Grand Old Party: A History of the Republicans

Overview


From Abraham Lincoln and the Civil War through the disputed election of George W. Bush and beyond, the Republican Party has been at the dramatic center of American politics for 150 years. In Grand Old Party, the first comprehensive history of the Republicans in 40 years, Lewis L. Gould traces the evolution of the Grand Old Party from its emergence as an antislavery coalition in the 1850s to its current role as the champion of political and social conservatism.

Here, Gould ...

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Overview


From Abraham Lincoln and the Civil War through the disputed election of George W. Bush and beyond, the Republican Party has been at the dramatic center of American politics for 150 years. In Grand Old Party, the first comprehensive history of the Republicans in 40 years, Lewis L. Gould traces the evolution of the Grand Old Party from its emergence as an antislavery coalition in the 1850s to its current role as the champion of political and social conservatism.

Here, Gould brings to life the major figures of Republican history - Lincoln, Theodore Roosevelt, Dwight D. Eisenhower, Richard Nixon, Ronald Reagan, and George W. Bush-and uncovers a wealth of fascinating anecdotes about Republicans, from "the Plumed Knight," James G. Blaine, in the 1880s, to Barry Goldwater in the 1960s, to Newt Gingrich in the 1990s. Gould also uncovers the historical forces and issues that have made the Republicans what they are: the crusade against slavery, the rise of big business, the Cold War, and opposition to the power of the federal government.

Based on Gould's research in the papers of leading Republicans and his wide reading in the party's history, Grand Old Party is a book that will outlast the noisy tumult of today's partisan debates and endure as a definitive treatment of how the Republicans have shaped the way Americans live together in a democracy.

Written with balance and keen insight, Grand Old Party is required reading for anyone interested in American politics, especially as Americans gear up for the 2012 presidential election. Republicans, Democrats, and independents alike will find their understanding of national politics deepened and enriched by this invaluable guide to the unfolding saga of American politics.

