It is one of the perils and paradoxes of democracy that it often bestows disproportionate power and influence upon a minority. Two-party democracies are the most susceptible to this reversal of the familiar and rather tiresome teaching about tyrannous majorities, victimized minorities, and the heroic courts that right such injustices. It is easy to see why. It should be evident to everyone who knows something of the world of politics, both past and present, that democratic peoples, in the absence of a unifying external threat, almost always divide into competing fractions. This recurring division is surely a reflection of several unflattering aspects of human nature. Now imagine a polity in which there are two parties neither one of which has a consistent or significant numerical advantage. Then a third party emerges. The established parties can respond in one of two ways. They can ignore it, hoping it goes away, or they can co-opt it by stealing its rhetoric or issues. If the two parties can agree on the first course of action (exclusion), the third party must either rise on its own to majority status (a difficult task and rare occurrence) or fade away. However, should just one party court its support, this empowers it and puts it into play. The other party must respond similarly or risk falling into minority status. Before one jumps to the conclusion that this process renders the polity more democratic, one must consider the possibility that it more often does the reverse: that to placate or win the favor of the minority that holds the balance of power, the other parties will sacrifice the interests or will of the majority. Massachusetts’ politics during the 1850s offers a textbook case of how a minority may usurp the majority.
In Massachusetts, the Democrats had long contested the Whig supremacy. Their only advantage, which helped them attract the ambitious if not the principled, was in federal patronage, as the Democrats were typically the party in control of the executive branch of government. As the antislavery movement grew, it weakened the Whigs, because it drew mostly from their ranks, and thus presented the Democrats with a temptation and a dilemma. The temptation was to attempt to draw part of that vote to themselves, by some selective and careful pandering; the dilemma was that those votes represented opinions antithetical to their Jeffersonian principles and hostile to their southern allies. In the end they succumbed to the temptation, but benefitted hardly at all. The Whigs, for their part, felt that some pandering of their own was necessary to slow or stop the bleeding. The effect was to strengthen the antislavery movement (by 1850 it represented nearly a third of the Massachusetts electorate), weaken themselves, and leave the Democrats where they had always been, outsiders looking in. In 1851, the party ratio in the lower house of the state assembly was 12 (Whigs) to 9 (Democrats) to 7 (Free Soilers). That presented a problem—no majority, but also an opportunity for those practiced in the low arts of political intrigue and factious combination.
The immediate problem was that the Massachusetts’ constitution required that United States’ senators (who were then chosen by the state legislatures) have a majority, not just a plurality, of legislative votes; and likewise governors, if the latter failed to win a majority of the popular vote the election would go to the legislature. Thus a plurality could not govern, only a majority, and there was no majority. The solution could only be a political coalition of some kind. But what kind? The Whigs and Democrats were inveterate enemies. The Whigs, having lost many of their radical members to the anti-slavery party, had become more conservative, more loyal to their “ancient constitutional principles,” so a coalition with radicalism was unthinkable, but the Democrats, likewise, could hardly be expected to join forces with those who considered their party to be the subservient tool of “the slave power.” But the problem remained; so “the Coalition of 1851” (Lunt’s term) was formed, and the Whigs were not a part of it.
Its first manifestation was in the respective elections for the leaders of the two houses of the state legislature. In the state senate, the Free Soilers and Democrats combined to elect Henry Wilson, a Free Soiler; in the House, Nathaniel Banks, a Democrat. Next came the gubernatorial election, thrown into the legislature by three-way division of the popular vote. The coalition chose George Boutwell, a Democrat. The bargain was concluded in the election to fill the seat long filled by Daniel Webster, who had resigned to take the post of Secretary of State in the Fillmore administration; the Democrats voted for Charles Sumner, a Free Soiler. Even fifteen years later, Lunt could barely contain his outrage over what he considered a sordid, and ultimately disastrous, coalition of expediency and betrayal. The Whigs, who remained the largest party in the state, were excluded from the most important offices during the duration of the coalition, while the Free Soilers, who represented the views of no more than twenty five percent of the electorate, sent their man to Washington to represent the state. That he was an antislavery firebrand and ideologue made the choice dangerous as well as unrepresentative; that the man he replaced was a respected national statesman and conservative, made it insulting as well.
