Democratic Party and Its Factions

by Kirsten Campbell


There have been voices that get lost over time, overlooked in popular memory, left unattended in historical study.  In 1860, the United States loomed on the brink of war. Violence had erupted in growing western terror ties as Americans struggled to determine the future of slavery in the states. The variety of opinion over territorial policies proved too powerful for young America’s two party political systems. Certainly, two parties existed – the Republicans and the Democrats. The Republican Party, united behind the illustrious Abraham Lincoln, has often over overshadowed its Northern opponents in historical memory. Yet even in the Union stronghold of Pennsylvania, the Democrats received a considerable amount of popular support. On the surface, it would be easy to paint the Democrats as one monolithic group, unable match the popular support of Lincoln’s Republican party. Yet a closer looks shows the Democrats were a popular party in Pennsylvania that had been dangerously divided in its beliefs about war, slavery, and civil liberties both before and after the fateful attacks on Fort Sumter.

The roots of the Pennsylvania Democrats political divide can be traced to the 1860 presidential election, where national Democratic Party divisions grew so deep that the party was actually split in two. Despite attempted nominal unity, these divisions remained as the nation went to war in April of 1861. To understand the party split, it is necessary to first understand the common beliefs of the Democratic Party. Traditionally conservative, the Democrats held strong beliefs about slavery and civil liberties. On the basis of these common beliefs emerged two different attitudes on how to handle the violence and expansion of slavery into the west, which served as the matter of contention in the 1860 presidential election. When the nation did go to war, the divide remained, this time morphing into an argument as whether or not to support the war effort or to strive for immediate peace at any price.[1]

The beliefs of all Democratic factions shared two powerful, binding characteristics – racist beliefs which led to a fear of abolitionists and disinterest in emancipation, and a desire to see civil liberties guarded at all costs. The ultimate success of Lincoln’s emancipation proclamation and post-war reconstruction make it easy to overlook how many Northern citizens were skeptics or even opponents of the abolitionist movement. Many Republicans and almost all Democrats had little interest in ending slavery within the states. In a letter to Franklin Pierce, James Campbell believed that there was nothing to keep Pennsylvania for voting for Lincoln “by a very large majority”, as he did not believe, like most citizens, that voting Republican would actually lead to the Southern states seceding from the union.[2] Yet as election drew closer, more and more citizens became afraid of the growing abolitionist voice that supported the Republican Party.

Although Pennsylvania was by no means a “slave state”, the longtime conservative stronghold certainly did not make friendly policies towards free blacks. The 1838 Pennsylvania Constitution ruled any African Americans ineligible for citizenship, and between 1840 and 1860 several petitions had been presented to the state government seeking to strip black residents of what few civil rights they did have and return them to slavery.[3] One 1860 petition was typical of the argument that free blacks were a burden to society, and justified their return to slavery “owing to their great indolence and dissipation they have filled our prisons thus increasing our taxes to an enormous extent”.[4] In Philadelphia, anti-black riots were not uncommon. In 1838, 1842, 1848, and 1849, protests erupted pleading to end the future immigration of free blacks into the city.[5] Why the hostility? Many Pennsylvanians thought blacks to be innately inferior. The pseudo-science of the nineteenth century sought to justify this belief with alleged biological differences in races. These beliefs, although misconceptions, were widely accepted, leaving some to feel that slavery was even a social benefit. Some Christian citizens went as far as to say that Jesus and the Bible showed no objections to slavery. One Philadelphia church even maintained that free blacks were “more cut off and oppressed than slaves” as at least slaves were Christianized and “given guidance” by their masters.[6] Yet these ideas were so common that historian Jennifer Weber went as far as to say that most democrats “universally supported slavery, believing it to be the best situation for a degraded race” in her book on Copperheads.[7] Furthermore, slavery created strictly separate societies for whites and blacks. With such an institution, a greatly feared amalgamation of races was unlikely to happen.

