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2: The Party of Political Evasion

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In order to understand Douglas one must understand the Democratic party of 1854 in which Douglas was a conspicuous leader. The Democrats boasted that they were the only really national party and contended that their rivals, the Whigs and the Know-Nothings, were merely the representatives of localities or classes. Sectionalism was the favorite charge which the Democrats brought against their enemies; and yet it was upon these very Democrats that the slaveholders had hitherto relied, and it was upon certain members of this party that the label, "Northern men with Southern principles," had been bestowed.

The label was not, however, altogether fair, for the motives of the Democrats were deeply rooted in their own peculiar temperament. In the last analysis, what had held their organization together, and what had enabled them to dominate politics for nearly the span of a generation, was their faith in a principle that then appealed powerfully, and that still appeals, to much in the American character. This was the principle of negative action on the part of the government—the old idea that the government should do as little as possible and should confine itself practically to the duties of the policeman. This principle has seemed always to express to the average mind that traditional individualism which is an inheritance of the Anglo-Saxon race. In America, in the middle of the nineteenth century, it reenforced that tradition of local independence which was strong throughout the West and doubly strong in the South. Then, too, the Democratic party still spoke the language of the theoretical Democracy inherited from Jefferson. And Americans have always been the slaves of phrases!

Furthermore, the close alliance of the Northern party machine with the South made it, generally, an object of care for all those Northern interests that depended on the Southern market. As to the Southerners, their relation with this party has two distinct Chapters. The first embraced the twenty years preceding the Compromise of 1850, and may be thought of as merging into the second during three or four years following the great equivocation. In that period, while the antislavery crusade was taking form, the aim of Southern politicians was mainly negative. "Let us alone," was their chief demand. Though aggressive in their policy, they were too far-sighted to demand of the North any positive course in favor of slavery. The rise of a new type of Southern politician, however, created a different situation and began a second Chapter in the relation between the South and the Democratic party machine in the North. But of that hereafter.

Until 1854, it was the obvious part of wisdom for Southerners to cooperate as far as possible with that party whose cardinal idea was that the government should come as near as conceivable to a system of non-interference; that it should not interfere with business, and therefore oppose a tariff; that it should not interfere with local government, and therefore applaud states rights; that it should not interfere with slavery, and therefore frown upon militant abolition. Its policy was, to adopt a familiar phrase, one of masterly inactivity. Indeed it may well be called the party of political evasion. It was a huge, loose confederacy of differing political groups, embracing paupers and millionaires, moderate anti-slavery men and slave barons, all of whom were held together by the unreliable bond of an agreement not to tread on each other's toes.

Of this party Douglas was the typical representative, both in strength and weakness. He had all its pliability, its good humor, its broad and easy way with things, its passion for playing politics. Nevertheless, in calling upon the believers in political evasion to consent for this once to reverse their principle and to endorse a positive action, he had taken a great risk. Would their sporting sense of politics as a gigantic game carry him through successfully? He knew that there was a hard fight before him, but with the courage of a great political strategist, and proudly confident in his hold upon the main body of his party, he prepared for both the attacks and the defections that were inevitable.

Defections, indeed, began at once. Even before the bill had been passed, the "Appeal of the Independent Democrats" was printed in a New York paper, with the signatures of members of Congress representing both the extreme anti-slavery wing of the Democrats and the organized Free-Soil party. The most famous of these names were those of Chase and Sumner, both of whom had been sent to the Senate by a coalition of Free-Soilers and Democrats. With them was the veteran abolitionist, Giddings of Ohio. The "Appeal" denounced Douglas as an "unscrupulous politician" and sounded both the warcries of the Northern masses by accusing him of being engaged in "an atrocious plot to exclude from a vast unoccupied region immigrants from the Old World and free laborers from our own States."

The events of the spring and summer of 1854 may all be grouped under two heads—the formation of an antiNebraska party, and the quick rush of sectional patriotism to seize the territory laid open by the Kansas-Nebraska Act. The instantaneous refusal of the Northerners to confine their settlement to Nebraska, and their prompt invasion of Kansas; the similar invasion from the South; the support of both movements by societies organized for that purpose; the war in Kansas all the details of this thrilling story have been told elsewhere.(1) The political story alone concerns us here.

1. See Jesse Macy, "The Anti-Slavery Crusade". (In "The Chronicles of America".)

When the fight began there were four parties in the field: the Democrats, the Whigs, the Free-Soilers, and the Know-Nothings.

The Free-Soil party, hitherto a small organization, had sought to make slavery the main issue in politics. Its watchword was "Free soil, free speech, free labor, and free men." It is needless to add that it was instantaneous in its opposition to the Kansas-Nebraska Act.

