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103 4 The Last True Whig John Bell and the Politics of Compromise in 1860 A. James Fuller The election of 1860 featured four candidates for the presidency and actually became two separate races as the Republican Abraham Lincoln faced off against the Northern Democrat Stephen A. Douglas in the free states, while the Southern Democrat John C. Breckinridge ran against the Constitutional Union candidate, John Bell, in the slave states. Although the other three presidential candidates remain popular subjects for study, especially Lincoln and Douglas, John Bell has received very little attention from historians . Every study of the coming of the Civil War and the 1860 election mentions the Constitutional Unionist candidate, and nearly every survey textbook features an electoral map with his name displayed along with the others, but scholars still largely neglect Bell’s campaign. Most writers dismiss the Constitutional Union Party as being a hopeless, half-hearted effort by a group of elderly conservatives that garnered a lot of respect but little actual support. Although most third parties in American history took clear stands on principle and earned a measure of scholarly esteem or at least some consideration because of that, historians have scorned the Constitutional Union platform of “the Union, the Constitution, and the enforcement of the laws,” as a political sidestepping of the major issues. Thus, writers continue to find Bell’s last-place finish in the popular vote and his thirdplace finish in the Electoral College a fitting result for a candidate who avoided the problems confronting the country. Still, in the literature as well as in 1860, Bell gets a measure of respect. Scholars note that he won several of the slave states, but like the voters of the time, the historians reject him and generally argue that his largely irrelevant campaign was doomed to fail.1 Fuller text.indb 103 1/15/13 2:55 PM 104 · The Election of 1860 Reconsidered John Bell deserves more. When examined more closely, his candidacy reveals the neglected reality behind the cursory dismissals of the historians who have so quickly dismissed the Constitutional Union effort. In his recent study of the election, Douglas R. Egerton, like so many other scholars before him, noted that “Bell was the first candidate to be nominated in 1860” and included “the fact that the venerable Whig Party was back under a new name indicated that there would be at least three candidates in the field that year.” John Bell was a Whig. That fact, so often stated simply and left without elaboration by historians, provides the clue to interpreting his campaign and the Constitutional Union Party. In their efforts to build on the remnant of Southern Whiggery, Bell and his supporters drew on the legacy of their old party and its most famous leader, Henry Clay. It is ironic that all four of the candidates for president in 1860 tried to claim the mantle of Clay, as even the Democrats Douglas and Breckinridge associated themselves with his name. Despite the fact that the Kentuckian had never won the presidency, all of them hoped in 1860 to save the Union as Clay had Fig. 20. Hon. John Bell of Tennessee: National Union candidate for sixteenth president of the United States. (Library of Congress) Fuller text.indb 104 1/15/13 2:55 PM The Last True Whig · 105 done several times. But Lincoln, Douglas, and Breckinridge all planned to save the Union, as they each defined it, on their own terms. Only John Bell held fast to the political principle that had worked so well for Clay and the Whigs in the past. The Constitutional Unionists promoted compromise as the means of saving the country and averting civil war. What many observers saw in 1860 and many historians have seen since as equivocation and avoiding the issues actually was a call to compromise. To Henry Clay and to Bell after him, the United States was a compromise between the Union, on the one hand, and the Constitution, on the other. In 1787 compromise created the Union, and Clay had saved it several times since with compromises. In 1860, the country needed another compromise. Bell ran as the last true Whig candidate for president under the label of the Constitutional Union Party, urging Americans to set aside their opposing views in favor of everyone’s conceding something in order to save the Union and avoid a crisis. Unfortunately for Bell, compromise proved to be a political liability in the context...


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