Remembering Rutherford: Contentious presidential campaign evidenced American disunity

Greg Tucker, the Murfreesboro Post, November 29, 2016

This 1860 editorial cartoon shows three presidential candidates (left to right) Abraham Lincoln, Stephen A. Douglas and John C. Breckinridge - tearing the United States apart while Tennessean John Bell attempts to paste it back together with glue.

This 1860 editorial cartoon shows three presidential candidates (left to right) Abraham Lincoln, Stephen A. Douglas and John C. Breckinridge – tearing the United States apart while Tennessean John Bell attempts to paste it back together with glue.

The presidential campaign was bitterly divisive and some were threatening to reject the outcome if their favored candidate did not prevail. Rutherford County hosted an extravagant campaign rally for the party with the “non-committed platform.”

Four political parties fielded candidates in the 1860 presidential campaign. The Democrats had failed in their efforts to nominate a party candidate and had split into northern and southern factions. The Southern Democrats nominated John C. Breckinridge, the current vice president. The Northern Democrats nominated Stephen A. Douglas, an Illinois senator. The Republicans backed Abraham Lincoln, a former Illinois congressman and abolitionist. Tennessee Senator John Bell was the nominee of the newly-organized Constitutional Union Party.

The Constitutional Union Party was cobbled together from the remnants of the Whigs, the American Party (“Know-Nothings”), senior politicians and several affluent citizens. The party platform took no stand on divisive issues stating that they “recognize no political principle other than the Constitution.” The hope was that by taking no position for or against slavery or its extension, the issue could be ignored and the party would be seen as neutral, a moderate alternative. After several convention ballots, Bell was selected over Sam Houston as the party nominee.

Before his nomination, Bell argued the issue of slavery was addressed and settled by Constitutional provisions. As a senator he opposed the expansion of slavery and vigorously opposed secession. During the presidential campaign, however, he refused to state a position on these divisive issues. Speaking at a rally in Philadelphia, Bell explained, “I do not think that the further agitation and discussion of these subjects could lead to any public good, either to the North or the South, but nothing but mischief to one or the other, or both, or to the cause of our common ancestry.”

Born in northeast Williamson County, Tennessee in 1796, Bell was one of nine children of farmer and blacksmith Samuel Bell. He graduated from Cumberland College in 1814 and soon afterwards entered the practice of law. In 1817 he was elected to the state senate representing Williamson and Rutherford counties. In 1818 he married Sally Dickinson, granddaughter of Col. Hardy Murfree and heiress to the prosperous Grantlands Plantation immediately north of the Maney Plantation at Murfreesboro. As a state senator, Bell successfully advocated for convening the General Assembly in Murfreesboro, his current home. Despite this convenience, Bell did not seek reelection for a second term, instead concentrating on his legal practice in Rutherford, Davidson and Williamson counties.

In 1827 Bell defeated Felix Grundy for the U. S. House of Representatives representing Tennessee’s 7th District. During his second term, Bell was chairman of the House Committee on Indian Affairs and wrote the Indian Removal Act, signed by President Andrew Jackson. (Because of this piece of legislation, Southeastern tribes were eventually removed to Oklahoma via the Trail of Tears. An estimated 4,000 Native Americans perished on the Trail.)

In 1834 Bell defeated James K. Polk for Speaker of the House. He lost the seat a year later, when Jackson supporters endorsed Polk in reaction to Bell’s failure to support Jackson’s chosen presidential successor, Martin Van Buren.

In 1840 Bell campaigned across Tennessee on behalf of the successful presidential candidate William Henry Harrison. Giving up his Senate seat, Bell was appointed Secretary of War. A year later, Bell resigned from the cabinet under President John Tyler, with whom he differed on the use of civilian superintendents for national armories. Bell favored putting all working levels of national defense under military professionals.

Bell returned to his Tennessee law practice and various business interests in 1841, but rejoined the U. S. Senate by legislative appointment in 1847. Once among the most respected and effective of southern politicians, Bell’s popularity and influence were eroded over the next decade by his vacillation on the slavery issue. Additionally, his opposition to the Mexican War and southwestern expansion, which he believed would aggravate the issue of extending slavery into new territories, antagonized his fellow Tennessean, President James K. Polk.

Bell’s last decade in the Senate was marked by escalating conflict with other southern senators. The Tennessee legislature tried unsuccessfully to end his term two years early. In 1858 Bell and Andrew Johnson, the other Tennessee senator, got into a heated altercation on the Senate floor when Johnson questioned Bell’s loyalty to the South.

As the Constitution Union nominee in 1860, Bell saw little chance of winning the vote, but hoped that none of the three other candidates would get the required number of electoral votes and the election would go to the House of Representatives. As the only non-sectional candidate, Bell thought he might ultimately prevail as a compromise.

Bell did not campaign extensively. His biggest event was close to home. “A barbecue and speaking was gotten up…at the Maney Spring near Murfreesboro…There were on the ground about 350 carcasses barbecued, over 400 yards of tabling for serving the dinner…situated in a beautiful shady grove near the spring. Beside the table of meats were also tables prepared by the ladies with all kinds of confectioneries tastefully arranged.”

The festivities included children’s pageantry, parades and all day speaking by supporters and the candidate. Speakers warned of the impending dangers should the election turn against those favored. According to the account of John Spence, it was said plainly and prophetically that “the day may come the land on which we now stand may be drenched with blood of human beings.” See Spence, “Annals of Rutherford County’ (1873), Vol. 2, pages 142-4.

In the general election, Bell finished third with 39 electoral votes, winning Tennessee, Kentucky and Virginia. Breckinridge swept the deep South winning 72 electoral votes. Douglas won only Missouri and part of New Jersey, garnering 12 electors. Lincoln claimed the northeast, midwest and far west for 180 electoral votes, more than the combined total for his rivals.



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