessee. By the 1850’s he had begun to create a third party composed of moderates from both the North and South in an effort to alleviate the increasing sectional tension. Bell’s relatively moderate views on slavery made him unpopular in the South, though he had some appeal in the border states. The Constitutional Union Party went on to nominate former Senator from Massachusetts, Edward Everett as Bell’s running mate.

 

Since the Democratic party was split and Lincoln wasn’t even on the ballot in the South, the the election of 1860, was essentially two separate contests, Lincoln vs Douglas in the North and Bell vs Breckinridge in the South. As one might imagine, this turned out to be an exciting and tumultuous election, with all the hoopla of American politics in the nineteenth century. Stephen Douglas broke with tradition and actually went out to campaign in person, in the South as well as the North. In the South, he pleaded for the Southerners to accept the results of the election, no matter who won. They didn’t listen. Southern newspapers continued to run editorials promising secession and war if the “Black Republican” Lincoln were elected.

The other candidates stayed at home and tried to look dignified and presidential but their supporters made up the difference in raucous energy. Bell’s supporters rang bells at rallies. Republicans were the most enthusiastic, holding parades featuring rails that the great rail splitter Abraham Lincoln had personally split.  If it weren’t for the great seriousness of it all, it would have been a lot of fun.

None of the four candidates got a majority of the popular vote, but Lincoln won a plurality with 1,865,908 votes or 39.8% of the total. Douglas came in second with 1,380,202 votes (29.5%). Breckinridge was third with 848,019 votes (18.1%C) and Bell came in last with 590,901 votes (12.6%). It is slightly ironic that if the Southern Democrats had supported Stephen Douglas, he might have won the election. By leaving the convention and nominating their own candidate, they virtually guaranteed a victory for Lincoln, the one candidate they could not accept.

The Electoral vote was more decisive, with Lincoln getting a comfortable majority. The vote was divided along sectional lines. Lincoln won the entire North and West except for New Jersey, getting a total of 180 electoral votes. New Jersey split its seven votes giving four to Lincoln and three to Douglas. Douglas was second in the popular vote, but last in the Electoral College winning only Missouri’s nine votes and three of New Jersey’s for a total of 12 electoral votes. Breckinridge won all the Southern states, except for Kentucky, Tennessee, and Virginia, and got a total of 72 electoral votes. Bell won those three states with 39 electoral votes.

The Election of 1860

The Election of 1860

Stephen Douglas realized that a Lincoln victory would divide the country and immediately after the election he traveled south and gave speeches supporting the Union. It didn’t work and on December 20, 1860 South Carolina formally succeeded from the Union. Soon, the other Southern states followed and America’s bloodiest war began.

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Thanksgiving

November 24, 2016

Today is Thanksgiving in the United States. It is most unfortunate that this day has become little more than an excuse to gorge on turkey. Even worse, the obscenity known as Black Friday has begun to creep back into the holiday making what ought to be a day of giving thanks to the deity a day of frenzied shopping. We in America have perhaps more to be thankful for than any other nation in history and we are probably the biggest ingrates.

Well, anyway, the whole mythology surrounding the Thanksgiving holiday,with the turkey meal, etc is based on the Thanksgiving celebration held by the settlers of Plymouth colony in 1621. They had a lot to be thankful for. These Pilgrims had decided to immigrate to the New World so that they could practice their religion freely. They had intended to settle at the mouth of the Hudson River but their departure from England on the Mayflower had been delayed and the trip across the Atlantic had been rough. They reached America farther north then they had intended,at Provincetown Harbor in November 1620. While they did not really have a legal right to create a colony in what is now Massachusetts, no one really wanted to spend the winter at sea so on December 21, 1620 the Pilgrims began to build the settlement at Plymouth.

Model of a 17th century English merchantman sh...

