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REJECTED REPUBLICAN INCUMBENTS IN THE 1866 CONGRESSIONAL NOMINATING CONVENTIONS: A Study in Reconstruction Politics Lawrence N. Powell "The old fires of 1856 and 1860 have been relit in this state," remarked a Pennsylvania Republican editor as the election campaign of 1866 got underway.1 He was not indulging in hyperbole; the Congressional election of that year, involving the grave questions of Reconstruction, was one of the most heated in our history. By that time Andrew Johnson had broken with Congress, had thrown his prestige behind the newly-formed National Union Movement, and had aroused Republican hostility toward his patronage policy. And the New Orleans massacre, while over a month old, was still receiving fresh ink in the Union dailies. Only remaining in the future was Johnson's ill-advised speaking tour, his "swing around the circle." This is a well-known scenario from a national campaign that has long attracted historians' attention. In the judgment of nearly all students of that period, it was a canvass that aggravated the entire North, stirred up remote hamlets, and left few indifferent. In historical legend it was a climactic moment in the radicalization of the Republican party and of the Nation. Of course historians have differed markedly in accounting for the turbulence of those years. William A. Dunning and Claude Bowers, in their different ways, discerned the devious hand of radical conspirators in the election's outcome, as did Howard K. Beale, though for other reasons. All assumed that a small band of determined Republican extremists, through fraud, misrepresentation, and a mountebank 's regard for the passions, coerced their party and the northern electorate into opposing Andrew Johnson and endorsing a harsh southern policy.2 Recent historians have disputed this argument. Though not fond of the radicals, Eric McKitrick has exonerated them of the common vilifications, pointing instead to Johnson's stubbornness, southern 1 Johnstown Tribune, Aug. 31, 1866. 2 William A. Dunning, Reconstruction, Political and Economic, 1865-1877 (New York, 1962), pp. 45-47, 54-57, 80-83; Claude G. Bowers, The Tragic Era (Boston, 1962), p. 141; Howard K. Beale, The Critical Year (New York, 1930), pp. 6, 111112 , 141, 145,146. 219 220CIVIL WAR HISTORY intransigence, and northern demands for guarantees, to explain the 1866 election and its aftermath.3 An English scholar, W. R. Brock, believes with McKitrick that "it is difficult to demonstrate a Radical plot in the rising tide of disquiet in the North." Neither "partisan passion" nor "material interest" can explain this critical moment in Reconstruction, he writes, "for the great moving power behind Reconstruction was the conviction of the average Republican that the objectives of his party were rational and humane."4 The reason Republicans and the country moved as they did in 1866, McKitrick and Brock seem to argue, was because of a grass roots movement animated either by instincts of political survival or ideological commitment. Despite the disparities in their conclusions, both of these broad historical schools share the conviction that national affairs intruded prominently into northern politics in these years, whether through the medium of a radical cabal or genuine issues that evoked a mass response. This was a time when events in the Capitol swept all else before them. Indeed , how could American politics not be touched by the controversies then convulsing Washington? Surely one area where national influence on northern politics ought to have been reflected was in those Congressional districts which denied renomination to an aspiring Republican incumbent. In a day when editors announced "that the present Congressmen must be renominated to show that the party endorses their Congressional action,"5 we should rightfully expect to discover Reconstruction issues figuring prominently in the retirement of Republicans wishing renomination. Indeed, given old and new Reconstruction historiography, we should anticipate one of two situations to have obtained, both relating to the alleged radicalization of the party. These Congressmen should have become either the victims of a national radical conspiracy to purge vacillating and conservative Republicans, or the casualties of local groundswell campaigns to send more reliable radicals to Congress. If either were a trend in 1866, we ought to be able to detect it in those seventeen districts where nominating struggles...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1533-6271
Print ISSN
0009-8078
Pages
pp. 219-237
Launched on MUSE
2013-01-02
Open Access
No
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