Political Realignment, 1850-1860 Introduction: You can set up the lesson as you see fit. In my own class, I will open with part of a lecture on the events of the 1850s leading up to the Civil War—the Wilmot Proviso, the Kansas-Nebraska Act, Bleeding Kansas, the caning of Charles Sumner, Dred Scott, Harper’s Ferry. I usually talk about how these events heightened sectional tensions. Then I say that all of these events began to spill over into politics as well.
[NB: I did the candy by “ear” when I did this exercise with you. I think I counted the pieces correctly in what follows, but you might want to double check my work. Also, of course, the quantities will differ depending on how much candy you start with. The goal is to start with two cups evenly divided between the sections and end up with four cups—two entirely filled with northern or southern voters, two mixed.]
I have students work in groups of 3. (This comes from students working at small desks (no tables). Three people provides one person to hold the cups, one person to move the candy, and one person to write the post-its. Of course, you could have larger (or smaller) groups.)
On your table, you should find some supplies (the following:)
-big post-its (or index cards and tape)
-cups or bowls
-two kinds of candy (in distinctive wrappers, I used silver and purple wrappers)
The candy represents American voters in the North and the South, respectively. PLEASE do not eat the voters until the end of the exercise. I’ll let you know when it is safe to eat them.
Please divide up into groups of three or four. For each group, you will need:
-a pen or pencil
-6-7 big post-its
-at least 12 pieces of each kind of candy
-I propose that you divide up the tasks. Have one person manage the cups, one person move the chocolate as directed, and one person write labels. I’ll give you a chance to take notes and write down the process at the end.
Take a cup and label it with a post-it for it that says “Democrats” at the top. Leave room to write more on your post-it.
Label a second cup “Whigs” in the same manner.
Let me remind you a little bit about the Democrats and the Whigs. By 1840, the United States had two political parties. These parties competed fiercely and effectively with each other at the local, state, and national level. They disagreed about several issues, which I would like you to list on your labels. [For students—ask them to list the issues!] [ISSUES CHART #1]
[Recall that] these two parties drew support from all sections of the nation—North, South, and West. Indeed, as the parties were developing in the 1820s and 1830s, politicians like Martin Van Buren argued that it was very important to have parties that appealed to voters across the nation on a wide range of issues, precisely because such national parties would prevent the nation from being polarized by purely sectional issues. We can see how national support for these parties was in the Electoral Map from 1840. [MAP 1] [DISCUSS/HAVE THEM READ IT]
To represent the national quality of these two parties, choose one color of candy to be southerners (e.g. purple) and one color to be northerners (e.g. silver). Divide all your pieces of candy evenly between your two cups, so that you have half silver and half purple pieces in each cup.
Using a new post-it, make another label that reads “Republicans” at the top.
Take the “Whig” label off of its cup, set it aside for a minute, and replace it with the new “Republican” label.
Now you have two parties with the same people in them, but one of them has been relabeled. This is NOT a political realignment. This is a party name change. Political realignment is a much more complex and interesting process, as we will see.
Keep in mind that the word “realignment” comes from the word “align,” which means “to arrange in a line” (or in this case a cup, or a political party). “Realign” suggests that the arrangement is going to change. Let’s see how and why.
Take the “Republican” label back off your cup and replace it with the “Whigs” again. Now we’re back to the situation in 1850.
In the early 1850s, the Whig party disintegrated as a consequence of the Compromise of 1850 (under which California was admitted to the Union and a variety of other compromises were made concerning federal policy toward slavery). The battle over slavery and the possible extension of slavery into western territories divided the Whigs into proslavery, pro-compromise, and anti-compromise Whigs.
Take your cup marked “Whigs” and dump it out on the table. Set the cup aside.
Some Whigs left their party. Others stuck with it until it was no longer able to field candidates for national or other elections. But where would they go? In the political culture of the antebellum era, in which parties often literally fought over elections, alienated Whigs were unlikely to simply move to the Democratic party.
New parties emerged in the mid-1850s that spoke to new issues and attracted disaffected voters from both the Whig and the Democratic parties. One of these new parties was the American Party, commonly known as the “Know-Nothings.”