Would you spend any more time in a leaky ship like this than you had to? (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The first winter at the new colony was very hard. About half of the colonists had died by spring. By what must have seemed incredible luck or divine providence, the colonists were able to make contact with two Natives who could speak English. One of these was named Samoset and he had learned some English from English trappers and fishermen. He introduced the Pilgrims to the other man, Squanto, who had a truly remarkable life. Captured by Englishmen, he was taken to England and instructed in the English language in the hope that he could serve as an interpreter. When he was brought back to New England, he was captured again, this time by members of John Smith’s expedition who planned to sell captured Indians as slaves in Spain. In Spain, some friars learned of this plan and had the Indians freed and instructed in the Catholic religion. Squanto was able to make his way back to England and then across the Atlantic. There, he discovered that his whole tribe had been destroyed by the diseases, probably smallpox, that the Europeans had already unwittingly brought to the New World.

Squanto was willing to help the Pilgrims and taught what they needed to know to survive in New England.The harvest in the summer of 1621 was good enough that the Pilgrims did not need to fear starvation that winter. They had a feast that Autumn to celebrate their good fortune and to give thanks to God. This celebration was not considered to be anything very remarkable. Thanksgiving celebrations were fairly common at the time, especially among people who had successfully made the difficult and dangerous voyage across the ocean. It was not really the first Thanksgiving.

The First Thanksgiving, painted by Jean Leon G...

The First Thanksgiving, painted by Jean Leon Gerome Ferris (1863–1930). The First Thanksgiving took place in Plymouth in 1621. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

There were proclamations of thanksgiving at various times in American history, especially during the Revolutionary War, but the holiday we know of as Thanksgiving really began in 1863 when President Abraham Lincoln issued a proclamation that a national day of Thanksgiving was to be celebrated on the final Thursday of November. It might not seem that there was all that much to be thankful for in the middle of the Civil War but the tide was turning in the North’s favor after the victories at Gettysburg and Vicksburg that July and the country was continuing to grow in strength and prosperity despite the horrors of the war. Lincoln’s proclamation set the date for the national holiday that has been celebrated ever since. Franklin Roosevelt set the date a week earlier in 1939 in the hope that an earlier date would mean a longer shopping season for Christmas, thus helping the economy still mired in the Great Depression. This was not without controversy and in October 1941 Congress officially set the date of Thanksgiving on the fourth, and almost always the last, Thursday in November.

So,enjoy your turkey but please spare a moment or two to give thanks to the deity you worship. If you happen to be an American you really are one of the luckiest people on Earth.

Thanksgiving

November 26, 2015

Today is Thanksgiving in the United States. It is most unfortunate that this day has become little more than an excuse to gorge on turkey. Even worse, the obscenity known as Black Friday has begun to creep back into the holiday making what ought to be a day of giving thanks to the deity a day of frenzied shopping. We in America have perhaps more to be thankful for than any other nation in history and we are probably the biggest ingrates.

Well, anyway, the whole mythology surrounding the Thanksgiving holiday,with the turkey meal, etc is based on the Thanksgiving celebration held by the settlers of Plymouth colony in 1621. They had a lot to be thankful for. These Pilgrims had decided to immigrate to the New World so that they could practice their religion freely. They had intended to settle at the mouth of the Hudson River but their departure from England on the Mayflower had been delayed and the trip across the Atlantic had been rough. They reached America farther north then they had intended,at Provincetown Harbor in November 1620. While they did not really have a legal right to create a colony in what is now Massachusetts, no one really wanted to spend the winter at sea so on December 21, 1620 the Pilgrims began to build the settlement at Plymouth.

Model of a 17th century English merchantman sh...

Would you spend any more time in a leaky ship like this than you had to? (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The first winter at the new colony was very hard. About half of the colonists had died by spring. By what must have seemed incredible luck or divine providence, the colonists were able to make contact with two Natives who could speak English. One of these was named Samoset and he had learned some English from English trappers and fishermen. He introduced the Pilgrims to the other man, Squanto, who had a truly remarkable life. Captured by Englishmen, he was taken to England and instructed in the English language in the hope that he could serve as an interpreter. When he was brought back to New England, he was captured again, this time by members of John Smith’s expedition who planned to sell captured Indians as slaves in Spain. In Spain, some friars learned of this plan and had the Indians freed and instructed in the Catholic religion. Squanto was able to make his way back to England and then across the Atlantic. There, he discovered that his whole tribe had been destroyed by the diseases, probably smallpox, that the Europeans had already unwittingly brought to the New World.