Lunt saw Sumner’s factious elevation as pregnant with future evils for the country. Before his term expired, his extreme rhetoric, and the personal insults he hurled with such malice, provoked a violent reaction that proved just as politically profitable to the antislavery cause as it was harmful to the peace of the country. Lunt neither approved nor sympathized with the brutal caning administered by Preston Brooks, a South Carolina congressman, upon the head and torso of Sumner while he was sitting and writing at his desk in the Senate chamber, but he recognized that it “gave him [Sumner] a prominence which there is no reason to suppose that he could otherwise have acquired. It also enlisted sympathy enough, on his account, to secure an indulgence to his extreme views, from persons to whom they had been hitherto repulsive; and in this way powerfully seconded the general radical movement. Except for that blow” he may not have been reelected in 1858. Sumner went from being a rather isolated and despised figure, to a victim and a hero. There was also “the evil example which [the coalition] set for similar truckling coalitions in other States,” and the standing and legitimacy it accorded the third party.
For the Free Soilers, the motives behind forming an alliance with their political enemies was a pregnant mixture of the mercenary and the fanatical. “It was plain enough that what these philosophers and philanthropists wanted was … place.” But they also hoped to ruin the Whigs because they would not follow them on their southern crusade. “They had struck hands with avowed enemies to their principles, for the sake of crushing those who, if not their friends, had yet steadily resisted the extension of slavery—their own dogma, and the only one, in regard to slavery, which could be constitutionally maintained.” They would rule, or they would ruin.
As for the Democrats, it was patronage and power, and some part of strategy. They hoped that by this sharing of power “with a faction which they really scorned, they might destroy the prestige of their more formidable opponents.” All that was required was the sacrifice of principle involved in electing to the Senate “an ideologist and ultraist, who, however restrained by policy, at that time, from the full expression of his extreme opinions, yet constantly avowed doctrines which, subjected to any logical analysis, were inimical to the Constitution, and tended clearly to the destruction of the Union. They were guilty, not only of the betrayal of party fidelity, but of all the duties of patriotic citizens.”
And what did they gain? Only “the temporary triumph over a rival party.” In the end, the stratagem ruined them. “The Coalition broke down the power of the Democracy in the State, and was the entering wedge which broke down the Whig party into fragments.” Conservatives themselves were splintered. Some withdrew completely from public affairs, others joined the American movement, some even went over to their old adversaries in the Democratic party, such as Rufus Choate who declared for James Buchanan in 1856. Lunt thought this movement perfectly logical, for the Democratic party was growing more and more conservative, partly by contrast with the radicalization of its opponents, but also substantively in its continuing dedication to “the cause of the Constitution and the Union.” “Indeed the meaning of party names was fast becoming modified, as it was afterwards completely reversed; until, by Democracy was understood Conservatism, and its opponents, in general, were known as Radicals.”
The future political course of the two coalition Democrats, Banks and Boutwell, seems to confirm the corrupt nature of the bargain. Banks was elected to Congress in 1852 and 1854 by the coalition; in 1856, he was chosen Speaker of the House of Representatives, but as a Republican. Banks was next elected governor of Massachusetts in three successive years, 1857, 1858, and 1859. When the war broke out, President Lincoln awarded him a commission as a major general. Boutwell too became a Republican. In 1863 he was elected to Congress and later made Commissioner of Internal Revenue. Thus did these two coalition Democrats become “active partisans for their former opponents” obtaining “place as their wages.”
If the pursuit of place and patronage was a driving force behind the political realignment of the 1850s (for the Whigs had consistently failed to deliver both and were increasingly regarded as a spent and fruitless force), there was another equally important phenomenon behind it, which was an aspect of the political psychology of the north, a predilection for believing in evil forces that needed to be exorcised from the body politick (a phenomenon with us still). How else does one explain the extraordinary volatility of the Massachusetts’ electorate in the 1850s? The sudden shifts of political allegiance? The radical reversal of emotions–quiescent one moment, violently agitated the next? The republic, pacified if not reconciled by the compromise measures of 1850 and the election of 1852 (during which many Free Soilers, such as Martin Van Buren, returned to the Democratic home), was thrown into turmoil by a “new issue.”