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Editorial Reviews

The Washington Post
If it is a sound maxim that a good biographer should love his subject, although not too much, the same might be said of any historian who would undertake the formidable task of writing a history of a great political party. A political party, somewhat like a person, is in the end a living organism with a character and a soul of its own. Lewis Gould has provided us with a glimpse of that soul, and his treatment of the GOP, while often justly critical, is also appreciative. Republicans and Democrats alike should welcome this book as a worthy addition to next year's sesquicentennial celebrations. — James W. Ceaser
The New York Times Book Review
… a smart, sprawling, highly readable survey of the Republican Party from its origins in 1854 to George W. Bush. In workmanlike fashion Mr. Gould makes clear that the early Republican motto was "economic prosperity," even during the Civil War, and it lasted all the way to Herbert Hoover's Great Depression. The Grand Old Party, he says, was as much the party of unfettered growth as it was of Lincolnian anti-slavery. — Douglas Brinkley
Publishers Weekly
Just in time for the Republican Party's 150th anniversary next year, Gould, professor emeritus of American history at the University of Texas at Austin, nimbly portrays the almost 180-degree shifts in GOP policy through the decades, making it possible to understand how the Republican platform of 2000 could so closely mirror the Democrats' platform of a century ago. Although the book gives serious weight to issues such as race, especially in shaping the party's antebellum origins, greater emphasis is placed on personalities, especially those of the presidents. Gould offers reappraisals of minor presidents, such as Taft ("more interesting... than his critics at the time realized") and Coolidge (not "the precursor of supply-side economics as depicted by some Republicans in the 1980s"). But the account comes to life more effectively the closer it gets to the present, especially when considering Ronald Reagan, whom Gould considers so strong a conservative influence that he obliterated any recollection of moderation in the party's past. The closing chapters help put the present ideological tenacity of congressional Republicans, beginning with the backlash against the rejection of Supreme Court nominee Robert Bork, in historical context. It's very instructive to see how recent figures such as Newt Gingrich stand in relation to their predecessors-and how the current administration both shares and rejects the party's historical principles. 16 pages of b&w photos not seen by PW. (On sale Nov. 4) FYI: A companion volume, Party of the People: A History of the Democrats by Jules Witcover, will be reviewed next week. Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information.
Library Journal
Gould (history, emeritus, Univ. of Texas at Austin; American Passages: A History of the American People) has written a fairly evenhanded account of the Grand Old Party that spans its earliest days under Abraham Lincoln to its conservative bent today. Much of the book documents the shifts of its platform. Opposed to slavery from the outset, the party has since moved to the position of supporting white voters in the South. Originally a proponent of the protective tariff, it is now a staunch advocate of free trade. Its foreign policy stance has also changed, from isolationist to anti-Communist to a role as the world's policeman. Gould also discusses the leadership qualities, farsighted policies, conservative federal spending, and willingness to provide social programs at the cost of future generations of four Republican presidents-Lincoln, Theodore Roosevelt, Eisenhower, and Reagan. Although engaging in the opening and closing chapters, Gould falters in the middle, making for an uneven read. Only academic and larger public libraries should consider. (Index not seen.)-Grant A. Fredericksen, Illinois Prairie Dist. P.L., Metamora Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
Or, what a long, strange trip it’s been. In this hefty companion—and at turns rejoinder—to Jules Witcover’s Party of the People below, political historian Gould American History/Univ. of Texas at Austin writes that at its origins the GOP "consisted of disparate groups with different visions of what the party should be and where it ought to go." Some early members favored an anti-immigrant, nativist stance; others, more liberal, pressed for a coherent antislavery platform. Whatever the case, most suspected that the majority Democrats and Whigs of the 1840s and ’50s were agents of "schemes of aristocracy the most revolting and oppressive with which the earth was ever cursed," in the words of the Michigan party’s charter. Gaining national prominence with the election of Abraham Lincoln in 1860, the party was tested, following the Civil War, by episodes of ineptitude and corruption—to say nothing, writes Gould, of northern voters’ suspicion that something deeply radical underlay Republican efforts to "achieve suffrage for blacks in the South." If soft on big business, Gould demonstrates, Republicanism from the late-19th to the mid-20th century was eminently moderate, and dominantly urban and suburban, fielding solidly middle-of-the-road candidates such as Wendell Wilkie and Nelson Rockefeller. The latter, Gould writes, "was not a very good national politician," in part because he "seemed to think that his money and celebrity appeal entitled him to leadership." Enter the rise of Cold War conservatism, led by the likes of a comparatively soft Richard Nixon and a comparatively hard Barry Goldwater, on whose heels came Ronald Reagan and his hard-right cohort. The subsequentrealignment of the party essentially pushed out moderates; as Gould writes, come 1992, "the trouble with [GOP presidential aspirant Pat] Buchanan was not that he rejected core Republican values but that he articulated them with damaging clarity." Whence the current leadership, at turns antifederalist and imperialist, isolationist and unilateralist—all characteristics of a GOP past, present, and presumably future. Quite lluminating, and at times even entertaining as when Gould offers his take on the four presidents most representative of the GOP’s core. Just the thing for the 2004 election. Agent: Jim Hornfischer
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780199943470
  • Publisher: Oxford University Press
  • Publication date: 9/11/2012
  • Edition description: Reprint
  • Edition number: 1
  • Pages: 632
  • Sales rank: 740,115
  • Product dimensions: 6.10 (w) x 9.20 (h) x 1.60 (d)

Meet the Author

Lewis L. Gould is Eugene C. Barker Centennial Professor Emeritus in American History at the University of Texas at Austin. His books include The Presidency of Theodore Roosevelt and The William Howard Taft Presidency.

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Read an Excerpt

Chapter 1

The Party of Lincoln, 1854-1865


CHICAGO HAD NEVER seen anything like it. Ten thousand Republicans had crammed themselves into a pine-board frame building called the Wigwam to nominate a candidate for president in mid-May 1860. After two days of deliberations about the platform, the enthusiastic delegates turned to the key business of nominations on Friday, May 18. Everyone knew who the front-runners were: William H. Seward of New York and Abraham Lincoln of Illinois. Two or three dark horses were also in the mix. The Illinois crowd clamored for Lincoln; some timely printing of bogus tickets helped inflate the crowd with supporters of "Honest Abe." After Lincoln's name was placed in nomination, the arena exploded with noise. "No language can describe it," said one observer. "A thousand steam whistles, ten acres of hotel gongs, a tribe of Comanches, headed by a choice vanguard from pandemonium, might have mingled in the scene unnoticed."