Squanto was willing to help the Pilgrims and taught what they needed to know to survive in New England.The harvest in the summer of 1621 was good enough that the Pilgrims did not need to fear starvation that winter. They had a feast that Autumn to celebrate their good fortune and to give thanks to God. This celebration was not considered to be anything very remarkable. Thanksgiving celebrations were fairly common at the time, especially among people who had successfully made the difficult and dangerous voyage across the ocean. It was not really the first Thanksgiving.

The First Thanksgiving, painted by Jean Leon G...

The First Thanksgiving, painted by Jean Leon Gerome Ferris (1863–1930). The First Thanksgiving took place in Plymouth in 1621. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

There were proclamations of thanksgiving at various times in American history, especially during the Revolutionary War, but the holiday we know of as Thanksgiving really began in 1863 when President Abraham Lincoln issued a proclamation that a national day of Thanksgiving was to be celebrated on the final Thursday of November. It might not seem that there was all that much to be thankful for in the middle of the Civil War but the tide was turning in the North’s favor after the victories at Gettysburg and Vicksburg that July and the country was continuing to grow in strength and prosperity despite the horrors of the war. Lincoln’s proclamation set the date for the national holiday that has been celebrated ever since. Franklin Roosevelt set the date a week earlier in 1939 in the hope that an earlier date would mean a longer shopping season for Christmas, thus helping the economy still mired in the Great Depression. This was not without controversy and in October 1941 Congress officially set the date of Thanksgiving on the fourth, and almost always the last, Thursday in November.

So,enjoy your turkey but please spare a moment or two to give thanks to the deity you worship. If you happen to be an American you really are one of the luckiest people on Earth.

Thanksgiving

November 27, 2014

Today is Thanksgiving in the United States. It is most unfortunate that this day has become little more than an excuse to gorge on turkey. Even worse, the obscenity known as Black Friday has begun to creep back into the holiday making what ought to be a day of giving thanks to the deity a day of frenzied shopping. We in America have perhaps more to be thankful for than any other nation in history and we are probably the biggest ingrates.

Well, anyway, the whole mythology surrounding the Thanksgiving holiday,with the turkey meal, etc is based on the Thanksgiving celebration held by the settlers of Plymouth colony in 1621. They had a lot to be thankful for. These Pilgrims had decided to immigrate to the New World so that they could practice their religion freely. They had intended to settle at the mouth of the Hudson River but their departure from England on the Mayflower had been delayed and the trip across the Atlantic had been rough. They reached America farther north then they had intended,at Provincetown Harbor in November 1620. While they did not really have a legal right to create a colony in what is now Massachusetts, no one really wanted to spend the winter at sea so on December 21, 1620 the Pilgrims began to build the settlement at Plymouth.

Model of a 17th century English merchantman sh...

Would you spend any more time in a leaky ship like this than you had to? (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The first winter at the new colony was very hard. About half of the colonists had died by spring. By what must have seemed incredible luck or divine providence, the colonists were able to make contact with two Natives who could speak English. One of these was named Samoset and he had learned some English from English trappers and fishermen. He introduced the Pilgrims to the other man, Squanto, who had a truly remarkable life. Captured by Englishmen, he was taken to England and instructed in the English language in the hope that he could serve as an interpreter. When he was brought back to New England, he was captured again, this time by members of John Smith’s expedition who planned to sell captured Indians as slaves in Spain. In Spain, some friars learned of this plan and had the Indians freed and instructed in the Catholic religion. Squanto was able to make his way back to England and then across the Atlantic. There, he discovered that his whole tribe had been destroyed by the diseases, probably smallpox, that the Europeans had already unwittingly brought to the New World.

