Partisan Realignment, 1850s-Style

The major political parties in the United States both collapsed during the 1850s.  The Whigs actually disappeared from American politics, though most of their members (such as  Abraham Lincoln) soon reinvented themselves as Republicans.  By contrast, the Democratic Party (claiming Thomas Jefferson and Andrew Jackson as guiding spirits) endured but not without significant change.  Democrats faced enormous internal upheaval during 1850s, sparked principally by the Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854.  Students should be able to explain why this legislation created such a “hell of a storm” to borrow the words of its author, Senator Stephen A. Douglas of Illinois.  They should also be able to summarize how the partisan realignment and what was known as “Bleeding Kansas” altered the national political equation. The story is complicated because in addition to the surging anti-Nebraska movement (which ultimately became the Republican Party), there was yet another powerful grassroots organization that addressed an entirely different controversy.  Students should be able to describe the rise and fall of the American or Know Nothing Party.  What did these nativists care about and why?  How powerful did they become?  Why didn’t they become the majority party in the North?  One way to answer these questions would be to consider how Dickinson graduate James Buchanan (Class of 1809) won the election of 1856 and how his subsequent feud with Senator Douglas over the so-called “Lecompton Constitution” completed the rupture of the Democratic Party.

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3 Responses to Partisan Realignment, 1850s-Style

  1. Kyle says:

    The importance of the Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854 and the following political upheaval can not be understated. Some even say that this event was the most drastic push that brought about the civil war. As a result of the Kansas-Nebraska Act, a split was created within the Democratic party, a split that would ultimately create essentially two separate parties, allowing Republicans to step in and win the election. The Kansas-Nebraska Act also brought about the Lecompton Constitution, another drastic step in the split between the Democrats and growth of the Republicans.
    As the Whigs collapsed, it would seem that the Democratic party would simply dominate the political scene for the next several years. But there were two opposing philosophies to the Democratic party. There was Buchanan, symbolic of the South and invoking principles of Andrew Jackson, and then there was Stephen Douglas, representative of Illinois. The original intent of The Kansas Nebraska Act as proposed by Stephen Douglas was to extend the transcontinental railroad, which Chicago being a hub. But the resulting fallout and battle over popular sovereignty crippled the democratic party. The proposed compromise to the debate was to allow the citizens of Kansas to chose between two constitutions proposed by Buchanan: one that included slavery in all its forms, and the other allowing slavery but only for those who already lived in the colonies. Stephen Douglas, strictly believing in popular sovereignty in its purest form, fervently opposed this Lecompton Swindle, and therefore had a direct confrontation with Buchanan.
    Along with this, there were very strong opponents to this Lecompton constitution because it was in favor of slavery. And these opponents formed the Republican Party, the ultimate defeater of the Democratic party, whose success in the election of 1860 resulted in the secession of South Carolina.
    All of these changes in the political scene would ultimately, 6 years later, allowed the Republicans to defeat the Democrats. Without this act and the resulting political fallout, armed conflict may have been able to be averted for at least a little bit longer.

  2. Kinzea says:

    This legislation created a “hell of a storm” because it forced people to choose sides over the issue of slavery. Because Douglas introduced this bill with the idea of popular sovereignty in order to avoid the battle that the slavery problem was becoming. It repealed the Missouri compromise that had already declared how new territories would handled because there were more and more negative reactions especially from the south who were unhappy with what they felt as an imbalance involving the ratio of free land and slave land.
    The Democratic Party had emerged as the top political party in the United States at this time. The Whig party and the Republican Party were battling to actually compete with the democrats, while the Know Nothing party was falling apart. The Know-Nothing’s were very staunch nativists who were speaking out constantly against the German and Catholic immigrants. As immigration began to leave the spotlight, and slavery slowly replaced it the Know- Nothings found themselves losing their influence.
    When the slavery issue began to bring out personal opinion, it divided the Know Nothing party into pro- and anti- slavery. The members formally dissolved after the Dred Scott decision, as it was another moment that exposed how individuals felt about slavery.
    A harsh division also impacted the Democratic Party. When the Lecompton constitution was written, President Buchanan supported it. The Lecompton constitution was written as a response to the free soilers by a group of slaveholders in Kansas, so it had a strong emphasis on the pro- slavery position. Douglas, the author of the Kansas- Nebraska act, was appalled by Buchanan’s decision. He declared that Buchanan had just made his position on slavery public and that he could not and would not support it. When Douglas split from Buchanan at this moment, he split the entire Democratic Party along with it.
    Now the Know- Nothing Party had dissolved over the issue of slavery, and the Democratic Party had split down the middle. This division within the Democratic Party as a result of the Kansas- Nebraska act is what begins America’s slow descent into complete Civil War.

  3. Hannah Wagner says:

    The Kansas-Nebraska Act stated that the Nebraska Territory was to be divided into two parts, Nebraska and Kansas. Within these territories, the people were free to decide whether or not their territory would allow slavery. This effectively repealed the Compromise of 1820 which banned slavery above the 36° 30’ line. Northerners saw this as the government’s way of supporting the growth of slavery. Of course both sides wanted to win control over these territories, and violence broke out. The issue of popular sovereignty in the new territories deeply widened the schism between the North and South. At the same time, the Know-Nothing Party rose to power. The Know-Nothing party, composed mostly of native-born Protestants, hated the German and Irish Catholic immigrants moving to the big cities in the North. While this party won a few local and state elections and helped to weaken the Whig party, they lost influence as the nation became more preoccupied with the sectional issues. They did not get enough of the popular vote a in the Election of 1856, and its members split to join either proslavery of antislavery parties.
    The Lecompton Constitution was a proslavery constitution written for the state of Kansas. Even though this constitution did not have the support of most of the settlers in Kansas, President Buchanan asked Congress to accept the document. They did not. By siding with the proslavery forces, Buchanan effectively divided the Democratic Party when a fair number of Democrats sided with the Republicans in rejecting the constitution.

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