The American Party had its origins in secret societies organized by Americans who were upset about the wave of immigrants, mainly from Ireland and Germany, who had come to the United States beginning in the late 1840s. (Members of the societies were supposed to say, “I know nothing,” when asked about their clubs. Hence the party nickname.) The party’s nativist positions included restricting immigration, extending the naturalization period from 5 to 21 years, and prohibiting the use of tax dollars in support of Catholic schools. (We take this for granted today, but in the 19th century government money did support sectarian schools. Moreover, Catholics pointed out that the public schools required students to read from a Protestant version of the Bible and argued that the public schools were also sectarian.) [ISSUES #2]
Make a new cup, labeled “American Party” or “Know Nothings.” Before you put the post-it on the cup, be sure to put the party’s positions on your label.
Who joined the American Party? Disaffected Whigs from both the South and the North joined. Southerners hoped to overshadow the issue of slavery by addressing a less divisive issue. Northerners were most concerned about immigration since most of the new immigrants went to northern cities. Thus some northern Democrats joined as well. Not all disaffected Whigs were willing to join the Know Nothings however because they did not accept the nativist agenda.
Move some of your Whigs, both northern and southern—about evenly--into the American Party Cup. (3 each, if you start with twelve) Leave a few on the table (3 each). Also move some northern Democrats into the cup (about 2).
Another new party also emerged as a result of the changing times in the mid-1850s. Organized in 1854, the Republican Party came from a variety of northerners who opposed the Kansas-Nebraska bill of 1854 (which would allow slavery into western territory that had been declared off-limits to slavery by the 1820 Missouri Compromise).
Republicans denounced slavery as immoral, opposed the western extension of slavery, and rejected nativism. Republicans also supported a federally-supported transcontinental railroad and a homestead act. [ISSUES #3]
Take out your “Republican” cup from the beginning of the exercise. Add the Republican issues to the label.
Who joined the Republicans? Northern disaffected Whigs, some northern Democrats, and some northern Know Nothings.
Move a few northern voters from the Democrat cup (say 1), more northern voters from the Know Nothing cup (say 3), and a few northerners from the Whigs on the table (say 1). Do not move them all from any of these places.
By the Election of 1856, there were three parties in the United States—the Democrats, the Republicans, and the American Party—and thus three presidential candidates. When the American Party met in convention to try to decide on their platform, the party split over slavery, which drove some northern members to join the Republicans. The Know Nothings by 1856 were predominantly southerners. The three candidates were James Buchanan, for the Democrats; John C. Fremont for the Republicans; and Millard Fillmore for the American Party.
We can see the effects of this in the Electoral Map [MAP#2]. [Read it with them.] Buchanan won the election, winning states in all parts of the nation—North, South, and West. He still belonged to a party with national support. But Fremont got votes primarily in the Northeast, while Fillmore got votes in the South. After the election, the American Party was basically dead. By the late 1850s, even nativism was not strong enough to keep the party together in the face of divisions over slavery.
Dump your American Party voters out on the table and set the cup aside.
The Republican party walked a fine line on the subject of nativism. Although the party did not adopt the nativist planks that the American party espoused, it did continue to support some anti-Catholic policies. The party hoped to attract the support of Protestant immigrant farmers in the North while also drawing in former northern Know Nothings.
Also, after the American party split up, some members moved to the Democratic party. But some former Whigs still could not bear to join with the “enemy” and remained unaffiliated.
Move northern members of the American Party into the Republican cup (2). Move a few southern members into the Democrats cup (2). Leave some southern members on the table (4 altogether). You should also have some northerners on the table (2).
Over the next four years, from 1856 to 1860, many issues polarized American politics and positions on slavery even further. During this period, Buchanan’s second term, Americans read about violent civil war in “Bleeding Kansas,” about the Dred Scott case (in which the Supreme Court ruled that African Americans were not citizens and that the federal government had no power to exclude slavery from the territories, and about John Brown’s raid on the federal arsenal in Harper’s Ferry Virginia and his subsequent hanging for treason against the state of Virginia. These were issues about which it was difficult to remain neutral. Northerners claimed that the South was using illicit, unconstitutional means to force slavery on the nation. Southerners protested that the North was trying to strangle slavery and stuff northern evangelical values down southern throats.
