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Stories from PA History
Abraham Lincoln and the Politics of the Civil War
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Abraham Lincoln and the Politics of the Civil War
Chapter One: Pennsylvania Democrats

"May we not, then, hope that the long agitation on this [slavery] subject is approaching its end, and that the geographical parties to which it has given birth, so much dreaded by the Father of his Country, will speedily become extinct? Most happy will it be for the country when the public mind shall be diverted from this question to others of more pressing marker and practical importance."
      Inaugural Address of President James Buchanan, March 4, 1857.


Oil on canvas depicting a formally dressed Buchanan standing next to a table, with his left hand resting on a map.
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James Buchanan, portrait by George Peter Alexander Healy, 1859.
At his inauguration on March 4, 1857, markerPresident James Buchanan dismissed the importance of slavery as a national issue. By the time he left office in March 1861, seven southern states had seceded from the United States and the Union was on the brink of civil war.

Buchanan was not alone in his woeful underestimation of the divisiveness of slavery. Though his home state of Pennsylvania had long ago outlawed slavery, many conservative Democrats believed that because the Constitution recognized the institution of slavery, the federal government had no right to interfere with it.

As part of the Compromise of 1850, Congress passed a strong Fugitive Slave Law, which allowed slave owners and federal officers to cross into Free states to recover runaway slaves. This measure outraged Pennsylvania abolitionists, including Governor William Johnston, a Free Soil Whig, who refused to repeal state laws protecting escaped slaves or to aid in the enforcement of the new federal law.

In this editorial cartoon from the 1856 presidential election, James Buchanan–in the light suit–helps hold down the head of a "Free Soiler" while Illinois Senator Stephen A. Douglas and President Franklin Pierce shove an African-American slave down his throat.
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"Forcing Slavery Down the Throat of a Free Soiler," 1856.
On September 11, 1851, the death of Edward Gorsuch, a Maryland farmer killed while trying to recover his human property from a farm near markerChristiana, Pennsylvania, further divided the Commonwealth and the nation over the issue of slavery. Later that year, Johnston narrowly lost his bid for reelection to Democrat William Bigler, who insisted on enforcing the Fugitive Slave Law. Three years later, the anti-slavery Whig and "Know-Nothing" parties united behind Judge James Pollock, who defeated Bigler in the 1854 race for governor.

The Democrats, however, recovered quickly. In 1856, James Buchanan, who had grown up in markerMercersburg, won the Democratic nomination for president. A conservative with impressive credentials–he had served in the state legislature, the U.S. House of Representatives, the U.S. Senate, and as Secretary of State–Buchanan had broad appeal, and a history of siding with the South in regional disputes.

In this 1857 lithograph, president James Buchanan appears as a flunky of slave owners, helping a bounty hunter chase a runaway slave.
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"James Buchanan: The Lackey of Southern Slave Owners," lithograph by Peter S....
In the general election, he won Pennsylvania and the election, defeating John Frémont, who had won the markerRepublican nomination in Philadelphia. Democrats also won fifteen of Pennsylvania's twenty-five Congressional districts, and sent former governor Bigler to the U.S. Senate.

In his 1857 inaugural address, Buchanan told the nation that he considered slavery in the territories a judicial question, "of but little practical importance" that the Supreme Court of the United States would speedily and finally settle. "To their decision, in common with all good citizens, I shall cheerfully submit." Two days later, the Supreme Court announced its explosive decision in Dred Scott v. Sanford: Congress had no constitutional right to legislate slavery in the territories, and African Americans were not and could not become citizens of the United States.

Black and white image of a man in a formal suit, standing, posing for this photograph.
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Pennsylvania Senator William Bigler, circa 1860.
The ruling infuriated the anti-slavery movement, and Buchanan did little to alleviate the tensions, siding with Southern interests on almost every occasion. As tensions mounted, markerHarriet Lane, the president's niece and White House hostess, had the increasingly difficult task of making seating arrangements for dinner parties that would keep political adversaries apart.

In the midterm election of 1858, Republicans took twenty of Pennsylvania's twenty-five congressional seats and won control of the U.S. House of Representatives. Buchanan, however, continued his support of what he saw as the constitutionally guaranteed rights of the South, and repeatedly condemned abolitionists' "agitation" of the South over the question of slavery. In spite of the president's scolding, agitation only increased.