Yet these were the mere reasons Pennsylvanians did not see the immorality of slavery. Their opposition to its extinction had larger roots. Citizens throughout the state saw Pennsylvania’s powerful manufacturing industry as dependent on Southern raw materials and the strength of the Southern economy. Slavery was the powerful institution behind the low cost of these materials, which provided Pennsylvanian laborers with industrial jobs. Not only did wealthy businessmen believe that abolition threatened the welfare of their industry, but working class laborers feared that freed blacks would undercut them in pay, taking away jobs in both the city and mining regions. These citizens saw abolitionists as purposely trying to cause sectional strife into order to fulfill their anti-slavery agenda. The frustration of Attorney General Jeremiah Black with the growing abolitionist movement was similar to that of many in the state. In a December edition of the Franklin Venango Spectator he accused abolitionist leaders of causing “mischief like monkeys for the mere sake of mischief”.[8] As war loomed closer, the accusations became more common and critical, a letter to the Dubuque Herald was reprinted in the Clearfield Democratic Banner warned that “Nothing will satisfy the fanatics of the North but a provocation to civil war…[the abolitionists’] darling objective is to see the abolition of slavery and the ruin and subjugation of the South to the political thralldom of Northern Fanaticism.”[9]

The worst fears about abolitionists “fanatical” behavior were further confirmed when John Brown led his violent raid on the Harper’s Ferry arsenal in October of 1859. By December of the same year, an Anti-Abolition rally erupted at Jayne Hall in Philadelphia. Former ambassador and politician William Bradford Reed helped write resolutions to prevent further abolitionist influence and disunity to appease the South. The protestors called for the enforcement of the Fugitive Slave Law within Pennsylvania and an end to the federal interference of domestic institutions within the states.[10] James Fulton of Kittanning wrote to Virginia governor Henry Wise to assure him that all Pennsylvanians supported these aims and were willing to do anything to end the “sectional strife” caused by abolitionists. Wise responded that the Southern states would only be appeased when Northern citizens stopped trying to “nullify the laws of the Union”.[11]

The Democrats feared an increase in the role of federal government and a loss of civil liberties as much as the abolition of slavery. Mid-war, the party’s focus on smaller government and legal justice would help the Democrats a considerable amount of support, especially after the suspension of habeas corpus and the implementation of the draft. But the Democratic position on civil liberties was formed well before 1863. Both factions of the 1860s Democratic Party clung tightly to strict-constructionist interpretations of the constitution, believing that a small federal government and local republican elections should be the backbone of the nation. As one of the only true republics, the Democrats felt that the abolition bent Republicans were jeopardizing the welfare of the nation. John Campbell highlighted these fears in his pamphlet The Political Parties of Philadelphia,

“Is not [America’s] existence a daily rebuke to the autocrats, kings, emperors, and petty tyrants? Where or when in this world’s history were there ever thirty millions of people, possessing so many of the physical comforts of life as ours, or enjoying so much individual liberty? Yet this happy state of things must be put an end to, in order to gratify the morbid and insane ambition of traitors, North and South”.[12]

These conservative viewpoints were rooted in Jeffersonian and Jacksonian ideology. Crafted in the late eighteenth century by Thomas Jefferson then brought back into popular support in the early nineteenth with the presidency of Andrew Jackson, this conservative dogma held that the powers of the president and the federal judiciary should be carefully defined and limited. Federal government should be small and limited in its ability to raise and distribute funds. Instead, authority was to reside primarily in state and local governments. The 1798 Kentucky Resolves and Virginia Resolves espoused these principles. Written by Thomas Jefferson and James Madison respectively, the resolves argued that states could invalid a federal law if they felt it was unconstitutional. If the constitutionality of the law could not be resolved, secession from the federal government was a viable last resort. These limited federal government ideas were revived during the presidency of Andrew Jackson, who dismantled the National Bank and fought for the expanded role of state and local governments. While many Democrats did not feel that secession was legal or necessary, they certainly had at least a small amount sympathy for the plight of the southern states, whose state rights were being dangerously encroached upon. The negotiating table, they certainly felt, was a better way to resolve these difference than the battlefield.[13]