In the balloting that followed, Seward led Lincoln on the first tally, but neither had the 233 votes needed for nomination. The second ballot produced a big gain for Lincoln; Seward's lead was a scant 3 votes. When it became evident on the third ballot that Seward could not win, Lincoln moved steadily toward a majority as the other contenders fell away. When he reached 2311Ž2 votes, four Ohio delegates switched their votes, and Lincoln was then the nominee of the Republican Party. Another tumultuous celebration ensued, while back in Lincoln's hometown of Springfield the new Republican leader was flooded with congratulatory telegrams. The Republicans had become the party of Lincoln.

What made the moment surprising was the rapid rise of both the nominee and his party to political prominence. Six and a half years earlier, in January 1854, the Republican Party did not exist, and Abraham Lincoln was a successful but politically obscure attorney in Springfield. If anyone in Illinois that winter seemed likely to become president, it was the state's Democratic senator, Stephen A. Douglas. Yet with a speed that in retrospect seems incredible and almost preordained, the new party became one of the two major political organizations in the United States.

To Americans in the 1850s the chain of events that led to the rise of the Republicans and the Lincoln presidency was fueled by the crisis over human slavery that convulsed the nation. Twists and turns, unexpected episodes, and some plain historical luck enabled the Republicans to survive the turbulent circumstances of their early years and put Lincoln in the White House in 1860. Once in power, the party that had begun as an effort to restrict the further expansion of slavery found itself involved in a major war that required an unprecedented expansion of governmental power for victory. At the same time, the struggle with the South posed the problem of how to structure a multiracial society after the fighting ended. That dilemma would divide the country and shape the destiny of the Republicans for the next century and a half.

America in 1854

The dispersion of the old parties was one thing, but the organization of their fragments into a new one on a just basis was quite a different thing.

-George W. Julian

The Republican Party came into being in a United States that was still an agricultural and rural nation. Census takers counted 23 million people in 1850; the figure rose to 26 million four years later. There were thirty-one states, with California on the West Coast as the most recent addition. The bulk of the population lived east of the Mississippi River, and most Americans still made their living off the land through farming or raising livestock. Industrialization and urbanization had made beginnings in the North, and these forces accelerated during the 1850s. In Lincoln's Illinois, for example, the 110 miles of railroad track in the early 1850s expanded to nearly 2,900 miles by the end of the decade.

Economic times were good. The discovery of gold in California in 1848 and an influx of British investment into the United States fueled a robust economic expansion. Railroad building surged as money poured into the new industry. With immigration climbing as well, the country had a growing, hardworking labor force in the North. So dramatic was this rise in prosperity that some commentators predicted an end to the partisan issues that had shaped national politics for two decades: the wisdom of having a national bank, the merits of a protective tariff, and the constitutionality of internal improvements such as canals, wagon roads, and railroads. As a Maryland capitalist wrote about the Democrats and the Whigs that had battled since the 1830s, "The great dividing lines between the two old parties are fast melting away-and such changes are taking place in the world, that, issues formerly momentous are now of comparatively trifling importance."

Yet Americans knew that beneath the surface the United States was a troubled land. The tide of immigration in the 1850s exacerbated social tensions. In 1853, 369,000 people arrived from overseas. Almost half were newcomers from Ireland; another 141,000 were of German origin. Immigration peaked in 1854 with 427,000 individuals entering the country. The Irish, because of their Roman Catholic faith, and many of the Germans, also Catholics, aroused fears among native-born Protestants who remembered the Reformation, disapproved of the elaborate rituals, and worried about the fealty of devout Catholics to the papacy. These new Americans usually aligned themselves with the Democrats, who were seen as more culturally tolerant than their major rivals, the Whigs.

