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AHHS — Chapter 15

Chapter 15 – The Rise of Political Sectionalism in the Northern States, by Howard Ray White of N. C., S.I.S.H.

Let’s talk about how to properly study history.  Trained as a chemical engineer, the Scientific Method of study is a firmly ingrained habit.  I always select “scientifically correct” truth over “politically correct” truth, even when that feels harsh.   I seek proof of accusations and claims, for “it is the victors who write the history of military and political conquests.”

I mentally transport myself to the time period being studied, to take on the life of those people, for only then can I truly understand history from their perspective.  I follow events chronologically to ensure correct matching of actions, reactions, actions, reactions, etc., all in the proper sequence.  I look at actions, not words, because politicians often claim to advocate a certain policy to win votes, but make no effort to implement that policy once elected.  I focus on the means because “the ends do not justify the means.”

It is important to name a political movement for what Activists say they were for, never for what they say they were against.  So, the three different political movements that are normally grouped under the single term “Anti-slavery,” I rename: “Exclusionism,” “Deportationism” and “Abolitionism.”  And I call slaves by a different name to emphasize both their bonded status and their race, because race was far more at issue in the 1800s than it is today.  Instead of calling them “slaves,” I call them “bonded African Americans.”

With that said, let us together “live” the history of America’s political sectionalism.  Let us enhance your understanding by naming a few leaders of these political movements.  I will mention Stephen Douglas, Jefferson Davis, Abraham Lincoln, Thad Stevens, and Charles Sumner.

First, I will discuss the dominant political party of the 1830s, 1840s and early 1850s – the Democratic Party.  It seems that the contentious nature of the Administration of John Quincy Adams of Massachusetts re-ignited party politics, giving rise in 1828 to the Democratic Party under the leadership of Andrew Jackson of Tennessee and Martin Van Buren of New York.  The two most important Democrats during the 1850s, during the rise of Political Sectionalism, were Stephen Douglas and Jefferson Davis.

Stephen Douglas was a great admirer of Andrew Jackson and an amazingly successful politician at a very young age.  Born in Vermont and schooled in upper New York State, he arrived in central Illinois in 1833 at the age of 20, became a lawyer in 1834 and quickly became an influential leader of the Illinois Democratic Party.  He was elected Federal Congressman in 1843 and Federal Senator in 1847, where he chaired the Committee on National Territories.  Douglas was the leader of the Democratic Party in the northern States by the early 1850s.

Jefferson Davis of Mississippi was also a Democrat, but his early years were spent in military service and farming, for he did not enter politics until 1845 at the age of 37, when he became a Federal Congressman.  Commander of a Mississippi regiment in the Mexican War and a wounded hero, he became a Federal Senator in 1848.  Between Senate terms he was a very able Secretary of War in President Pierce’s cabinet.  Davis believed firmly in limiting the power of the Federal Government to only that clearly stipulated in the Federal Constitution.  He was a great admirer of John Calhoun of South Carolina, and, when Calhoun died in 1850, Davis became the leader of the Democratic Party in the South.

What about the Democratic Party platform?  Democrats typically advocated for a Federal Government limited in power as clearly defined in the Federal Constitution; for Nation Building regardless of sectional jealousies; for limiting import tax rates to only what was needed for Federal revenue; for ensuring that bank and capitalistic business influences did not become too powerful, and for ensuring that government was attentive to the welfare and interests of the farmer and the working man.  The Democratic Party platform had wide appeal everywhere, and forced the political opposition to contrive devious methods for winning elections.  Yes: “devious methods for winning elections.”  Does that sound familiar?

Now let us look at the several parties that were opposed to the Democratic Party.

The first opposition party was the Whig Party, which advocated for a more powerful Federal Government than intended by the Federal Constitution; for divergent attitudes about Nation Building while often exploiting sectional jealousies to gain political advantage; for high import tax rates that were designed to choke off imports and maximize the profits of American manufacturers; for helping banks and capitalist business expand influence and profitability, and for being often more attentive to them than to the welfare and interests of the farmer and the working man.  Since the majority of voting men were not naturally attracted to the Whig Party, Whig politicians were often exploiting jealousies of all sorts in attempts to deflect voter attention away from naturally important issues and toward sideshow issues.  Whigs were prone to be demagogues.

