Constitutional Unionists: The Party That Tried to Stop Lincoln and Save the Union

By Green, Don | The Historian, Summer 2007 | Go to article overview

Constitutional Unionists: The Party That Tried to Stop Lincoln and Save the Union


Green, Don, The Historian


ON 12 FEBRUARY 1860, nine months before the November presidential election, as the fate of the nation hung by a thread, the national Constitutional Union Party announced its formation with a clarion call to the American people. After denouncing the Democrats and Republicans for causing the crisis over slavery, the address called for national unity and a May presidential nominating convention in Baltimore. (1) The party targeted voters who saw mortal danger to the United States in the election of an anti-slavery Republican. Their intent to save the Union was heroic. In the end, the electoral votes of only one state stood in the way of the Constitutional Unionists achieving their goal. (2)

The Constitutional Unionists believed that the election of William Seward or Abraham Lincoln would result in secession and war. The South had threatened to withdraw before but had never acted. Now, Southern threats appeared serious, and as sincere patriots, this new party mounted a campaign to save the Union. Despite widespread skepticism, many in the party believed that capturing the White House was within their grasp; if not by outright victory in the Electoral College, then in the House of Representatives.

Little ink has been devoted to the Constitutional Unionists in the election of 1860, arguably the most important election in the history of the United States. No monograph devoted to this "third party" exists; where reported, it appears as a minor player. In The Secession Movement (1931), Dwight Dumond portrays them as seekers of compromise over slavery. Even its Southern contingent viewed secession as a last resort compared with many Southern Democrats who seemed intent on separation. In The Emergence of Lincoln (1950), Alan Nevins calls them an "over the hill" mob that mounted a lackluster effort to stop an insurmountable tide for Lincoln. Nevins does not claim that defeating Lincoln was impossible, just that the "Unionists" lacked the political wherewithal. The most recent references are in Sean Wilentz's magnum opus The Rise of American Democracy and Doris Kearns Goodwin's Team of Rivals. Wilentz covers much the same ground as earlier works but gives the Constitutional Unionists credit for "good intentions," adding that if Seward had received the Republican nomination instead of Lincoln, they might have been victorious. Goodwin brushes off the new party as old Whigs and anti-immigrant Know-Nothings who were under the illusion that secession might have been avoided by ignoring the slavery problem. (3)

Historians have treated Abraham Lincoln kindly despite the fact that his victory became an immediate cause of secession and war. In November 1860, he reflected the aspirations of one section of the nation, while he was vilified by the other. Although he was victorious in the Electoral College, over 60 percent of American voters did not cast their ballot for him. (4) A portrait of what some in the majority were considering during the summer and fall of 1860 is in order.

Not surprisingly, former members of the defunct Whig Party took leadership of the Constitutional Unionists. Whigs had been strong nationalists and followers of Kentucky senator Henry Clay. They supported an integrated national economic development plan called the American System. Clay crafted the great compromises that settled disputes between North and South over slavery's expansion in the new territories acquired by the Louisiana Purchase and the war with Mexico. (5)

When Clay died in 1852, Whig leadership passed to fellow Kentuckian John Crittenden. Born in Versailles, Kentucky, in 1786, Crittenden had a distinguished forty-year career in politics, beginning in the state legislature and later becoming governor and U.S. senator. Well liked and admired by all factions, he made few enemies and fewer doubted his sincerity. Although Crittenden owned house slaves, he opposed slavery, thinking that the tide of history was running against the institution. …

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