At first I hesitated to write this post. The more I explored this topic, the more parallels between the past and our current situation became uncomfortably clear, perhaps enough to discourage discussion. However, after some thought I changed my mind; history is our collective story, and it needs to be shared regardless of how uncomfortable or unpleasant it may be. Before we begin, though, I will give this caveat: this post is not meant to, and does not attempt to, offer a commentary on the current American political climate, nor is it meant to endorse or defame any candidate, political personality, or group of voters.
The presidential of election of 1860 was one of the fiercest in the America’s history. It witnessed four contenders compete for the highest office in the land, and, perhaps more importantly, each had a viable shot, backed by significant portions of the population. This competition was especially intense in the city of Frederick, Maryland, the focus of this Mid-Maryland Magnified.
Part of the fervor stemmed from what was at stake. Some Southern states had already declared they might secede if the nation chose a president with an ideology that potentially threatened the Southern way of life. With the unity of the country at risk, the largest issues in each platform were the connected controversies of slavery, economics, and states’ rights.
In the weeks leading up to the election, the citizens of Frederick had to decide which candidate’s ideology could best maintain order. John Bell represented a status quo choice, as he intended to peacefully resolve political division, defend the Constitution, and maintain Southern rights without alienating the North. John C. Breckinridge, on the other hand, promised to actively protect the South’s slave system and economic model, no matter how the North would react. Stephen Douglas planned to abide by popular sovereignty, letting the states resolve the slavery question for themselves. In Frederick, Abraham Lincoln was labeled an extremist and violator of the Constitution because he desired to restrict slavery from spreading farther to the west.
The citizens of Frederick were strongly unionist and split between support for the North and the South. Consequently, they were similarly split between support for Bell and Breckinridge, both of whom, they believed, had the best chance of protecting Southern rights while preserving the Union. That debate featured prominently in their local news during the fall and early winter of 1860.
October began with the usual punditry of an election year. The Belles Lettres Association published an announcement in the Frederick Examiner (the local pro-North, pro-Bell newspaper), inviting citizens to watch a debate over whether this election spelled the end of the nation as they knew it. Asking, “Do the signs of the times portend a dissolution of the Union?” it surely turned some heads.
Of course, there was also the usual electoral mudslinging, highlighted in an Examiner editorial on October 10. The editors of the Republican Citizen (the local pro-South, pro-Breckinridge paper that frequently clashed with the Examiner) repeatedly accused John Bell of being a Know-Nothing (fighting words in 1860), so a local Bell supporter wrote to the Examiner to fire back:
“But what is Mr. Breckinridge? Is he a Jesuit? or is he only the candidate and tool of that secret brotherhood? His Electoral ticket in this State raises a rather strong suspicion that he is the one or the other. He has on his ticket as Electors three Roman Catholics out of right [sic] Electors, and he has the Jesuit editor of the Citizen to advocate their election. So, if Mr. Bell is a Know Nothing, Mr. Breckinridge is a Jesuit, and of the two, I think the people would rather trust the Government to the management of an American, than to the Hierarchy of a foreign Church.”
With anti-Catholic sentiment rampant in the 1860s, these were also fighting words. It didn’t matter that the supporter’s claims were false, nor did it matter that Bell, who disapproved of anti-Catholic political stances, would have likely repudiated his supporter’s language.
Some Frederick citizens saw the contentious political climate as an opportunity to make a profit. One week after the anti-Breckinridge letter appeared in the Examiner, two local merchants advertised their business in a political context: “THE UNION Must be Preserved. If you wish to preserve your health, call at Tyler & Steiner’s and purchase your Boots Shoes and Gaiters, all of our own manufacture and warranted the best in Market.” Despite having nothing to do with footwear, the headline was identical to the political tirades that appeared in the paper, and it certainly would have grabbed a reader’s attention.
With the arrival of November, things got ugly. Around Election Day, the Examiner leveled accusations that the election was potentially rigged:
“SHAMEFUL FRAUD. We are credibly informed, that election tickets, purporting to be Bell and Everett tickets, but containing the names of the Black Republican [read: Republican Party] Electors, have been put in circulation. . . . The attempt shows the friends of the Union what they have to contend against; they have enemies on all hands, and unusual vigilance is necessary to guard against the frauds, falsehoods, and forgeries, that may be attempted in various forms.”
Clearly, it was a fiercely partisan season. On the same day it published its allegations of ballot-tampering, the Examiner called upon all patriotic individuals to save the nation and hinted again that the election was being rigged: “UNION MEN!! MINUTE MEN!! Stand up for YOUR RIGHTS to-day! Stand at the Polls and see FAIR PLAY! Stand to your Posts, and take care you are not cheated. There’s FOUL PLAY at Work, and every lover of his Country must do his whole duty, to save the Union!”
And, of course, this election wasn’t exempt from the “if you’re not with us, you’re against us” mentality. Before Election Day, the Republican Citizen declared that anyone who wasn’t for Breckinridge was against democracy. The Examiner wouldn’t let that stand, arguing that “no honest man can claim that the cause of the Union can be promoted by voting for Breckinridge and Lane. . . . Are our countrymen prepared to follow the lead of these disunionists; if yes, let them vote for Breckinridge and Lane, if no, LET THEM VOTE FOR BELL AND EVERETT.”
As they say, the rest is history. The citizens of Frederick cast their ballots on Tuesday, November 6. Of the nearly 7,400 votes, Bell received over 3,600 and Breckinridge cleared 3,000. Lincoln barely received 100 votes, but he wouldn’t need them because his victories in the Northern states won him the election.
Soon, South Carolina and Alabama threatened to secede from the Union. Here, too, Frederick citizens had something to say. Jacob Engelbrecht, a local tailor and ardent Northern-sympathizing unionist, wrote in his diary, “I say go as quick as you please. [You] have been domineering long enough, the sooner [you] go, the better for the peace & quiet of our country.” When South Carolina made good on its threats five days before Christmas, Engelbrecht again had something to say: “Thank you Gentlemen, you have been domineering long enough and I do hope you will stay out of the Union.”
Although the election was over and the year had nearly concluded, the political discord was only beginning. Discussion and debate continued in Frederick County into the spring of 1861. However, any hope of reconciliation ended in April, when the nation—divided both politically and physically—descended into war.
- Jacob Engelbrecht. The Diary of Jacob Engelbrecht, volume 2. The Historical Society of Frederick County, n.d.
- Frederick Examiner, available through Crossroads of War’s historical newspaper archive. All images used here have been retrieved from there.
- Rebecca Miller. “Confederate Sentiment in Frederick County, Maryland, 1861-1862.” Mid-Maryland History: Conflict, Growth and Change. The History Press, 2008.
- Michael A. Powell. “‘With Her Southern Sisters.’” Mid-Maryland: A Crossroads of History, volume 1. The History Press, 2005.