The new issue was immigration. There is much evidence of popular hostility in the north toward Irish Catholic immigration, but politicians had ignored the issue for years. In the vacuum created by the fracturing of the Whigs, the Americans, or “Know Nothings,” suddenly ballooned into prominence. Their big idea was to restrict the political privileges of new immigrants (voting and holding office). They wanted a long (twenty one year) residency requirement before naturalization, and a ban on Catholics from holding public office (this was a religious test and would require a constitutional amendment). Lunt believed that these reforms, if introduced earlier in the century, before the big waves of Irish and German immigrants had crashed into the country, might have been beneficial, but it was too late to impose such restrictions, presumably because it would be impossible to enforce. Millions were already in the country, politically active and voting, and easy and unconditional naturalizations had become customary. He also considered the secretive organization, which included membership rituals and party passwords, to be “utterly antirepublican in its nature. For a Republic demands open and fair dealing among its citizens.” The party, and the movement behind it, actually had existed for a couple of decades, but without numbers or influence until its “meteoric outburst in 1853.” Lunt attributes that explosion to “an extraordinary mania [which] seemed to possess the public mind, almost neutralizing all other delusions which were not a few, and spread through the country, absorbing a portion of the strength of both political parties in the South, but more particularly affecting the anti-Democratic organization of the North.”
That it was indeed a mania, a phenomenon of mass psychology, rather than an expression of rational opposition to immigration, is attested by its brevity and the willingness of so many Americans to vote the Republican ticket in 1860, when that party had explicitly repudiated nativism. The historian Tyler Anbinder argues that northern Whigs chose to express their opposition to slavery by voting American, but that begs the questions of why they did not vote Free Soil or Republican, or why the antislavery vote declined so precipitously in 1852. The most logical explanation is that demoralized and defeated northern Whigs initially voted American out of resentment of the immigrant vote which they blamed for their minority status. After all, the Americans were not proposing to reduce or restrict immigration, whose labor was vital to Whig industrial interests, only to deprive it of the vote, which was overwhelmingly Democratic. This explanation accords with Lunt’s thesis of northern calculation hiding behind the masks of philanthropy and fear. What greater New England resented was the Democratic ascendancy, which most perceived as a southern ascendancy. They welcomed Irish labor, but not Irish votes.
The following chart demonstrates the extraordinary volatility of the Massachusetts electorate in the 1850s. It comes from Lunt’s book.
Year Gubernatorial Candidates with party affiliation
1853 Washburn (W) Bishop (D) Wilson (FS)
60,000 35,000 29,000
1854 Gardener (A) Washburn (W) Bishop (D) Wilson (FS)
80,000 26,000 13,000 6,000
1855 Gardener (A) Rockwell (FS) Beach (D) Walley (W)
51,000 36,000 34,000 13,000
1856 Gardner (A) Beach (D) Gordon (W) Quincy (FS)
92,000 40,000 10,000 6,000
1857 Banks (FS-R) Gardener (A) Beach (D)
61,000 37,000 30,000
The first thing to be noticed is the volcanic eruption of the Know Nothings in 1854. The second is the consistency of the Democratic vote, except for 1854 when two-thirds deserted to the Americans. Lunt’s explanation for why the party of immigrants would desert to the party of nativism is the only plausible one: these Democrats hoped to destroy their Whig rivals by an alliance of convenience with the American insurgency; the next year, their mission having been accomplished, they returned to the Democratic camp. The third is the remarkable versatility of the Free Soil vote. Twice they flooded the American ranks (1854 and 1856), the first time to destroy the Whigs, and the second time to destroy the Americans, whose nativist ideas had bi-sectional appeal, and who were rivals for the partisan succession. Lunt points to his state’s vote for president in 1856. The same Free Soilers who voted for the American candidate for governor voted for the Republican for president. The Republican, Fremont, carried the state easily with 104,000 votes; the Democrat, Buchanan, came in second with only 37,000 votes, and the American, ex-president Millard Fillmore, came in a distant third with only 19,000 votes. He also cites, even more persuasively, the radical reversal of position by the American party between June 1855 and February 1856. At the first date, the National Council, meeting in Philadelphia, took firm national ground, deprecating the “systematic agitation of the slavery question” and the elevation of “sectional hostility into a positive element of political power.” It called on the country to “abide by and maintain the existing laws upon the subject of slavery, as a final and conclusive settlement of that subject.” It went so far as to declare that “Congress ought not to legislate upon the subject of slavery within the territory of the United States, and that any interference by Congress with slavery, as it exists in the District of Columbia, would be a violation of the compact by which the State of Maryland ceded the District to the United States.” Yet just five months later, northern Americans, meeting in Cincinnati, deprecated the repeal of the Missouri Compromise and called on Congress to vote against the admission of any more slave states. The National Council, meeting in Philadelphia in February 1856, abandoned the positions of the previous June. “The Free Soilers had introduced themselves into the ‘Councils’ of the Americans” in order to wreck the party, as evidenced by a telegraphic message sent at the close of this meeting to a gathering of Republicans in Pittsburg, which exulted “The American party is no longer united. Raise the Republican banner. Let there be no further extension of slavery. The Americans are with you.”
