John Raymond and the Election of 1860

John Raymond stands as a fascinating example of the political turmoil which engulfed many Americans on the brink of the American Civil War. Raymond’s political ideology was a complex and storied path which came to a head in the critical Presidential election of 1860. To best understand his political journey, it is crucial to examine the broader political climate of the United States leading into the election.

The 1860 election truly began with the 1856 election. At this time, the Democratic party suffered a complete break between its Northern and Southern wings. This was due, in large part, to the Kansas-Nebraska act of 1854, which set the stage for the Democratic split in 1860. It was only the nomination and eventual election of James Buchanan that momentarily solidified the Democratic ranks.[1] At the same time, the Whig party had also splintered into the newly formed Republican and Know-Nothing parties. The Know-Nothings suffered a crushing defeat which scattered Southern Whigs; many of whom joined Southern Democrats with the remainder going on to create the opposition party.[2] Meanwhile, the Republican party gained a strong foothold in the North. Here we see that American politics were beginning the shift towards a regional focus that would eventually lead to the Civil War.

In the 1858 congressional elections, the Democrats lost substantial ground across the North. In Indiana, for example, the party lost control of the state legislature and half of its congressional representatives. In the same election, state Republicans took home seven of Indiana’s eleven congressional seats. In other Northern states, Republicans continued this trend, overtaking or simply absorbing the remnants of the Know-Nothings. A pivotal moment in the Republican ascent to power came with the Massachusetts gubernatorial election, which saw Nathaniel Banks take the office for Republicans. This result was especially poignant because Banks had straddled the Whig lines balancing between Know-Nothing and Republican issues, but now staked his claim in the Republican camp. The nativist attitudes of the Know-Nothings suffered a further blow when their share of the New York vote was cut in half. Coupled with the increase of German immigrants in the West and slavery overtaking immigration as a national issue, the Republicans chose to abandon nativism entirely.[3]

Illinois gave rise to further political upsets as Republicans captured yet another state’s House seats. Additionally, Stephen Douglas’s election to the Senate figuratively spat in the face of Democratic leaders, including Buchanan, who had refused to fund Douglas’s campaign.[4] Democratic infighting came to a head during the party conventions of 1860. The first Democratic convention was held in Charleston, South Carolina, which only served to enrage Northern Democrats further given the difficulty of traveling from Washington, D.C., to Charleston. Furthermore, William Lowndes Yancey, a Southern Democrat from Alabama, sought to complete the party’s split and force the South into secession. He did so by pushing for a fully-fledged pro-slavery agenda, which Stephen Douglas’s supporters from Ohio promptly shot down. This result caused several states’ worth of delegates to walk out of the convention. A second convention in Baltimore was then held in an effort to reconcile the Northern and Southern wings of the party. However, this convention resulted in yet another walk out. The remaining delegates quickly nominated Douglas, while the walk outs nominated Kentucky’s John Breckinridge, effectively splitting the ticket.[5]

Thus, going into the 1860 election there was a strong Republican party boasting supremacy in the North and effectively two Democratic Parties. The Northern Democrats ran Douglas on a popular sovereignty platform while the South ran Breckinridge on a pro-slavery platform. During all of this ferment, yet another party was beginning to form in the background of the political landscape. This was the Constitutional Unionist Party. It was comprised of Southern Whigs who refused to join the Democrats following the fall, and of Know-Nothings and Northern Whigs who refused to join the Republicans.[6] The Constitutional Unionists soon gained national support and would go on to nominate John Bell for President. Bell was a conservative Southern politician who had strong ties to both the Whigs and the Know-Nothings. He was well regarded as a moderate politician who sought compromise. This character, coupled with his conservative stance on slavery, made him popular with Northern conservatives.[7]

In addition to his popularity, Bell’s moderate stance made him an almost perfect match for the Constitutional Unionists’ political agenda. They sought to reclaim centrism in American politics, with one and only one political goal: to uphold the Constitution of the United States; all other political ambitions came second.[8] The real goal of the Unionist was to preserve the Union by offering the country a non-threatening choice for President. However, the party misjudged the political fervor that was overtaking the country and was unable to garner any significant support.[9] Thus, a new plan was formed.

That plan would come to be known as Fusionism. Bell and the Constitutional Unionists realized fairly quickly that there was no chance for them to win the Electoral College. However, it was widely belived that, if the election were to go to the House of Representatives, then John Bell would be the easy winner given his moderate stance. Simply put, Bell’s best bet was to win over Congress and take the Presidency by upsetting the popular vote sufficiently that the election would be held in contention. Understanding that the North had far more Electoral votes than the South, Bell’s campaign sought out a state whose support could cost Lincoln the election. New York became their primary target.[10] Admittedly New York was a wise choice given how heavily immigration carried sway in the city and the Unionist’s connections to the Know-Nothings. However, as noted above, the Know-Nothings had lost too much support in New York and Bell did not have the political charisma to carry the state on his own.

