3 min read

Republicans Do an Image Makeover on Slavery for 1860

Republicans Do an Image Makeover on Slavery for 1860
AI visualization of a fugitive slave on the run in the District of Columbia.

This week's video contrasts the reactions by two newspapers, – one Southern, one Northern – to Abraham Lincoln's 1860 presidential nomination by the Republican Party. Given how the South reacted to Lincoln's election that fall, the respective responses to his nomination are about the opposite of what one might expect.

Lincoln's efforts as a Congressman in 1849 to moderate a bill that would have abolished the slave trade in the District of Columbia by inserting a package of measures including returning fugitive slaves who had escaped to the District to their owners was what had particularly galled abolitionist Wendell Phillips – and continued to do so in 1860.

Historian David M. Potter, in his book Lincoln and His Party in the Secession Crisis, described how Republicans had tried to soften their abolitionist associations in order to broaden their support in the 1860 elections. This meant embracing Lincoln rather than William H. Seward and toning down the party platform compared to 1856:

That document had devoted itself chiefly to such quotations from the Declaration of Independence as would most annoy slave-holders, and to denials that the territories were open to slavery, which was termed "a relic of barbarism." ...
The convention of 1860 definitely receded from this ultra position. It adopted a platform which, as compared with the previous one, was milk and water. True, it attacked the Dred Scott decision, denounced the smuggling of slaves, and still denied "the authority of Congress, or a territorial legislature, or of any individuals, to give legal existence to Slavery in any territory of the United States." But in contrast to the platform of Fremont, which had placed almost complete reliance on the slavery issue, it diversified by endorsing a tariff for protection and a Homestead Act – two measures which were desired by innumerable voters. The allusion to slavery as a relic of barbarism was omitted; John Brown's raid was described as a "lawless invasion ... among the gravest of crimes"; and "the maintenance inviolate of ... the right of each state to order and control its own domestic institutions" was recognized as "essential to that balance of powers on which the perfection and endurance of our political fabric depends."  ...
[The] Seward men, eager for harmony, were instrumental. They were still on good terms with the "Irrepressibles," and they had no idea of sacrificing their support from the left wing. But in all this, they had none of the crusading, almost theocratic leanings of the idealists with whom they still allied. ...
Thus far, the new moderation preached by Seward had carried everything before it. According to all logic, it was now due to sweep him into the nomination, and perhaps into the White House. But instead, it defeated him, or at least contributed to his defeat. The reason for this was that all good Republicans had sniffed victory in the air, and all of them knew that it depended upon Pennsylvania, New Jersey, and Indiana – the states which had defeated Fremont four years previously. ...
What was required was not conservatism in essence, but rather the appearance of conservatism. To fulfill this requirement, the recent moderate speech of Seward did not at all suffice. It was too new to have produced any deep impresssion upon the public mind, and too late to efface from conservative memories the radical speeches of Seward's Republican novitiate. These speeches had established him as the foremost political leader of the anti-slavery cause, and this reputation, acquired over a period of six years, was not to be discarded overnight. ...
But all this trend toward the right was accomplished not so much by the ascendancy of the conservatives as by the complaisance of the radicals. Seward was rejected as too extreme, not by the moderates, but by men who were personally more radical than he was. Having sought to identify himself completely with Republican principles, he was now repudiated by Republicans precisely because of his success in that endeavor. Having paid lip-service to ultraisim, he was rejected by the ultras as they paid lip-service to moderation.

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