The Differences Slavery Made: A Close Analysis of Two American Communities

View : The Debates | Modernity in the United States Context | Geography and Difference | Politics and Slavery | The Case Studies: Augusta and Franklin | Comparing Economies | Comparing Social Structures | Politics and the Election of 1860 | Conclusion

Both Augusta and Franklin maintained vigorous political parties. Residents of both places were linked into national institutions through networks of party structure, patronage, and interest. Party activists in both places used the newspapers to mobilize supporters and disparage opponents. As they chose representatives and party leaders in the months preceding the election of 1860, residents of each place followed patterns established in previous political contests.

The connections between political expression and economic and social life prove far more complicated than aggregate numbers suggest. While we can discern patterns in the detailed numbers and maps, neither in the North nor in the South did the way a man voted simply reflect his material interests, ethnic background, or geographic location. Historians have developed sophisticated techniques for measuring ethnic and religious correlations with voting and party preferences in period from 1830s to the election of 1860. William G. Shade's work on Virginia concludes that the Valley region's political alignments correlated closely with the region's religious and ethnic groupings--Valley Scots-Irish Presbyterians, Episcopalians, and Methodists preferred the Whig Party, while German Lutherans, Mennonites, and Reformed found the Democrats attractive. Within Augusta County, however, the geographic location of churches, for example, bore little relationship to voting patterns at the precinct level. (See Shade, Democratizing the Old Dominion, 138-142, especially Shade's analysis of Augusta as "religiously diverse" [140], predominately Scotch-Irish, and heavily Presbyterian--and therefore, Whig. "Nowhere in the Old Dominion," Shade writes, "were the cultural contrasts between Whigs and Democrats more strongly drawn than in the Valley where they were reinforced by religion and language." [139])

Still, some patterns in Augusta and Franklin's voting in 1860 seem clear. In Franklin Abraham Lincoln won precincts where blacks lived, even though they could not vote; Lincoln's victory was connected unmistakably to a geography of black residence. With the exception of one township, every precinct that went for Lincoln by more than 59 percent was a place where blacks lived in relatively large numbers. Democratic newspapers vilified the Republicans for courting black voters and black financial contributions during the 1860 election. Only after the election did the extent of black support for Republicans in Philadelphia and Ohio become clear to Democrats. (See Table: African American Residence by Town; Map: Franklin Co. Election of 1860; and Valley Spirit, "The Negro Government")

Franklin Democrats tried to paint the Republicans as the party of the Negro, but Republicans defended themselves by loudly proclaiming from every organ that they were the party that disenfranchised black voters a few years earlier. Still, the largest support for Lincoln in Franklin came from those districts with the highest proportions of black residents. Either Republicans were masterfully organized, exhibiting a public white face while working for support and funding from the black community, or black Pennsylvanians were looking past the Republican public rhetoric, listening carefully to Lincoln's words and hearing new narratives of change and hope in them. How could they not? Republicans urged their men--making no mention of color--to strike for freedom: "REPUBLICANS OF FRANKLIN!--You have a part to perform in the grand achievement-the enfranchising of your Southern brethren. Every right which a freeman holds dear, has been there stricken down by the co-horts of Slavery. Liberty of speech is unknown; the Press--which is formidable only to tyrants--is muzzled; and every impulse that ennobles humanity and beautiful freedom, is dwarfed, smothered, crushed out by the reign of terror which has been inaugurated by the Southern leaders of the Locofoco party. It therefore behooves every lover of Freedom to buckle on his armor to do many battle in the great contest for Free Principles that we are now about entering upon." (Franklin Repository, May 2, 1860)

When the recruiters for the 54th Massachusetts came to Franklin a few years later, dozens of black men enlisted. Lincoln's precincts in Franklin were connected not only by their high proportion of black residents but also by geography. They stretched across the urban middle of the county and up its eastern edge, and had a larger proportion of young voters in their twenties and thirties. Franklin's Democrats voted mostly for Breckinridge, following the local party leadership's decision to spurn Stephen Douglas, and they carried precincts far from the urban centers of the county.

In Augusta, where Constitutional Unionist John Bell easily won, the Democrats secured support in the rural areas most closely linked to large-scale slavery. In the mountains and towns, where Whig sensibilities were predominant, Bell's commitment to slavery and union together represented their interests and they turned out for him. (See Map: Augusta Co. Election of 1860)

Augusta's voting patterns were somewhat different from those Kenneth Noe found for Southwest Virginia in the election of 1860. There many men voted for Breckinridge, while in Augusta few did so. And the Breckinridge vote came from areas in Southwest where slavery was less well-established, while in Augusta the Breckinridge vote came from the highest slaveholding areas. Bell, on the other hand, was most successful in the Eastern Plateau of Southwest Virginia where slavery was the strongest. In Augusta the Bell vote was located most strongly in places where slavery was on par with the average in the county. Noe finds the voting in 1860 did not so much turn on slavery as perpetuate previous voting patterns. (Noe, Southwest Virginia's Railroad, 94)

In the politics of slavery, each subregion voted for candidates they considered to be the best protectors of their vision for regional growth and prosperity. All in all, very few Augusta or Virginia voters changed parties in 1860. The strongest Old Whig districts of 1859 remained the strongest Old Whig districts in 1860, mainly concentrating their vote in the Constitutional Unionist Party; the strongest Democratic districts remained the strongest Democratic districts. They had read the editorials and listened to the speeches; they had talked with their neighbors, wives, and in-laws. They had calculated personal economic gains and losses that might follow the election of one man or another. They noted which candidate seemed most in line with their own religious beliefs. After all the consideration was done, however, most men would not abandon their party's traditions and ideals even for a remarkable election such as that of 1860. They might become disgusted by in-fighting and lethargy within their party, but to change the allegiances of a lifetime and vote for another party altogether was quite rare, even in the strange days of 1860. (See Map: 1860 Presidential Election; and Table: 1860 Presidential Election)

