John Sherman’s Struggle to Preserve Democracy: How 1860 Connects to 2020

John Sherman’s Struggle to Preserve Democracy: How 1860 Connects to 2020

This is not the first time in American history when democratic governance appeared to be under assault. In the years before the Civil War, just as today, minority rule was the norm. White Southerners dominated the Democratic Party, and the Democratic Party dominated the federal government. In this way, what Republicans derisively dubbed the “Slave Power”—a small minority of aristocratic slaveholders—managed to maintain its grip in a country that increasingly viewed slavery as an obstacle to national progress. But in 1860, a juncture point was reached. Republicans appeared ready to break the Democratic stranglehold. And that is what brought John Sherman to Philadelphia.

Photograph of John Sherman, c. 1855-1865, from the Brady-Handy Photograph Collection. Courtesy of the Library of Congress.

A high-profile member of the U.S. House from Ohio, Sherman arrived at Philadelphia’s National Hall on Wednesday evening, September 12, 1860. He was escorted to the stage by uniformed “Republican Invincibles” who marched in “military order” and held aloft “four silken banners” as the band played “Hail Columbia.” A huge throng “rapturously” greeted the visitor and responded to his speech with “almost deafening” shouts and applause. It was “a reception we have seldom seen accorded to any politician,” reported the Philadelphia Press.[1]

Sherman’s rock-star status resulted in part from an epic two-month brawl the previous winter when Republicans attempted to make him Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives.[2] That contest, he recalled, unfolded amid “wild confusion” as desperate Southerners tried to block him. He finally gave way to a different Republican, who eked out just enough support to prevail. But it had been a close call. “You know very well,” Sherman reminded the crowd, “that nothing but the extreme moderation, prudent forbearance, and good temper of the Republican party, saved the country from scenes that not only would have been disgraceful, but would have endangered the existence of the Government itself.” If potential disunionists could obstruct the selection of “an officer infinitely inferior in dignity and importance to the President,” it was imperative that a decisive popular vote determine the outcome of the upcoming presidential election.[3]

American voters faced three actual choices, Sherman insisted. Only the Republican candidate, Abraham Lincoln, could win an electoral college majority “by the direct vote of the people.” None of Lincoln’s three rivals—Northern Democrat Stephen A. Douglas, Southern Democrat John C. Breckinridge, or Constitutional Unionist John Bell—had any comparable hope. If Lincoln failed to secure an electoral college majority, the next president either would be selected by the U.S. House, through “trade and barter” to cobble together “an unnatural combination of hostile elements,” or, more likely, by the Democratic-dominated U.S. Senate, which would perpetuate the disgraced Buchanan administration and keep the South in power. Rule-or-ruin Southerners who had threatened to “break up the Union” if they did not get their own way, Sherman warned, would dictate the Senate outcome.[4]

It was widely assumed that Pennsylvania held the key to the election. Two years before, Republicans there had adopted the “People’s Party” label and rode the protective tariff issue to victory.[5] If they could duplicate this success, their electoral college majority would be within reach. But were they to fall short, a paralyzing deadlock would result, removed from the will of the people. A ballot for Lincoln offered the “one line of safety,” Sherman insisted, for voters who cared about democratic governance.

This humorous cartoon of Lincoln the Railsplitter appeared in Vanity Fair, September 1, 1860. The author thanks Jack Furniss for providing a copy.

Was there any danger that Southerners might follow through on their disunion threats if Lincoln were elected? Sherman thought not. He surmised that Southern malcontents were bluffing. Four years of a Republican administration would convince them that “all we wish is to preserve our own rights,” not to disturb theirs. Republicans, like the Founding Fathers, would exclude slavery from the free states and the territories, but they would not interfere with it in states where it already existed. A Republican president’s fair dealing would expose as baseless the scare-mongering that had been “disseminated through the Southern States.” Sherman’s older brother, William Tecumseh Sherman, remained an obscure schoolmaster as of 1860.[6]

Our situation today offers parallels to 1860. Then as now, an entrenched but shrinking minority exercises vast power. Today’s Republican party, writes Ezra Klein, founder of the Vox website, “has turned itself into a vehicle for whiter, older, more Christian and more rural voters,” many of whom harbor “apocalyptic” fears about losing the next election. Like John Sherman, Klein thinks more democracy is the antidote to our current impasse. He finds the fears of today’s Republicans as farfetched as the fears of Southern Democrats in 1860. But he knows that today’s two parties have become so unlike that they tend to see the worst in each other. Democrats have become “more diverse, urban, young and secular.” They and Republicans no longer share the same sources of information and their ideological outlooks have become starkly juxtaposed.[7]

