On April 19, 2016, The University of Texas at Austin College of Liberal Arts and Humanities Texas hosted "The Election of 1860 and Its Contemporary Significance," an evening discussion of citizenship, democracy, and pivotal presidential elections in American history. Expert faculty analyzed, through an interdisciplinary lens, the political forces, issues, and consequences of the election of 1860 as well as its parallels to subsequent elections and its relevance today.
Participating scholars included Michael Les Benedict (The Ohio State University), Daniel Feller (University of Tennessee), Randall Fuller (University of Tulsa), Andrew Torget (University of North Texas), and Daina Ramey Berry, George B. Forgie, Jacqueline Jones, and Jeremi Suri from The University of Texas at Austin. The Honorable Thomas R. Phillips, former Chief Justice of the Texas Supreme Court, served as moderator.
The public forum series Pivotal U.S. Elections: Then and Now has been made possible in part by a Humanities in the Public Square grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities: Celebrating 50 Years of Excellence. Six regional forums covering other pivotal elections in American history will be held this fall in College Station, Corpus Christi, Dallas, El Paso, Houston, and San Antonio.
Below are excerpts from faculty presentations delivered at "The Election of 1860 and Its Contemporary Significance" at the Glickman Conference Center at The University of Texas at Austin.
When we talk about the abolitionist movement, we don't have to talk about people who experienced slavery—we're also talking about people who witnessed it, people who supported [abolitionism]. I want to talk about the Underground Railroad as a movement of written texts—not just of speeches, but also the written work of people like William Still and Mary Ann Shadd Cary.
William Still was born October 7, 1821, in Burlington, New Jersey. His parents were both born into slavery, and they self-emancipated. His father was able to purchase his freedom, and his mother ran away with four of her children. He was an active agent on the Underground Railroad in Philadelphia, he helped finance some of Harriet Tubman's trips to the North, and he worked for the Pennsylvania Society for the Abolition of Slavery. Pamphlets and newspapers are disseminated in the North and the South to tell stories about the history of slavery and to try to gain support from a larger international audience. William Still decides to get involved in this and starts publishing reports about people's escape stories. In 1872, he published a large volume called The Underground Railroad [comprising these] escape stories. People don't think about the story of the Underground Railroad through written texts besides newspapers, but these are testimonies. His book is beautiful because you get all these firsthand accounts of the reasons why people wanted to become free, the methods by which they became free, and all the different individuals that helped them along the way.
Mary Ann Shadd Cary was born in 1823, a few years after William Still, in Wilmington, Delaware. She was born free and came from a very wealthy African American family—wealthy at that time—and she was the oldest of thirteen children. Her family was active in helping fugitive slaves, and she acquired a strong abolitionist sentiment and belief at an early age. Her father worked for William Lloyd Garrison at The Liberator, so it's no surprise that, when her family decides to immigrate to Canada, she opens up an antislavery newspaper. She is one of the editors, but, because this is not something that was very common for women to do, she had male editors serve in her stead, and she wrote editorials. She encouraged other blacks to immigrate to Canada. She worked as a writer and educator and abolitionist, and she was the second African American woman to receive a law degree in the United States. She's known as the first black female newspaper editor in North America. The name of the paper she wrote was Provincial Freeman, and I'll close with a quote from her. She says, speaking to enslaved blacks, "You have a right to your freedom and to every other freedom connected with it, and if you cannot secure these in Virginia or Alabama, by all means, make your escape without delay to some other locality in God's wide universe."
The Republican Party is now 166 years old, founded in 1854 as a direct effect of the Kansas-Nebraska Law. From the beginning of our political system, even indeed before the Constitution was ratified, the American people had a kind of unspoken agreement that they would divide the map—they called it a "compromise" from time to time—between those areas that would be closed to slavery and those areas that would not be closed to slavery. There was the Northwest Ordinance of 1787; the Compromise of 1820, known as the Missouri Compromise, closing the Louisiana Purchase north of 36° 30' to slavery; and the Compromise of 1850. So far, so good. Then, in 1854, Democrats—Northern and Southern—at the instigation of Stephen A. Douglas and others, overturned the prohibition of slavery north of 36° 30' established by the Missouri Compromise. In the Nebraska territory and the Kansas territory, all of a sudden, slavery was legal all the way up to the Canada line.
The Republican Party was formed almost immediately, specifically to restore the Missouri Compromise. As we can see from the 1856 platform, the Republican Party was preoccupied to the point of obsession with this question of slavery in the territories and preventing slavery from going west—not only restoring the Missouri Compromise, but [preventing] further spread of slavery into the territories at all.