Across the North, as in Franklin County, more than eight out of ten men went to the polls on November 6. Abraham Lincoln won by appealing to men who had been neither Republicans nor Democrats before 1860. Three-fourths of those new Republicans were, like Lincoln himself, former Whigs. The rest were split about evenly between men who had been Democrats and those who had been Free Soilers. Lincoln won in part because he made inroads into the Border North, in southern Illinois, southern Indiana, and southern Ohio, where he pulled in 30 to 45 percent of the vote. Lincoln proved especially attractive to men under the age of 25. Those young voters, eligible to cast a ballot for the first time in 1860, found the Republicans tailor-made for them. The Wide-Awakes drew these young men to the vigorous new party that promised opportunity in a West filled with white men. That these same men lived in the precincts with the highest proportion of black residents connected their cause to that of the antislavery abolitionists in the North. (See, for example, Fogel, Without Consent or Contract, 382-6; and Table: Age and Party Affiliation, Franklin Co.)

Pennsylvania proved critical to Lincoln's election. The fusion between Know Nothings and Whigs, nativists and immigrants, old Free Soilers and old Democrats, so delicate at the beginning, could hardly have worked better. More men from Pennsylvania joined the Republicans than in any other state: over 120,000 of them, 24 percent of the electorate, voted for the party in 1860 though they had not in 1856. Only 12 Pennsylvania counties, 35 fewer than in 1856, went to the Democrats. Such abrupt swings had been almost unheard of in the United States during the fiercely partisan political wars over the preceding three decades. The shift was a product of Pennsylvania's unique mixture of Protestant Germans and nativists, of fervent antislavery men in the northern counties and conservative Union men in the southern counties, of dysfunctional Democrats and shrewd Republicans. (See Map: 1860 Presidential Election; and Table: 1860 Presidential Election)

The Republican victory was both impressive and deceptive. On the impressive side, the party won half a million more votes than four years earlier; Lincoln carried every northern state except New Jersey, which he split with Stephen Douglas; he gathered 180 electoral votes, 27 more than necessary to take the election; he would have won in the electoral college even if all his opponents had combined their votes. The Republicans, though, knew the fragility of this stirring victory: if one half of 1 percent of Northern voters in crucial places had voted differently, the election would have been thrown into the House of Representatives, where the Republicans were a minority. Abraham Lincoln, who won less than 40 percent of the popular vote in the country as a whole, would not have been president.

Decades later, Franklin's Alexander McClure, the head of the Republican Party in Pennsylvania, reflected in his memoirs on the meaning of this election. "A decided political revolution was generally expected in 1860, but none then dreamed that it would mean anything more than merely halting the extension of the slave power, and liberalizing the policy of the government in the support of free industries against the slave labor of the South," he thought. "Had it been generally believed in 1860 that the election of Lincoln would bring the bloodiest civil war of modern times, and the sudden and complete overthrow of slavery at the point of the bayonet, it is doubtful whether the popular vote of the country would have invited such an appalling entertainment." Voters on both sides profoundly misunderstood and underestimated the other. "The North believed that the South was more bombastic than earnest in the threat of provoking civil war for the protection of slavery, and the South believed that the Northern people were mere money-getters, ready to yield anything rather than accept fratricidal conflict." (McClure, Old Time Notes)

Both Augusta and Franklin saw their social arrangements as successful and productive, and that very success exacerbated sectional tensions. The physical experience of citizens, the arrangements of their institutions, towns, farms, and businesses, differed between Northern and Southern communities in subtle but profoundly meaningful ways. Republicans and Southern Democrats created aggressive political movements that appealed to large numbers of white male citizens by championing their regionally distinct visions of appropriate economic and social strategies and obscuring the complementary nature of the Northern and Southern economic approaches.

The politics of slavery controlled the decision-making process at the local level, and indeed at the state, regional, and national levels. When faced with the binary choice of separating from the Union or challenging the economic and social systems that had served them so well for so long, most white men South and North would make their decision quickly and with conviction. The choice posed by Republicans and Southern Democrats would wash out the similarities between the North and South and emphasized their contrasting visions of the proper ways to create and manage labor and economic production in the United States. In defense of those contrasting visions, local people from both regions committed themselves to a national war.

After the election of 1860, the secessionists of the Confederacy, of Virginia, and of Augusta expertly narrowed the range of choices. "The question is not 'Union,' the Vindicator argued, "That is irretrievably, hopelessly broken up. No compromise of right--no palliation of wrong, or denunciation of its resistance, can restore its fallen columns." Only one question mattered: "where shall we go? With the North or the South?" Once the secessionists had drawn the boundaries in that way, slavery, the fundamental issue often lost in the layer-upon-layer of constitutional debate, immediately reasserted itself in the most immediate way. It was no longer a matter of hypothetical slaves in hypothetical territories, but real slaves in Augusta County and Virginia. If we go with the North, "what are we to do with our Negroes?" the Vindicator asked rhetorically. "Converted into pests and vampyres as they soon must be in such connexion, they will suck out the very lifeblood of the Commonwealth. And there will be no help for us. The North would gloat over our distresses, while the South, in self-defense, would be compelled to close her doors against us. The 'irrepressible conflict' will then be upon us with all its horrors." The next step in the logic was clear: "who will not say, give us war, give us anything, extermination itself, rather than such a consuming life of degradation and ruin?" (Republican Vindicator, March 29, 1861)

Citation: Key = TAS8
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