At the Precipice: Americans North and South during the Secession Crisis

By Shearer Davis Bowman | Go to book overview

4 The Second Party System and Its Legacy
The Careers of John Bell, John C. Breckinridge,
Howell Cobb, Stephen A. Douglas, John Tyler, and
Martin Van Buren

The era of the second American party system, which extended from the mid-1820s into the mid-1850s, warrants extended discussion in any analysis of the late antebellum years and the secession crisis. The leaders of the Republican Party, the four principal candidates for national office in 1860, and the organizers of the Confederacy had entered the political arena during the years of Democratic-Whig rivalry. These two national party organizations contained North-South divisions during the 1830s and for most of the 1840s; their subsequent disintegration both reflected and presaged the sharpening sectional tensions that finally disrupted the Union. The legacy of the second party system on the eve of the Civil War included what one scholar has termed “the frenzied, all-consuming, society-defining political culture” of antebellum America.1

The contours and legacy of the second party system can be explored through the lives and careers of six important politicians, four southerners and two northerners, all of them involved at some point in presidential politics but each with a career that reflected the political dynamics of a different state. All took public stands during the secession crisis. Two—Martin Van Buren and John Tyler—were former presidents. Three—John Bell, John Breckinridge, and Stephen A. Douglas—ran unsuccessfully against Abraham Lincoln for the White House in 1860. And Georgia’s Howell Cobb presided over the convention that organized the Confederate States of America in early 1861 and chose Jefferson Davis as its president. Despite the prominence of and influence wielded by these six men, the 1860 election placed in the White House a candidate whom they all opposed.

Like the victorious Lincoln, all of the three losing presidential candidates in 1860 rose to prominence in newer, post-Constitution states west of the Appalachian Mountains. Tennessee had entered the Union in 1796, and its favorite

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