At the time, it was universally accepted as true that if slavery is not growing, it is dying. Here's what would happen: you stop the spread of slavery, and it's confined to the states that have it. Slaves are healthy, they reproduce, the slave population increases. Meanwhile, the soils are depleted, the income of the planter goes down, he has more mouths to feed, less income with which to feed them, he's going bankrupt, and there's no market for the slaves because there's an oversupply. What does the planter begin to do but let them go? Slavery would be self-dismantling in this plan. So, although the Republican Party seems to be preoccupied with something peripheral, it has a strategy for doing away with slavery.
The election of 1860 and the rise of the Republican Party to power can be seen as a ratification, a lagging indicator, of a broad transformation that had been taking place in our country for some time. The slaveholders see this—they see that, if the Republican Party comes to power, it will institute its strangulation policy on slavery, and they see that, if the Republicans come to power, they will stay in power. Democrats are outnumbered, and they begin to think about alternatives. And we know what those alternatives might be.
The name of this program is Humanities the Public Square, and, in some ways, the public square in the United States in 1860 was the literary space and written space. That is, it was newspapers where Democrats and Republicans of various stripes argued over this election. But it was also magazines and journals, which held the opinions of some of the most well known writers in the United States at that time. Some of the people that I study are names that you know: Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau, Walt Whitman, James Russell Lowell, and, of course, Harriet Beecher Stowe. They were published in the Atlantic Monthly, Harper's Monthly, and the North American Review. These were journals and publications that were read not just in the North, but in the South as well, and in the middle states. And they were disproportionately Republican. The minute the Republican Party formed, the writers that I just mentioned, the so-called transcendentalists, almost all of them cast their lot immediately with that party.
If 1860 was a revolutionary year, the principal literary writers of the United States had no doubt who that revolutionary figurehead was: John Brown. In October 1859, John Brown and a small group of black and white fellow travelers tried to take over Harper's Ferry federal arsenal in the hopes of fomenting a slave revolution in Virginia and throughout the South. That effort failed, and Brown was quickly captured, and, by December 2, he was hanged. But his example was picked up by a number of New England writers throughout late 1859 and well into 1860. John Brown was front-page news from January to December of 1860. While the writers who were best known in the United States did not weigh in on the election of 1860, they weighed in on John Brown in such a way as to galvanize public opinion—especially in the North, but also in the South, who reacted to the Northern change in public opinion—in enormously influential ways.
Walt Whitman, looking back at 1860, would describe that year as the "Year of Meteors." There were, in fact, meteor showers and comets of unusual abundance in that year, and a number of people commented on it. But Whitman saw those meteor showers as a harbinger, a prophecy of what was to come, and he links the meteor to John Brown. The meteorological event is like Brown in foretelling a cataclysmic battle about to erupt in America.
Henry David Thoreau had met John Brown in 1859 and was enormously impressed by him and believed that his cause was just. Thoreau almost singlehandedly changed public opinion in the very early days of 1860 through a series of essays that he wrote, in which he made the audacious claim that John Brown was not a terrorist who had gone into the South and violated law and tried to foment a slave insurrection that threatened the American way of life, but rather that he was a Christ-like figure. Thoreau saw Brown as a visionary who understood that the United States was founded upon principles of freedom, and he, more than most other people, was willing to act upon those principles. So Henry David Thoreau, in late 1859, decides that he would like to speak out in favor of John Brown. He is warned by friends in Concord, in Boston, and in the publishing industry in general not to do this because at the time abolitionists are under threat in the North. They can be tarred and feathered; they can be beaten up. This was common in 1859. Thoreau asks his aunt, his mother, and his sister if he should write essays and then deliver them publically in support of John Brown, and the family votes two-to-one that he should. From that streamed three essays by Thoreau, all of which see John Brown's hanging in Virginia as a martyrdom in the name of abolition, and all of which, taken together, altered the opinion of other people like Ralph Waldo Emerson, James Russell Lowell, and other tastemakers in the United States to support Brown as a model for abolitionist behavior.
What does this have to do with the election of 1860? Abraham Lincoln vigorously rejected John Brown throughout that year and, in fact, said that his actions were illegal and should have been punished the way they were. But Thoreau, Emerson, and a host of other literary writers of the era were able to change the minds of a number of readers throughout New England, but, probably more importantly, they made it seem to Southern readers as though the North was hostile to their way of life.
Texas is the westernmost front of the American South and growing like gangbusters in the 1850s, in part because the price of cotton is going through the roof. Immigration in Texas goes dramatically from 200,000 people in 1850 to about 600,000 people in 1860. Texas becomes the leader of cotton production in this time, outstripping anything that's happening in Mississippi or Alabama. Texas is producing more cotton than any other state in the United States, and they're doing it on the backs of enslaved laborers—182,000 people of that 600,000 are enslaved men, women, and children who have been brought into Texas.