In the 1850s, religious beliefs and national origin often shaped voting decisions as much as economic class and social status. These ethnocultural pressures showed themselves in the reaction against the tide of immigrants. So large had been the arrival of newcomers and so powerful had been their impact on local and state politics in New York, Pennsylvania, and Massachusetts, for example, that native voters reacted against the immigrant presence with laws to mandate the teaching of English in public schools, the closing of saloons on Sundays, and the prohibition of alcohol. The vehicle for these antiforeign impulses became a new political party that emphasized secrecy in its opposition to both immigrant and Catholic influence. When asked about their organization, members were told to say, "I know nothing," a phrase that gave the movement its name. Know-Nothings, or the Native Americans, as they were sometimes called, picked up followers during the first half of the 1850s at a rate that stunned politicians. "At the bottom of all this," remarked a Pennsylvania Democrat, "is a deep-seated religious question-prejudice if you please, which nothing can withstand." Many public figures hoped or feared that the Know-Nothings might replace the embattled Whigs as the primary alternative to the Democrats.

The Peculiar Institution

Commerce and political power, as well as military strength, can never permanently reside, on this continent, in a community where slavery exists.

-William H. Seward

Even more troubling to many people in the North was the presence of human slavery in the South. There were 3.2 million men, women, and children in bondage in the South in 1850, and the "peculiar institution," as the South referred to slavery, dominated every aspect of life in the fifteen slave states that stretched across the South from Maryland and Delaware to Texas. Law, custom, and the Constitution meant that slavery also wove its way through American government and daily life. Northerners understood that by law they must help return fugitive slaves to their owners in the South and that slavery could not be eliminated without changing the Constitution. Though the issue had quieted since the approval of the Compromise of 1850, feelings remained volatile. Harriet Beecher Stowe's novel, Uncle Tom's Cabin, became an instant best-seller in 1852 in the North for its depiction of the cruelties of slavery and their impact on a mother and her family.

The South saw slavery not as a moral burden on the nation or an evil to be expunged, but more and more as a positive good for both master and slave. The southern states, said a Texas editor in 1861, "have for centuries fostered the institution of slavery, which has resulted in the Christianizing of that portion of the African race and in making them useful members of society, in restraining them in the only position that is congenial to their natures and for which they are fitted intellectually and morally." As a result, many leading southerners believed that they should have the right to take their human property wherever they wished. Efforts to restrict slavery or limit its expansion, said many southerners, would justify secession from the Union.

The North was more divided. Slavery had receded from the region by 1853, but northerners did not have a coherent view of the institution's future. Radical abolitionists, a definite minority, opposed slavery on moral grounds. Others disliked slavery because its spread might bring blacks into the North and West as competitive cheap labor. In 1848, northern opponents of slavery established a Free-Soil Party that sought to block the spread of slavery in the West. Still others, driven by racist impulses, wanted African Americans to stay in the South or be returned to Africa. Whatever their attitudes toward slavery, residents of the North often resented the South's political power and regarded the land below the Mason-Dixon line as backward, out of step with progressive currents of the nineteenth century. An uneasy sectional peace, based on the Missouri Compromise of 1820 and the Compromise of 1850, existed as 1854 began.

These two historic sectional bargains defined the way in which Americans viewed the politics of slavery as the 1850s began. In 1820, Congress had decided, after heated debates, to admit the new state of Missouri as one where slavery existed, and Maine as one where it did not. In the rest of the territory gained from the Louisiana Purchase of 1803, slavery would be barred north of a line running along 36 degrees, 30 minutes of latitude. Conscious of themselves as sections divided by slavery, North and South accepted this arrangement for three decades. But in the wake of the Mexican War, another crisis threatened over the fate of the western land obtained from that victorious conflict. Lawmakers decided to let California enter the Union as a free state, to leave the fate of slavery in the rest of the new territories in limbo for the time being, and to strengthen the right of the South to capture and return fugitive slaves from the North. Neither side was really mollified by the settlement, but most moderate Americans agreed that the Compromise of 1850 maintained the sectional balance and extended the principles of the Missouri Compromise. Undoing these compromises would plunge the nation into renewed turmoil.

The Political System

Under our system of government there will always be parties of some kind and the interests of the people will be better subserved, and their rights more securely maintained with the checks and balances afforded by two great permanent opposing parties, than by the substitution of numberless smaller factions.

