What Happens when a Major American Political Party Splits? In 1860 it was Civil War

The Capitol Insurrection and the clumsy second Trump impeachment effort are generating serious talk of splitting the Republican Party.

For instance, Reuters claims 120 Republicans, including elected and former elected officials, discussed plans for a new anti-Trump Party on a 5 February 2021 Zoom call. Reuters offers no details of the third party but participants want a party based on what they call “principled conservatism.” Predictably, they offer no definition of  “principled conservatism” beyond vague references to the Constitution and the rule of law.

Similarly, The Wall Street Journal claims former President Donald J. Trump (R-Florida) has discussed forming a third party with close associates. The Journal offers no details of the proposed organization. However, it claims Trump wants to call the group the Patriot Party. Notably, some former Trump advisors have denied The Journal’s claims; but the former president himself has not commented on a third party, CNN reports.

A MAGA Patriot Party has filed a “statement of organization” with the Federal Election Commission, WUS9 reports. However, WUSA claims the party has no connection to Trump or his Make America Great Again (MAGA) Committee. Moreover, the  Donald J. Trump for President (DJTFP) issued this statement:

“DJTFP did not authorize the filing of this Form 1, has not entered into any joint fundraising agreement to fundraise through MAGA Patriot Party National Committee, and has no knowledge of MAGA Patriot Party National Committee’s activities whatsoever. To be clear: DJTFP has no affiliation with MAGA Patriot Party National Committee, which is not authorized by Mr. Trump or DJTFP.”

Instead, the MAGA Patriot Party appears to be the work of a political operative named James Davis. Besides the MAGA Patriot Party, somebody is forming a Patriot Party in Georgia.

Thus, there is serious talk of forming a third party in America and breaking up the Grand Old Party (GOP). Therefore, we need to ask what happens when major political parties crack up?

How a Party Split led to Civil War: 1860

In 1860, a party split helped spark the Civil War. Interestingly, the party that split was the Democrats.

Frighteningly, some elements in the 1860 Democratic crack-up resemble those present in 2021. For example, there was a popular and controversial celebrity candidate, who was hated and loved by different segments of the party. There were also regional divides over race and the nature of American Democracy.

The major cause of the 1860 Democratic Split; however, was slavery. To elaborate, the Democrats came together in the 1820s as an uneasy alliance of rich Southern slaveowners, white farmers and frontiersmen, and city-dwelling immigrants.

Surprisingly, this alliance functioned well throughout the 1830s, 1840s, and 1850s. However, the compromise fell apart after the Mexican War and the conquest of enormous amounts of territory by US Armies.

The Democrat alliance functioned well while the Southern Slaveocracy and Northerners were settling different territories. During the Mexican War, however, US forces seized a territory both groups wanted: California.

U. S. Representative David Wilmot (D-Pennsylvania) began the Democratic split with his Wilmot Proviso in 1846. The Proviso was an amendment to a military appropriations bill that expanded the Northwest Ordinance of 1787 all territories conquered from Mexico.  The Northwest Ordinance banned slavery in all territories north of the Ohio River.

Every northern House Democrat voted for Wilmot’s Proviso. Every Southern House Democrat voted against it. Only Southerners in the US Senate kept the Proviso from becoming law. The Proviso launched a new movement the Free Soilers which would ultimately split the Democratic Party.

One result of the Wilmot Proviso was a conflict between Northern Free Soil Democrats and Southern slavers. In 1848, renegade Democrats even formed a Free Soil Party and ran former President Martin Van Buren (D-New York) as their presidential candidate.

The Compromise of 1850

After 1848, the Free Soil Conflict never abated despite several efforts at compromise. Interestingly, those efforts at compromise triggered the conflict that tore the Democratic Party apart.

The first solution, the Compromise of 1850 was the last act of the two superstars of the Democrats’ first rivals the Whigs. The superstars were U.S. Senators Henry Clay (W-Kentucky) and Daniel Webster (W-Massachusetts).

The 1850 Compromise was simple, one slave state Texas and one free state California entered the union. However, Southerners soon realized a cabal of Northern Whigs; aided by a Southern President Zachary Taylor (W-Louisiana), had cheated them.

By admitting California as a free state, the compromise forever blocked slavery from the Pacific Coast. Moreover, slaves and slave owners could never work California’s gold fields. Instead, the gold went to Northern miners and bankers.