In Texas, the Anglos in particular are watching what is happening in the rest of the country and getting increasingly nervous. When John Brown makes his raid in Virginia in 1859, it's like a thunderbolt that goes across the entire nation, particularly the South, because this is the epicenter of their fears—that there would be a slave revolt of four million people who would come up and slit their throats. There's a culture of fear at this point that helps lead, of course, to the divide in the Democratic Party. Texas is one of the states that walks out of the convention that nominates Stephen Douglas because he, being from Illinois, wasn't proslavery enough. So they name John C. Breckinridge as the Southern Democratic candidate as someone who will fight for slave rights moving westward. Texas is a part of all of that.
As a moderate within the Republican Party, Lincoln is nominated for all kinds of reasons, not least of which is that he's not under any extreme edge of the Republican Party. He is in the center; he's not going to offend many Northerners. That's one of the reasons he's electable, because the Republicans need to win virtually every Northern state to win the White House. When Lincoln is nominated in 1860, Anglo Texans look at this and they don't see a moderate Republican—they see John Brown. They see an extremist.
On February 1, the Texas secession convention votes 166–8 in favor of seceding. It's then put to a vote three weeks later on February 23 to the entire state, which votes overwhelmingly in favor of secession. Forty-six thousand say yes; fourteen thousand say no. So Texas becomes the seventh state to secede from the United States, and, in doing so, helps create the Civil War that will produce the result they're trying to prevent.
That's the irony of all of this. In trying to prevent Abraham Lincoln from getting elected, in trying to protect slavery, they actually create a situation that allows for slavery to end. That's the remarkable thing about the election of 1860—it creates the conditions that allow slavery to be outlawed during the American Civil War. That would not have happened in 1865 if it weren't for the Civil War. Slavery was thriving in the late 1850s, it was more profitable than it had ever been, and white Texans helped produce this opportunity for Abraham Lincoln and the Republicans to march an army into the South that will ultimately become the vehicle by which slavery is ended in the United States. Freedom comes to Texas on June 19, 1865—Juneteenth—when General Gordon Granger, a Union army general, lands in Galveston and declares that slavery is over in Texas, freeing 230,000 men, women, and children, who, in 1860, when this election happened, were enslaved and would have been enslaved for the rest of their lives were it not for the Civil War.
Seven southern states seceded from the union on the bare news of Lincoln's election, not waiting to see what he or Congress might offer by way of concession. They had already made up their minds about what they wanted, and what Lincoln's election showed they would not get was not merely federal noninterference with slavery in their own states—which Lincoln and his party has indeed promised and would promise again—but guarantees for the security of slavery now and in future against all efforts to undermine it from no matter what source anywhere within the country's reach. Given the restiveness of their own slaves and in the wake of John Brown's raid in 1859, they felt that not only control over their slave property, but their very own lives, their very personal security and safety, required national acceptance and federal protection of slavery as a normal, vital, and permanent feature of American life. They wanted Northern agitation against slavery simply stopped. And the formal declarations that those seven states issued on their way out of the union said exactly that.
On the other side was the Republican Party, which had carried every single Northern free state in the 1860 election on a platform that started out by quoting the Declaration of Independence and that affirmed not only the right but the duty of the federal government to contain slavery within its present boundaries. This was a party founded on the principle that slavery was, as its previous platform had declared, a relic of barbarism—a party whose candidate in 1860, Lincoln, had said over and over again—and I am quoting his words—"If slavery is not wrong, nothing is wrong," and who had also said repeatedly that, in his belief, controversy over slavery would not rest until slavery had been—and this is his phrase—"put in the course of ultimate extinction."
Well, just exactly how were these two positions to be reconciled or compromised? Let us imagine a plausible solution. The federal government is to distinctly swear a hands-off policy on anything concerning slavery where it presently exists, reaffirming its status as an institution entirely under state control. However, as a concession to the overwhelming conviction of Northerners, and at least at one time of many Southerners, that slavery is in principle wrong, it should be contained within present boundaries and not allowed to spread into new places where it's not already established in the hope that someday, somehow, in the unspecified future, an acceptable way will be found to get rid of it.
Does this sound like a reasonable compromise? I think most of us would say it would. The rub is that this was not a proposed solution to the problem; this was the problem. What I just described to you was the platform of the Republican Party in 1860—the very platform on which Lincoln had been elected and which prompted seven Southern states to secede. Now, there were indeed attempts in Congress to frame a compromise that would at least stop more states from seceding and perhaps lure the ones that had already departed back in. Part of the difficulty was that, unlike in previous crises, the problem to be resolved here was not a Congressional or legislative impasse, but a presidential election. Lincoln had been elected fair and square, and not one person in the country denied that. Any compromise, then, would require the Republican Party being barred or trading away the very platform on which it had just won a presidential election. Quite understandably, this seemed to Lincoln and his party to be more like blackmail than compromise.
