The Election of 1860: Limits of Partisanship
A pair of cases decided after the election of 1856 thrust the Supreme Court into the campaign of 1860. Both cases involved slavery, which by the late 1850s threatened to dismember the union. The justices not only took sides on this explosive question but did so in a way that invalidated the organizing principle of the new Republican party. These developments occurred as the second party system disintegrated and the third party system emerged.
The second party system lasted for about a quarter-century, with Democrats prevailing in national elections most of the time. Only in 1840 and 1848 did Whigs win the White House, and they controlled Congress only occasionally: both houses in the 27th Congress, the Senate in the 28th, and the House in the 30th. (See appendix 1.) Yet in terms of the development of American parties, the years were noteworthy in at least two respects. First, in contrast to the sectional orientation that would later characterize both Democrats and Republicans, Democrats and Whigs in the second party system drew from both North and South. Second, the period was a vigorous political garden, rich with the flowering of third parties. Indeed, the Democratic-Whig competition ended with the ascendancy of one of them (the Republicans), the only instance in American history when a third party supplanted a major party. The underpinnings of the major parties’ national base encouraged these competitors.
As early as 1820, when Congress considered the Missouri question (discussed in the previous chapter), Thomas Jefferson regarded the controversy over slavery in territories and new states as a “fire bell in the night” and “the