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Discover Western Prince William December 2018
Doug Horhota
lections That Infl uenced Virginia History:
Part One
As we come to the end of another election cycle, bitterly fought and commonly
proclaimed as "the most important election of our time," I'm reminded of the lessons
of the past. While not minimizing the importance of elections today, students of
history should take a look back at American history: when the Vice President of the
United States shot and killed a political rival who had prevented him from becoming
President a few years earlier; when another clear winner in a presidential election
was kept from the offi ce because he did not get enough votes, so the second- and
fourth-place fi nishers combined to make one of them the President and the other
Secretary of State. Then there was the election that led to a Civil War...
The year 1860 has correctly been portrayed as a watershed year in American
history. As is often the case, it is traced to the presidential election of that year. The
issue of slavery had long been on the to-do list for the country. Thomas Jefferson's
rough draft in the Declaration of Independence that banned the practice in 1776,
ending the overseas slave trade, and individual states in the North that banned the
practice in the fi rst half of the 1800s, were only some attempts at a political solution.
By the 1850s, events moved at an accelerated pace, putting slavery at the forefront
as the issue of the era. Additional lands available for settlement from the Mexican
War and expansion to California during the Gold Rush created a rift as to whether
the lands between the Mississippi and the Pacifi c would be free, slave, or both.
A compromise was the result, with Southern senators allowing the "peculiar
institution" to remain, combined with support from a series of Northern Presidents
politically allied with the South. In the two presidential elections during the 1850s,
the status quo remained in place, but signs of how tenuous it was were evident.
1856 almost became the critical election. James Buchanan, the Democratic
candidate aligned with the South, won the election but only carried 45% of the
vote, whereas two new parties--the Republican and the American Party--won
the majority. Buchanan won enough electoral votes to become the nation's 15th
President, but what would happen four years later if the two minority parties,
particularly the anti-slavery Republican Party, won?
The election of 1860 pitted four major candidates:
Democratic (Northern) Stephen A. Douglas: long-serving Senator and leading
Democrat of the time, but not well-liked in the South due to his views against
promoting slavery in the Western states.
Democrat (Southern) John C. Breckinridge: political newcomer, current Vice
President, fervent slave supporter. If elected, he would be the youngest President
ever at 40 years of age.
Republican Abraham Lincoln: Relative unknown but he did make a name for
himself, losing a Senate election against Stephen Douglas just two years earlier.
He pledges to allow slavery to remain where it exists, but Republican views on
the institution are well known and he is fervently
mistrusted in the South.
Constitution Union John Bell: A slave owner who
had a political record against slavery expanding,
he was seen as a compromise candidate of a new
political party to rally behind after the Democrats
split into Northern and Southern wings.
In the modern political era, we would anticipate
candidates to be out "on the stump" asking for votes,
delivering speeches and travelling the country until
Election Day. In 1860, this practice was not yet in
place but was being changed by Stephen Douglas,
who became the fi rst major candidate to do exactly
that. Following custom, the other candidates issued
writings and statements on their positions but did
not campaign like today. As is also the case today,
For the next three editions, Doug will be writing about three critical
elections during the Civil War era that signifi cantly infl uenced
Virginia (and American) history.
the presidential election is
not decided by the number of votes by the electorate,
but by the number of electoral votes. (Please refer to Article 1, Section 2 of the
U.S. Constitution for a detailed explanation of this process.) The race in 1860
would come down to three swing states: Indiana, Ohio, and Pennsylvania. These
states, with voters who had voted in favor of Democratic candidates in the past,
held the key. If they went for the Northern Democrat, Douglas, the election could
still go his way toward preserving the tenuous peace; but if they went for Lincoln, he
would increase his chances of sweeping the Northern states and securing enough
electoral votes to make him President. Breckinridge, as the only pro-Southern
candidate, was expected to sweep the South but even if he swept the entire South,
including border states like Virginia, Missouri, Maryland, and Tennessee, he would
still come up short.
The next time there is a presidential election and we wonder about the process we
follow, I'd like you to imagine the following scenario. It is election night, the polls are
closing in the eastern half of the country, but the West Coast and Rockies are still
voting. As the results are coming in, it is very clear that one candidate is sweeping to
victory. The losing candidate delivers a speech telling their supporters who haven't
yet voted, "I've lost, and for the good of the country, please go out and if you haven't
voted, support my opponent. We need to rally behind the next President." It would
be amazing, but this is exactly what happened in 1860! The three swing states
held their election in October and Mr. Lincoln won all three of them. With this result,
it was clear to Douglas that he had lost, and to prevent the election from being
undecided and a winner decided by the House of Representatives, he continued
his public speaking tour and stumped for Lincoln. He even made speeches in the
Deep South in Georgia and Alabama.
When the fi nal votes were tallied, Lincoln had in fact swept the entire North,
securing 180 electoral votes, 28 more than necessary. Breckinridge did sweep
the Deep South and came in second, and Douglas was only able to win one state
outright, Missouri. How did Virginia vote? Bell won the state, along with Tennessee
and Kentucky, in the closest p residential race in
Virginia history. A margin of 156 votes
separated Bell and Breckinridge, with
Breckinridge winning both Fauquier
and Prince William Counties.
Douglas came in a distant third
and Lincoln won 1% of the vote
statewide, most of it in the Ohio
Valley. The new president received
zero votes in Fauquier County!
For the next issue: Virginia is
splintered by an election.