-Kennebec Journal

Augusta, Maine

American politics responded to these conflicting pressures. At the time and for much of the rest of the nineteenth century, partisan warfare occupied much more of the nation's attention than would be true a century and a half later. Frequent elections kept voters attuned to the fortunes of their party. Allegiance to a party defined the lives of most male voters; independents represented only a small portion of the electorate. Participation in elections occurred at rates that would be unthinkable in the late twentieth century. Turnouts of eligible voters in the North regularly exceeded seventy percent. Parties were not scorned as corrupt institutions but valued for their role in democracy. "Party is the great engine of human progress," said one northern Democrat in 1852. Loyalty to a party was essential and, as a result, "to forsake a party is regarded as an act of greatest dishonour."

Interest in elections and press coverage of politics was intense. Newspapers did not pretend to be objective dispensers of information. Owned by partisans, they slanted reporting and editorials to advance party fortunes. Yet overall coverage of conventions, rallies, and speeches was far more detailed and elaborate than at present. In effect, there were hundreds of partisan newspapers, the C-SPANS of their day, keeping voters up to date on the latest successes or failures of the party.

Meanwhile, voters and their families attended "mass meetings" and political rallies where speakers might go on for an hour or two. Such events often lasted all day and into the night, with meal breaks. Audiences were well informed on the issues and expected a sophisticated treatment of contemporary concerns. Orators had to have the complexities of their subject at their command, whether it was slavery in the territories, the merits of a protective tariff, or the constitutionality of a national bank. No one used speechwriters, and an orator's thoughts on the stump were very much his own. "What the theatre is to the French, or the bull-fight or fandango to the Spanish, the hustings and the ballot-box are to our people. We are all politicians, men, women, and children."

On the surface, the United States had a working two-party system in 1854 with the Democrats in power and the Whigs as their main opposition. The Democrats in the mid-nineteenth century were the party of small, limited government and of white supremacy. They did not believe that the national government should be in the business of sponsoring economic growth through canal construction, road building, or railroad promotion. Accordingly, their platform in 1852 opposed "a general system of internal improvements," promised "the most rigid economy in conducting our public affairs," and asserted that Congress had no power to interfere with slavery in the South. Well established in the North and strong in the South, the Democrats (or the "Democracy," as they were sometimes called) had the stronger national base of the two parties. However, sectional divisions within the Democracy over slavery meant that there were in the North potential recruits for an antislavery party among unhappy Democrats. The Democrats were more fragile than they seemed even after the landslide election of Franklin Pierce in 1852.

The Whigs, meanwhile, had fallen into disarray after 1852. The party had originated during the turbulent politics of the Jacksonian era when opponents of Andrew Jackson adopted the term "Whig" to evoke memories of the antimonarchical party in England. "King Andrew" united many men against his strong presidential leadership between 1829 and 1837. Democrats applauded what Jackson had done with his authority to prevent government excesses. As a result, suspicion of executive power was one Whig tradition that carried over to the Republicans.

So, too, were the Whig economic policies associated with "The American System" of Henry Clay of Kentucky. That program advocated the use of government power to promote the growth of enterprise through a protective tariff, a national bank, sale of public lands, and internal improvements. Whigs stressed the common interests of society and contended that their policies helped all classes. Yet the identification of the Whigs with business and commercial interests led the Democrats to accuse them of being the party of the rich. But throughout the 1830s and 1840s the Whigs were credible rivals to the Democrats in both the North and the South.

From the Hardcover edition.

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Table of Contents

CONTENTS

Preface and Acknowledgments

Chapter 1: The Party of Lincoln, 1854-1865
Chapter 2: Republicans and Reconstruction, 1865-1877
Chapter 3: Republicans in the Gilded Age, 1877-1893
Chapter 4: McKinley to Roosevelt, 1893-1904
Chapter 5: The Taft-Roosevelt Split, 1905-1912
Chapter 6: Republicans During the Wilson Years, 1913-1921
Chapter 7: The Age of Republican Dominance, 1921-1933
Chapter 8: The Republicans in the Age of the New Deal, 1933-1945
Chapter 9: From "Had Enough?" to Modern Republicanism, 1933-1945
Chapter 10: From Goldwater to Watergate, 1961-1974
Chapter 11: Republicans in the Reagan Era, 1974-1988
Chapter 12: Bush to Gingrich to Bush, 1988-2000
Conclusion: The Historical Legacy of the Republican Party
Notes
Suggestions for Further Reading
Index

