How to Build a Winning Coalition: What Today's Democrats Can Learn from Pennsylvania's Republicans in 1860

tags: Civil War, political history, 2020 Election

Dan Crofts has long studied the North-South sectional crisis that led to the Civil War. His 2016 book, Lincoln and the Politics of Slavery: The Other Thirteenth Amendment and the Struggle to Save the Union (UNC), was awarded the University of Virginia’s Bobbie and John Nau Book Prize in American Civil War Era History. His recent essay, “Ending Slavery and Limiting Democracy: Sidney George Fisher and the American Civil War” in the January 2020 issue of the Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography, previews his work-in-progress on Pennsylvania politics during the Civil War era.

American politics during the late antebellum era was divisive and deeply polarized, just like the present. A few key battleground states, most prominently Pennsylvania, decided the outcome of national elections. To win the Keystone State in 1860, Republican Party managers employed keen coalition-building skills. They adapted readily to changing circumstances. Hard experience taught them that a campaign aimed only at the party’s base would fall short. Republicans also passed over their most visible leaders and instead chose a lesser-known presidential candidate. Democrats in 2020 would do well to heed the techniques Republicans employed in 1860.

Nobody understood these imperatives better than Morton McMichael, editor of the Philadelphia North American, the largest Republican newspaper in the nation’s second largest city. He labored mightily to break the Democratic hold on Pennsylvania. The immense bound volumes of his North American, which remain available for scrutiny at the Historical Society of Pennsylvania, offer a how-to window for achieving partisan success.[1]

Pennsylvania Republicans ran a campaign in 1856 that was memorable, passionate—and disappointing. Supporters of its presidential candidate, John C. Frémont, lambasted the Democratic Party’s repeal of the Missouri Compromise and the ham-handed efforts of the Pierce administration to open Kansas Territory to slaveholders. They focused on the “single issue”—that Democrats had become accomplices of the Slave Power. But opponents of the Democrats were divided, especially in Philadelphia, a booming manufacturing city where many native stock residents disdained immigrants and where antagonistic groups of immigrants—notably, its Catholic and Protestant Irish—clashed with each other. Republicans tried to ally with the many nativist Know Nothings who had created the American Party, but a full coalition proved elusive. Thumping margins in the city carried Democrats to statewide victory in 1856 and Pennsylvania’s James Buchanan to the presidency.[2]

Read entire article at Journal of the Civil War Era

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