Constable: If you think this election is contentious, it's not nearly as bad as 1860
By Burt Constable
The pandemic has put us in the habit of adding the word "unprecedented" to everything. But next week's contentious, life-altering and sure-to-be-ugly election is not unprecedented when it comes to stoking division among U.S. citizens.
"In 1800 and 1860, they were pretty divided," Dan Van Haften, a Batavia co-author of several books about Abraham Lincoln, says about our most combative elections.
"In rank order, the election of 2020 might come in No. 2, but it's a distant second," says Michael Burlingame, president of the Abraham Lincoln Association, author of an award-winning, 2,008-page, two-volume Lincoln biography, and holder of the Chancellor Naomi B. Lynn Distinguished Chair in Lincoln Studies at the University of Illinois at Springfield.
That's not to diminish our current angst.
"This is right up there, absolutely. We're divided today," Van Haften says.
Our nation is consumed with "bitterness, anger and hostility," Burlingame says. "I've seen some bitter times, but boy, oh, boy."
Regardless of whether next Tuesday's election is won by Democratic challenger Joe Biden or Republican incumbent Donald Trump, the losing side might profess to be ready to start a Civil War, or at least secede from the United States.
In the months between Lincoln's election and his inauguration on March 4, 1861, South Carolina, Mississippi, Florida, Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana and Texas had seceded from the Union to form the Confederate States of America. Five weeks into the Lincoln administration, confederate forces fired on Fort Sumter and the Civil War was underway.
"Secession is the essence of anarchy," Lincoln said. The South had threatened to secede in 1846, and almost went to war over it in 1850, Burlingame says. Even large national churches split up into smaller factions. Those divisions helped Lincoln, in a way.
"A lot of Northerners were sick and tired of the South's bullying, and acting like a petulant child," Burlingame says of an accusation made today by political adversaries.
"Another interesting parallel is one of the major issues of 1860 was corruption," Burlingame says, noting "Honest Abe" got votes from the "throw the rascals out" crowd. Winning the Electoral College vote in a four-way race for the presidency, Lincoln received only 39.69 percent of the popular vote and wasn't even on the ballot in 10 Southern slave-owner states. But, as we've seen with Trump, George W. Bush, Benjamin Harrison, Rutherford B. Hayes and John Quincy Adams, a candidate doesn't need to win the popular vote to become president. If the loser of the popular vote wins the election of 2020, the secession of losing states would be tricky, Burlingame says.
"The people who were most disaffected were bunched together," Burlingame says of the 1860 factions.
In today's political landscape, the logistics of drawing a Mason-Dixon Line would be nearly impossible, as Democratic Illinois and other Midwestern states that could vote for Biden would be allies with states on the West Coast and East Coast. And states also are divided. In Oregon, petitions from rural conservatives and coastal liberals are seeking to change the state's boundaries.
"The election would be much better off if the election isn't close," Burlingame says, adding that a lengthy legal process to determine a winner would make the "hanging chads" debacle of the 2000 election seem quaint. "There's so much antagonism. If you're not on our team, you're evil."
The election of 1860 had its genteel moments. Visiting his local polling place in Springfield on Nov. 6, 1860, Lincoln voted a straight Republican ticket, but cast no vote for president. "He thought it was immodest to vote for himself," Burlingame says.
For all his wisdom, even Lincoln didn't have a handle of contentious elections.
"He said that elections in this country were like 'big boils,'" Burlingame writes in his Lincoln biography.
"They caused a great deal of pain before they came to a head, but after the trouble was over the body was in better health than before."
We should know if that rings true by Inauguration Day, Jan. 20, 2021, provided we are still the United States of America.