A Respectable Minority: The Democratic Party in the Civil War Era, 1860-1868

A Respectable Minority: The Democratic Party in the Civil War Era, 1860-1868

A Respectable Minority: The Democratic Party in the Civil War Era, 1860-1868

A Respectable Minority: The Democratic Party in the Civil War Era, 1860-1868

Excerpt

The Civil War democracy had to find a new political role for itself and react to strange conditions in the country at large. It was, after 1860, the opposition party in a situation of national danger, a badly divided minority party trying to regain its place and dominance, the party out of power in the midst of a war in which the government did its best to propagandize Northerners into an inflexible consensus against disunion and the South. All of this was new, strange, and very difficult. Party members, therefore, had to find their way through the complexities of wartime politics and election battles conscious of their own chaotic condition, of their recent rejection by the electorate, and of the fact that the usual stock in trade of an opposition—to challenge government policies and pose alternative courses of action—was a dangerous course to pursue, even in free elections, when the governing party vigorously argued that the opposition was committing treason against the Union.

Party members accommodated themselves to the post-1860 situation by reverting to the traditional role of a political opposition. After a short period of confusion and adjustment, they forcefully challenged the government's policies, particularly the administration's determination to use whatever means necessary to destroy the South and inflict blows against its social system in the name of winning the war. They carped, nagged, and viewed with alarm, all in the most provocative and bitter style. They did not readily acquiesce in or celebrate the government's efforts even to win the war.

For their efforts, they learned quickly that it was not a good time to be a Democrat. They were roundly condemned by their opponents and painted far and wide as members of a party that "had sunk so low" in their behavior and opposition "that it seemed impossible to sink . . .

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