by Drew VandeCreek

Abraham Lincoln became active in politics just as Americans transformed their political life into a new set of arrangements. In the early years of the American republic, Federalists, including Alexander Hamilton and John Adams, squared off against Democratic Republicans, led by Thomas Jefferson. The Democratic Republicans' decisive triumph led to the so-called "Era of Good Feelings," in which the Virginians James Madison and James Monroe succeeded Jefferson and political maneuvering occurred within the bounds of a single organization.

Andrew Jackson's term as president (1829-1837) ushered in the changes that would decisively influence Lincoln's career. Jackson's military background and decisive use of federal authority inspired fears of dictatorship among his opponents, who took to calling themselves Whigs, after the Englishmen who had advocated republican government in earlier years.

Jackson spoke for the tradition in American politics that embraced individual liberty and largely disdained government intervention in social or economic life. In a pivotal chapter in American political history, Jackson refused to re-charter the Bank of the United States, thereby denying the young nation a central source of credit and monetary control. Jackson and his followers, who came to call themselves Democrats believed that banks provided their wealthy clients with special privileges that distorted the promise of equal opportunity and liberty.

Whigs increasingly articulated a competing political vision that portrayed economic development and moral reform as twin engines of a progressive civilization. While Democrats attracted foreign immigrants, and especially Catholics, to their party, Whigs usually built their strength among native-born Protestants. Although Whigs' beliefs proved influential in society at large, Democrats dominated electoral politics during the period of the two parties’ competition (roughly 1840-1860).

Whig political poster, 1840

Americans flocked to the polls in large numbers during this era. Nearly 80% of eligible voters cast their ballots in many elections. Followers of both parties hoped that their national organizations could bind the Union together, especially its two major regions, the North and South, which labored under very different social and economic systems.

Americans developed a system of democratic politics that provided political rights to many everyday people who had never enjoyed them before. Nevertheless, this system remained restrictive in important ways. In the 1820s and 30s laws requiring voters to own property fell by the wayside and a system of "universal manhood suffrage" emerged. This "universal" system allowed most white men to vote, but systematically excluded most free blacks, as well as all women (and, of course, slaves).

Nevertheless, politics became a family affair and a staple of community life. In this period, individuals retained strong party affiliations across generations, often stemming from ethnic or religious identities. For most Americans, one was either raised a Whig or a Democrat.

In an era before mass media, political parties developed strong networks of local organizations to get their messages to voters and mobilize the faithful. These groups regularly organized party picnics, rallies and marches, especially as elections approached. At these events Americans enjoyed plentiful refreshments and games, sang songs written especially for a particular campaign, and considered stump speakers' remarks.

The parties offered special opportunities for young men. With electoral fraud a persistent concern in many localities, both parties organized special groups of youths devoted to observing the polls and defeating their opponents' attempts at chicanery. Of course these groups often veered toward extra-legal activities themselves, and perpetuated the tradition of street clashes.

Despite their lack of the franchise, women found roles within at least one of the major political parties. While Democratic men usually excluded their wives from all aspects of political life, Whigs' embrace of the notion of "separate spheres" entrusted women with the important role as arbiters of morality. Thus some Whig women consulted with their husbands about political matters. Others found roles as organizers of political events. Still others found influence as political singers.

Political singing played an especially large role in the organizations of reformers concentrating upon issues like temperance and abolitionism. While Democrats unequivocally rejected such reformers as busybodies, the Whig Party's largely native-born, Protestant constituency naturally overlapped with reformers.

Many antebellum reformers quickly tired of the Whig Party's attempts to compromise on controversial issues, and formed third parties on several occasions. In 1844 abolitionists formed the Liberty Party. In 1848 other opponents of southern slavery organized the Free Soil Party, and in 1856 the current of anti-immigrant activism within some reform communities culminated with the rise of the American Party.

These political arrangements deeply influenced American community life in this period and brought record numbers to the polls, but ultimately failed to forestall the sectional crisis the nation's founders had so feared. By the 1850s the Democratic Party had become a mouthpiece for powerful southern interests, and even alienated many of its northern members. The Whig Party, for its part, came undone. Many of its members formed the new Republican Party, which opposed the expansion of slavery into the western territories.

The sectional crisis emerged from the struggle to organize and define the large geographical area wrestled from Mexico in the Mexican War (see painting of hte Battle of Churubusco, below). For decades Congress had maintained a delicate political balance between free and slave states. In 1820 the Missouri Compromise had initiated this balance by admitting Maine as a free state and Missouri as a slave state, while drawing an imaginary line across the as-yet unsettled West, dividing northerly free territories from southerly areas that were to be open to slavery.

Battle of Churubusco, Mexican-American War

In 1850 another tortuous political compromise seemed to perpetuate this balance, but it quickly gave way before a rising tide of mutual distrust and recrimination. For decades the South had maintained its political standing through a clause in the Constitution that counted slaves as three-fifths of a single individual in determining the South's population. Thus the South benefited from a disproportionate Congressional delegation although slaves could not vote.

This provision infuriated northerners who sought to challenge southerners' political power in Congress. Increasingly many northerners believed that southerners intended to use their political clout to open the entire nation to slavery, and pointed to a sinister "slave power" that distorted American politics and defeated the popular will. Southerners, for their part, feared that the rapidly growing North intended to strip them of their rights and take their slaves. Many southerners considered this awful fate a form of slavery itself.

In the 1850s this sectional crisis slowly unraveled the political parties and pushed the nation toward Civil War. In 1856 Chief Justice Roger Taney seemed to justify many northerners' paranoia with the controversial Dred Scott decision, which sought to open the entire nation to slavery. Democratic President James Buchanan, himself a Pennsylvanian, increasingly gave in to southern demands in a vain hope to preserve the Union.

When Abraham Lincoln ran for the presidency in 1860 the nation’s system of party politics had shattered beyond repair. As a representative of the new Republican Party, Lincoln drew support from northerners alone. He did not bother to campaign in the South. The Democratic Party ran two candidates. One, the Kentuckian John Breckinridge, ran as a defender of slaveholders' rights in the tradition of James Buchanan. The Illinoisan Stephen Douglas ran as a spokesman for "popular sovereignty," the misguided hope that the principle of local control could somehow remove the slavery issue from the national political agenda. And the former Whig John Bell contested the election as a representative of the Constitutional Union Party (dubbed "the Old Gentlemen's Party" by its opponents), who believed that the slavery controversy might go away if Americans simply ignored it.

This four-way electoral race illuminated American politics' chaotic state. Compromise was no longer an option. When Lincoln won election with a strong showing in the North, and well beneath 50% of the popular vote, southern states began preparations for secession from the Union. When Lincoln took office in March of 1861, disunion was at hand.