The Scary Parallels Between 2016 and 1860
Rebecca Edwards professor of history on the Eloise Ellery Chair at Vassar College.
A Maryland driver advocates violence against Hillary Clinton (Baltimore Sun)
Has there ever been an election like this? One in which opponents called for a candidate’s assassination, swore they would “never permit” the winner’s inauguration, and urged that their allies grab a “shot gun or pistol” and prepare for “revolution”?
Actually, yes: the candidate was Abraham Lincoln, and parallels with 1860 illuminate our current democratic crisis.
When Lincoln became the first Republican to win the White House, the United States was a “white man’s country,” as many a politician proclaimed. They literally meant man as well as white. Property restrictions on the franchise had fallen away in the 1820s and 1830s; after reaching age 21, almost all white men could vote. This American system of “manhood suffrage” endured almost a century before a national women’s suffrage amendment passed in 1920. In this, the United States differed starkly from most other industrialized nations. England, for example, retained property restrictions on men’s ballots until 1918. The act that enfranchised British women gave the vote to five million non-propertied men at the same time.
In Lincoln’s election, Democrats implicated both race and gender in their call to protect “manhood rights” from federal intrusion. They opposed, of course, the Republican Party’s effort to limit slavery in newly acquired federal territories—a future threat to slaveholding interests. Meanwhile, also, five northern states had extended “manhood suffrage” to African Americans. Lincoln’s fiercest opponents, South and North, denounced the spectacle of black men voting and argued that any such participation negated the results. As the New York Herald warned, the Republican Party’s rise cast “doubt of the right of the white man to rule.”
Secessionists’ virulent reaction precipitated the Civil War, over 700,000 deaths, and Emancipation—a reminder that extreme challenges to the political system can bring both catastrophe and revolutionary change. During Reconstruction, amid struggles to restore white men’s rule, Republican leaders in the South were beaten, shot, hung, and even in one case beheaded. Democrats’ armed seizure of state governments was accompanied by a broad, effective disinformation campaign, blaming violence on the expansion of democracy itself. That myth endures: a widely used AP textbook still depicts Southern Reconstruction governments as “bayonet-backed regimes,” rather than governments elected by multiracial coalitions of voters. It also glosses over the violence used to oust them, informing students merely that after Union troops left, power “passed back into the hands of white Redeemers.”
Elites bought the myth, concluding that universal male suffrage had been a mistake. It meant a “government of ignorance and vice,” as Charles Francis Adams Jr. claimed, if those who could vote included a “Celtic [Irish] proletariat on the Atlantic coast, an African proletariat on the shores of the Gulf, and a Chinese proletariat on the Pacific.” Self-styled reformers won passage of onerous new literacy requirements and registration hurdles to ensure that the “best men” ruled. Those restrictions endured through the so-called Progressive Era and the New Deal, restricting the scope and impact of twentieth-century social welfare initiatives. Many remain stubbornly in place today, dampening voter registration and participation.
Though reactionaries no longer denounce the power of the “Celtic proletariat,” we have yet to vanquish the legacy of white men’s democracy—the American political system’s long history of racial disfranchisement, and also its century-long exclusion of women. The political uses of petty patriarchy are evident in Donald Trump, Jr.’s circulation of a map showing “Trump momentum,” which turned out to illustrate the results of polling only male voters. On one level that’s fantasy; on another it’s history. The mindset that men’s votes are the ones that matter was, for generations, writ in law. Among many remarkable challenges to that order is the likely double whammy of a Black president and a consecutive white woman chief executive—with Michelle Obama’s eloquence suggesting that we need not wait much longer for a woman of color to lead.
The implications of this revolutionary moment are as yet unclear. In 2016, with the nation winding down major conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq and U.S. special forces fighting in Mosul, it’s worth remembering that we vote in the shadow of war. The aftermath of almost every past American war has brought expanded citizenship and voting rights, from the Constitutional amendments of the post-Civil War years to the most recent one, in 1971, lowering the voting age to eighteen.
Yet, even amid the escalating conflict of 1860, no presidential candidate called for anyone’s assassination or claimed large-scale voting fraud. Then it was stand-ins—hotheaded congressmen, intemperate editors—who threatened to “hang Republicans high” and who, in response to Lincoln’s election, tried to secede from America’s democratic project. Of such men, one journalist observed, “it seems to be their endeavor . . . to browbeat and bully into silence those whom they cannot persuade to go with them.” Another wrote his brother from Alabama, “The people is apparently gone crazy. I . . . have no idea what might be the end of it.” Just so.