Abe Lincoln became an important Whig leader in central Illinois, but not beyond that region.  He was raised on various farms in Kentucky and Indiana.  Grown by the time the family moved to a new farm in central Illinois, he became a lawyer and a State Legislator.  For two years, beginning in 1847, he was a Federal Congressman.  But Whigs did not nominate him for a second term because his opposition to the Mexican War had destroyed his popularity back home.  Although Lincoln would rise again with the Republican Party, he would never again hold elective office prior to becoming President.  Not a very impressive record.  Suggest you compare Lincoln’s and Davis’s record of military and government service.

In the 1830s and 1840s Democrats were also opposed by the Anti-Mason Party, which was based on an amazing sideshow campaign against members of Masonic Lodges.  The Anti-Mason Party arose in 1827 in New York State in reaction to the alleged murder of a man who was reportedly about to expose to public view alleged evil and secret pseudo-religious initiation “rites and oaths” conducted within Masonic Lodges.  Have you ever heard of a more fitting cover for a political Demagogue?

Thad Stevens became the most important leader of the Pennsylvania Anti-Mason Party, and for a time the most powerful member of the Pennsylvania House.  Born and raised in Vermont, he graduated from Dartmouth and moved to south-central Pennsylvania, where he became a lawyer, and a bit later the owner of a sizable iron smelting business, which employed about 200 workers.  Through a coalition of Anti-Masons and Whigs, he won election to the Federal House in 1848 and was reelected in 1850.  But he failed to win re-election in 1852.  Yet, Stevens would rise again with the Republican Party and become the most powerful leader in the Federal House during the war years and Political Reconstruction, at times more powerful than Presidents Lincoln and Johnson.

The Democratic Party was also opposed by the Know-Nothing Party.  Don’t you love these crazy names?  That Party was established in 1850 in New York City to oppose Catholic influence in schools and government.  This was a political movement to obstruct religious, social and political influence by recent immigrants, most of them being Catholic, and many of them being from western Ireland and the Germanic countries, who were arriving in the northeastern States in huge numbers, and, upon acquiring the right to vote, usually siding with the Democratic Party.  Know-Nothing’s were of the Order of the Star Spangled Banner, a Secret Fraternal Order of political Activists that opponents dubbed, “The Know-Nothing Party,” to publicize the fact that no member would admit that he knew anything about the Order or its secret slate of candidates.  By 1854 the Order had become very powerful, especially in Massachusetts.  Many former Whig and Anti-Mason politicians were attracted to the Order, including Thad Stevens of Pennsylvania.  A temporary home for Whigs, Know-Nothings ran former President Fillmore for President in 1856 and polled 22 percent of the vote.  They enjoyed limited support in Kentucky, Maryland and a few Southern states.

Democrats were also opposed by the Free Soil Party.  Instead of excluding recent immigrants, especially Catholics, from local schools and political influence, the Free Soil Party was aimed at excluding southern States farmers and their bonded African Americans from the National Territories.  It was always a minority party that sought coalitions to share power.  Through a coalition of Democrats and Free Soilers, Salmon Chase was elected Federal Senator from Ohio in 1848 and Charles Sumner was elected Federal Senator from Massachusetts in 1851.

Democrats were also opposed by the Liberty Party.  In addition to excluding bonded African Americans from the National Territories and all future States, the Liberty Party wished to do everything possible, within the constraints of a liberally interpreted Federal Constitution, to make bonded African Americans independent in the southern States.  The core Activists in this Party were Abolitionists at heart, and Exclusionism was their pragmatic beginning.  But very few northern States voters supported Abolitionism for the southern States.  So this party never gained significant power.

Finally, I come to something that merely resembled a party – the Prohibition Movement, which began in Maine.  It aimed to outlaw alcoholic beverages.  This movement was also motivated by Exclusion passions, for, as intended, it fell hardest upon recent immigrants, who loved their beer and ale and gathering at taverns to drink and socialize.

That was a long list of parties opposed to Democrats?  Too many.  Too factious.  Too much vote splitting.  Well, by 1855 a struggle was climaxing in the northern States for the soul of the party that would become the dominant opposition to the Democrats, most importantly in Massachusetts.  It is hard to believe, but in 1855 the Massachusetts Know Nothing Party was so completely victorious that it controlled all but 3 of 378 House seats, every Senate seat, and the Governor’s office.  The Know Nothing Party would try to step out of its Secret Order hiding place and go nation-wide, calling itself the American Party, but that would fail.  It would not become the dominant opposition to the Democrats.

