Bell and Breckinridge: Quien es mas pro-slavery?

John Bell of Tennessee John Bell

The New York Times published a card from one of the Bell electors from Georgia:

Mr. B.H. HILL, one of the electors at large on the Bell and Everett Ticket for Georgia, in a card just published, gives the following reasons why every “country-loving, national man,” should vote for Mr. BELL:

”I repeat, we have four candidates in the field, and of these JOHN BELL is the only candidate, who has always voted directly against both the Wilmot Proviso and squatter sovereignty!

JOHN BELL is the only candidate who has voted directly in favor of protection!

JOHN BELL is the only candidate who has declared that Slavery was the great element of our prosperity as a nation, and was right according to the laws of God and nature!

JOHN BELL is the only candidate who has declared that humanity to the slave, no less than justice to the master, required the diffusion and extension of Slavery.

What excuse shall a Southern man render his conscience and his country for refusing to vote for JOHN BELL?”

Mr. HILL, it will be seen, is not arguing for Northern readers.

It is easy to imagine that the Constitutional Union party, since it took no official stand on the question of slavery in the territories, was anti-slavery and Unionist, while the Breckinridge Democrats were pro-slavery and secessionist. The truth is more complex.

The roots of the Constitutional Union (CU) party were mainly in the Whigs, and in the American (or Know-Nothing) party that emerged from the demise of the Whigs. The Constitutional Union party was not associated with slavery in the North, although it was not abolitionist either. In the South, the only way to win political power was to support slavery, though, and the Constitutional Union party was adept at painting itself as slavery’s true champion. The Democrats had a problem in the South, due to Douglas’ perceived perfidy in rejecting the Lecompton constitution for Kansas and supporting popular (“squatter”) sovereignty over the Dred Scott formulation. In an article in the Journal of Southern History, John Mering notes that in 1859, Tennessee and Georgia CU adherents argued that “members of the same party as Stephen A. Douglas must be antislavery at heart”1. CUs frequently claimed that Douglas was an abolitionist, in fact. Even after the party split in 1860, with the strongly pro-slavery Breckinridge faction of the party dominant in the South, the taint of Douglas’ compromises with the North was difficult for the Democrats to eradicate. In Missouri, the Douglas faction retained control of the state Democratic party, inviting continued accusations of abolitionism against the Democrats.

Thus the two dominant parties in most of the South, the Breckinridge Democrats and the Constitutional Unionists, were in fact both pro-slavery, and made concerted efforts to get that message out, as the card above attests. Since slavery was not really an issue dividing them, each also accused the other of being secessionist. The general feeling appears to have been that secession would be difficult if not disastrous, so each party found it advantageous to claim that a vote for the other would split the Union. Most commonly, each argued that only it could win the election, keeping Lincoln from winning. Both parties tacitly agreed that a Lincoln victory was likely to lead to secession, so the only way to keep the Union together was to concentrate Southern votes against him. In the end, despite their Unionist proclamations, both Breckinridge in Kentucky and Bell in Tennessee would wind up supporting secession after Lincoln’s election and the secession of the lower South1.

1Mering, John V. 1977. The slave-state constitutional unionists and the politics of consensus. The Journal of Southern History 43(3):395-410.

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