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69 3 A Forlorn Hope Interpreting the Breckinridge Campaign as a Matter of Honor A. James Fuller The campaign of John C. Breckinridge, the Southern Democratic candidate for president, remains one of the most puzzling aspects of the election of 1860. Why did the vice president of the United States, a young man with a bright political career and future, choose to accept the nomination of the Southern Democrats, splitting his party and almost certainly ensuring its defeat in the presidential election? What did the Southern Democrats (and some Northerners) hope to achieve in supporting Breckinridge ? It seemed unlikely that Breckinridge could win the election. He himself admitted as much when he told Mrs. Jefferson Davis, “I trust I have the courage to lead a forlorn hope.”1 So why did he run? Historians remain divided but offer several different interpretations of the Breckinridge campaign. One traditional argument holds that Breckinridge and his supporters hoped to win by ensuring that the election would be thrown into the House of Representatives, where Democratic dominance would deliver him the presidency. Related to this approach is the idea of “fusion,” wherein the three main opponents of Abraham Lincoln would agree to instruct their electors in the various states to cast their votes in such a way as to deny the Republican a majority and send the election to the House. Another interpretation sees the Southern Democratic campaign as aimed at forcing Stephen A. Douglas to withdraw and uniting the entire party behind a compromise candidate. A more sinister motive is seen in the argument that Southern fire-eaters hoped to divide the Democrat party in hopes of electing Lincoln in order to bring about secession and achieve their goal of a Southern Confederacy. Fuller text.indb 69 1/15/13 2:55 PM 70 · The Election of 1860 Reconsidered Then there is the position that the Southern Democrats had no real plan but were confused, disorganized, and adrift. Reconciling these interpretations seems unlikely. Each view seems logical given certain criteria. Further, the chaos of the Democratic conventions in Charleston and Baltimore and the resulting division of the party made not only for high drama and historical consequence but also for disagreement about what actually happened, then and now. If we examine the campaign from the perspective of the candidate himself and the white Southerners who voted for him, a resolution to the historiographical debate emerges. A brief account of the Breckinridge nomination and campaign and a summary of each of the major scholarly interpretations allows for a reconsideration of the motives of the candidate and his supporters . In the end, the concept of honor provides a means of reconciling the competing views. Fig. 13. Hon. John C. Breckinridge of Kentucky: Democratic candidate for sixteenth president of the United States. (Library of Congress) Fuller text.indb 70 1/15/13 2:55 PM A Forlorn Hope · 71 When Democrats gathered for their 1860 national convention in Charleston, South Carolina, Stephen A. Douglas of Illinois stood ready to secure the party’s nomination for president. A favorite in the Northern states, Douglas had built a powerful political organization and confidently prepared to achieve the goal toward which he had worked for many years. But he lacked critical support. His bitter disputes with President James Buchanan had cost him the backing of the party’s patronage. More important, he had lost much of his Southern support. Once the darling of Southerners who had enthusiastically supported his doctrine of popular sovereignty for resolving the issue of the territorial expansion of slavery, Douglas now faced acrimonious opposition from many in the South who saw him as a traitor to their cause. In the years between the Kansas-Nebraska Act and the Democratic convention in 1860, the debate over the expansion of slavery had only intensified. Proslavery advocates now saw Douglas’s position as restricting slavery, because his Freeport Doctrine, expressed in 1858, would allow each territorial legislature to decide the question of slavery. Southerners insisted that the Constitution protected their property rights— an argument upheld by the Dred Scott decision in 1857—and wanted a slave code providing federal protection for slavery in the territories. They denounced Douglas’s plan as “squatter sovereignty” that would effectively limit the expansion of slavery by encouraging Northerners to use their superior population numbers to control territorial legislatures and exclude the peculiar institution. Thus, in 1860, Douglas faced the harsh reality that his party was deeply divided along sectional lines. He did...


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