Instead a new party emerged and swallowed up all the other opposition parties.  This was the sectional Republican Party, which held its first successful state election campaign in Michigan in 1854.  During 1854, ‘55 and early ‘56 it spread throughout the northern States.  The top plank in the Republican Party Platform was Exclusionism.  It would not seek to make bonded African Americans independent.  It would not agitate against immigrants and Catholic influence in government or schools.  It would not advocate prohibition of alcoholic beverages.  Behind closed doors, it would be very friendly toward bankers, capitalists, railroad tycoons and tariff-seeking manufacturers, because these wealthy men would provide important political support.  But publicly it would seek to identify with farmers, tradesmen and factory workers as Republicans persistently called for Exclusion of bonded African Americans from the National Territories and all new States.  The Party would be purely sectional, have no presence in the southern States, and, after 1856, be the only opposition to the Democrats in the northern States.

Free Soilers Charles Sumner and Salmon Chase were quick to switch to the Republican Party and Anti-Mason Thad Stevens joined in 1856.  That same crucial year, under the leadership of former Whig Abe Lincoln, a powerful Republican Party was organized in Illinois.

How could a sectional party succeed?  Because rapid population growth in the northern States made it theoretically possible, without any southern States support whatsoever, to take control of the Federal Government in 1856 and 1860, and it would be even easier when new census data would apportion voting in 1864.  But how was Republican control of the Federal Government to be attained?  By persistently agitating for Exclusion, and not much else.  But how could excitement about Exclusionism be sustained for so many years?  By exploiting Bleeding Kansas, about which you read earlier.

The Republican campaign strategy included often lying to voters, like in the amazing deception known as “Bleeding Sumner.”  What was, Charles Sumner, like?  Well Charles Sumner of Massachusetts was born and raised in Boston, schooled at Harvard, and worked some as a lawyer.  He was brilliant and literary, but quite short on common sense.  Except for a few months in a failed marriage, he was a bachelor.  In May 1856, Sumner rose before the Federal Senate and delivered a long and hateful speech, titled “The Crime Against Kansas,” in which he damned the people of the southern States as evil and unfit to live in Kansas Territory, and pronounced ugly personal attacks on specific Senators, including Andrew Butler of South Carolina.  Two days later Butler’s nephew, Congressman Preston Brooks, entered the almost vacant Senate Chamber and punished Sumner by whipping him about the head with a hard rubber walking cane.  Although Sumner bled a lot he was not seriously injured.  But Republicans were so successful at martyring Sumner in news reports, that he eagerly began a three-year martyrdom in which he pretended to be seriously injured and unable to attend sessions of the Federal Senate, while secretly enjoying paid vacation trips about Europe.  Republicans newspapermen persistently told northern States people that Brooks’ caning of Sumner was proof that men from the southern States were evil, bullying “ruffians.”  Sumner went along for three years while enjoying European vacations.

Were Abolition Activists concerned about being helpful to bonded African Americans?  They were not.  Their objective was fighting the perceived sinfulness associated with owning bonded African Americans and enforcing Exclusionism, which most expected would conclude with Deportation.  Widespread approval of John Brown’s gang by northern States preachers, intellectuals and newspapermen, was amazing to behold.  Nothing troubled southern States people more than widespread and intense glorification of Brown’s mindless terrorist attack.

Compared to the excitement in the northern States, the southern States response to Exclusion propaganda was rather muted.  Edmund Ruffin, a very successful and widely respected Virginia farmer and soil scientist, was one of the most effective in asserting, through published essays, that owning bonded African Americans was not evil in itself.  He submitted that people of African descent had benefited in many ways by living on American farms: that many had accepted Christ; that most owners were kind to and protective of them, and, with few exceptions, that they were much better off in America than were their cousins in Africa.  Southern clergymen knew that Abolitionism was not supported by the Bible, and they worked to promote Christianity and stable marriages among the bonded people.

By the summer of 1860 the Republican steamroller seemed to be unstoppable.  Throughout the northern States, election victories between 1854 and 1859 put Republicans in control of almost all the State governments, including Governors, as well as a large portion of Federal House and Senate seats.  This swift domination of State governments in the northern States was severely marginalizing the Democratic Party in those States.  Republican exploitation of Bleeding Kansas propaganda forced northern States Democrats, including their leader Stephen Douglas, to cave in and embrace Exclusionism as well.

