"Illinois Is Rotten with Traitors!" the Republican Defeat in the 1862 State Election

Article excerpt

As the 1860 election returns slowly trickled into party headquarters, Chicago's Republicans began to celebrate. Their candidate for president, fellow fllinoisan Abraham Lincoln swept the North and the Electoral College in a landslide. Even Illinois, heretofore staunchly Democratic, succumbed to the appeal of the man the newspapers dubbed the "rail splitter," with Republicans claiming the governorship and the state legislature. In the streets outside the Chicago Tribune offices, crowds of men and women "were abroad in the streets, and eagerly asking and exchanging the latest," unwilling to go home "if there was any good news yet to be received." The next day "the streets were thronged" with "Republicans, eager to hear the confirmation and swelling of the previous days' triumph." The vast Republican rally that evening featured speeches, bonfires, "rockets and Roman candles," and a two-hundred-gun grand salute. More prosaic Republicans pocketed thousands of dollars their downcast Democratic friends wagered on the election results.1 Yet only two years later, and in the midst of a war, Illinois reversed itself and voted Democratic. This article will examine how and why Illinois' Republican majority of 1860 and the proUnion consensus of 1861 disappeared by the November 1862 elections. The article will also examine whether the Republican defeat in 1862 was caused by the Emancipation Proclamation (as many scholars assert), or by Republican voters unable to vote because they had volunteered for the army (as some contemporaries believed).

When the Civil War erupted in April of 1861, the nation's leading Democrat, Senator Stephen A. Douglas of Illinois, promptly called upon his fellow-IUinoisan and long-time political foe, President Abraham Lincoln, to pledge his support. Lincoln appreciated both the pledge and the potential support from Douglas's many followers in the North. A few days later, Douglas returned home to Illinois to rally Democrats to support the war to save the Union. "There are only two sides to the question," he proclaimed. "There can be no neutrals in this war, only patriots or traitors." All Americans, but especially Democrats, should support the war, even if they longed for peace, because"the shortest way to peace is the most stupendous and unanimous preparation for war."2

In 1861 the citizens of Illinois, heeding Douglas's patriotic appeal, enthusiastically sustained the Union cause. Democrats vied with Republicans in endorsing President Lincoln's decision to use force to preserve the Union. Almost everyone (except the professional soldiers) thought the war would be short, sweet, and successful. The Chicago Tribune, the leading Republican Party newspaper in Chicago, predicted that the Union victory would take "two or three months at the furthest." Illinois alone, the Tribune boasted, "can whip the South by herself."3

However, that initial burst of boastful newspaper optimism and bipartisan enthusiasm soon subsided. The war did not end in three months or six months. Casualties mounted. Taxes rose. And as the Lincoln administration undertook war measures that interfered with traditional civil liberties, political divisions re-emerged.

The commitment of Douglas and of those Democrats who looked to Douglas as their leader to the war effort, while sincere, did not mean that the normal operations of party politics would somehow disappear. Democrats had every right to think of themselves as the natural governing party of the nation and of Illinois. Until 1860 Illinois had always voted for the Democratic Party's presidential candidate. As late as 1858, the Democrats had controlled the state legislature and re-elected Douglas to the U.S. Senate. Many Illinois Democrats looked upon the new, upstart Republican Party, born as a third-party coalition of disparate elements, as a flash-in-the-pan, which, like the Know-Nothing movement of a few years earlier, would founder on its own internal contradictions, with the Democratic Party retaking control of the state. …