Five Conventions, Four Candidates, and Three Parties: Chaos before the Election of 1860

By Hannah Christensen ’17

This alone might sound like a good indication of the turbulent politics of 1860, but there is more to the story. Three of the 1860 nominating conventions were Democratic, one was Republican, and one was Constitutional Unionist. They ultimately produced four candidates for president, two of them Democrats.

It all started with the Democratic nominating convention in Charleston, South Carolina. As the delegates gathered, several things became evident: Charleston was a poor choice for hosting, party unity was the key to victory, having any kind of slave code plank in the platform would guarantee defeat, and agreeing on a single candidate would be difficult. The northwestern delegates supported Stephen Douglas, but the others were divided between Senator R. M. T. Hunter of Virginia, Vice-president John Breckinridge, former Secretary of the Treasury James Guthrie, and Senator Jefferson Davis of Mississippi. Perhaps more concerning than this was the rumor that Alabama delegate W. L. Yancy had convinced his delegation to threaten to withdraw from the convention if they could not get a slave-code plank—Congressional protection of slavery in the Territories—into the platform.

Eventually, that happened. From April 23rd to May 3rd, the convention struggled to agree on much of anything. Despite their belief in the importance of party unity, the delegates spent three days arguing about basic organizational matters before turning their attention to the platform and nominations on April 26th. On the 27th, the platform committee presented one majority and two minority reports. The majority report reaffirmed the 1856 platform, with several additions: no abolition of slavery in the Territories, some state legislatures’ attempts to avoid the fugitive slave law were hostile to the Constitution. It also stated that the government had a duty to protect property wherever it had authority and naturalized citizens in foreign countries, as well as to acquire Cuba as soon as possible. The principle minority platform affirmed the 1856 platform. It proclaimed that the Democratic Party would hold to court decisions on property rights, promised protection to all citizens at home and abroad, pledged government aid for a Pacific railroad, pushed for the acquisition of Cuba, and proclaimed resistance to the fugitive slave law unconstitutional. The other minority report merely repeated the 1856 platform. Continue reading “Five Conventions, Four Candidates, and Three Parties: Chaos before the Election of 1860”

The Soldiers’ “Silent” Defender

By Jacob Ross ’15

In war studies, it is sometimes overlooked that every war is fought on two fronts: military and political. The armed forces fight against a foe across the field, but political warriors face a far messier battleground—a convoluted arena, where the lines are blurred between friend and enemy. Representative Alexander Coffroth of Pennsylvania’s 16th District was one of most paradoxical of the Civil War Era political warriors. Mr. Coffroth was a Democrat from Somerset County, newly incorporated into the legislative district, also including Gettysburg, that he would come to represent. His election in 1862 defeated incumbent Republican Congressman Edward McPherson (namesake of McPherson’s Ridge) and dramatically changed the representation of Gettysburgians.

Congressman Alexander H. Coffroth Taken by Mathew Brady c. 1863.
Congressman Alexander H. Coffroth
Taken by Mathew Brady c. 1863.

The easiest way to sum up Coffroth’s role in the Union war effort is to imagine him as a white hat cowboy riding a black horse. In the congressional session immediately following the Battle of Gettysburg, Coffroth proved to be an ardent defender of the Democratic Party. He called the Republican Party treasonous for using the Constitution to oppress the minority and for pushing Southern rebels to violence through the fear of slave property confiscation. He also called President Lincoln to withdraw his Emancipation Proclamation because it violated the objects of the war and energized the Confederate soldiers. Continue reading “The Soldiers’ “Silent” Defender”

To Preserve, Protect, and Defend

By Jacob Ross ’15

View of Baltimore Street from the Diamond from 1886. President Kendlehart's shoe/boot store was located about one block down the street on the left.
View of Baltimore Street from 1886. President Kendlehart’s shoe/boot store was located about one block down the street on the left.

A glance at the work of virtually any political philosopher, no matter the era, will often reflect the argument that the primary purpose of a government is to protect its people. That obligation, combined with the age-old adage that “all politics are local,” raises questions about the responsibilities and duties of Gettysburg’s borough government during the town’s fateful battle of 1863. Sadly, the duty felt by the borough’s leaders to protect the town and their actions in relation to that duty have long been overshadowed by what is considered by many to be the more exciting narrative of military glory. Other historians have written off Gettysburg’s local politicians as being too weak to have had measurable significance in the titan armies’ collision. Neither conclusion should be accepted, because their actions not only prevented the Confederate forces from gaining tactical supplies, but also saved the borough of Gettysburg from fiery retribution for not complying with Confederate demands.

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Mocking a Perilous Prediction: Currier and Ives’ Political Cartoons

By Meg Sutter ’16

Currier and Ives’ political cartoons, while comical, also represent the general undertones of the time as well as people’s feelings regarding this era of political controversy. The election of 1860 was an incredibly important one because, not only were there numerous political and social divides, but the South had threatened to secede. The political cartoon “The Irrepressible Conflict” or “The Republican Barge in Danger,” released in 1860, gives historians a good understanding of the reactions to not only Seward’s speech but also the wariness of Lincoln’s nomination and eventual election.


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