Squanto was willing to help the Pilgrims and taught what they needed to know to survive in New England.The harvest in the summer of 1621 was good enough that the Pilgrims did not need to fear starvation that winter. They had a feast that Autumn to celebrate their good fortune and to give thanks to God. This celebration was not considered to be anything very remarkable. Thanksgiving celebrations were fairly common at the time, especially among people who had successfully made the difficult and dangerous voyage across the ocean. It was not really the first Thanksgiving.

The First Thanksgiving, painted by Jean Leon G...

The First Thanksgiving, painted by Jean Leon Gerome Ferris (1863–1930). The First Thanksgiving took place in Plymouth in 1621. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

There were proclamations of thanksgiving at various times in American history, especially during the Revolutionary War, but the holiday we know of as Thanksgiving really began in 1863 when President Abraham Lincoln issued a proclamation that a national day of Thanksgiving was to be celebrated on the final Thursday of November. It might not seem that there was all that much to be thankful for in the middle of the Civil War but the tide was turning in the North’s favor after the victories at Gettysburg and Vicksburg that July and the country was continuing to grow in strength and prosperity despite the horrors of the war. Lincoln’s proclamation set the date for the national holiday that has been celebrated ever since. Franklin Roosevelt set the date a week earlier in 1939 in the hope that an earlier date would mean a longer shopping season for Christmas, thus helping the economy still mired in the Great Depression. This was not without controversy and in October 1941 Congress officially set the date of Thanksgiving on the fourth, and almost always the last, Thursday in November.

So,enjoy your turkey but please spare a moment or two to give thanks to the deity you worship. If you happen to be an American you really are one of the luckiest people on Earth.

Rating the Presidents

February 18, 2013

While shopping at Goodwill yesterday, I came across a book called Presidential Leadership, published by the Wall Street Journal. This book features a collection essays assessing the historical legacy of each of the presidents from George Washington to George W Bush. The writers seem to be conservative commentators, so perhaps the collection has a rightward tilt. Still, I am sure the book will be interesting to read, although I have not had time to do more than skim through the book. Towards the end, after the essays about the presidents are essays about presidential leadership and appendices of various scholars’ attempts to rank the presidents. Since today is President’s Day, I thought I would write a little about the Presidents.

The three Presidents generally ranked the greatest are George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, and Franklin Delano Roosevelt. George Washington probably wouldn’t be considered much of a president today. He wasn’t an activist executive and he deferred to Congress. He might be considered a do-nothing president by today’s standards. Still, there is no question that he was one of our greatest presidents. He was the first and he had to work without any clear precedents or guidelines. Abraham Lincoln was also one of the greatest. A lesser man might have given upon the Civil War and let the South go. Lincoln had a clarity of vision that eludes most politicians and was willing to sacrifice his popularity and chances of reelection to do the right thing.

I am not sure Roosevelt deserves to be considered one of the greatest presidents. His New Deal policies probably prolonged the Depression. That was not his intent and he does deserve credit for raising the nation’s morale in a difficult time, yet it has become clear that he really didn’t have any idea what he was doing. Roosevelt was an effective war time leader. In general, he picked the right men for doing the job, especially George Marshall as Army Chief of Staff. His only fault in the handling of that war was his trust of Joseph Stalin. Roosevelt seemed to be unaware that Stalin was just as vicious and evil as Hitler and believed that Stalin could be handled like any other politician. In this, Roosevelt may have been badly advised by the members of his administration who were Communists, or Communist sympathizers. To the extent that Roosevelt was unaware of the treacherous leanings of some of his staff, he deserves the blame for the concessions he made at the Yalta Conference. I also believe that Roosevelt did poorly in running for  a third and then fourth term. He reversed the long standing precedent that a president should only serve two terms. It may well have been that Roosevelt felt that no one else could do the job effectively, but the foundation of a republic rests on the concept that no one man is indispensible. In any event, by 1944 Roosevelt was in failing health and must have know he would not have live to finish another term.

