By the time Abraham Lincoln’s first term in office was coming to a close, the nation was in the throes of the Civil War. Though Lincoln was elected as the first Republican president, his party later revolted against him and he was forced to run for re-election under the banner of the National Union Party.
Of course the only votes that were counted were those cast in states that had not attempted to secede, as well as a couple of states being occupied by Union troops. The Republicans broke apart, with the radicals who demanded an antislavery amendment to the Constitution nominating John C. Fremont to run against Lincoln.
In another odd twist of fate, the Democrats nominated Gen. George C. McClellan, Lincoln’s former top general. In so many ways the nation, its leaders and its party structure were all being torn apart.
The radical Democrats wanted the Fremont candidacy to win, thinking it would be easier to defeat him than Lincoln. But in the end Lincoln ended up carrying the vote by a large majority and was the first president since 1832 to be re-elected to a second term in office.
The nation was split over slavery, but that was not the first issue in the minds of many Southerners. They saw the constitution as an agreement between sovereign states that gave very limited powers to a federal government whose powers were owned by the states themselves and the people in them prior to joining together. To many people the Civil War was not being fought over slavery, but in defense of the American people who were being attacked by their own government with the help of the military, trying to force them into submission. They saw the fight much the same way Washington’s army saw the battle against the British.
In fact, Washington was a Virginian and so was the leader of the Confederate army, Robert E. Lee, who would have stayed loyal to Lincoln had it not been for his loyalty to Virginia, which Lee said came first.
Only a few weeks after Lincoln was re-elected and the hopes of the South to remove the warring president were dashed, the surrender at Appomattox Courthouse took place. And though it brought an end to armed conflict of the “official” sort, it did not end the battle in the hearts and minds of those whose hatred for the federal government had only grown harder as their beloved cities, farms and homes were destroyed by the Army of The Potomac.
In fact, the assassination of Lincoln took place just days after the surrender and, though it ended the life of a remarkable man, it was only the first shot in a war which was renewed and never lost in the minds of those for whom “state’s rights” remains a rallying cry even today.
Out of the bitter battles of the Civil War, hatred for the “Feds” survived and needed a new target once the Blue Coats had gone home. What they found as a focal point were the newly liberated former slaves.
They were easy to identify because they were a different color. They were easy to dislike because they had been conditioned as slaves. They were easy to hate because they had been given something precious – liberty – by a government that many still considered an oppressor.
By 1868 the nation had restored the voting rights to all southern states except three: Texas, Mississippi and Virginia. Lincoln’s successor, President Andrew Johnson, was prepared to run for re-election, but before he could be nominated, a rejuvenated Republican party came back together and nominated war hero Ulysses S. Grant. Johnson then sought the Democratic nomination.
Johnson had been impeached by the House of Representatives but stayed in office by the luck of one vote. His presidency had been crippled, and Johnson lost the nomination and with it the chance for another term as president.
Out of this election, in the culture of lingering bitterness and a deep divide between the nationalist views of the Republican party and the “state’s rights” views of the southern Democrats, nearly 100 years of nation-splitting political rivalry was born.
Democrats controlled the South and tried to control the vote and secure their power by controlling the “negroes.” Appealing to the sense of state loyalty still held dear by many, they sold their bigotry as pride, born out of distrust of a federal government that had turned its guns on its own citizens to bring them under control. “The South Will Rise Again” is a popular slogan even today, and growing in popularity among an unusual group of new Republicans, which I will touch upon in the near future.
But the election of 1868 was important for reasons other than the way in which it hardened the party loyalty and regionalism in the newly united nation. It was an election where the use of slander and character assassination was used in a desperate attempt to save a failing campaign.
As Grant studied the likely vote he came to understand that while the war of blood-letting may have officially ended, the southern Democrats and their battle for the White House was just beginning. Grant was on the verge of losing the election.
And so the Republicans began spreading the rumor that the Democrat nominee, Horatio Seymour, was from a family plagued by insanity, citing the suicide of his father as evidence.
Seymour ran a rather quiet campaign while the Republicans lampooned him viciously in political cartoons and in story after story where slander and fraud were thrown at him repeatedly by a highly partisan press.
Of course Grant won the election, but the South went strongly for Seymour who could have won the election if all of the southern states had been allowed to vote. And in that election Kentucky became one of the strongest Democratic states in the nation, giving Seymour a higher percentage of the vote than any Democratic presidential candidate before or since.
Out of this new battle, party loyalty was born, a complicit press was emboldened and new weapons of political warfare were added that included a form of dirty politics that has increased in popularity with candidates ever since.
Next up as we continue to examine how we got to where we are today, how the press decided to nominate one of its own to run for president and how hatred of the Republicans resulted in a very weird Democratic nomination.
Marcus Carey is a Northern Kentucky lawyer with 32 years experience. He is also a farmer, talk radio host and public speaker who loves history and politics. He is a prolific and accomplished writer whose blog, BluegrassBulletin.com is “dedicated to honest and respectful comment on the political and cultural issues of our time.” He writes a regular commentary for KyForward.