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First Chapter

Chapter 1

The Party of Lincoln, 1854-1865


CHICAGO HAD NEVER seen anything like it. Ten thousand Republicans had crammed themselves into a pine-board frame building called the Wigwam to nominate a candidate for president in mid-May 1860. After two days of deliberations about the platform, the enthusiastic delegates turned to the key business of nominations on Friday, May 18. Everyone knew who the front-runners were: William H. Seward of New York and Abraham Lincoln of Illinois. Two or three dark horses were also in the mix. The Illinois crowd clamored for Lincoln; some timely printing of bogus tickets helped inflate the crowd with supporters of "Honest Abe." After Lincoln's name was placed in nomination, the arena exploded with noise. "No language can describe it," said one observer. "A thousand steam whistles, ten acres of hotel gongs, a tribe of Comanches, headed by a choice vanguard from pandemonium, might have mingled in the scene unnoticed."

In the balloting that followed, Seward led Lincoln on the first tally, but neither had the 233 votes needed for nomination. The second ballot produced a big gain for Lincoln; Seward's lead was a scant 3 votes. When it became evident on the third ballot that Seward could not win, Lincoln moved steadily toward a majority as the other contenders fell away. When he reached 2311Ž2 votes, four Ohio delegates switched their votes, and Lincoln was then the nominee of the Republican Party. Another tumultuous celebration ensued, while back in Lincoln's hometown of Springfield the new Republican leader was flooded with congratulatory telegrams. The Republicans had become the party of Lincoln.

What made the momentsurprising was the rapid rise of both the nominee and his party to political prominence. Six and a half years earlier, in January 1854, the Republican Party did not exist, and Abraham Lincoln was a successful but politically obscure attorney in Springfield. If anyone in Illinois that winter seemed likely to become president, it was the state's Democratic senator, Stephen A. Douglas. Yet with a speed that in retrospect seems incredible and almost preordained, the new party became one of the two major political organizations in the United States.

To Americans in the 1850s the chain of events that led to the rise of the Republicans and the Lincoln presidency was fueled by the crisis over human slavery that convulsed the nation. Twists and turns, unexpected episodes, and some plain historical luck enabled the Republicans to survive the turbulent circumstances of their early years and put Lincoln in the White House in 1860. Once in power, the party that had begun as an effort to restrict the further expansion of slavery found itself involved in a major war that required an unprecedented expansion of governmental power for victory. At the same time, the struggle with the South posed the problem of how to structure a multiracial society after the fighting ended. That dilemma would divide the country and shape the destiny of the Republicans for the next century and a half.

America in 1854

The dispersion of the old parties was one thing, but the organization of their fragments into a new one on a just basis was quite a different thing.

-George W. Julian

The Republican Party came into being in a United States that was still an agricultural and rural nation. Census takers counted 23 million people in 1850; the figure rose to 26 million four years later. There were thirty-one states, with California on the West Coast as the most recent addition. The bulk of the population lived east of the Mississippi River, and most Americans still made their living off the land through farming or raising livestock. Industrialization and urbanization had made beginnings in the North, and these forces accelerated during the 1850s. In Lincoln's Illinois, for example, the 110 miles of railroad track in the early 1850s expanded to nearly 2,900 miles by the end of the decade.

Economic times were good. The discovery of gold in California in 1848 and an influx of British investment into the United States fueled a robust economic expansion. Railroad building surged as money poured into the new industry. With immigration climbing as well, the country had a growing, hardworking labor force in the North. So dramatic was this rise in prosperity that some commentators predicted an end to the partisan issues that had shaped national politics for two decades: the wisdom of having a national bank, the merits of a protective tariff, and the constitutionality of internal improvements such as canals, wagon roads, and railroads. As a Maryland capitalist wrote about the Democrats and the Whigs that had battled since the 1830s, "The great dividing lines between the two old parties are fast melting away-and such changes are taking place in the world, that, issues formerly momentous are now of comparatively trifling importance."