Kansas/Nebraska Act of 1854
The Kansas/Nebraska act of 1854 has become one of the most infamous pieces of legislation in American history. It is certainlyone of the most consequential, for whatever the intentions of its author and backers, it gave birth to the Republican party, inaugurated the last and most bitter phase of the sectional conflict, and led directly to the war. Yet today it is held up to undergraduate students and newspaper readers as more than a blunder; it is denounced as a crime. What is remarkable is that the predominant view of it today is indistinguishable from the most extreme criticism of it uttered at the time, embodied in the “Appeal of the Independent Democrats” (January 19, 1854), signed by two Free Soil Senators, Charles Sumner and Salmon P. Chase, and four representatives, Benjamin Wade (Oh.), Joshua Giddings (Oh.), Gerrit Smith (NY), and Alexander De Witt (Mass.). They denounced the act as a “gross violation of a sacred pledge,” an “enormous crime,” and as part of an “atrocious plot to exclude” immigrants and free laborers from the western territories, extending slavery throughout, converting it into a “dreary region of despotism inhabited by masters and slaves.” Lunt explains how rational argument was drowned out by the politics of fear and paranoia. Increasing numbers of northerners came to believe that there was a wicked conspiracy among prominent Democratic leaders, including the president, to convert the western region into one vast plantation. Lunt recalled that the northern pulpit thundered against the immorality and wickedness of the repeal. All but the liturgical churches (the Episcopalian and Catholic) and the most conservative of the Reformed (i.e. Calvinist) congregations objured it as an attempt to spread a wicked and cursed institution across the virgin lands of the west, lands held in trust by the Almighty for the special use of his chosen people, which now instead of being redeemed from savages and wild beasts would be defiled by the overseer with his lash. Men were warned that their very “salvation depended upon keeping slavery out of the wilderness of Kansas,” and that “all the good which Providence had bestowed, or had in store for the nation, would be clean gone forever, if [slavery] were recognized on that distant border.” In March, before the act was even passed, Senator Edward Everett of Massachusetts presented a memorial against the bill signed by over 3,050 ministers. It warned the senators that passage would expose the nation “to the righteous judgments of the Almighty.”
Lunt called this “ecclesiastical interposition” an unwarranted and ultimately disastrous intrusion of religion into politics. Not only did it turn away from the churches many whose political loyalties and sympathies were opposed to the politics of antislavery and anti-southernism, but it corrupted the spiritual mission of the church. Worst of all, it prepared the way for the war, a war which Lunt firmly believed was from first to last, at least for the common soldiers and their officers, a religious one. “Here, then, was the first public step towards the inauguration of warfare in the professed cause of religion.” The warfare he had in mind was the kind made possible by the arrival in Kansas of boxes of Sharpe’s rifles marked as “Bibles,” jocusely known as “Beecher’s Bibles” after Henry Ward Beecher, the antislavery preacher and son of the evangelist Lyman Beecher, an antebellum equivalent of Billy Graham.