The worst presidents are generally regarded to be Franklin Pierce, Andrew Johnson, Warren Harding, and James Buchanan. These seem to be fair assessments, except for Warren Harding. He did possess remarkably poor judgment in selecting his subordinates, which led to a series of scandals late in his administration, yet Harding ended Woodrow Wilson’s more egregious civil rights violations, released the anti-war protestors and Socialist that Wilson had jailed, and did his best to return the country to normalcy. I kind of suspect that Harding’s low rankings have as much to do with ending “progressive” policies as any thing else.

I think something similar could be said of Ulysses S. Grant. He also exhibited poor judgement in some of his appointments and there were a series of scandals in his administration. Grant, like Harding, tried to return the country to normalcy after the horrendous Civil War and the impeachment of Andrew Johnson. He fought for the rights of the former slaves and used military action to suppress the Ku Klux Klan. He even believed that the Indians should be treated decently.  I think that the low ranking Grant is usually given reflects the ire of Southern historians who were outraged that anyone should defend the Blacks, not to mention Grant’s key role in winning the Civil War.

John F Kennedy is almost certainly the most overrated president. For all his charisma and sympathy from the intellectual class, he didn’t actually do all that much. He does deserve some credit for his handling of the Cuban Missile Crisis, but it should be remembered that that crisis would not have arisen at all if he had handled the Bay of Pigs invasion. He ought to have either given the rebels his full support or cancelled the operation entirely. By allowing it to go ahead but withholding air support, he assured its failure and made himself look weak and foolish. Kennedy’s reputation would not have been  so favorable if he had not been assassinated. As it is, his ranking has gone steadily downward over the years.

Thomas Jefferson is another overrated president. He was an accomplished man, in many ways, but he was not a very good president. His second term was a disaster.

Richard Nixon is an unusual case. By all respects, he should have been a successful president. He got us out of Viet Nam without actually losing the war. He negotiated the SALT agreement with the Soviet Union and opened up relations with China. Nixon was the president who created the EPA and large scale Affirmative Action. Yet, Nixon is often regarded as a failure. This is, of course, because of the Watergate scandal. Watergate was, in itself, not so large a deal as has often been reported, previous presidents have done far worse. The intense and increasing partisanship in American politics caused the scandal to assume an outsized role and ultimately led to Nixon’s resignation. I wouldn’t regard Nixon as a great president, however. He was at least partly to blame for the enmity held against him.

The greatest president you have never heard of is James K. Polk. He may have been the only president to have actually fulfilled all of his campaign promises. He served only a single term but did more than most presidents have in two terms. Polk expanded the territory of the United States by provoking and winning the Mexican War while negotiating a peaceful settlement with Great Britain over the boundaries of the Oregon Territory.

Another great but forgotten president is Grover Cleveland. He was an honest and strong man who fought to keep the government honest. He favored a strong money policy over those who wanted the government to expand the money supply and create inflation, ostensibly to help the cash poor farmers of the West. He also limited government spending.

Presidential reputations change over time, sometimes due to changing ideas about what a president should be, and sometimes because new information about a president is revealed. I have already noted Kennedy’s declining reputation. It seems that the more one looks beyond the myth of Camelot, the tawdrier the whole thing appears. Dwight Eisenhower, on the other hand, has become more respected over the years. Eisenhower was a popular president, but the general feeling has been that he was a rather relaxed chief executive who didn’t do much. As more has been learned about his administration, historians have discovered that he was a very active president indeed. Eisenhower was not much concerned with getting credit for his actions and so was underestimated. Another president whose reputation has improved is Harry S. Truman. Truman is well thought of today, but he was a very unpopular president. He left the office with a job approval rating of 22%, lower that Richard Nixon’s and about the same as George W. Bush’s. Somehow, Truman’s blunt, uncompromising personality looks a lot better in hindsight, and history seems to have vindicated his policies on the Cold War. Perhaps the same will be true of Bush.

There is a lot more that I could say about the presidents. I have barely scratched the surface in rating some of the presidents and here are so many that I haven’t even mentioned. This post is starting to get overly long, however, so I think I will end it here. The presidents do make a fascinating subject and I am sure I will find more to right about.

