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

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

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.

Photograph of Morton McMichael. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

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]

A severe economic downturn that began in September 1857 triggered major political repercussions in the Keystone State. U.S. railroad construction had boomed during the 1850s, creating heavy demand for Pennsylvania-manufactured rails, locomotives, and rolling stock. But when demand suddenly slumped, many Pennsylvania workmen lost their jobs. With a heavier commitment to manufacturing and mining than any other state, Pennsylvania already favored a protective tariff. That sentiment intensified amid the economic misery. Protectionists argued that a tariff on cheap British iron was the key to restoring prosperity; it would revive moribund iron manufacturing and anthracite coal mining.

Enthusiasm for tariff protection reframed Pennsylvania politics. Nativists proved receptive to complaints that free trade depressed American wages and enabled “foreign labor” to compete unfairly with “American labor.” Protectionists, pushing an economic nationalist agenda, insisted the home market would provide prosperity for all if not undercut by imports. So likewise, protectionists blamed Southern Democrats for blocking new tariff legislation in Congress and clinging selfishly to free trade ideologies. Even more galling, the Slave Power appeared to celebrate the misery of free Northern workers and crow that slave labor was superior to free labor. As historian James Huston explained, the tariff issue “subsumed much of the nativist argument” and provided a more tangible focus for anti-Southern resentments.[3]

The North American pushed the protectionist message and rebranded Republicans as the “People’s Party.” An overflow audience of 5,000 launched the new endeavor at Philadelphia’s National Hall on June 14, 1858. Speakers led by editor McMichael blasted the just-adjourned Congress for failing to alleviate the distressed iron industry and its many unemployed workmen. People’s Party founders proposed to “expel mere sectionalism” and to focus instead on “the happiness and prosperity of the people.” They downplayed overt nativist appeals. In October the new party triumphantly carried Philadelphia by over 6,000 votes, posted large gains in coal-mining counties, and rolled up a decisive statewide margin of over 25,000. In so doing, it all but obliterated the state’s Democratic representation in Congress.[4]

New York Senator William H. Seward, the odds-on favorite to win the Republican presidential nomination in 1860, spoke out for the tariff. He returned from a trip to Europe dazzled by the sprawling manufacturing cities in England and Scotland, where he saw “railroads crossing each other in all directions, bringing in coal and iron ore to the forges, whose fires, blazing from hundreds of chimneys, makes the night as brilliant as the day.” The United States should encourage its own manufactures, Seward contended, rather than remain dependent on foreign suppliers.[5]

But Seward would not lead his party in 1860. McMichael and his political allies, worried by Seward’s somewhat undeserved reputation as an antislavery radical, helped Abraham Lincoln wrest the Republican nomination away from the New York senator. Seward also was hurt by the suspicion that his welcoming stance toward immigrants and Roman Catholics made him unacceptable to former Know Nothings. People’s Party managers judged that he could not maximize their potential vote; today’s Democrats may need to make similarly hardheaded calculations in the weeks and months to come.[6]

Prominent Pennsylvanians advised Lincoln that his campaign in the state needed to focus on tariff protection. Alexander McClure, who chaired the People’s State Central Committee, explained that outside speakers coming to Pennsylvania should be “thoroughly familiar” with the tariff, which had “not been nearly so prominent in your struggles in Illinois as it has been here.” It would be the vital “overshadowing question” in parts of the state where “the Conservative element predominates.”[7]

Early twentieth century promotional sign for the Philadelphia North American. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

James E. Harvey, Washington correspondent for the North American and McMichael’s right-hand man, frequently wrote to Lincoln. Harvey rejoiced that Republicans would not be “burthened by Mr. Seward” and predicted that victory was within reach so long as the campaign was “conducted judiciously.” Eastern Pennsylvania had a significant “American [Party] element,” but with Lincoln as the candidate “the decent Americans are with us” and the North American would help keep them there. The “People’s” label, Harvey noted, was a device to attract Americans and disaffected Democrats; he cautioned Lincoln against creating a separate Republican organization that would duplicate the People’s campaign.[8]

From June through early November, People’s promoters created a continual spectacle in Philadelphia. A “Grand Mass Meeting” on June 25 filled Penn Square at Broad and Market Streets, where City Hall now stands. Speaker after speaker insisted that only the Lincoln ticket would secure tariff protection. As evening skies darkened, torch-bearing “Wide Awakes” paraded in shiny black oilcloth regalia and the crowd enjoyed a display of colorful fireworks. Comparable events continued during the summer and fall. On October 1, the “Grandest Political Torchlight Procession Ever Witnessed” coursed through the city’s streets. As Election Day neared, the North American castigated a flurry of “monstrous falsehoods”—that Lincoln would ignite slave insurrections and that Republican Wide Awakes were mobilizing to invade the South. It reassured its readers that Lincoln was “A CONSERVATIVE.”[9]

