Opinion

Pay Heed To The 1860 Conventions — Or Face The Bitter Consequences

Jeff Utsch Vice President of Educational Development, Compact for America

If Republicans are willing to take a chapter from history and examine the two parties’ conventions of 1860, they may be able to avoid a calamity. If not, this convention may resemble a predecessor of 156 years ago.

In 1860, Democrats held their convention in Charleston SC, and became irreconcilably split over slavery in the Territories. In general, the northern democrats did not want slavery in the territories while their southern brethren wanted full access to the territories with their slaves. Then, there were those who pushed for compromise.

Each faction, however, thought it had the upper hand. The northern wing had history on its side with the Missouri Compromise and the Northwest Ordinance. Both acts of the legislature showed that, in the long run, slavery was intended to be contained. The southern wing believed it held the cards because as a result of the Dredd Scott decision and the clarification it provided to the rights of slaveholders.

Those owners believed they could bring their slaves wherever they wanted and the Supreme Court had validated that position. Stephen A. Douglas, in an attempt to compromise and bring factions together with his “popular sovereignty” idea, only seemed to exacerbate the rift. A third faction sought merely for everyone to get along and adhere to the Constitution.

This group grew into and joined with others to form the Constitutional Union Party. The gap between the factions in the Party were just too wide to be bridged and each faction stubbornly held out. As a result, the Democrats of 1860 ended up with two candidates running for President and a new third party. Douglas ran representing the northern wing. John C. Breckinridge represented the southern wing. John Bell ran for the newly created party.

With this split, it was not hard to predict the outcome. Interestingly enough, there are historians, yours truly included, who believe that the ardent “Fire Eaters” of the south were instrumental in this party split and wanted it to happen to ensure a Republican victory.

Such a result would mean secession by a number of states, and that was exactly what the Fire Eaters sought. We know now they got what they wanted. Seven southern states did secede when Abraham Lincoln became president.

The Republicans, who met in Chicago that year, coalesced behind the dark-horse, Lincoln. William H. Seward and Salmon P. Chase were the front runners for the Republican nomination but both had liabilities that kept them from the votes needed for the nomination.

It took until the third round of voting, but Lincoln became the compromise candidate. There were rifts in the party and differences between the candidates, for sure, but they were able to put these aside in the interest of party and nation.

One sees in this year’s Republican Convention something similar playing out. If no one does receive a majority of delegates coming into the convention will the Republican Convention turn out like the Democrats or the Republicans of 1860?

If the Republicans cannot coalesce behind a candidate, the results could be catastrophic for the party — and the nation.

Will it be a compromise candidate? 

A compromise candidate — anyone who gets the nomination, who is not the candidate with the most delegates at the time of the convention — might cause the breach. Most likely, it will be Trump with the greatest number. I fear that the gulf between the Party factions is as big as the 1860 Democrats. Trump, if not nominated with his plurality of delegates, may walk out and start another party rather than be manipulated by the “establishment.”

The difference between 1860 and 2016 for the Republicans: it is unlikely that today’s two front runners will yield to a compromise candidate.

In 1860, the rule of the day was backroom deals; promises made, even if they weren’t authorized by Lincoln; and giving-and-taking.

The sides were not far apart and bridges could be built. Not so today.

It is a shame we are at this point, as the establishment has lost control of the Party and the people’s confidence. It has failed to do what people have wanted and, in turn, the people no longer trust the leadership to act in their best interest.

That loss is well-deserved.

Party leadership has been given mandates time and again, and failed to act, in spite of promises. Of course there are always excuses.  Lincoln went through a number of generals until he finally found one that would fight. He finally found a general in Ulysses S. Grant who would do his bidding.

In effect, the people in the Party today are looking for a 2016 embodiment of Grant.

Instead, they have been given generals who won’t do their bidding. Union generals like McDowell, McClellan, Pope, Burnside and Hooker were unwilling or unable to undertake their mandates.

Out of the names above the Republican Party “establishment” is most like McClellan, willing to probe and attack cautiously, but filled with excuses about why victory was unattainable. McClellan argued constantly that, with more troops, he could win the day. But, he needed to wait until everything was in order or the risk would be too great.  He overestimated the enemy´s strength and underestimated his own. He was never bold, nor audacious like the enemy, but practical and safe. He rationalized his every move and overestimated his own importance.  Even when he had the enemy’s plans he failed to move fast enough to take advantage of his good fortune.

See any similarities?

If history is to be our guide, the party should go with the person who has the greatest number of delegates. That choice may not sit well with some and may not be one’s first choice but the alternative is a split and broken Party.

In the end, the Republicans of today seem destined to emulate the Democrats of 1860 more than the Republicans of 1860. The sad thing is that this may be exactly what the establishment is looking accomplish if they cannot have their candidate. A Trump or Cruz presidency may threaten their power more than Hillary Clinton in the White House.

Do we have new Fire Eaters among us? I wonder.

Jeff Utsch is the Vice President of Educational Development for Compact for America, Inc.