The Whigs at the moment enjoyed the greatest prestige, owing to the association with them of such distinguished leaders as Webster and Clay. In 1854, however, as a party they were dying, and the very condition that had made success possible for the Democrats made it impossible for the Whigs, because the latter stood for positive ideas, and aimed to be national in reality and not in the evasive Democratic sense of the term. For, as a matter of fact, on analysis all the greater issues of the day proved to be sectional. The Whigs would not, like the Democrats, adopt a negative attitude toward these issues, nor would they consent to become merely sectional. Yet at the moment negation and sectionalism were the only alternatives, and between these millstones the Whig organization was destined to be ground to bits and to disappear after the next Presidential election.

Even previous to 1854, numbers of Whigs had sought a desperate outlet for their desire to be positive in politics and had created a new party which during a few years was to seem a reality and then vanish together with its parent. The one chance for a party which had positive ideas and which wished not to be sectional was the definite abandonment of existing issues and the discovery of some new issue not connected with sectional feeling. Now, it happened that a variety of causes, social and religious, had brought about bad blood between native and foreigner, in some of the great cities, and upon the issue involved in this condition the failing spirit of the Whigs fastened. A secret society which had been formed to oppose the naturalization of foreigners quickly became a recognized political party. As the members of the Society answered all questions with "I do not know," they came to be called "Know-Nothings," though they called themselves "Americans." In those states where the Whigs had been strongest —Massachusetts, New York, and Pennsylvania—this last attempt to apply their former temper, though not their principles, had for a moment some success; but it could not escape the fierce division which was forced on the country by Douglas. As a result, it rapidly split into factions, one of which merged with the enemies of Douglas, while the other was lost among his supporters.

What would the great dying Whig party leave behind it? This was the really momentous question in 1854. Briefly, this party bequeathed the temper of political positivism and at the same time the dread of sectionalism. The inner clue to American politics during the next few years is, to many minds, to be found largely in the union of this old Whig temper with a new-born sectional patriotism, and, to other minds, in the gradual and reluctant passing of the Whig opposition to a sectional party. But though this transformation of the wrecks of Whiggism began immediately, and while the Kansas-Nebraska Bill was still being hotly debated in Congress, it was not until 1860 that it was completed.

In the meantime various incidents had shown that the sectional patriotism of the North, the fury of the abolitionists, and the positive temper in politics, were all drawing closer together. Each of these tendencies can be briefly illustrated. For example, the rush to Kansas had begun, and the Massachusetts Emigrant Aid Society was preparing to assist settlers who were going west. In May, there occurred at Boston one of the most conspicuous attempts to rescue a fugitive slave, in which a mob led by Thomas Wentworth Higginson attacked the guards of Anthony Burns, a captured fugitive, killed one of them, but failed to get the slave, who was carried to a revenue cutter between lines of soldiers and returned to slavery. Among numerous details of the hour the burning of Douglas in effigy is perhaps worth passing notice. In duly the anti-Nebraska men of Michigan held a convention, at which they organized as a political party and nominated a state ticket. Of their nominees, two had hitherto ranked themselves as Free-Soilers, three as anti-slavery Democrats, and five as Whigs. For the name of their party they chose "Republican," and as the foundation of their platform the resolution "That, postponing and suspending all differences with regard to political economy or administrative policy," they would "act cordially and faithfully in unison," opposing the extension of slavery, and would "cooperate and be known as 'Republicans' until the contest be terminated."

The history of the next two years is, in its main outlines, the story of the war in Kansas and of the spread of this new party throughout the North. It was only by degrees, however, that the Republicans absorbed the various groups of anti-Nebraska men. What happened at this time in Illinois may be taken as typical, and it is particularly noteworthy as revealing the first real appearance of Abraham Lincoln in American history.

Though in 1854 he was not yet a national figure, Lincoln was locally accredited with keen political insight, and was, regarded in Illinois as a strong lawyer. The story is told of him that, while he was attending court on the circuit, he heard the news of the Kansas-Nebraska Act in a tavern and sat up most of the night talking about it. Next morning he used a phrase destined to become famous. "I tell you," said he to a fellow lawyer, "this nation cannot exist half slave and half free."

Lincoln, however, was not one of the first to join the Republicans. In Illinois, in 1854, Lincoln resigned his seat in the legislature to become the Whig candidate for United States senator, to succeed the Democratic colleague of Douglas. But there was little chance of his election, for the real contest was between the two wings of the Democrats, the Nebraska men and the anti-Nebraska men, and Lincoln withdrew in favor of the candidate of the latter, who was elected.