The Kansas-Nebraska act surely ranks as one of the greatest political miscalculations in American history. Stephen Douglas conceived of it as a measure of national economic development and sectional compromise. The northern states would gain a north-central route (Chicago to San Francisco) for the first transcontinental railroad. The south would get the chance to settle and bring into the union a new slave state, Kansas, thus redressing the current sectional imbalance (16 free states to 15 slave). As Douglas had applied the popular sovereignty formula used to organize the Utah and New Mexico territories just four years before to Kansas and Nebraska, he apparently believed there would be little opposition, even though it meant the effective repeal of the Missouri Compromise restriction on slavery there, a repeal he later made explicit. In addition, he believed that climate, soil, geography, and predominant settlement patterns would keep slavery out of Nebraska and make it a northern state. And since Nebraska was destined for freedom and intended for them, how could northerners object to leaving the question open in Kansas? It was hard for Douglas to believe that the act could be widely regarded as a violation of a sacred pledge when northern antislavery votes had repeatedly defeated his attempts to apply the Missouri Compromise formula (de facto partition) to Oregon and the southwest.
Looking back, just after the close of the war, Lunt went out his way to defend Douglas’ legislation. He pointed out that the “principle of the Missouri Compromise was entirely disregarded” in the 1850 legislation (by the admission of California as a free state, and the organizing of Utah without restriction as to slavery), that it was therefore a “legitimate and necessary deduction from the Compromises of 1850,” especially as regards Kansas, as that territory was located between Missouri and Utah, in both of which slavery was legal, and all three of which had a southern border along the same line of latitude. Those who cried plighted faith at the breaking of the Missouri compromise were guilty of “the hypocritical cry of political dissemblers,” for they were the same ones “who refused to extend” the Missouri “line to the Pacific Ocean.”
Douglas anticipated Free Soil opposition; what he did not anticipate was the storm that would sweep his section. In early 1854, the abolitionists were isolated and brooding over their recent defeats (1850, 1852) when news of the repeal arrived as a kind of manna from Heaven. Douglas had inadvertinently provided them with the best soil they had ever had for cultivating a crusade, the “bleeding” land of Kansas. Lunt is proof that not all northerners were swept along. Indeed, many northern Democrats were left scratching their head as to what all the fuss was about, and the Whigs, who to their credit opposed the repeal on sound conservative grounds, were left urging their neighbours to calm down. Lunt thought the reaction was overblown and exaggerated, so much so that he blamed it rather than the act itself as the chief cause of the subsequent trouble. As he saw it, an “ordinance of Nature” would keep slavery out of most, and perhaps all, of the west.
The best evidence that the reaction of the antislavery north was opportunistic was their hypocritical outrage over the erasure of a line that they themselves had refused to extend westward to the Pacific Ocean, and whose defining principle—an equitable partition of the territories—they had always opposed. “Indeed, the whole matter really resolves itself into this proposition: that the antislavery faction in the North … were determined that there should be no more slave territory—law or no law; and that the Southern spirit, in general, was equally bent upon trying the question with their opponents—with reason, certainly, to think that they had the law on their side. The former, without scruple, set themselves to work to defeat the action of the national legislature, and finally to nullify the decision of the supreme tribunal of the United States.” The opening of Kansas to slavery, had it been successful, would have resulted only in “the transfer of so many slaves, already existing in the country, from one place of residence to another.” Moreover, even “had it been actually a question of morals,” “the immorality, if any, would [have been] that of our neighbours,” and “it may be doubted whether it were justifiable, any more than expedient, on this account ‘to disturb the foundations of the Government.”
Lunt believed that the real crime was the de facto abrogation of the treaty rights of the Indian tribes then residing in central and western Kansas. The land was theirs, not only by prior possession but by treaties previously concluded with the federal government. Yet by the 1854 legislation, the government assumed total jurisdiction and the right to dispose of all lands in total disregard of those treaty obligations, “as has been only too generally the case in the history of the country.” He notes that Sam Houston of Texas raised this issue in the Senate at the time, but he was ignored. Lunt wonders whether a “rational and conscientous people” should have been more concerned with this indisputable evidence of the bad faith of their government, than with the other issue, which should have been a matter of rational accomodation and sectional justice.