Predictably, Southerners were livid. They lost the gold, the Pacific, and the chance for additional land in Mexico. Southerners had formed a disproportionate percentage of the U.S. Army that conquered Mexico, and they got little for their sacrifices.

The first result of the Compromise of 1850 was the implosion of the Whig Party. Southern Whigs fled to the Democrats, while many Northern Whigs turned on the Party.

Webster, in particular, fatally damaged the party’s Northern Chances with his Fugitive Slave Act. The Fugitive Slave Act forced Northern authorities to help Southern bounty hunters and federal marshals run down and capture escaped slaves. The law enraged many Northerners because they could now see slaves in chains in their communities.

On paper, the Democrats triumphed in 1852. Their chief rival was gone, and they had Congress and the White House. In reality, the Democratic Party was about to collapse because of the actions of its most prominent member.

Stephen A. Douglas, the man who nearly killed the Democratic Party

U.S. Senator Stephen A. Douglas (D-Illinois), the man known as the Little Giant, was a former country lawyer who once rode the legal circuit with Abraham Lincoln.

Douglas offered a simple solution to the Slavery/Free Soil conflict that could also make the Little Giant a lot of money. The solution was popular sovereignty Popular sovereignty is the belief that the white male population of a region had the power to decide whether to allow slavery.

In theory, popular sovereignty was a simple solution to a complex problem no patriotic American, or good Democrat, could object to. Douglas said let the people decide the issue.

In reality, popular sovereignty contained two fatal flaws that led to catastrophe. First, under popular sovereignty, the residents of a state or territory could ban or abolish slavery, something the Slave Power would never allow. Second, any faction that got control of a region’s government could allow Slavery.

Douglas put his popular sovereignty to the test in the Kansas Nebraska Act. Under the Act, the people of the Kansas Territory would decide whether to allow slavery. Geography and recent history turned popular sovereignty into a bloodbath and a rehearsal for the Civil War.

In the 1850s, Kansas had only one attraction for white Americans, its strategic location. Kansas and Nebraska contained the probable routes for any transcontinental railroad linking California’s goldfields and New York City.

The central (later Union Pacific) route followed the Platte River Valley through Nebraska. The Southern route (the 20th Century Santa Fe railroad) ran through Kansas and Colorado’s Arkansas River valley, Colorado was part of Kansas in the 1850s.

Douglas hoped to profit because the probable eastern terminus of both routes was Chicago. The Little Giant owned vast tracts of land in the Windy City and hoped to increase its value.

Douglas’s probable hope was that free Northerners would settle Kansas, which was not cotton land. Instead, all hell broke loose when Southerners realized they could control the route to California by seizing Kansas.

Bleeding Kansas

The result was Bleeding Kansas, a guerrilla war between rival Southern and Northern settlers. Southern mercenaries and thugs, the so-called Border Ruffians who had the support of Missouri’s state government, made the situation worse by terrorizing free settlers.

The Southerners’ efforts to suppress Northern Settlers in Kansas and organize a slave state enraged free soil Democrats. Many Free Soilers; who had viewed Douglas as one of their own, now thought of the Little Giant as a traitor. President Franklin Pierce (D-New Hampshire) made the situation worse by offering federal support to the slave forces in Kansas.

One result of the Kansas-Nebraska Act was widespread distrust of the party leadership among rank-and-file Democrats. Many Free Soil Democrats left the party for a new political entity, the Republicans. Unlike the Democrats, the Republicans were staunchly Free-Soil.

Douglas found himself isolated in the Democratic Party and booed in his adopted hometown of Chicago. Chicago was a free-soil city, and its residents hated the Kansas-Nebraska Act.

In 1854, Douglas hoped the Kansas-Nebraska Act could take him to the Democratic nomination and the White House in 1856. Instead, Democrats rejected Douglas in favor of Southern sympathizer James Buchanan (D-Pennsylvania). Incredibly, the ever-slippery Douglas flirted with running on the Republican ticket before realizing that the Republicans wanted nothing to do with him.

As President Buchanan tried to destroy Douglas by denying patronage (government jobs) to the Little Giant and his followers. Instead, Buchanan filled his cabinet with slaveocrats.