Therefore, Fusionism was born. The main idea behind this movement was that the Unionists only needed to prevent Lincoln’s victory in New York. Consequently, it did not matter who actually won the state. So, the plan was to run a fusionist ticket that would send both Democratic and Unionist electors to the College. At first, the ticket was split between Bell and Douglas, heavily favoring Douglas. Eventually though, even Breckinridge would be put up for election, which balanced out the electors between the three candidates a bit more. Still, Fusionism was a very unpopular movement earning the ire of Republicans and Democrats.[11]

In the end Fusionism could not overcome the tide of political sectionalism that was all but assured to only end in bloodshed. As it happened, Lincoln won the election outright and within months the South had seceded, plunging the country into the bloodiest war in American history.

Now, one might be inclined to ask, how exactly does John Raymond fit into this story? The answer is both simple and a bit convoluted. Raymond represents a rather distinctive perspective of the 1860 election. He was in fact a fully-fledged Bell supporter and an outspoken Fusionist. Raymond’s outlook is best shown in the following excerpts from his letters to his nephew George, dated October 9th 1860.

            “The fusionists had a great meeting last night comprising three political parties            of N.Y. city Brooklyn Staten Island Jersey City Hoboken Newark &c. &c…”

            “My own preferences are for John Bell…”

This is an especially rare perspective that demands further investigation. The question now becomes, why would Raymond support such an unpopular movement? Why at a time when the lines of political allegiance were being drawn in the sand, did he choose the middle ground? The answer lies in his political and social background which can best be gleamed from his personal correspondence between he and his nephew and brother at this time. First and foremost, Raymond came from a long tradition of Northern Whigs. He was a prominent business man from Northern New York and was actually the cousin of Benjamin Raymond one of the founding fathers of Potsdam New York. The Raymond clan was a staunchly Whig family and held close associations with other affluent local Whigs, such as Liberty Knowles.[12]

Additionally, and perhaps more importantly, John Raymond was a devout follower of Henry Clay, as evidenced by the following quote from his October 9th 1860 letter.

            “I intend to … spit upon the miserable vascillating rascalls [sic] one and all that            ever were conspicuous in defaming Henry Clay.”

This is actually one of the only times Raymond reveals his Whig background in his letters. He seems to have had a great fondness for Clay, who was, and still is, considered the father of the Whig party. Raymond’s devotion to Clay was of paramount importance to his support of Bell and the Unionists. Bell may have held the party’s nomination, but he was far from the only prominent Constitutional Unionist. John J. Crittenden was a very prominent Unionist and a former Whig who was seen as Henry Clay’s successor. This is important because the Constitutional Unionists could hold claim to Clay’s political legacy. Not only were many of them Whigs, but their ranks held a direct descendant to Clay’s political dynasty. I think the clear argument here is that Raymond saw the Unionist’s as Clay’s party and was consequently drawn to them.

It also cannot be ignored that the Constitutional Unionists were formed in order to quell political radicalism and preserve the Union. The threat of Civil War was a very real idea that weighed heavily on the voting public. Thus, Raymond’s support for Bell was also an extension of that fear. While normally it is difficult to say exactly what policies attracted what particular voters to any given candidate, Bell and the Unionists actually make this quite easy. Their only political goal was to uphold the Constitution and preserve the Union. Nothing else mattered to the Constitutional Unionists and thus it seems that this too was Raymond’s primary concern. It also appears that these concerns were not uncommon among Raymond’s friends and family. This is best shown in the following excerpt from his November 12th 1860 letter to his brother Sewell.

            “Baker is well pleased with Election results though he voted fusion and Knew            that he would loose [sic] his vote.”

The Baker in question was a long-standing business associate of Raymond’s who would actually go on to accompany him to North Carolina in 1863. The first important point here is that Fusionism, and by extension Bell, was a highly regarded political standing in Raymond’s social circle. Additionally, it is here where we find Raymond’s waning support for Fusionism. This had actually been building for some time, with Raymond actually deciding the matter in his October 9th 1860 letter.

            “… out of the atmosphere of N.Y. I do not think the fusion elements are very            satisfactory… My own preferences are for John Bell, but as I can see not even a ghost of a chance for his election as my next choice I intend to vote and huzza for Lincoln…”

            Facing the inevitable defeat of Bell and the Fusionists, Raymond decided to throw in with Lincoln. This is a fascinating and multifaceted development. First and foremost, Raymond did not wish to waste his vote (as Baker apparently did). Raymond’s choice to back Lincoln, instead, comes down to two primary reasons. The first was Lincoln’s history as a Whig and his political alignment with Henry Clay; the second can best be traced back to Raymond’s hatred of the Democratic Party.

