Civil fragmentation: Fox and MSNBC in 1860

We hear a lot about the fragmentation of civil discourse in the 21st century because of web sites and networks devoted to specific viewpoints; a very similar situation obtained in 1860, with newspapers playing the roles of Fox News and MSNBC.

Horace Greeley, 1872 Horace Greeley

The New York Tribune was a fervently Republican paper, published by Horace “Go West, Young Man” Greeley. The paper made no effort to hide its contempt for Democrats, particularly the Douglas faction, which was the only part expected to garner Northern votes.

The New York Tribune of August 18, 1860 says that New York’s “union” ticket will send all votes to Douglas, so Bell and Everett are “sold!” The Syracuse Democratic Convention (that’s the Douglas faction, referred to in the Tribune as “soft”) presented some odd bedfellows — “Barnburners” such as Dix, who had been firmly antislavery in 1848, now support Douglas over Lincoln because they regard the Republicans as a “sectional” party, and fear that election of Lincoln will precipitate secession of the South. As the Tribune correctly notes, Douglas has always favored popular sovereignty, and the Douglas faction’s platform calls for non-interference by the Federal government in slavery issues. As I’ve noted earlier, Dix was a Free-Soil man from way back, but clearly his devotion to the Union led him to a difficult compromise in 1860. The Tribune disdains the apparent perfidy of the old Barnburners now supporting Douglas. Further, it notes that Bell’s Union party, anxious to form an anti-Lincoln coalition, appears to have abandoned any hope of electing its own candidate.

They call the Syracuse ticket a Union ticket – that means united for Douglas. Bell and Everett are not even promised any of its votes, no matter what may be the general result of the election. They are all to go for Douglas, under all circumstances. Bell and Everett are sold!

The New York Times although not as fiercely partisan as the Tribune, also leaned Republican. The Times also denigrates the Syracuse convention, with almost the same words:

The Convention yesterday put in nomination an electoral ticket, — giving the Americans some half-dozen members, — and adopted a resolution inviting the American Committee with which it had been in consultation, to take seats upon the floor. These were all the concessions made, — and they were all that were needed. The fact is, the leaders of this American movement have been shivering for a month lest no door should be opened for their admission into the Democratic wigwam. They lost no time in availing themselves of the crevice at Syracuse, and are now snugly stowed away under hatches, where they will probably remain until the election is over.

We shall probably have now no Bell and Everett Electoral ticket in this State. These gentlemen have been deliberately sold, out by their friends.

(New York Times, August 17, 1860)

Douglas broke with tradition by campaigning actively in the presidential election of 1860; when it became clear he had no chance to win, he traveled North and South attempting to sway public opinion toward compromise to preserve the Union. Potter, in The Impending Crisis, describes this as a noble effort to transcend party and save the country. The Tribune was more suspicious. They first quote the New York Times correspondent from the previous day, who says that Douglas’ aim is to prevent the election of Breckinridge:

His principal aim is to break down the Disunion Party. He regards them as the enemies of the country, and as certain to embroil it in turmoil and confusion unless they are shorn of their power by the people. I do not believe he has any hope of his own election, and am quite sure that he would prefer LINCOLN’s success to any result which should carry BRECKINRIDGE into the House as one of the three highest candidates, and thus give the Senate a chance of electing LANE. He has confined his canvass thus far to those States which are so thoroughly Republican that he could not expect to affect their vote. He does not hesitate openly and emphatically to denounce the attempted coalition in Pennsylvania, and he proceeds, in the course of a week or two, to Virginia, where he will throw down the glove to the Disunionists, and open the campaign on their own ground. In that part of his canvass I, for one, most heartily wish him success.

(New York Times, 8/16/1860)

The Tribune argues that this interpretation of Douglas’ actions is invalid, because a) four years ago the secessionist deep South liked him, and b) extremists such as the editors of the Atlanta Confederacy support him. However, their excerpt from that Southern paper doesn’t support the Tribune’s interpretation.

The election of Lincoln is an overt act itself; for the reason that, if elected, it will be for the express and avowed purpose of destroying the institution of Slavery. His administration would doubtless, at its inception , savor of conservatism. It would present the soporific charm of the serpent. But slowly and by degrees, like the boa-constrictor, he would entwine his damnable heresies around our institutions, and when once in his grasp the last spark of vitality would be extinguished. Let the South place her heel upon the head of this huge black serpent of the North, and crush him before he gets his slimy coil about us.

The Breckinridge party of the South desire the election of Lincoln, because they well know that it will dissolve this Union of States. They deny that this is their object, yet they counsel the support of Mr. Breckinridge, for the purpose of dividing the Democratic party and insuring the election of Lincoln. It is an adroit scheme of the Disunionists, and unless arrested will as surely destroy the Union as time lasts. Every vote given to Breckinridge helps Lincoln, by weakening Douglas, who is his strongest competitor.

(Atlanta Confederacy, quoted in the New York Tribune, 8/17/1860)

This editorial from Atlanta actually supports the New York Times’ correspondent, and the interpretation favored by Potter. It does appear that Douglas, certain that he wouldn’t win, was trying to do whatever he could to prevent civil war.

Meanwhile, a correspondent to the New York Times from Maryland reports that rumors were flying that Breckinridge, fearful of dividing the Democratic vote and causing Lincoln to be elected, was going to withdraw from the race. On the other hand, the Times also reports that Breckinridge himself denied such rumors..

All parties seem to be convinced the others are lying about their aims. The Douglas Democrats think the Breckinridge Democrats want secession, though they deny it. The Republicans (or at least Horace Greeley and his influential Tribune) think that Douglas wants secession, or has some deep game to get himself elected by throwing the election into the House. The South, whether for Douglas, Bell, or Breckinridge, are convinced Lincoln will act to abolish slavery in the states, though Lincoln says he can’t and won’t. All this suspicion is exacerbated by the fact that Lincoln isn’t even on the ticket in the Southern states, and people in the South have no direct knowledge of what he stands for. People in the North have almost as little opportunity to hear from people in the South, as there are no national news organs.

What happens when there is no communication between political groups, so that public discourse is almost entirely within each group, and is dominated by suspicion and hostility toward the others?

This entry was posted in Abraham Lincoln, Causes of the war, John Bell, John C. Breckinridge, Stephen A. Douglas. Bookmark the permalink.

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