As matters now stand, Klein concludes, the Republican Party “sees deepening democracy as a threat to its future.” It likely will “use the power it holds to block any moves in that direction.” It may continue to win the presidency “despite rarely winning the popular vote” and may continue to control the Senate and sometimes the House “despite rarely winning more votes than the Democrats.” Brass-knuckled Republican dominance of the federal judiciary and the Supreme Court will “buttress a system of partisan gerrymandering, pro-corporate campaign finance laws, strict voter identification requirements and anti-union legislation that further weakens Democrats’ electoral performance.” What looms, according to Klein, is “a legitimacy crisis that could threaten the very foundation of our political system.”[8]

Something similar came to a head in 1860. Voters in the free states pushed back against the South’s disproportionate power. Republican gains terrified white Southern Democrats, whose closed system of information depicted the “Black Republican” Lincoln as John Brown in disguise and saw his victory as a deadly menace. But Republicans scoffed at the panic in the South. They wanted to win an election and drive the Democrats from office, not trigger a war. They hoped white Southerners eventually would decide that free labor was more productive than slave labor, but they had no abolition blueprint and no inclination to seek revolutionary change. They refused to take seriously Southern threats “to break up the Union rather than accept a Republican president.”[9]

We must hope that today’s American political system isn’t comparably brittle. Nobody wants the violent sequel that followed the 1860 election. Today’s Democrats, Klein suggests, should keep following the blueprint that served them well in 2018. By appealing to voters who remain in the middle, Democrats will increase their chances of winning and may also deflate the sky-is-falling hysteria that afflicts so many of our fellow citizens. The struggles to preserve democracy—and to restore “dignity and decency” to the White House, in Amy Klobuchar’s words—appear certain to make the now unfolding presidential contest one of the most hard-fought and fateful in our history.


[1] Philadelphia Press, September 13, 1860.

[2] David M. Potter, The Impending Crisis, 1846-1861, completed and edited by Don E. Fehrenbacher (New York: Harper and Row, 1976), 385-91; Roy Franklin Nichols, The Disruption of American Democracy (New York: Macmillan, 1948), 271-76.

[3] Philadelphia Press, September 13, 1860.

[4] The one-state, one-vote system specified by the Constitution portended a House stalemate. The Senate then would probably have made Oregon Senator Joseph Lane the acting president. Lane, a Buchanan administration stalwart, was the vice-presidential candidate on the ticket fielded by Southern Democrats. See Potter, Impending Crisis, 436-38.

[5] U.S. railroad construction had boomed during the mid-1850s, creating heavy demand for Pennsylvania’s iron and anthracite coal. But a sharp economic reversal started in late 1857 and fell with particular severity on Pennsylvania, leaving many workingmen destitute. House Republicans voted as a solid bloc in 1860 to raise tariff rates on imported iron, but their bill was stifled by free-trade Senate Democrats. “Honest Abe,” promised one of Sherman’s House colleagues, would “relight the fires of your furnaces and revive the music of your forges.” Philadelphia Press, September 10, 1860. The speaker was Ohio’s Thomas Corwin.

[6] Philadelphia Press, September 13, 1860; John F. Marszalek, Sherman: A Soldier’s Passion for Order (Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1993), 123-39.

[7] Ezra Klein, “Why Democrats Still Have to Appeal to the Center, but Republicans Don’t,” New York Times Sunday Review, January 26, 2020,

[8] Klein’s influential essay, quoted here, summarizes his book: Ezra Klein, Why We’re Polarized (New York: Avid Reader Press, 2020).

[9] The definitive study of the Republican Party’s beginnings is William E. Gienapp, The Origins of the Republican Party, 1852-1856 (New York: Oxford University Press, 1987). The interpretation here of Republican intentions reflects Michael F. Holt, The Political Crisis of the 1850s (New York: Wiley, 1978), 216-17, and Michael F. Holt, The Election of 1860: “A Campaign Fraught with Consequences” (Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 2017), 162.

Daniel W. Crofts

Daniel W. Crofts, Professor Emeritus of History at The College of New Jersey, has written extensively about the North-South political crisis that culminated in secession and Civil War. He was awarded the University of Virginia's Bobbie and John Nau Book Prize for his 2016 volume, Lincoln and the Politics of Slavery: The Other Thirteenth Amendment and the Struggle to Save the Union (University of North Carolina Press).

One Reply to “John Sherman’s Struggle to Preserve Democracy: How 1860 Connects to 2020”

  1. This is very nicely done, and much to the point–particularly [1] the warning that today’s Republicans might not go gently into that good night if Trump loses the election; and [2] the suggestion that whether or not Republicans lose the election they’ll still be able to infect/further subvert “normative” democratic processes [through voter suppression etc.] using means first rehearsed in reaction to Reconstruction–this last being my extrapolation, not the author’s. Good show!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.