Crédit Mobilier

The Union Pacific Railroad at the 100th Meridian in 1866. Courtesy: Library of Congress.

Americans’ trust in their government has always ebbed and flowed, and those ebbs and flows have largely depended on whether the government and its officers have acted in ways that earned the trust of its citizens or in ways that led the government to be mired in scandal—therefore sullying its reputation. Some of the largest ebbs in trust have come after officials in the top echelon of government—Senators, Representatives, Presidents and their cabinets—have used their offices for their own benefit. Two months before the election of 1872, news broke of a scandal that would extend well into 1873 and implicate politicians as prominent as the Vice President, and that scandal foreshadowed the ways in which big business and politics would intertwine in not only the Nineteenth Century but the Twentieth and Twenty-First Centuries.

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The Nineteenth Century Liberal

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Washington, DC in 1870.

The two dominant American political parties of the late 1860s, the Republicans and the Democrats, are the parties that continue to dominate the political landscape into the early Twenty-First Century. Although they are the same parties in name, many of the policies they espouse—and the place on the political spectrum their supporters find themselves—have almost entirely reversed in the intervening century and a half. In modern parlance, a liberal is one that finds himself or herself on the left side of the political spectrum and is more likely to be a member of the Democratic Party. In the late Nineteenth Century, the term had an entirely different meaning. Read more

The Election of 1864

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Abraham Lincoln in 1864.

The summer of 1864 was one of dismay for President Abraham Lincoln and his administration: throughout the Union, the appetite for war had rapidly shrunk; particularly as compared to the heady days of 1860 that ushered Lincoln into the White House. While some voters in the North saw the continued prosecution of the war as nothing more than an attempt to manifest Lincoln’s wish to abolish slavery—and therefore a war not worth fighting—others had naturally, in view of the mounting casualties, developed a fatigue for war and, if they had a choice in the matter, would have opted for a negotiated peace. If Lincoln were to lose the election—so the argument ran—then families could be reunited and the violence could come to an end. For Confederates, northern voter despair was precisely the ingredient that was needed in the giant pot that was political discourse in the Union, but it was not all that was needed: the rebels had dreamt of forcing a negotiated peace, and now, with the election in sight, they had hope that Lincoln would be voted out and the war could be brought to a favorable end. Read more

The Election of 1860

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The United States Capitol in 1860. Courtesy: Library of Congress

Every presidential election is consequential, but the Election of 1860 would play a significant role in whether the United States would remain one nation. The division of the North and South on the issue of slavery threatened to cause a secession of the South. The result of the election would determine whether that threat would materialize and cause a Second American Revolution. Read more

The Obstinacy of the North and South

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Construction on the Capitol in 1859. Courtesy: William England, Getty Images.

By 1859, the northern and southern sections of America had developed different economic systems, cultural norms, and approaches to permitting slavery. Congress and the political parties had been able to overlook those differences for the sake of self-preservation and advancement of the collective agenda. As 1859 concluded and 1860 sprang, Americans understood that the status quo of compromise was not to continue much longer. Read more

The Lincoln-Douglas Debates of 1858

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Depiction of the Lincoln-Douglas Debates.

Senator Stephen Douglas had come into the political spotlight through his work in the Compromise of 1850 and the Kansas-Nebraska Act, which had temporarily held the country together but perpetuated the institution of slavery. Douglas, a Democrat, was a force to be reckoned with for keeping a seat in the United States Senate despite the growing strength of the Republican Party throughout the North and in his home state of Illinois. Throughout 1858, a time when the state legislatures elected senators to the United States Senate, Douglas would have to win the support of the people of Illinois, and the Illinois legislature, by debating the issue of slavery, and the future of the country, with the Republican candidate for the Senate, Abraham Lincoln. See David Potter, The Impending Crisis: America Before the Civil War, 1848-1861, 330-31. Read more

The Lecompton Constitution

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Constitution Hall in Lecompton, Kansas.

Following the violence in Kansas known as Bleeding Kansas, there was a question of whether the territory would be admitted as a free state or slave state. After taking office in 1857, President James Buchanan appointed Robert J. Walker of Pennsylvania to be governor of Kansas. Governor Walker wrote a letter to President Buchanan, stating “that the actual bona fide residents of the territory of Kansas, by a fair and regular vote, unaffected by fraud or violence, must be permitted, in adopting their State Constitution, to decide for themselves what shall be their social institutions.” Walker to Buchanan, March 26, 1857, in Kansas State Historical Society Transactions, V (1891-1896), 290 (italics in original). Even with such a pronouncement regarding the nature of an election, no one knew how Kansans would vote on the issue of slavery or how soon Kansas would become a state. Read more

The Evolving Political Parties of the 1850s

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Panoramic View of Washington, DC in 1856. Courtesy: E. Sachse & Co.

The Democratic Party and Whig Party were the dominant political parties from the early 1830s up until the mid-1850s. Both were institutions in national politics despite not having a coherent national organization by cobbling together a diverse group of states to win elections. While the Democrats had a more populist agenda, the Whigs were more focused on pursuing industrialization and development of the country. See David Potter, The Impending Crisis: America Before the Civil War, 1848-1861, 226. While the Democratic Party would survive to the present day, the Whig Party would not survive the mid-1850s, not as a result of its own ineptness but because of the changing political landscape of that era. Read more

The Election of 1852

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President Franklin Pierce. By: George P.A. Healy.

With the first term of Millard Fillmore’s presidency winding down in 1852, the Democrats felt a sense of momentum that they could reclaim the White House. In the midterm elections of 1850, the Democrats secured 140 of the 233 seats in the House of Representatives, eclipsing the Whig Party. See David Potter, The Impending Crisis: America Before the Civil War, 1848-1861, 141.

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A Deadlocked and Destructive Congress

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The United States Capitol in 1848. Unknown Photographer, credit Library of Congress.

During President James Polk’s administration, Congress grappled with resolving sectional tension arising out of whether slavery would be extended to newly acquired land from Mexico as well as the Oregon territory. Congress did not resolve that sectional tension but exacerbated it in what may have been one of the most deadlocked and destructive Congresses in American history. Read more