The Election of 1860

December 10, 2012

With all of the silly talk about states seceding we have had after the last election, perhaps it is time to take a look at a past election in which the talk of secession was deadly serious. I refer, of course, to the election of 1860, the election that preceded and sparked the American Civil War. Slavery and secession were the two main issues of that Presidential campaign, and before I write any more about the campaign, I will have to give a little historical background on each of these issues.

Slavery was legal in all thirteen colonies when the Declaration of Independence was adopted by the Continental Congress in 1776. Slavery was rather rare in the northernmost states, such as New Hampshire and Massachusetts and much more common in the southern states where the climate and land permitted large-scale plantations. Nevertheless, slavery was not a sectional issue at that time.

During and after the War of Independence, it seemed obvious to many that the institution of slavery was incompatible with the ideals of liberty expressed in the Declaration and a movement to end slavery developed. In the northern states, slavery was largely abolished by the beginning of the nineteenth century, although because the larger states legislated gradual emancipation, there were still a few slaves in bondage as late as 1830. More importantly for the future of the new nation, slavery was prohibited in the Northwest Territory was the Northwestern Ordinance of 1787.
The founding fathers who held slaves had somewhat ambiguous feelings about the institution. They thought it necessary, but disliked it and believed that over time it would gradually die out. This didn’t happen. The invention of the cotton gin made slavery more profitable and attitudes hardened over time. In the north a newer generation of abolitionists were no longer willing for slavery to gradually die out, especially since it was beginning to show few signs of doing so. They wanted slavery abolished immediately, or at the least prevented from expanding into the new territories. The abolitionists were never a majority in the north but they were a vocal minority and over time their numbers and stridency grew. In the south, slave holders became increasingly defensive about their “peculiar institution”, all the more so as slavery was abolished throughout the civilized world. By 1860, only Brazil and the Spanish colony of Cuba still practiced slavery. By 1860, it was becoming increasingly clear that the United States could not continue to exist as a nation in which slavery was legal in half the country and prohibited in the other half. Either the country would have to be all free, all slave, or split into two.

This brings us to secession. In the early decades of the country, it was never entirely clear whether the United States was a federation of smaller sovereign states or a nation with sovereignty shared between the central government and the states but with the federal government pre-eminent. As early as 179, John Tyler of Virginia proposed that Virginia secede over the Alien and Sedition Acts. Thomas Jefferson wanted the Kentucky and Virginia legislatures to nullify the acts. In 1814, there was a movement in New England to secede over the War of 1812. South Carolina threatened to secede over the “Tariff of Abominations” in 1828, over the admission of California as a free state in 1850, and was the first state to secede in 1860.

Now, I can get to the election of 1860. The previous election, that of 1856 had seen the end of the second party system in the United States with the break up of the Whig Party and the rise of the anti-slavery Republicans. In that election, the Democrats had won the entire south, while the Republicans won New England and a few mid-western states. In the next four years, sectional tensions grew in the United States until a division between North and South became a real possibility. Already there was a sort of miniature civil war in Kansas over whether the territory would be admitted as a free state or a slave state. The infamous Dred Scott decision in 1857 polarized opinion as did the publication of the phenomenally successful Uncle Tom’s Cabin. The 1859 raid on Harper’s Ferry by John Brown terrified the South, naturally fearful of a slave revolt led by abolitionist, while Brown’s execution made him a martyr among abolitionists.

The Democratic convention was held in Charleston South Carolina in April. The obvious candidate was Stephen Douglas from Illinois who campaigned on a popular sovereignty position on the slavery issue. This “pro-choice” position did not please the increasingly radical southern delegates who wanted an out right pro-slavery platform in which slavery would be permitted in all territories under federal protection. This, the northern delegates would not agree to, so the convention broke up.
The Democrats met again the following month in Baltimore, this time the northern and southern delegates holding separate conventions. The northern delegates selected Stephen Douglas while the southerners nominated John C. Breckinridge from Kentucky. The irony here is that if the Democrats had united behind one candidate, that candidate would almost certainly have won the election since the Republican Party was not even on the ballot in the south. By dividing their efforts between two candidates they allowed the Republicans to win.

