In 1860, San Joaquin County voters went to the polls on November 6 to select a president, just as they did in 2012. But unlike yesterday, 152 years ago voters in the County had four major options, thanks to simmering sectional passions over slavery.
Earlier in the year, Democratic representatives from across the country had gathered in Charleston, South Carolina, to nominate their candidate. Instead of uniting behind one standard bearer, however, they split into factions, adjourned, and gathered again in Baltimore.
The presidential candidate for National (Northern) Democrats was Stephen A. Douglas, a U.S. senator from Illinois affectionately known as the Little Giant. Southern Democrats found Douglas and his attitude toward the expansion of slavery unacceptable. So they walked out of the Baltimore convention, reconvened in Richmond, Virginia, and selected as their presidential nominee John C. Breckinridge, a former U.S. senator from Kentucky and, at that time, the sitting vice president. This branch called itself the Constitutional (Southern) Democratic Party.
Meanwhile, Republicans assembled in Chicago and selected as their candidate Abraham Lincoln, a frontier attorney and somewhat obscure former Whig congressman from Illinois. A fourth party, the Constitutional Union Party, which consisted mainly of former Whigs, chose John Bell of Tennessee, a former speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives.
Political tensions rose steadily in San Joaquin County throughout the second half of 1860, just as they did elsewhere in the United States. Two highly partisan newspapers, the Stockton Argus (Republican) and the Daily San Joaquin Republican (Democrat), fueled emotions. Spokesmen on both sides gave speeches, organized clubs, marched in parades, flew flags, and extolled the virtues of their candidates time after time. By November 6, each side saw the nation standing at the edge of a precipice.
According to the San Joaquin Republican, the election represented "a turning point, an epoch in the world's history. The safety of the cause of rational liberty and sensible humanity depends upon today's vote," warned the editors on election day.
In the end, the Democrats prevailed in San Joaquin County, just as they had in almost every California state election between 1850 and 1860. In the County, Breckinridge won with 1,374 votes. Lincoln followed with 1,131, and Douglas and Bell took up the rear with 733 and 199 votes, respectively. Statewide, however, the Republicans managed to squeeze out a narrow victory, which gave California's electoral votes to Lincoln.
The rest, as they often say, is history. Most readers of this blog probably already know the rest of the story: Lincoln was inaugurated early in 1861; Confederate forces fired on federal troops at Fort Sumter; and the United States entered into a bloodbath that lasted the next four years.
Does history ever repeat itself? I don't think so. However, I do believe it holds valuable lessons. One thing it tells me is that the American political system usually works well. It also informs me that the United States is strongest when its people argue openly, respect their opponents, and end their disagreements at the ballot box, rather than the battlefield.
Of course, I can't speak with certainty for Americans who lived during the Civil War Era, but I suspect that in hindsight many of them would agree with me.
The political musings of the author have benefited from two venerable sources on San Joaquin County during the Civil War: Beat! Beat! Drums! A History of Stockton During the Civil War (Stockton, 1965), by Delmar Martin McComb, Jr.; and George H. Tinkham, History of San Joaquin County, California, with Biographical Sketches (Los Angeles, 1923), pages 178–87.