People talk about states' rights as the main issue [of the Civil War]. If you look at the constitution of the new Confederate States of America, you'll find that slavery is mentioned as a pillar. Alexander Stevens said it was the cornerstone of the Confederacy, and, according to that constitution—which in many other ways resembles the United States Constitution—states in the new Confederacy would never have the chance to abolish slavery. Any new country that's going to herald states' rights is probably not going to write into its constitution that states within that new country will never be allowed to affect the institution of slavery. So much for states' rights.
I want to say a few words about the human cost of the war, changes in racial ideologies during the war, the effects of the war on family life especially in the South, and political economies in the North and South. This list [in right column] represents the number of American soldiers killed in battle during a particular war compared to the total population of the United States at that time. The first is the Revolution: 25,000 American soldiers killed out of a population of 3.2 million. The number 750,000 [represents] the number of Americans killed in the Civil War. These are Northerners and Southerners and also black people put to work on fortifications; probably fifty to seventy-five thousand died. The next is World War I, then World War II, then Vietnam, and finally Iraq and Afghanistan from 1990 to about 2010. What is striking about these figures is that the number of Americans who died in the American Civil War is more than the Americans who died in all the other wars in this nation's history combined.
If we extrapolated, think of a war today that claims seven million American lives. That would be the equivalent today. The Civil War was a demographic disaster. There are estimates that one in five young men throughout the country were either killed or wounded in the war. The fertility rates declined because in some areas a whole generation of young men had been wiped out. Demographers estimate, too, that in 1870 there was a deficit of three million people because of the war—these are people killed, births that didn't take place, and also a halt in immigration to the United States during the war. The social fabric was rent in the South, and families were destroyed.
The Constitution has deep meaning to us. We treat it as both setting the boundaries to what we can do and setting the course that we are supposed to take. That doesn't tell us, however, what course that is supposed to be, and it doesn't get us to agree on what the boundaries are. In 1860, at the time of the Civil War crisis, all Americans were thinking in constitutional terms, and two sides had quite different ideas about what the Constitution mandated and what it forbade.
The election of 1860 put into question the fundamental understanding that Southerners and many of their Northern allies had about the Constitution. The election of Abraham Lincoln put into the presidency a man who had directly challenged those fundamental understandings. From the standpoint of many Southerners, the willingness of Northerners to elect a candidate who repudiated what Southerners saw as fundamental constitutional principles justified secession. Secession, in turn, depended on a particular interpretation of the Constitution that more and more Southerners had come to accept as the right one but that Northerners did not.
Southerners and many of the Northerners who voted against Lincoln interpreted the Constitution in light of their belief that its ratification back in 1787 constituted a bargain between the slaveholding South and a North that was at the time becoming free—there were only a couple of free states at the time the Constitution is ratified, but there soon will be an abolition of slavery in the North. Until 1854, most Northerners argued that the South never would have ratified the Constitution if Southerners had thought that it presented a threat to slavery. On the contrary, Southerners said that they ratified it on the understanding that the government created by the Constitution would protect Southerners' property rights in their slaves. The biggest evidence of this, they said, was the provision of the Constitution that said "persons held to service"—everybody knew that meant slaves—would not become free if they managed to reach states that had abolished slavery, but rather would be returned to the states from which they had escaped and to their owners.
By the 1840s, more and more Northerners rejected this understanding of the Constitution. Antislavery Northerners argued that the Constitution was designed to carry out the principles of the Declaration of Independence, with which slavery was inconsistent. There was no bargain with slavery, they said. The Founding Fathers hated slavery and expected it to die out. Antislavery people pointed especially to the Fifth Amendment of the Constitution, which says that no person can be deprived of liberty without due process of law, as forbidding the federal government from doing anything that could promote slavery. From this antislavery standpoint, it is unconstitutional for the federal government to permit slavery in Washington, DC, or on the property of the government like military bases or in the territories. The Constitution did allow states to establish slavery within their borders, but the national government was dedicated to freedom. In other words, freedom was national, and slavery was local. This antislavery constitutionalism became the central doctrine of the Republican Party and of Abraham Lincoln, who expressed it in the presidential campaign.
In her presentation on the human and economic cost of the Civil War, Jacqueline Jones referenced this list of wars comparing the number of American soldiers killed in battle to the population at the time:
American Revolution : 25,000 out of 3.2 million
Civil War : 750,000 out of 32 million
World War I : 112,000 out of 100 million
World War II : 500,000 out of 130 million
Vietnam War : 50,000 out of 200 million
War in Afghanistan and Iraq : 4,500 out of 313 million