Meanwhile, the Republican Party had its convention in Chicago. William H. Seward of New York was a favorite at the convention but he had made too many political enemies. Although he had not had an especially prominent political career previously, Abraham Lincoln was well liked and articulate. He was firm on the slavery issue but not too radical, so he was selected on the third ballot.

Abraham Lincoln

Abraham Lincoln

Then, because things were not confusing enough with three candidates, a fourth candidate jumped into the ring. There was another nominating convention in Baltimore in May. This was a group of former Whigs who were determined to keep the Union together at all costs. Calling themselves the Constitutional Union Party, they nominated John Bell, a former Speaker of the House from Tennessee.

John Bell

John Bell

As one might imagine, this turned out to be an exciting and tumultuous election. Stephen Douglas broke with tradition and actually went out to campaign in person, all over the country. The other candidates stayed at home and tried to look dignified and presidential but their supporters made up the difference in raucous energy. Bell’s supporters rang bells at rallies. Republicans held parades featuring rails that the great rail splitter Abraham Lincoln had personally split. Breckenridge’s people warned that a Lincoln victory would split the country. If it weren’t for the great seriousness of it all, it would have been a lot of fun.

You probably already know the result of the election of 1860. No candidate got a majority of the popular vote but Lincoln won a plurality with 1,866,452 votes or 40% of the total. Douglas was second with 1,376,957 votes or 29 %. Breckinridge got 849,781 or 18 % and Bell 588,879 or 13%. The electoral vote was more decisive. Lincoln won all of the northern states except New Jersey which was split between Lincoln and Douglas for a total of 180 electoral votes. Douglas, although second in popular votes was last in electoral votes winning only Missouri and three New Jersey votes for a total of 12. Breckinridge won all of the south except for the states of Kentucky, Tennessee, and Virginia for a total of 72 votes. Bell won those three states and 39 electoral votes.

The Election of 1860

The Election of 1860

Stephen Douglas realized that a Lincoln victory would divide the country and immediately after the election he traveled south and gave speeches upholding the Union. It was of no avail, however, and a month after the election , on December 20 1860, South Carolina seceded from the Union and America’s bloodiest war began.

Worst President Ever

July 6, 2012
English: Smaller image of President James Buch...

English: Smaller image of President James Buchanan. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

For the eight years of George W. Bush’s administration, Liberals would tell each other that he was the worst president in American history, or as they put it; Worst. President. Ever. Since Barack Obama was elected, Conservatives have been pleased to return the compliment, with perhaps considerably more reason. Still, the truth is that it is too soon to properly evaluate either man’s presidential ranking and announcing that either is the absolute worst shows a sort of shortsighted historical ignorance that is all too common these days.

Most historians consider that the worst American President was James Buchanan, largely because of his inaction on the eve of the American Civil War. It is possible that the war could have been won earlier and far less bloodily, or even averted altogether if Buchanan at acted at once to suppress the rebellion. As it was, his dithering may have condemned the country to its bloodiest war.

To look at Buchanan’s resume, one would think he would make at least a decent President. Not one of the greatest perhaps, but certainly not the worst. He was born in 1791 in a log cabin in Pennsylvania, thus fulfilling the most important requirement for a nineteenth century politician. Buchanan never married and it is possible he was the first homosexual President. There were rumors that he and his friend Vice-President William Rufus King had an intimate relationship. In fact, the two were referred to as Buchanan and his wife. Unfortunately, King died in 1853 and so was unable to serve as first lady when Buchanan became President. On the other hand, it is also possible that this was no more than hostile gossip. Buchanan was engaged to Ann Caroline Coleman, the daughter of a wealthy businessman. She broke off the engagement and died soon after, devastating the young Buchanan.