Even should Kansas have gained admission as a slave state, it would have hardly effected the balance of power in the union, for that was shifting steadily and ineluctably to the north and the west. Thus, even “as a mere question of politics, and of temporary consequence—since the North really possessed the political power, and that, too, constantly increasing, beyond any ratio which the South could expect ever to rival, it was a most needless quarrel.” Lunt even speculated that even had Kansas been admitted with slavery, it would have soon discarded the institution, such was the overwhelming preponderance of free-state settlers moving west. Even in Missouri, where it was long established, slavery was growing increasingly tenuous. “But when did reason restrain the fierly propagandist to wait for the slow operation of natural or moral causes?” The antislavery faction, especially in New England, was determined to force the issue. They raised funds and supplies and chartered corporations for the purpose of pushing northern emigration into Kansas. Lunt called it “forcing” because it went against natural settlement patterns, which went from east to west along consistent lines of latitude. As Kansas lay directly to the west of Missouri, a slave state, and had the same latitude as Virginia and Kentucky, southerners, and many northerners too, assumed it belonged to the upper south. Lunt believed that New England intended “to exercise political control over the affairs of the Territory” by the means of emigrant aid companies, and were it not for this “extraordinary forcing process, no serious trouble would ever have occurred in the Territory.” Yet it was there, on that bloody ground, that “party interests, sectional hostility, ferocious Christianity, radical infidelity” formed a fatal alliance that foreshadowed, even as it prepared the minds of the people, the wider war.
Prelude to War
Lunt believed that the southern states had cause to secede, specifically four of them; nevertheless, he disaproved of that remedy, both as a theoretical and a practical measure. He calls it their “final grand mistake.” Their first was bolting the Charleston Democratic convention in 1860 and refusing to back Douglas as the party nominee. The resulting division in the national Democratic party contributed to the Republican victory. But he thought it more than a mistake. Lunt thought secession impermissible except as an extreme remedy for intolerable oppression. The Republicans, bad as they were, were not yet guilty of that. We will examine what he believed they were guilty of in a moment, after we examine in more detail his rather nuanced view of secession. “Undoubtedly that act was in itself a cause of war; that is, it placed the revolting State in a condition of insurrection, to be dealt with in due time, as the United States might deem necessary and proper, unless the doctrine of secession were to be admitted as valid.” And that could not be admitted without fatally weakening the larger political union. “The allowance of the right of one State to secede would be to permit that State, upon its individual reasons, or at its own caprice, to be the arbiter of the destinies of the whole.” (Lunt’s error here lies in his assumption that states, either individually or as a group, would secede for light and transient causes, once that right was codified and recognized, as if chaos rather than stasis were the normal condition of politics in America.) That was straightforward enough, but it does not mean that he approved of the Republican response to secession, including President Lincoln’s response, nor that he believed the party’s program and rhetoric before the election was not deliberately provocative and culpable. He continues: “the denial of the right to secede involves the highest obligation … to avoid every occasion of offence, and to redress all causes of complaint. Otherwise, the bond [of union] is no longer liberty, but tyranny. Hence ensues the right of revolution, to be controlled only by the actual power of carrying it into effect, or to be pursued, at hazard of the consequences.” In other words, revolutionaries must be prepared to defend their revolution from government efforts to put it down. (Lunt is here simply stating what he believes to be a fact of political life rather than asserting the principle that might makes right.) In addition, even were secession a kind of insurrection (making it unconstitutional and liable to suppression), that did not mean that the initial response should be the assertion of force. As Lunt explains, “a cause of war usually precedes the final commencement of hostilities by a considerable interval; and between civilized nations, alien to each other, it is generally devoted to efforts at reconciliation, so as, if possible, to keep Christian peace unbroken, and to spare the effusion of Christian blood.” The Lincoln administration spurned all such efforts, and even refused to receive the southern commissioners, and thus Lunt found it, and the party behind it, as doubly culpable for the ensuing slaughter.
Of the four grievances, the first was the personal liberty bills, enacted in fourteen out of sixteen free states during the 1850s, and designed expressly to defeat the execution of the federal fugitive slave law. Lunt believed they were the product of ceaseless and comprehenisive agitation (“incessantly working upon the popular mind, through every channel by which it could possibly be reached”), that they were effective (rendering enforcement “so difficult as to be practically impossible”), and rebellious (“placing each of those States in an attitude of virtual resistance to the laws of the United States”).
