Monday, August 1, 2016

American History 101: The Election of 1860 and Lincoln as a 3rd Party Candidate

Recently, this meme of Abraham Lincoln has been floating around Facebook.  It shows a very familiar portrait of Abraham Lincoln with the words, "This is what happens when you waste your vote on a 3rd party candidate."  The point of the meme is to illustrate that it is possible to rock the status quo in Washington and make the government do the will of the people.  We can debate all night long on whether the election of Abraham Lincoln was good for the people of this land and for the civil liberties of the enslaved, or if he was no more than a statist dictator who would impose his will on the people whether they liked it or not -- I am happy to engage in that debate.  But there are several things about America in 1860, the political climate and the status of the Republican Party at that time that can not be debated.

Many folks on Facebook are quick to point out that Abraham Lincoln was not a 3rd party candidate because he was a Republican.  Let's take a look at that, and see where it comes out.

The Republican Party was founded in 1854 by disjointed members of the quickly unraveling Whig Party.  It was formed in response to the Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854.  The Kansas-Nebraska Act effectively overturned the Missouri Compromise of 1820.  The Missouri Compromise had previously drawn a line in the sand that said no new states north of a certain line would be admitted to the Union as slave states.  In essence, it meant that no new states would be slave states.  The Kansas-Nebraska Act was a response to the upheaval that was artificially created by southern slave owners who thought that new states should be able to choose for themselves if slavery would be legal or not.  The Kansas-Nebraska Act passed, and the states were allowed to choose for themselves.  In an election that was rife with corruption and people who would come from neighboring slave states to ensure Kansas' entry as a slave state -- slavery won the day.  As a response to this abomination of an election, the cast offs from the anti-slavery Whig Party formed a new party to combat slavery: the Republican Party.

In 1856, the newly minted Republican Party ran their first Presidential Candidate: John Fremont.  Fremont did very well for an upstate winning 11 states and 114 electoral votes.  And by 1860, the Democrats and slave owners knew that the Republicans would pose a real threat to the Oval Office.  They were so afraid that a Republican would win and abolish slavery, that the slave states threatened to secede should Lincoln win.  The threat stood in spite of the Republican candidates numerous guarantees that he had no inclination to abolish slavery and his statement in 1858 that said, "our frame of government, the States which have slavery are to retain it, or surrender at their own pleasure; and that all others---individuals, free-states and national government--are constitutionally bound to leave them alone about it."   In addition to the new Republican threat, the Democratic party was having its own issues.  Many southern democrats thought that not only was Stephen Douglas too moderate on slavery, but that he had no chance of beating Lincoln.  This, and other issues, led to the fracturing of the Democratic party -- and the introduction of the Southern Democratic Party.  The SDP sent John Breckinridge as its nominee for President in 1860.  The Whig Party, a once dominant political force, had all but disbanded but 1860 -- and what was left was rebranded the Constitutional Union Party and they nominated John Bell as their candidate.  So the election of 1860 can be seen as featuring two bruise major parties (Democrat and Constitutional Union) against two upstart minor parties (Republican and Southern Democrat).  This scenario is very much like the election of 2016 where the wounded Democrat and Republican parties are fielding half baked candidates against two strong minor party candidates in the Libertarian and Green parties.

With the fracturing of the country along the lines of slavery and the rights of states to choose their own laws, the political system was fractured, as well.  And in this historic election we say one major theme bubble to the surface: that voting for a minor party can change the fate of the nation, and the world.  The election of Abraham Lincoln was not the result of a fractured Democratic Party.  In fact, if you combined Douglas, Breckenridge and Bell's votes all together Lincoln still wins the Presidency.  The election was a landslide.  It was the people of the United States saying loud and clear that Abraham Lincoln was the President they wanted, and that will would not be denied.

Before 1860, four different political parties had held the Presidency.  And if you count George Washington, who did not hold a party affiliation, it was five.  Since 1860, there have only been two parties with one notable exception -- Andrew Johnson in 1864 was a National Union Party member (and terrible President!).  So, even if we accept that in 1860 Lincoln was a minor, or third party, candidate running against the Democrats and Whigs, it would be the last time in our nations history that something like that was possible.  After the Civil War America emerged as one nation who loved its newly emboldened central government, and continued to vote for it time and time again.  We have gotten to a point in this country where we vote against people and their ideas, instead for the person who best represents us, our interests and the interests of this country.  We have been doing it as a nation for so long, it is a wonder if we can change that pattern - and actually vote for something.

In 2016, you have the opportunity for the first time in a very long time to vote for a candidate who is not a Republican or a Democrat -- and is on the ballot in all 50 states.  Think about that -- and then think about the election of 1860 and what it did for America, slavery, civil rights and the future of our country.  And in November, vote your conscience -- and vote for someone, not against someone else.

Bruce holds a degree in Computer Science from Temple University, a Graduate Certificate in Biblical History from Liberty University and is working towards a Masters Degree in American History at American Public University.  He has worked in educational and technology for over 18 years, specializes in building infrastructures for schools that work to support the mission of technology in education in the classroom.  He also has served as a classroom teacher in Computer Science, History and English classes.  

Bruce is the author of five books: Sands of TimeTowering Pines Volume One:Room 509The Star of ChristmasPhiladelphia Story: A Lance Carter Detective Novel and The Insider's Story: A Lance Carter Detective Novel

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