During the following year, from the midst of his busy law practice, Lincoln watched the Whig party go to pieces. He saw a great part of its vote lodge temporarily among the Know-Nothings, but before the end of the year even they began to lose their prominence. In the autumn, from the obscurity of his provincial life, he saw, far off, Seward, the most astute politician of the day, join the new movement. In New York, the Republican state convention and the Whig state convention merged into one, and Seward pronounced a baptismal oration upon the Republican party of New York.

In the House of Representatives which met in December, 1855, the anti-Nebraska men were divided among themselves, and the Know-Nothings held the balance of power. No candidate for the speakership, however, was able to command a majority, and finally, after it had been agreed that a plurality would be sufficient, the contest closed, on the one hundred and thirty-third ballot, with the election of a Republican, N. P. Banks. Meanwhile in the South, the Whigs were rapidly leaving the party, pausing a moment with the Know-Nothings, only to find that their inevitable resting-place, under stress of sectional feeling, was with the Democrats.

On Washington's birthday, 1856, the Know-Nothing national convention met at Philadelphia. It promptly split upon the subject of slavery, and a portion of its membership sent word offering support to another convention which was sitting at Pittsburgh, and which had been called to form a national organization for the Republican party. A third assembly held on this same day was composed of the newspaper editors of Illinois, and may be looked upon as the organization of the Republican party in that state. At the dinner following this informal convention, Lincoln, who was one of the speakers, was toasted as "the next United States Senator."

Some four months afterward, in Philadelphia, the Republicans held their first national convention. Only a few years previous its members had called themselves by various names—Democrats, Free-Soilers, Know-Nothings, Whigs. The old hostilities of these different groups had not yet died out. Consequently, though Seward was far and away the most eminent member of the new party, he was not nominated for President. That dangerous honor was bestowed upon a dashing soldier and explorer of the Rocky Mountains and the Far West, John C. Fremont.2

2. For an account of Fremont, see Stewart Edward White, "The Forty-Niners" (in "The Chronicles of America"), Chapter II.

The key to the political situation in the North, during that momentous year, was to be found in the great number of able Whigs who, seeing that their own party was lost but refusing to be sidetracked by the make-believe issue of the Know-Nothings, were now hesitating what to do. Though the ordinary politicians among the Republicans doubtless wished to conciliate these unattached Whigs, the astuteness of the leaders was too great to allow them to succumb to that temptation. They seem to have feared the possible effect of immediately incorporating in their ranks, while their new organization was still so plastic, the bulk of those conservative classes which were, after all, the backbone of this irreducible Whig minimum.

The Republican campaign was conducted with a degree of passion that had scarcely been equaled in America before that day. To the well-ordered spirit of the conservative classes the tone which the Republicans assumed appeared shocking. Boldly sectional in their language, sweeping in their denunciation of slavery, the leaders of the campaign made bitter and effective use of a number of recent events. "Uncle Tom's Cabin", published in 1852, and already immensely popular, was used as a political tract to arouse, by its gruesome picture of slavery, a hatred of slaveholders. Returned settlers from Kansas went about the North telling horrible stories of guerrilla warfare, so colored as to throw the odium all on one side. The scandal of the moment was the attack made by Preston Brooks on Sumner, after the latter's furious diatribe in the Senate, which was published as "The Crime Against Kansas". With double skill the Republicans made equal capital out of the intellectual violence of the speech and the physical violence of the retort. In addition to this, there was ready to their hands the evidence of Southern and Democratic sympathy with a filibustering attempt to conquer the republic of Nicaragua, where William Walker, an American adventurer, had recently made himself dictator. Walker had succeeded in having his minister acknowledged by the Democratic Administration, and in obtaining the endorsement of a great Democratic meeting which was held in New York. It looked, therefore, as if the party of political evasion had an anchor to windward, and that, in the event of their losing in Kansas, they intended to placate their Southern wing by the annexation of Nicaragua.

Here, indeed, was a stronger political tempest than Douglas, weatherwise though he was, had foreseen. How was political evasion to brave it? With a courage quite equal to the boldness of the Republicans, the Democrats took another tack and steered for less troubled waters. Their convention at Cincinnati was temperate and discreet in all its expressions, and for President it nominated a Northerner, James Buchanan of Pennsylvania, a man who was wholly dissociated in the public mind from the struggle over Kansas.

The Democratic party leaders knew that they already had two strong groups of supporters. Whatever they did, the South would have to go along with them, in its reaction against the furious sectionalism of the Republicans. Besides the Southern support, the Democrats counted upon the aid of the professional politicians—those men who considered politics rather as a fascinating game than as serious and difficult work based upon principle. Upon these the Democrats could confidently rely, for they already had, in Douglas in the North and Toombs in the South, two master politicians who knew this type and its impulses intimately, because they themselves belonged to it. But the Democrats needed the support of a third group. If they could only win over the Northern remnant of the Whigs that was still unattached, their position would be secure. In their efforts to obtain this additional and very necessary reinforcement, they decided to appear as temperate and restrained as possible—a well bred party which all mild and conservative men could trust.