In 1858, during a hotly contested senate race in Illinois, Abraham Lincoln and Stephen Douglas held a series of debates that were widely reported in American newspapers. Douglas defended his plan for allowing citizens in the territories to decide whether they wanted slavery or not. Abraham Lincoln famously argued, quoting from the Bible, that “A house divided against itself cannot stand.” [QUOTE SLIDE] Lincoln, and many northern republicans, believed that the nation was about to be taken over by slaveholders, who would force slavery on the whole country. Many southerners feared that the nation was about to be taken over by northern abolitionists who would attack the right to private property at its core by abolishing slavery.
By 1860, nearly every major institution in the United States had been divided by slavery. Churches split into northern and southern branches (Baptists, Presbyterians, Methodists, etc.). Reform associations, such as the American Temperance Association were divided. Even political parties, such as the Whigs and the Know Nothings, had been irrevocably split by the issues surrounding slavery. The Republicans had been a northern party from the start. Only the Democrats remained a national party.
In 1860, they split too. When Democrats were unable to agree on either a candidate or a platform at their conventions in Charleston and then in Baltimore, Southern Democrats walked out and formed a new party, the Southern Rights Democratic Party.
Make a new cup with the label, “Southern Rights Democratic Party.”
The Southern Rights Democratic party wanted a federal slave code for the territories. [SLIDE] They nominated John C. Breckinridge as their candidate.
Be sure to put the issues on your label. Move all but 1 southern voters out of the “Democrat” cup and into the new Southern Rights Democratic Party cup. Add 2 southern voters from the table, leaving some still there (2 South and 2 North).
Meanwhile, the remaining Democrats put together a different platform and nominated Stephen Douglas, of Illinois, as their candidate.
In Chicago, the Republican Party met and struggled to name a candidate who was not too radical to appeal to middle-of-the road northerners. Many party leaders were abolitionists or otherwise objectionable. They settled on the little-known Abraham Lincoln from Illinois, hoping he would help win votes in the crucial mid-western states.
Finally, a fourth party emerged in 1860. Made up of the last remnants of the Whigs and the Know Nothings, this party was called the Constitutional Union party, and its supporters emphasized union above all else. They were determined not to let slavery divide the nation. As a symbol of their belief in union, they nominated John Bell of Tennessee for president, and Edward Everett of Massachusetts for vice-president. [Issues #5]
Make one last cup and label for the “Constitutional Union Party.” Put the last Whigs and Know Nothings on the table into that cup (4 altogether).
When we started this exercise, we had two cups with evenly mixed pieces—purple and silver, North and South. Now what do we have?
-Have them report.
-How many cups?
-Describe the contents of the Republican and SRDP (all North, all South respectively).
-Describe the contents of the other two (mixed; Democrats weighted to the N).
-What happened? [Slavery polarized the nation and was reflected in the political parties. Tore apart the old ones. Moved people all around.]
Here’s what happened in the election of 1860. [Election Chart 1860] [Have them read it.] We see that Lincoln won, but only in northern states. In fact, he wasn’t even on the ballot in many southern states. Similarly, Breckinridge won in the Deep South and wasn’t even on the ballot in the North. Douglas won electoral votes in Missouri and New Jersey. Bell won in the upper South.
In fact, the election of 1860 was effectively two elections: Lincoln vs. Douglas in the North, and Bell vs. Breckinridge in the South.
The polarizing we saw was not simply a reflection of people moving from party to party in search of a place that reflected their beliefs. It was the political dividing of nation. And within months of Lincoln’s election, even before he was inaugurated, seven states demonstrated the depth of that division by seceding from the United States and creating a new country, the Confederate States of America.
On a piece of paper, define “political realignment” in your own words. How would you use what happened in the United States in the 1850s to illustrate the meaning of the word?
HAND OUT A FILL-IN CHART ON THE PARTIES, THEIR ISSUES, AND WHAT HAPPENED TO THEM. GIVE TIME TO FILL IT IN.