James Buchanan fought in the War of 1812, helping to defend Baltimore from the British. He entered politics as a Federalist in the Pennsylvania House of Representatives from 1814-1816. He then left the legislature to pursue a successful career as a lawyer. He reentered politics in 1820, winning a seat in Congress as a Federalist. By this time, the Federalist Party was all but defunct so Buchanan became a democrat and a supporter of Andrew Jackson. He helped Jackson in the elections of 1824 and 1828 and in return, Jackson appointed him minister to Russia in 1832.

Buchanan was successful in this post as well, negotiating the first trade treaty between the United States and Russia. He returned to the United States the following year and served in the Senate from 1834-1845. He resigned to serve as President Polk’s Secretary of State and he was largely responsible for Polk’s successful policy of territorial expansion. He also served as minister to Great Britain from 1853 to 1856.

In 1856, the Democratic Party nominated James Buchanan for the presidency. The key issue in American politics at the time was slavery and the increasing sectional tensions that slavery was causing. Anyone who expressed a strong opinion for or against slavery, or who was identified too strongly with the North or the South was sure to alienate half the country and was therefore unelectable

Buchanan, therefore, had two advantages. He had been out of the country and so had not taken a position on the crisis in Kansas, and he was known to be a northerner who was sympathetic to slavery. He won easily enough, carrying every single slave state, except for Maryland, which went for Millard Fillmore, while the Republican; John Fremont carried most of the Northern states. This was not a good sign.

Under ordinary circumstances, James Buchanan might have been a decent president. Buchanan was largely successful in dealing with issues like a depression in 1857 and trouble with the Mormons in the Utah Territory. But these were not ordinary times. Slavery was tearing the country apart and Buchanan simply out of his depth. Caught between the two sides, he never really understood how passionate the issue had become to so many people, North and South. Slavery was no longer an issue on which it was possible to compromise, if it ever was.

To the extent that James Buchanan involved himself in the slavery dispute, he invariably made things worse. Two days after his inauguration, the Supreme Court issued the Dred Scott decision. The fact that this decision denied Dred Scott his freedom was outrageous enough to the abolitionists, but the broader decision to declare the Compromise of 1820 unconstitutional, denying Congress the power to outlaw slavery infuriated many northerners who had previously been relatively apathetic. Buchanan had written to Justice Taney urging the broader decision to be made to settle the slavery issue. His action only drove the two sides farther apart.

Then there was Kansas. There was already a civil war being fought in Kansas between those who wanted Kansas admitted to the union as a free state, and those who wanted Kansas to be a slave state. Buchanan tried his best to have Kansas admitted as slave state. This cost him all his support among northern Democrats and left his rival Stephen Douglas in charge of the party.

It should not be too surprising that by the time his term had ended, President Buchanan was deeply unpopular. The Republicans had managed to gain control of Congress in 1858 and the two branches of government were locked in gridlock. Buchanan had declared he would only serve one term at his inauguration his administration had so divided the country that the election of 1860 became the most contentious in American history. The Democrats probably would have won but the Democratic Party had become divided by section. The northern Democrats nominated Stephen Douglas while the southerner nominated Vice-President John C. Breckinridge. John Bell ran under the Constitutional Union party banner while the Republicans nominated Abraham Lincoln.

Because the Democrats were divided, Lincoln won a plurality of the votes cast, only 39.8%. He had a clear majority in the Electoral College and so was elected president, without a single Southern vote. As a result of the election, seven states seceded and formed the Confederate States of America. Four other states soon joined them.

This was the greatest crisis in American history. If ever the country needed leadership, this was the occasion. Unfortunately, this happened to be the time when James Buchanan would show that he did deserve to be considered the worst President ever. He did nothing. He did nothing to suppress the growing rebellion. He did nothing to prevent the Confederates from forming a government and an army and then seizing federal forts and arsenals. If he had taken some sort of decisive action, the rebellion might have been ended relatively quickly. Instead, he bequeathed to his successor, Lincoln, a bloody war with a rival nation fully prepared for a long struggle.

James Buchanan lived until June 1, 1868. He wrote his memoirs to defend his administration. The day before his death, he declared, “History will vindicate my memory”. It hasn’t.


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