This infuriated southern States Democrats and resulted in a split at the 1860 Democratic National Convention.  They refused to support the national Party unless it approved of letting bonded African Americans live in the National Territories until a vote by settlers to include or exclude when statehood was achieved.  But almost all northern States Delegates insisted on exclusion throughout the National Territories from the outset.  So, southern States Delegates withdrew and nominated their own slate of candidates.

Since the Republican Party was not national, it held a convention of only the northern States in Chicago.  Delegates decided not to risk nominating an experienced office holder, such as William Seward of New York.  Abe Lincoln was only considered because of the seven debates Stephen Douglas had granted him in 1858, which had received wide newspaper coverage all over the northern States.  Furthermore, Illinois Republican Party workers packed the galleries and engaged in “dirty tricks.”  That got Lincoln nominated.  As candidate, he made no public speeches and issued no public letters, while Republican campaigners across the northern States emphasized Exclusionism in attacks against Democrats.  Republicans easily won all the northern States in the four-way race for President.

Republican Party leaders had not wanted to be listed on ballots in the Southern states, because that would have compromised the purity of their crusade.  Republican candidates had been listed on only 23 of the 33 State ballots.  Of the election results Wendell Phillips wrote, “with defiant satisfaction: ‘No man has a right to be surprised at this state of things.  It is the first sectional Party ever organized in this [country] . . . it is not national – it is sectional.  The Republican Party is a Party of the [northern States] pledged against the [southern States].’”

1860 election results for the next Congress gave Republicans 29 of 66 Senate seats and 108 of 237 House seats, plus the support of others from the northern States.  And Abe Lincoln was elected President with 40 percent of the vote.  The final numbers appear below:

Popular Vote:  Lincoln, 1,833,352 (40%); Douglas, 1,375,157 (29%); Breckinridge, 845,763 (18%); Bell, 589,581 (13%).

Electoral Vote:  Lincoln, 180 (59%); Breckinridge, 72 (24%); Bell, 39 (13%); Douglas, 12 (4%).

States Carried: Lincoln carried all 16 northern States and the 2 Pacific States (from east to west they were: ME, RI, MA, NH, VT, CT, NY, NJ, PA, OH, IN, IL, MI, IA, WI, MN, OR, CA); Breckinridge carried 11 southern States (from east to west they were: DE, MD, NC, SC, GA, FL, AL, MS, LA, AR, TX).  Bell carried 3 southern States (VA, KY, TN).  Douglas carried 1 southern State (MO).

The Republican Party completed its profound sweep of Northern States Governor jobs.  With the additions won in the 1860 elections, Republican Governors controlled, or would by early 1861 control, the State Militia of the following northern States.  Please remember you are studying the War Between the States, and when Lincoln requested state militia, each governor was empowered to say yes or no.  That State power is a key to your understanding of the WBTS, a war between political parties.  Here are the details.  Find your state.

Maine: Israel Washburn, Jr., Republican Governor from 1861 to 1863; a lawyer and Republican Federal Representative from 1855 to 1860.  He was preceded by Governor Lot Myrick Morrill, Republican Governor from 1858 to 1860, also a lawyer.  By the way, in Congress in 1861, Morrill would give his name to that year’s exorbitant Republican tariff.

Rhode Island: William Sprague, Republican Governor from 1860 to 1863, a very wealthy industrialist.

Massachusetts: John Andrew, Republican Governor from 1861 to 1866, a lawyer.

New Hampshire: Nathaniel Berry; Republican Governor from 1861 to 1863.  Preceded by Ichabod Goodwin, Republican Governor from 1859 to 1861.

Vermont: Frederick Holbrook, Republican Governor from 1861 to 1863; preceded by Erastus Fairbanks, Republican Governor from 1860 to 1861.

Connecticut: William Buckingham; Republican Governor from 1858 to 1866, an industrialist.

New York: Edwin Morgan; Republican Governor from 1859 to 1863; Republican Party State Chairman from 1856 to 1858; Republican Party Northern States Chairman from 1856 to 1864, a wholesale merchant, banker and broker.

New Jersey: Charles Olden; Republican Governor from 1860 to 1863, merchant.

Pennsylvania: Andrew Curtin; Republican Governor from 1861 to 1867, a lawyer.  Preceded by William Packer, Democrat Governor from 1858 to 1861.