Lunt pointed also to Hinton Helper’s incendiary work, the Impending Crisis of the South (1857). He had in mind more than the inflammatory and divisive content; it was that the book was endorsed by 68 Republican members of Congress, including William Henry Seward, the leading candidate for the upcoming presidential election in 1860, who called it “a work of great merit; rich, yet accurate in statistical information, and logical in its analogies.” One of those analogies was that “proslavery slaveholders” were the moral equivalent of “the basest criminals.” Helper also called for a severing of all political, religious, and social ties with the slaveholders. These endorsements meant that Helper’s ravings were expressive of the sentiments of more than the abolitionist fringe but of a majority of the largest political party in the north. They were also in direct contradiction to the assurances of Republican leaders, made both before and after the presidential election of 1860, that southerners had nothing to fear from a Republican administration or a Republican Congress, that they would do nothing against the constitution or the laws. Yet Helper wrote that “we believe it is, as it ought to be, the desire, the determination, and the destiny of the Republican party to give the death-blow to slavery.” Helper also avowed that “we are determined to abolish slavery at all hazards—in defiance of all opposition, of whatever nature, it is possible for the slaveocrats to bring against us. Of this they may take notice, and govern themselves accordingly.” Was not secession evidence that southerners did take notice, and did govern themselves accordingly?
The third immediate cause was the raid of John Brown, a messianic abolitionist, who believed himself called to lead a servile insurrection across the breadth of the south and whose capture of the federal arsenal at Harper’s Ferry, Virginia was to be the opening blow. Once again, it was not the deed itself, which was almost ridiculous in the vanity of its ambition, but the reaction to it across the north, “the tolling of bells and the firing of minute-guns, upon the occasion of Brown’s funeral; the meeting-houses draped in mourning, as for a hero; the prayers offered, the sermons and discourses pronounced in his honor, as for a saint,” all of which Lunt witnessed. There were also large Union meetings during which Brown and his cohort were criticized and condemned, but it was all too clear that the largest party in the north either supported, or at least sympathized with, Brown and his plan; and that a large number even “rejoiced … that a supposed moral object had been sought by the commission of a deliberate crime, and, under an unhappily perverted sense of the right, supposed that the end aimed at justified the means.” Both the raid, and “the approbation subsequently bestowed by the public upon the actors,” “betokened predetermined enmity in one part of the Union against another part … and was the signal and forerunner of war.” One need only think back to the aftermath of the 9-11 terrorist bombing to understand why there was such support for secession just a year later when the party which had all but canonized Brown won the national elections.
The fourth cause was the Republican party, not only its success but its very formation. Now we all know what Lincoln said about this matter, that the victory of a party in a fair election can never justify revolution or violence. But what if the victorious party were itself revolutionary? That it was such, in its organization as well as its aims, seemed undeniable to Lunt. His fellow conservative Whig, Rufus Choate, had called it the “geographic party” during the 1856 presidential campaign, and it was no less geographic in 1860, when it swept the north with majorities in every state, but won only bare pluralities in the Pacific states, and recorded hardly any votes at all even in the most northern reaches of the southern border. What’s more its platform promised programs of exclusive, or near exclusive, benefit to northern interests, to be paid for by revenues disproportionately gathered at the commercial ports of the south. And of course, there was its antislavery program, expressed or implied, and the rhetoric of irrepressible sectional conflict and the necessity for final confrontation between rival powers and incompatible ideas. Lunt argued that “by seeking to array the masses of the people in one section of the land against the States and the people of the other section,” and by means of that winning an election thereby transferring the whole power of the government to one section alone, to the exclusion of the other, the Republican victory “was, in effect, a separation of the North from the South,” and a practical subversion of the Constitution. It went against the advice of Washington, the father of the country, who in his farewell address as president warned against the formation of parties based on “geographical discriminations: Northern and Southern, Atlantic and Western.” “To the efficacy and permanency of Your Union, a Government for the whole is indispensable.” Yet a government for the whole was the exact opposite of what the Republican party promised to deliver if elected, which was a government of the north, by the north, and for the north.