Douglas’s last act

After turning the North against him, Douglas had one more destructive act to perform. He would turn the South against him and break the Democratic Party in two.

By 1858, the once-all-powerful Douglas had to fight for his life on his home turf of Illinois. Douglas’s old lawyer friend Abraham Lincoln, a Whig turned Republican, ran for the Little Giant’s U.S. Senate seat.

Lincoln, a shrewd strategist, laid a trap for Douglas. Abe challenged the Little Giant to a series of debates about slavery. Thus, Douglas would have to explain his views to the press, the voters, and posterity.

In the resulting Lincoln-Douglas Debates, the Little Giant had to explain his position on slavery to anti-slavery northern audiences. The telegraph and mass-circulation newspapers meant the debates attracted a national audience. Reporters could relay the debates to hundreds of thousands of newspaper readers nationwide.

The problem for Douglas was that the positions he offered offended both sides of the slave debate. To Southerners, Douglas’s popular sovereignty sounded like an attack on slavery. To Northerners, popular sovereignty sounded like a defense of slavery.

Douglas ultimately won the election because Democrats controlled the state legislature which appointed Senators. However, Douglas lost the debates because he sounded like a hypocrite.

Douglas ultimately won the election because Democrats controlled the state legislature which appointed Senators. However, Douglas lost the debates because he sounded like a hypocrite.

Newspaper coverage of the debates meant that Douglas, the supposed champion of slavery, was now hated throughout the South. The debates sowed the seeds of catastrophe in 1860.

The Great Democratic Breakup of 1860

As 1860 began, the Democrats had a problem familiar to Republicans today. The most popular man in the party and the party’s probable presidential nominee, Stephen A. Douglas, was the most hated man in the country.

In the North, tens of thousands of Free-Soil Democrats hated Douglas so much they were ready to vote Republican. In the South, tens of thousands of Democrats were ready to vote for anybody but Douglas. Unfortunately, Douglas was the probable Democratic nominee.

They made the situation worse by holding the 1860 Democratic Convention in Charleston, South Carolina. South Carolina was the home of the Fire Eaters, rabid pro slavery fanatics who were preaching secession – leaving the Union. Obviously, Douglas; the most visible promoter of compromise between North and South had few admirers in South Carolina.

The Democratic Convention collapsed when delegates could not agree on a candidate. Eventually, the Douglas Democrats walked out, leaving the Southerners free to nominate Vice President John C. Breckinridge (D-Kentucky) for president.

The Douglas forces regrouped in Baltimore, Maryland, and held their own Democratic convention. Predictably, that convention nominated Douglas for president.

Two Democratic Parties, one Election

Thus, there were two Democrats on the presidential ballot in 1860. Worse, there were two Democratic Parties, each claiming to be the true Democratic Party.

Hatred for Douglas ran high in the South. Future Confederate President Jefferson Davis (D-Mississippi) wrote that he wanted to hang a presidential nominee. The nominee Davis was writing about was Douglas, not Lincoln.

In the election of 1860, Douglas won just 12 Electoral College Votes and carried one state Missouri. Breckenridge carried 12 states and won 72 Electoral College votes. Douglas lost every state in the South despite campaigning there.

The winning cabinet Abraham Lincoln won 180 electoral college votes and carried 17 states. Southerners were so horrified by a Republican presidency that they began leaving the union and formed the Confederacy.

Sadly, had Douglas won, succession could have come, because the Little Giant was the one man Southerners hated more than Lincoln. The relationship between North and South was so toxic, southerners could accept no Northerner in the White House.

Thus, a split in a major political party paved the way for Civil War. Stephen A. Douglas died on 3 June 1861, less than a year after his humiliating presidential defeat.

By the time of his death, Douglas had become a staunch unionist who was urging his friend Abraham Lincoln to raise an army of several hundred thousand men and destroy the South and the Slave Power. Douglas, the former champion of the South, was now one of its deadliest enemies.

Lincoln became one of the Greatest Presidents in American history. John C. Breckinridge became a Confederate general.

By committing themselves to the cult of Douglas, the Democrats doomed their party to split and defeat. The hero of the 1850s became the liability of 1860 and the architect of a debacle.

Hence, in 1860, a party crackup driven by an egotistical celebrity politician (Douglas) helped trigger Civil War. I have to wonder if America will repeat that history.