Yet Americans knew that beneath the surface the United States was a troubled land. The tide of immigration in the 1850s exacerbated social tensions. In 1853, 369,000 people arrived from overseas. Almost half were newcomers from Ireland; another 141,000 were of German origin. Immigration peaked in 1854 with 427,000 individuals entering the country. The Irish, because of their Roman Catholic faith, and many of the Germans, also Catholics, aroused fears among native-born Protestants who remembered the Reformation, disapproved of the elaborate rituals, and worried about the fealty of devout Catholics to the papacy. These new Americans usually aligned themselves with the Democrats, who were seen as more culturally tolerant than their major rivals, the Whigs.

In the 1850s, religious beliefs and national origin often shaped voting decisions as much as economic class and social status. These ethnocultural pressures showed themselves in the reaction against the tide of immigrants. So large had been the arrival of newcomers and so powerful had been their impact on local and state politics in New York, Pennsylvania, and Massachusetts, for example, that native voters reacted against the immigrant presence with laws to mandate the teaching of English in public schools, the closing of saloons on Sundays, and the prohibition of alcohol. The vehicle for these antiforeign impulses became a new political party that emphasized secrecy in its opposition to both immigrant and Catholic influence. When asked about their organization, members were told to say, "I know nothing," a phrase that gave the movement its name. Know-Nothings, or the Native Americans, as they were sometimes called, picked up followers during the first half of the 1850s at a rate that stunned politicians. "At the bottom of all this," remarked a Pennsylvania Democrat, "is a deep-seated religious question-prejudice if you please, which nothing can withstand." Many public figures hoped or feared that the Know-Nothings might replace the embattled Whigs as the primary alternative to the Democrats.

The Peculiar Institution

Commerce and political power, as well as military strength, can never permanently reside, on this continent, in a community where slavery exists.

-William H. Seward

Even more troubling to many people in the North was the presence of human slavery in the South. There were 3.2 million men, women, and children in bondage in the South in 1850, and the "peculiar institution," as the South referred to slavery, dominated every aspect of life in the fifteen slave states that stretched across the South from Maryland and Delaware to Texas. Law, custom, and the Constitution meant that slavery also wove its way through American government and daily life. Northerners understood that by law they must help return fugitive slaves to their owners in the South and that slavery could not be eliminated without changing the Constitution. Though the issue had quieted since the approval of the Compromise of 1850, feelings remained volatile. Harriet Beecher Stowe's novel, Uncle Tom's Cabin, became an instant best-seller in 1852 in the North for its depiction of the cruelties of slavery and their impact on a mother and her family.

The South saw slavery not as a moral burden on the nation or an evil to be expunged, but more and more as a positive good for both master and slave. The southern states, said a Texas editor in 1861, "have for centuries fostered the institution of slavery, which has resulted in the Christianizing of that portion of the African race and in making them useful members of society, in restraining them in the only position that is congenial to their natures and for which they are fitted intellectually and morally." As a result, many leading southerners believed that they should have the right to take their human property wherever they wished. Efforts to restrict slavery or limit its expansion, said many southerners, would justify secession from the Union.

The North was more divided. Slavery had receded from the region by 1853, but northerners did not have a coherent view of the institution's future. Radical abolitionists, a definite minority, opposed slavery on moral grounds. Others disliked slavery because its spread might bring blacks into the North and West as competitive cheap labor. In 1848, northern opponents of slavery established a Free-Soil Party that sought to block the spread of slavery in the West. Still others, driven by racist impulses, wanted African Americans to stay in the South or be returned to Africa. Whatever their attitudes toward slavery, residents of the North often resented the South's political power and regarded the land below the Mason-Dixon line as backward, out of step with progressive currents of the nineteenth century. An uneasy sectional peace, based on the Missouri Compromise of 1820 and the Compromise of 1850, existed as 1854 began.