Lincoln won absolute majorities both in Philadelphia and statewide; he thereby assured his national plurality. The results were a mirror image of the outcome four years before. Then, a united Democratic Party had bested its fractured opposition in the city, state, and nation. In 1860, Pennsylvania Republicans managed to duplicate that same feat, aided by a poisonous Democratic split. But Lincoln’s victory in the Keystone State promised no crusade against slavery. As historian Russell Weigley concluded, the results in Pennsylvania showed that the South had “nothing to fear.” The People’s campaign deprived “southern fire eaters” of any “justification for secession.”[10]

The Republican Party’s rise to power between 1854 and 1860 contains lessons that remain pertinent. As I write, Democrats face an incumbent whom they regard as corrupt and dangerous. He clings to power even though his supporters constitute a minority of the national electorate. The level of partisan acrimony is intense. The People’s Party in Pennsylvania demonstrated the advantages of building a big tent. It assembled a heterogeneous hodgepodge—former Whigs, disaffected Democrats, iron manufacturing and anthracite coal mining interests that clamored for tariff protection, those tired of being bullied by the South and the Slave Power, those worried about immigration, and those repelled by the Buchanan administration’s corruption. At stake ultimately, the North American insisted, was “the great principle of self-government”—“the right of the majority to govern.”[11]

In 1860 Republicans also decided fatefully to look beyond the cluster of familiar names and find a less celebrated candidate with potentially wider appeal. This winnowing process offers Democrats today a worthy model. They must find a candidate who can do two things: win an electoral college majority, and persuade the losers of the 2020 election to accept the outcome. The latter, we must remember, eluded their illustrious predecessor in 1860.


[1] For background and context, see Robert L. Bloom, “Morton McMichael’s North American,” Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography 77 (1953), 164-80; Arthur M. Lee, “Henry C. Carey and the Republican Tariff,” Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography 81 (1957), 280-302.

[2] James E. Harvey to Henry C. Carey, December 7, 1856, Edward Carey Gardiner Collection, Historical Society of Pennsylvania; William E. Gienapp, The Origins of the Republican Party, 1852-1856 (New York: Oxford University Press, 1987), 394-448 passim.

[3] Philadelphia North American, October 7, 1858; James L. Huston, The Panic of 1857 and the Coming of the Civil War (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1987), 137, 146-47, 155-56, 231.

[4] Philadelphia North American, June 16, 1858 (special supplement); “Independent,” June 17, 1858, in Philadelphia North American, June 18, 1858.

[5] Cong. Globe, 36th Cong., 1st Sess. (1860), 3020-21; William L. Langer, Political and Social Upheaval, 1832-1852 (New York: Harper and Row, 1969), 27, 32; Anne Kelly Knowles, Mastering Iron: The Struggle to Modernize an American Industry, 1800-1868 (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2013), 151-82.

[6] Michael F. Holt, The Election of 1860: “A Campaign Fraught with Consequences” (Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 2017); 88-89, 113-14; Jack Furniss, “Devolved Democracy: Federalism and the Party Politics of the Late Antebellum North,” Journal of the Civil War Era 9, no. 4 (December 2019), 546-68, esp. 553, 559.

[7] Alexander McClure to Abraham Lincoln, June 16, 1860, Lincoln Papers, Library of Congress.

[8] James E. Harvey to Abraham Lincoln, May 21, June 5, June 13, and June 25, 1860, Robert Todd Lincoln Collection of the Papers of Abraham Lincoln, Library of Congress. See Daniel W. Crofts, “James E. Harvey and the Secession Crisis,” Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography 103 (April 1979): 177-95.

[9] Philadelphia North American, May 28, 30, June 5, 22, 27, September 13, October 4, 6, 27, 30, and November 1 and 2, 1860.

[10] Russell F. Weigley, “The Border City in Civil War, 1854-1865,” in Philadelphia: A 300-Year History, ed. Russel F. Weigley (New York: W. W. Norton, 1982), 392, 414.

[11] Philadelphia North American, May 28, June 8, and June 28, 1860.

Daniel W. Crofts

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.

One Reply to “How to Build a Winning Coalition: What Today’s Democrats Can Learn from Pennsylvania’s Republicans in 1860”

  1. This is the most facile argument supporting a convention rejection of the likely largest vote getter Bernie Sanders I’ve heard yet, and I’ve heard a lot of em.

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