Wednesday, November 7, 2007

The Trouble Has Passed

Free Port Wide Awake, November 17, 1860

The election results were in. In just their second national election, the Republicans had won the White House. Abraham Lincoln would be the sixteenth president of the United States.

Northern newspapers could not contain their enthusiasm. “Republicanism Triumphant over Fraud, Fusion, Cotton, Disunion, and Treason,” proclaimed the Chicago Tribune. The New York Times followed suit and praised the Northern electorate for “Rising in Indignation at the Menaces of the South.”

The North had elected Abraham Lincoln. He received 54 percent of the vote in the Northern states. If the other three candidates combined all of their Northern votes, they would not have won even the popular vote. Lincoln won all of the electoral votes in the free states (the only exception was New Jersey, where he split the seven electoral votes with Douglas).

However, Southern election results told a much different story. Lincoln’s name did not even appear on the ballot in any of the states that would later make up the Confederacy. He received a handful of votes from the Border States, but he won no electoral votes in any of the slave states. But again, if we add up all of the electoral votes won by Douglas, Breckinridge, and Bell, they still failed to surpass Lincoln’s total.

The slavery question had decided the election. The Republican Party took a clear stance on the issue; they would not touch slavery where the constitution protected it (in the slave states); however, they vowed never to allow the peculiar institution to expand into the territories.

A reporter caught up with Lincoln the day after the election. He watched as the president-elected received “the heartiest congratulations of his friends, or in other words, of the entire community.” That evening, Republicans held a reception at the statehouse. A number of politicians gave rousing speeches. At the end, they asked Lincoln if he would like to say a few words, but he declined.

The American people had already spoken. The people, both North and South, had exercised their constitutional right to participate in a free and fair election. When the ballots were counted, the Republican Party platform had prevailed. What was left to say?

It seems to me that history gives us a tremendous advantage. We know how this story will play out. We know that the Election of 1860 is the most important election in American history. We know that the election was not the end of a suspenseful story; instead, it was merely the beginning of a much larger tragedy. We know that it sparked secession, Civil War, and ultimately, the overthrow of American slavery.

But the participants did not have that luxury. As the Republicans listened to the victory speeches in the statehouse in Springfield, I have no doubt that many of them thought the trouble had passed. Unfortunately, we know they were mistaken.

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