These two historic sectional bargains defined the way in which Americans viewed the politics of slavery as the 1850s began. In 1820, Congress had decided, after heated debates, to admit the new state of Missouri as one where slavery existed, and Maine as one where it did not. In the rest of the territory gained from the Louisiana Purchase of 1803, slavery would be barred north of a line running along 36 degrees, 30 minutes of latitude. Conscious of themselves as sections divided by slavery, North and South accepted this arrangement for three decades. But in the wake of the Mexican War, another crisis threatened over the fate of the western land obtained from that victorious conflict. Lawmakers decided to let California enter the Union as a free state, to leave the fate of slavery in the rest of the new territories in limbo for the time being, and to strengthen the right of the South to capture and return fugitive slaves from the North. Neither side was really mollified by the settlement, but most moderate Americans agreed that the Compromise of 1850 maintained the sectional balance and extended the principles of the Missouri Compromise. Undoing these compromises would plunge the nation into renewed turmoil.

The Political System

Under our system of government there will always be parties of some kind and the interests of the people will be better subserved, and their rights more securely maintained with the checks and balances afforded by two great permanent opposing parties, than by the substitution of numberless smaller factions.

-Kennebec Journal

Augusta, Maine

American politics responded to these conflicting pressures. At the time and for much of the rest of the nineteenth century, partisan warfare occupied much more of the nation's attention than would be true a century and a half later. Frequent elections kept voters attuned to the fortunes of their party. Allegiance to a party defined the lives of most male voters; independents represented only a small portion of the electorate. Participation in elections occurred at rates that would be unthinkable in the late twentieth century. Turnouts of eligible voters in the North regularly exceeded seventy percent. Parties were not scorned as corrupt institutions but valued for their role in democracy. "Party is the great engine of human progress," said one northern Democrat in 1852. Loyalty to a party was essential and, as a result, "to forsake a party is regarded as an act of greatest dishonour."

Interest in elections and press coverage of politics was intense. Newspapers did not pretend to be objective dispensers of information. Owned by partisans, they slanted reporting and editorials to advance party fortunes. Yet overall coverage of conventions, rallies, and speeches was far more detailed and elaborate than at present. In effect, there were hundreds of partisan newspapers, the C-SPANS of their day, keeping voters up to date on the latest successes or failures of the party.

Meanwhile, voters and their families attended "mass meetings" and political rallies where speakers might go on for an hour or two. Such events often lasted all day and into the night, with meal breaks. Audiences were well informed on the issues and expected a sophisticated treatment of contemporary concerns. Orators had to have the complexities of their subject at their command, whether it was slavery in the territories, the merits of a protective tariff, or the constitutionality of a national bank. No one used speechwriters, and an orator's thoughts on the stump were very much his own. "What the theatre is to the French, or the bull-fight or fandango to the Spanish, the hustings and the ballot-box are to our people. We are all politicians, men, women, and children."

On the surface, the United States had a working two-party system in 1854 with the Democrats in power and the Whigs as their main opposition. The Democrats in the mid-nineteenth century were the party of small, limited government and of white supremacy. They did not believe that the national government should be in the business of sponsoring economic growth through canal construction, road building, or railroad promotion. Accordingly, their platform in 1852 opposed "a general system of internal improvements," promised "the most rigid economy in conducting our public affairs," and asserted that Congress had no power to interfere with slavery in the South. Well established in the North and strong in the South, the Democrats or the "Democracy," as they were sometimes called had the stronger national base of the two parties. However, sectional divisions within the Democracy over slavery meant that there were in the North potential recruits for an antislavery party among unhappy Democrats. The Democrats were more fragile than they seemed even after the landslide election of Franklin Pierce in 1852.

The Whigs, meanwhile, had fallen into disarray after 1852. The party had originated during the turbulent politics of the Jacksonian era when opponents of Andrew Jackson adopted the term "Whig" to evoke memories of the antimonarchical party in England. "King Andrew" united many men against his strong presidential leadership between 1829 and 1837. Democrats applauded what Jackson had done with his authority to prevent government excesses. As a result, suspicion of executive power was one Whig tradition that carried over to the Republicans.

So, too, were the Whig economic policies associated with "The American System" of Henry Clay of Kentucky. That program advocated the use of government power to promote the growth of enterprise through a protective tariff, a national bank, sale of public lands, and internal improvements. Whigs stressed the common interests of society and contended that their policies helped all classes. Yet the identification of the Whigs with business and commercial interests led the Democrats to accuse them of being the party of the rich. But throughout the 1830s and 1840s the Whigs were credible rivals to the Democrats in both the North and the South.

Copyright© 2003 by Lewis L. Gould
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