The Dark Horse Danger: Democratic Lessons for Republicans in 2016

2008 Republican Convention2008 Republican Convention. (Photo: newshour flickr CC)

As a host of Republican Party big-wigs – from rapid-rise newcomers like Marco Rubio and Rand Paul, to familiar stalwarts like Mitt Romney and Jeb Bush – position themselves for the 2016 presidential nomination, we can look to history for insight as to the problems of a crowded field. In particular, we should study the Democrats of 1852, for in that year the front-runners blocked each other at the national convention and thus permitted the success of an unexpected (“dark horse”) candidate, who went on to win the general election and proved to be a disaster for both party and country. Though in recent years much of the convention suspense has been removed by the system of primaries, today’s long, drawn-out campaigns that commence eighteen months before the election are akin to the maneuvering and machinations of earlier times.

Democrats in 1852, like Republicans today, were the conservative party, frantic to preserve the status quo from liberal reformers. In 2015, the major issues are national security, corporate regulations, healthcare, immigration, and gay rights; in the early 1850s, Americans were focused primarily on the fate of slavery in new western Territories, growing Southern power, and the dramatic rise of the anti-slavery movement in the free states. Democrats hoped to maintain Southern control of the federal government, spread slavery westward into lands taken from Mexico and southward into Central America to lands yet unconquered, and stifle the anti-slavery tide. Two years earlier, in the summer of 1850, Democrats had pushed through Congress a “compromise” that permitted the spread of slavery into Utah and New Mexico, expanded the borders of the new slave state of Texas, paid the Texas debt, preserved slavery in the District of Columbia, denied Congressional authority over slavery, and forced free state residents to participate in the capture and kidnapping of their black neighbors. The Whig Party was in decided decline, and Democrats were well positioned to reclaim the presidency and resume their pro-slavery agenda.

No slave-owner, however, could win the presidency in 1852. President James Polk’s (D-TN) invasion of Mexico in 1846 had enraged free state voters and alerted them to the aggression of the Slave Power. Thus, the Southern bosses of the Democratic Party needed a pro-slavery Northerner who could carry key free states. There were four leaders who met these standards in 1852. The front-runner was Pennsylvania’s James Buchanan, who had been angling for the presidency for a decade, and never missed an opportunity to remind the South of his “long, consistent strong support of Southern rights.” Next in the hearts of the party grandees was the “Little Giant” of Illinois, Stephen Douglas. Seen as the candidate of the rough-and-tumble West, Douglas, just shy of forty years old, was energetic, bold, and aggressive…and he desperately wanted to be President. But many Democratic elders scoffed at a Douglas candidacy, deriding him as “that little whipster” and counseling him to wait until 1856. “He would lose nothing by keeping,” observed Connecticut chieftain Gideon Welles.

For Democrats who thought Buchanan too conservative and Douglas too young, William Marcy of New York offered an attractive alternative. The leading Democrat in a must-win state, Marcy had few enemies outside New York, and he was generally considered a moderate, reasonable statesman. Finally, doddering, bewigged Lewis Cass of Michigan threatened to thwart the aspirations of Buchanan, Douglas, and Marcy. Cass’s career had been built on ambiguity, appeasement, and a remarkable ability to flow with political currents. He had won the nomination in 1848 but lost the election, yet his hunger for high office had not been slaked.

When the party factions assembled in June 1852 in Baltimore for the national convention, the outcome was anything but certain. All four leading candidates had legitimate claims on party leadership; all four had earned conservative, pro-slavery credentials; all four were from key Northern states that the Southern-controlled Democratic Party was desperate to win; and all four had about the same number of delegates at the convention. What happened next was hardly a surprise: Buchanan, Douglas, Marcy, and Cass blocked each other. None of them could achieve the 2/3 majority necessary to secure the nomination. The delegates cast ballot after ballot to no avail. By the fifth day, a sense of calamity had descended upon the delegates and wire-pullers. Each of the four candidates refused to yield, each believing they deserved the nomination and the presidency.

Finally, on the thirty-fifth ballot, Virginia broke ranks and announced for the nearly unknown Franklin Pierce of New Hampshire. Delegations rushed to the support of “Handsome Frank.” In short order, Pierce, who was not in the hall and had no real enemies because no one really knew him, won the nomination and became the new face of the most powerful political party in the nation.

Delegates and party managers sighed in relief at having avoided catastrophe and selected a candidate behind whom all factions could unite. Moreover, Pierce was a defender of slavery, a committed conservative, and hailed from New England, where the Democratic Party was weakest. By all accounts, “Handsome Frank” seemed like the perfect nominee. When his opponents split the Northern vote and Pierce won the presidency, Democrats were jubilant.

Within months, however, they realized their tremendous error. Pierce proved a weak chief executive who suffered from alcoholism, depression, and ineptitude. His patronage policies created dramatic rifts in the party, and his pro-slavery policies infuriated free state voters. In particular, the Pierce administration’s brutal enforcement of the Fugitive Slave Law of 1850, his tolerance for illegal pro-slavery filibustering expeditions into Latin America, and his support of the Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854 (which would permit the spread of slavery into the West) caused Northern Democrats to abandon the party in droves, triggered the rise of the anti-slavery Republican Party, and led directly to the Civil War. Within four years of Pierce leaving office, the Democratic Party would be shattered and the United States would be on the brink of disunion.

Today, primaries have pre-empted much of the convention excitement and candidates and pundits no longer wait with bated breath for last-minute surprises. Nevertheless, the Republican hopefuls of 2015, starting their campaigns well over a year ahead of the nomination, are not unlike the Democratic aspirants of 1852, laboring to out-maneuver and out-shine each other, each determined to claim the nomination. Texas Governor Rick Perry is not unlike Buchanan, both being staunch conservatives who failed to win the nomination on previous occasions; William Marcy and Jeb Bush share a similar reputation as well-respected moderates from must-win states; like Lewis Cass, Mitt Romney is a man of flexible principles and a failed candidate looking to redeem himself; and, like Douglas, Rand Paul and Marco Rubio are the young upstarts clamoring for attention.

Political parties hope their best and brightest will seek high office. But a crowded field can lead to trouble. If the top contenders are not willing to yield early, a messy primary process can fracture the party and alienate voters. Moreover, front-runner infighting might produce a second-rate candidate on which all factions can unite for the election but could prove a poor president and a disaster for the party. Republicans should be careful they don’t end up with another “Handsome Frank” Pierce.

About the Author

Michael Landis

Michael Todd Landis is an Assistant Professor of History at Tarleton State University. He is the author of Northern Men with Southern Loyalties: The Democratic Party and the Sectional Crisis (Cornell, 2014).

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4 Comments

  1. What an excellent article and a wonderful reminder of the value history holds to understanding current issues! And thanks to Elliot Brandow for his comment mentioning my December article on Garfield and Sherman in 1880. While Garfield was certainly something of a surprise in 1880, he was definitely not an unknown after 17 years in the House. There had been a few rumblings about the possibility of a Garfield candidacy in 1880 a year or two before the convention. I wonder if anyone, anywhere had proposed a Franklin Pierce candidacy prior to the 1852 Democratic convention? Again, really instructive post here.

    1. I couldn’t agree more. I had never heard of a number of the episodes found in these articles, yet their lessons for today’s society are so valuable.

  2. I also loved the descriptions of the candidates in this piece. So often, nineteenth-century historians all seem the same. NOW I know what Lewis Cass was like!

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