Ohio: William Dennison, Jr.; Republican Governor from 1860 to 1862, law, railroads, banking.  Preceded by Salmon Chase; Free Soil and Republican Governor from 1856 to 1860, lawyer.

Indiana: Oliver Morton; Republican Governor from 1861 to 1867, a lawyer (During wartime Morton ignored the legislature and ruled as a dictator).  Preceded by Abram Adams Hammond; Republican Governor from 1860 to 1861.

Illinois: Richard Yates; Republican Governor from 1861 to 1865, a lawyer.  Preceded by John Wood; Republican Governor from 1860 to 1861.

Michigan: Austin Blair; Republican Governor from 1861 to 1865, a lawyer.  Preceded by Moses Wisner, Republican Governor from 1859 to 1861.

Iowa: Samuel Kirkwood; Republican Governor from 1860 to 1864, a lawyer.

Wisconsin: Alexander Randall; Republican Governor from 1858 to 1862, a lawyer.

Minnesota: Alexander Ramsey; Republican Governor from 1860 to 1863; a lawyer who spent early career in Pennsylvania.  Preceded by Henry Sibley; Democrat Governor from 1858 to 1860, a businessman and politician.

By early 1861 the above Republican-dominated northern States contained an unbroken and unified majority of politically galvanized people (in spite of notable opposition).  Four States were placed in immediate harm’s way, since a Federal invasion force, which could only be launched from the Republican States, would first have to march southward through their land.  The Republican Party had no significant influence in these four States.  Their governors were:

Delaware: William Burton; Democrat Governor from 1859 to 1863, a physician.

Maryland: Thomas Hicks; Know Nothing Governor from 1858 to 1862, a politician and a sheriff.

Kentucky: Beriah Magoffin; Democrat Governor from 1859 to 1862, a lawyer.

Missouri: Claiborne Jackson; Democrat Governor in 1861; forced to flee Missouri by Republican revolutionaries and died few months later.  Preceded by Governor Robert Stewart; Democrat Governor from 1857 to 1861.

Four southern States were positioned immediately south of the above 4 States.  Except for a faction in the Appalachian Mountain region, most of the people in these States would surely fight any attempt by the Lincoln Administration to draft their men and force them to join in a Federal invasion of States positioned further south.  The governors of these four States were as follows:

Virginia (Including present-day West Virginia): John Letcher; Democrat Governor of Virginia from 1860 to 1863, a lawyer.

North Carolina: John Ellis; Democrat Governor from 1859 to June 1861, at which time illness would force him to pass authority to Henry Toole Clark, also a Democrat.  Clark would hold the office until 1862.

Tennessee: Isham Harris; Democrat Governor from 1857 to 1862; Federal Representative from 1849 to 1853, a lawyer.

Arkansas: Henry Rector; Democrat Governor from 1860 to 1862; State Supreme Court Justice from 1859 to 1860, a lawyer.

Since 1856, southern States politicians and their constituents had viewed the Republican Party in the northern States as terrifying and dangerous.  They hoped the President-elect would issue an encouraging message.  But, once elected, Abe Lincoln remained quiet, giving no assurances whatsoever that he would respect State Rights and ameliorate Southern fears of Federal subjugation.  Consequently the State secession movement in the Deep South became unstoppable.


You are often asked, “What caused the war?”

Never be drawn into looking for the answer among deep South politicians – they only encouraged a vote to peacefully secede; they did not start the war or have a hostile agenda.

Never be drawn into looking for it in State secession – that was legal, peaceful and non-aggressive.  It did not start the war.

Never be embroiled in allegations that it was started to make bonded African Americans independent – Lincoln made every effort in 1860 and 1861 to insist otherwise.

Never allow anyone to blame Confederates because they fired on Fort Sumter – they did not kill anybody.

You must always make sure the question is this: “Why did Federals invade the Confederacy?”  That is the question!  Win the argument to define the question and you will surely win the argument to define the answer.

Suggestions for Class Discussion

How was it possible for political opposition to the national Democratic Party to unite so quickly under a Northern Sectional Party and take over all of the northern States and the Federal Government in only six (6) years?

Recommended Reading

  • The Origins of the Republican Party, 1852-1856, by William E. Gienapp, pub. 1987.
  • Nativism and Slavery, The Northern Know Nothings, and the Politics of the 1850s, by Tyler Anbinder, pub. 1994.
  • The Story of the Democratic Party, by Henry Minor, pub. 1928.