In 1859, one "Isaac Smith" took up residence at a Chambersburg, Pennsylvania boarding house. No one local knew that Smith was actuallymarker John Brown, a radical abolitionist with a price on his head for his murderous actions in Bleeding Kansas, or that the supplies he was receiving, supposedly for a mining operation, were actually weapons for a raid on Harpers Ferry that he hoped would start a massive slave uprising. Brown's failed raid on October 16, 1859, and his subsequent trail and execution polarized the nation.

Your friend John Brown - "his soul is marching on" / enlarged and painted by J.W. Dodge, from the original picture taken from life., pub NY 1865,
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A memorial printed card of abolitionist John Brown, published in 1865.
To President Buchanan the raid represented "an incurable disease in the public mind, which may break out in still marker more dangerous outrages." Many Pennsylvanians agreed. On December 7, 1859, a large assembly in Philadelphia denounced Brown's terrorism, called for enforcement of federal laws, and supported the right of the South to manage its own affairs.

In the presidential election of 1860, Republican Abraham Lincoln carried Pennsylvania and won the office without receiving a single electoral vote from the South. First South Carolina and then six other southern states quickly passed articles of secession. Now officially a lame-duck, Buchanan asserted that the states had no right to secede but took no action to stop them, arguing that he lacked the constitutional power to do so.

Both Buchanan and Bigler, representing the sentiments of many Pennsylvania Democrats, supported the last-minute Crittenden Compromise–a constitutional amendment which would have restored and extended the Missouri Compromise. With the Union in shambles and his reputation ruined, Buchanan then retired to markerWheatland, his private residence in Lancaster.

Man walking on a tightrope.
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"Highly Unsuccessful Performance, by Dismal Jemmy." Currier and Ives, 1860.
The Civil War split the Pennsylvania Democratic Party–and its citizens. Some Democrats supported the war, but others known as "Copperheads" mounted a significant opposition. During the secession crisis, conservatives held rallies all over the state calling for reunification with slavery intact. A smaller group advocated the independence of the Confederacy. A few radicals, led by Philadelphians with ties to the South, suggested that Pennsylvania also should secede and marker join the Confederacy.

During the Civil War, more than 2,000 Pennsylvanians took up arms for the Confederacy. The Johnstown Democrat, the West Chester Jeffersonian, the Bellefonte Democratic Watchman, and other Democratic newspapers ran articles highly critical of the war and President Lincoln.

Opposition to the war was widespread throughout the state. Many white Pennsylvanians lamented fighting for the benefit of African Americans, whom they regarded as racially inferior. In northeastern Pennsylvania, immigrants working in the coal mines feared that their employers would replace them with lower paid black freedmen. The draft was extremely unpopular statewide, desertion was widespread, and federal draft commissioners faced violence in every corner of the Commonwealth.

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Pennsylvania Supreme Court Justice George Woodward, circa 1863.
Just how powerful was the Copperhead, antiwar movement in Pennsylvania? In 1862, conservative Democrats took control of the State House of Representatives and picked up four U.S. congressional districts, after conservative judges ruled that the state constitution did not allow soldiers to vote outside of their home districts. Control of the legislature allowed Democrats to elect Charles Buckalew, a war critic, to the U.S. Senate in 1863.

That same year, incumbent RepublicanmarkerGovernor Andrew Curtin escaped defeat at the hands of Copperhead Democrat George Woodward–one of the judges on the court that ruled in the soldier voting case–by only 16,000 votes out of 500,000 votes cast. After an amendment to the state constitution allowed soldier voting in time for the 1864 elections, Lincoln carried the state by only 20,000 votes. Without the soldiers' ballots, Lincoln probably would have lost the state to Democratic challenger and Pennsylvania native General George McClellan.
Oil on canvas painting of McClellan on horseback.
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General George B. McClellan, by Christian Schussele, 1862.


After Lincoln's re-election in 1864, the Copperhead movement faded. The Democratic party's association with the peace movement, however, would cost it dearly. Republicans would dominate state politics from the end of the Civil War until the Great Depression.

James Buchanan was not a Copperhead. Like many Democrats who initially favored appeasement, he supported suppression of the rebellion after the Confederates fired on Fort Sumter but disapproved of Lincoln's liberal interpretation of the Constitution and the restriction of civil liberties during the war.

Seeking to restore his tattered image, Buchanan spent the Civil War writing a marker justification of his administration which was published in 1866. Americans, bitter over the devastating war that many blamed on Buchanan, did not receive it well. James Buchanan died at Wheatland on June 1, 1868. His desire, expressed in his Inaugural Address, "to live in the grateful memory of my countrymen," has yet to be fulfilled.


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