Before joining the Republican Party, Lincoln was a devout Whig. He also shared many of Henry Clay’s political beliefs, especially Clay’s stance on secession. Clay saw secession as an act of treason that ran counter to everything the U.S. Constitution stood for. This was also Lincoln’s view and, it appears, John Raymond’s.[13] Raymond, as we established, primarily concerned with the looming threat of civil war. He was also a close follower of Clay, who wished to literally spit on any man who dare defame his character. Therefore, it seems reasonable to conclude that, short of voting for Clay’s party (the Constitutional Unionists), he sought out the next best thing, which was Lincoln.

Another crucial component in all of this situation is the fact that Raymond despised the Democratic Party.  Consider this excerpt from his November 12th 1860 letter:

            “Southern mobs are the meanest kind. The reason is obvious for they are Democratic mobs. Their treatment of Douglas at Mobile deserves as it will receive the denunciation of all right minded [sic] men. It is however in perfect keeping with Southern Democratic secessionists for whom many of our good friends voted. From all such factions and political combinations “Good Lord  Delivers us” now and henceforth forever.”

This passage refers to an incident in Mobile, Alabama, shortly after the election, in which Douglas had eggs thrown at him by a group of Southern Democrats. The disdain for the Democrats is obvious in this passage, and it seems that Raymond had little to no patience for what he saw as mob rule. It should be noted that the real venom in this passage is specifically targeted at Southern Democrats, but it cannot be forgotten that Raymond was against all Democrats (those “vascillating rascalls”). This reference from his October 9th 1860 letter is a direct condemnation of the Democratic party. Raymond wrote this shortly after declaring his allegiance to Lincoln while at the same time praising Bell as his preferred favorite. Thus, it seems the obvious target of this insult was meant to be Democrats in general. A pertinent example of the Raymond family’s general attitude toward Democrats is found in Hiram Raymond’s letter to Sewell Raymond of April 7th 1856. Hiram writes that a certain

“…Detestable Democratic Doughfaced [sic] Desperado has given up his stolen office and Bashford our rightful governor is duly installed.”

Raymond’s attitude toward the Democratic party is important for two reasons. First and most obvious is the fact that it most certainly affected his choice to back Lincoln after leaving Bell and the Fusionists. Secondly, it also seems likely that his initial break with Fusionism may have also been fueled by this disdain. The problem with the Fusion ticket was that it relied on electing Democratic and Constitutional Unionist electors alike. This meant that anyone voting for Bell would also have to throw in with Douglas and Breckinridge. Thus, it can be argued that Raymond, after recognizing the inevitability of a Bell defeat, could not bring himself to vote for a Democrat even on a Fusion ticket.

John Raymond can and should be best understood as a product of his time. His political ideology may seem odd and even esoteric, but his views reflect much of the fears and anxieties that gripped the voting public leading into this election. There can be no mistake that this election was quite literally a fight for the future of the country. This is best shown in William L. Yancey’s conviction that a split Democratic party would ultimately lead to secession. People understood that this was the moment that would shape every other after it; they knew that this election would decide whether the United States was to remain a single nation or be cleaved in two. John Raymond reflects this situation with his support of a middle-of-the road unpopular candidate who only promised to keep the status quo. In a time of fear and uncertainty, Raymond, like many others, sought to return to familiarity and normalcy. Failing that, he followed the only path his convictions would allow him.

Sources:

Green, Michael S. Politics and America in Crisis. Santa Barbara CA: Praeger, 2010.

Howe, Daniel Walker. The Political Culture of the American Whigs. Chicago IL: University of Chicago Press, 1979.

Parks, Joseph Howard. John Bell of Tennessee. Baton Rouge LA: Louisiana State University Press, 1950.

Knowles Family Records, Box 19, Folder History I, Knowles Biography, Potsdam Town Museum Archives.

 

[1] Michael S. Green, Politics and America in Crisis, 98-99.

[2] Joseph Howard Parks, John Bell of Tennessee, 339.

[3] Green, America in Crisis, 130-31.

[4] Ibid., 131.

[5] Ibid., 132.

[6] Ibid., 148.

[7] Parks, John Bell, 339-53.

[8] Green, America in Crisis, 149.

[9] Parks, John Bell, 361-64.

[10] Ibid., 370-72.

[11] Ibid., 375.

[12] Knowles Family Files, Box 19, Folder History 1, Potsdam Town Museum.

[13] Daniel Walker Howe, The Political Culture of the American Whigs, 273.

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