Lunt remembered that voters were told that the Republican cause was “the cause of freedom” but also “the cause of the North” and that this had great appeal among ordinary voters who “did not at all appreciate the impending danger of civil convulsion. They were sedulously encouraged in this false security by the Republican leaders. They were told by those who had just made a virtual proclamation of disunion and war, which required only a response from the other side to carry it into effect, that there was no sort of danger of disunion or of war. They believed that the crisis would pass away, like others which had preceded it.” He remembered also that conservative northern Democrats and Constitutional Unionists were derided and mocked as “Union savers” by Republicans, as if the union were in no sort of danger, and perhaps as if it did not matter even if it were. Of course, after secession “as soon as it became evident that only in the name of the Union could the rebellion be put down,” the scoffers assumed the name “Union men” and started reviling those they had formerly insulted for trying to save the union as traitors. Lunt believed “whatever else the sectional organization may have been, it was not for the Union according to the Constitution; or in conformity with the injunctions of the Farewell Address; or in correspondence with the uniform teachings of every leading statesman of whatever party in the past, from the beginning of the Government until the geographical party took its rise. However the attempt may be made to disguise the fact, they were revolutionists in design and act.”
Lunt offers an intriguing and wholly plausible explanation for how so many solid citizens could have been deceived into supporting a party of such “unqualified radicalism.” He says it was simply because many Whigs, who all their lives had contended against “the Democracy” could not bring themselves to vote for candidates bearing the hated name, even though, by the mid and late 1850s, the Democrats had become the conservative party of the country, the one most devoted to the Constitution and the Union. Thus, “out of distaste for a mere name, multitudes of the more staid and apparently considerate citizens of the North chose to vote and to act in concert with the radicals,” meaning the Republicans, all the while protesting “that they did not approve of its excesses.”
The Secession Crisis
Yet even these legitimate grievances, for Lunt, did not justify secession, only palpable oppression. But if secession were an extreme remedy, that did not mean the federal government was justified in extreme measures of repression, such as naval blockade or military invasion. Those measures meant “civil war, with all its dread accompaniments and consequences; an alternative always to be avoided, if reasonable concessions may avail; and one which, if unreasonably or needlessly adopted, is always a public and private crime.” Had the Republican party during the winter, and the Lincoln administration in the spring, adopted a reconciling spirit of forbearance and concession, they could have “confined rebellion to the seven States which originally seceded, and if adopted early enough perhaps confined it to South Carolina, but in either case averted war and allowed time to repair the sectional breach. Lunt believed that a majority of the northern people (Democrats, conservative Whigs, moderate Republicans) favored compromise, but with the elections over the question was no longer in their hands. “The people, in reality, had very little to do with the course of coming events.” “The question and its final solution had actually passed from the people of the North to the State officers and others chosen by them—from the many to the few.” And this few, composed of ambitious politicians and successful officer seekers as well as fanatic ideologues, having won the long-sought prize, were in no mood to compromise with those whom they had long regarded as their implacable enemies. Besides, what had they to gain? To bring back the seceded states by conciliation, by the kind of comprehensive compromise championed by Senator John J. Crittenden, rather than war, would have renewed the alliance between the “slave power” and the northern democracy, threatened “the accomplishment of their own ambitious purposes,” and precluded future agitation of the slavery question, which was the winning issue for the Republicans. Thus, while most of the people wanted peace, the “oligarchy” wanted war, and while “it required a great deal of time and management and manipulation to bring the people up to the work,” it was successfully done.
Lunt had no doubt that the base and chiefs of the Republican party wanted war, especially in his own state of Massachusetts. On January 18, the state senate offered President Buchanan “such aid in men and money as he may require to maintain the authority of the General Government,” enforc[e] the laws, and preserv[e] the integrity of the Union.” Yet these resolutions may not have represented the views of the northern majority. The editorial and petititonary support for the Crittenden plan was widespread, and the Republican Congress neglected to pass legislation recognizing a state of insurrection in the lower south, nor did it authorize the president to use force to suppress it. Instead, it raised the tariff and adjourned.
Lunt believed that the president-elect and his advisers believed that the people would support a war only if the south appeared to be the aggressor, the north to be acting on the defensive, hence the importance of inducing the Confederate assault upon Sumter. Lunt believed that Secretary Seward’s pledge to abandon the fort, given to the southern commissioners, followed by the relief and reinforcement expedition, were deliberate provocations.