This attitude they formulated in connection with Kansas, which at that time had two governments: one, a territorial government, set up by emigrants from the South; the other, a state government, under the constitution drawn up at Topeka by emigrants from the North. One authorized slavery; the other prohibited slavery; and both had appealed to Washington for recognition. It was with this quite definite issue that Congress was chiefly concerned in the spring of 1856. During the summer Toombs introduced a bill securing to the settlers of Kansas complete freedom of action and providing for an election of delegates to a convention to draw up a state constitution which would determine whether slavery or freedom was to prevail—in other words, whether Kansas was to be annexed to the South or to the North. This bill was merely the full expression of what Douglas had aimed at in 1854 and of what was nicknamed "popular sovereignty"—the right of the locality to choose for itself between slave and free labor.

Two years before, such a measure would have seemed radical. But in politics time is wonderfully elastic. Those two years had been packed with turmoil. Kansas had been the scene of a bloody conflict. Regardless of which side had a majority on the ground, extremists on each side had demanded recognition for the government set up by their own party. By contrast, Toombs's offer to let the majority rule appeared temperate.

The Republicans saw instantly that they must discredit the proposal or the ground would be cut from under them. Though the bill passed the Senate, they were able to set it aside in the House in favor of a bill admitting Kansas as a free state with the Topeka constitution. The Democrats thereupon accused the Republicans of not wanting peace and of wishing to keep up the war-cry "Bleeding Kansas" until election time.

That, throughout the country, the two parties continued on the lines of policy they had chosen may be seen from an illustration. A House committee which had gone to Kansas to investigate submitted two reports, one of which, submitted by a Democratic member, told the true story of the murders committed by John Brown at Pottawatomie. And yet, while the Republicans spread everywhere their shocking tales of murders of free-state settlers, the Democrats made practically no use of this equally shocking tale of the murder of slaveholders. Apparently they were resolved to appear temperate and conservative to the bitter end.

And they had their reward. Or, perhaps the fury of the Republicans had its just deserts. From either point of view, the result was a choice of evils on the part of the reluctant Whigs, and that choice was expressed in the following words by as typical a New Englander as Rufus Choate: "The first duty of Whigs," wrote Choate to the Maine State central committee, "is to unite with some organization of our countrymen to defeat and dissolve the new geographical party calling itself Republican.... The question for each and every one of us what vote can I do most to prevent the madness of the times from working its maddest act the very ecstasy of its madness—the permanent formation and the actual triumph of a party which knows one half of America only to hate and dread it. If the Republican party," Choate continued, "accomplishes its object and gives the government to the North, I turn my eyes from the consequences. To the fifteen states of the South that government will appear an alien government. It will appear worse. It will appear a hostile government. It will represent to their eye a vast region of states organized upon anti-slavery, flushed by triumph, cheered onward by the voice of the pulpit, tribune, and press; its mission, to inaugurate freedom and put down the oligarchy; its constitution, the glittering and sounding generalities of natural right which make up the Declaration of Independence.... Practically the contest, in my judgment, is between Mr. Buchanan and Colonel Fremont. In these circumstances, I vote for Mr. Buchanan."

The party of political evasion thus became the refuge of the old original Whigs who were forced to take advantage of any port in a storm. Buchanan was elected by an overwhelming majority. To the careless eye, Douglas had been justified by results; his party had triumphed as perhaps never before; and yet, no great political success was ever based upon less stable foundations. To maintain this position, those Northerners who reasoned as Choate did were a necessity; but to keep them in the party of political evasion would depend upon the ability of this party to play the game of politics without acknowledging sectional bias. Whether this difficult task could be accomplished would depend upon the South. Toombs, on his part, was anxious to continue making the party of evasion play the great American game of politics, and in his eagerness he perhaps overestimated his hold upon the South. This, however, remains to be seen.

Already another faction had formed around William L. Yancey of Alabama—a faction as intolerant of political evasion as the Republicans themselves, and one that was eager to match the sectional Northern party by a sectional Southern party. It had for the moment fallen into line with the Toombs faction because, like the Whigs, it had not the courage to do otherwise. The question now was whether it would continue fearful, and whether political evasion would continue to reign.

The key to the history of the next four years is in the growth of this positive Southern party, which had the inevitable result of forcing the Whig remainder to choose, not as in 1856 between a positive sectional policy and an evasive nonsectional policy, but in 1860 between two policies both of which were at once positive and sectional.

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