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193 7 The Election of 1860 and Political Realigment Theory Indiana as a Case Study A. James Fuller The election of 1860 was the most critical political contest in all of American history. It has been at the heart of the electoral-realignment genre, which includes the work of such political scientists as Walter Dean Burnham , V. O. Key Jr., E. E. Schattschneider, and James L. Sundquist. Popular among the historians of the “new political history” in the 1960s and 1970s who emphasized ethnocultural matters such as religion, immigration , and social or moral reform movements, realignment theory offered scholars a useful framework of periods of stability followed by crisis and critical elections. In realignment analysis, the political struggles of the 1850s culminated in 1860 with a party realignment that brought Republican dominance for a generation. With the election of Lincoln, the coming of the Civil War, the dramatic shift in government policy, and the long string of Republican victories in the decades that followed, even critics of realignment admit that it works for 1860. Or does it? In his devastating critique of realignment theory, the political scientist David R. Mayhew outlined the major claims of the genre and set out to refute them all. Among his targets was the assertion that realignments feature contests, especially congressional races, that become nationalized. On the surface, the 1860 election in Indiana fits the classic realignment model in nearly every particular, including the nationalization of the contest. Certainly, the election as a whole was nationalized, with the issues of race and slavery dominating the campaigns of candidates for both state and national office. Mayhew himself concludes that, although “probably all the utility that can be wrung from the electoral realignments Fuller text.indb 193 1/15/13 2:55 PM 194 · The Election of 1860 Reconsidered analogy has already been wrung,” realignment theory still works in the case of 1860. However, a closer examination of the political campaigns in the state, particularly the words and actions of Governor Oliver P. Morton , reveals that Hoosiers interpreted national issues on the local level. The election in Indiana confirms Mayhew’s critique and the alternative interpretations he put forward in his book. The election of 1860 in Indiana turned on local and state understanding of national issues and the context on the ground, because contingency, short-term strategy, and valence issues complicated what appeared to be purely national concerns when they were brought down to the level of Hoosier politicians and voters.1 In his critique, Mayhew provides an explanation of realignment theory that focuses on the major claims of the genre, which asserts that American politics are marked by electoral realignments that occur about every thirty years. Among those claims are contentions that demonstrate how the theory can be applied to the election of 1860. First, a few elections in American politics are realigning ones, although most are not. Certainly, 1860 fits well with this assertion, although most writers in the genre actually carry the Civil War shift in politics back through most of the 1850s. A second claim readily applied to 1860 involves what Mayhew calls the “second motor” of realignment, “a strengthening and weakening of party identification.” Again, 1860 fits the classic pattern, with the collapse of the Second American Party system collapsed in the 1850s and the blurring and shifting of lines of party identification. A third assertion confirmed by 1860 is that realignment elections “are marked by turmoil in presidential nominating conventions.” Obviously, the breakup of the Democratic Party convention and the following confusion, which resulted in sectional candidates running as Democrats, fits the bill. Still another, fourth, claim is that “good showings by third parties tend to . . . take place shortly before ” realignments. Here, again, 1860 holds to the interpretation, because the Liberty Party, the Free Soil Party, and the American Party were only three of the third-party movements preceding the election that brought on the Civil War. A fifth claim also fits 1860, that “a new dominant voter cleavage over interests, ideological tendencies, or issues replaces an old one” in realignments. With the rise of the issue of slavery and its territorial expansion in the 1850s, sectional differences deepened and tore apart the existing party system. Related to that is a sixth claim, that “elections at realignment junctures are marked by insurgent-led ideological polarization .” This assertion by Walter Dean Burnham fits well with 1860, when Fuller text.indb 194 1/15/13 2:55 PM The Election of 1860...


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