Such tradition ideals about America as a true republic greatly shaped how Democrats felt the new western territories should be settled. State and local governments, they believed, were the best mediums for governing. They were physically close. Local elections allowed a region to be directly controlled by the community. As once remote regions became settled, it was these new citizens that built the government, took office, and determined the social order. To the Democrats, it was only natural that all significant legislation remains in their hands. As historian Jennifer Weber noted, the Democrats relied heavily on a strict interpretation of the constitution in an attempt to “[defend] their civil liberties against what they regarded as a steady incursion by the tyrant Abraham Lincoln and his republican minions”.[14]

Where the Democrats could not agree however, was on the extent to which slavery and civil liberties should be legislated. Differing opinions came to a head during the 1860 presidential election. The violence in the Midwest was disturbing the peace of the republic. Should slavery be allowed in the new territories? Lincoln and the Republicans had a solid answer – no. According to the party platform, the “normal condition” of a state was “freedom”, and although they were not seeking abolition in slave states, the Republicans had little interest in seeing the institution expand westward. Until the 1860, the Democratic Party had largely supported the concept of popular sovereignty in the new territories. The citizens of new territory would be able to vote on whether they wished to allow or disallow slavery. By 1860 however, it was clear that such elections were more complicated than originally thought. When should these elections be held? Should a slaveholding society be allowed to settle and the elections can be held once the territory is a settle state? Or should the elections take place while the region was still a territory? This would preemptively end slavery before the state was brought into formal existence.

In June of 1860 the Democratic Party met in Baltimore to attempt forming a unified party platform. Compromise could not be reached. The “Southern” wing of the party wanted a federal slave code instituted. The proposed slave code would secure the rights of slaveholders until a new territory became a state and a proper election could be held to decide otherwise. This more conservative, southern sympathizing wing rallied behind John C. Breckinridge and his running mate Joseph Lane. Although the minority candidate, Breckinridge did have a considerable following in Pennsylvania. He was the most popular amongst the wealthy businessmen of Philadelphia, who often held both financial and familial ties to the South’s southern plantation system. Many manufacturing laborers also supported Breckinridge, fearful that weakening the slave system would jeopardize their industry and jobs. The “Northern” wing did not feel that a slave code would be necessary, and that an election at the discretion of the citizens would be sufficient to decide the matter. Far more popular in the North, this faction nominated senator Stephen A. Douglas as their presidential candidate, along with Heschel V. Johnson as vice presidential candidate.

Of course, the party was well aware it could not defeat the increasingly popular Abraham Lincoln if its votes were divided between Douglas and Breckinridge. Pennsylvanians were aware unification would be the only way a Democratic administration would enter into office in the fall. In early March, the Ebensburg Democrat and Sentinel pleaded to citizens that it was “no time for the Democracy to wrangle and quarrel among themselves about mere abstractions, the Disunionists must be defeated next fall.”[15]. Realizing the need to unite the party for the national election, the Democratic State Committee gathered for a meeting on July 2, 1860 to compromise on candidate. A small majority of representatives supported Breckinridge, but the Douglas supporters were unwilling to compromise behind the pro-slavery Kentuckian. In attempt to heal the divide post-election, a “fusion” ticket was created under the suggestion of campaign manager William Walsh.[16] Under the fusion ticket, Pennsylvania’s Democratic votes would count towards whichever Democratic nominee was in the lead.  Each candidate would be able to run for office without the party losing overall votes. Unfortunately Pennsylvania citizens, especially those in support of Douglas, were not receptive to the idea of a compromised fusion ticket. The former mayor of Philadelphia and Democratic elector Richard Vaux publicly opposed the compromise, telling Welsh that the Committee’s fusion ticket was “illegal” and a form of political corruption. If he could not vote only for Douglas, then he wished to resign his vote.[17] As November loomed closer, divide and dissention with the party only grew. The fusion ticket policy was scrapped and rewritten again in October. At the same time, a small contingent of Democrats led by John Forney created a separate Douglas-only ticket, preferring a Lincoln victory over a Breckinridge one.

The election results in the Tribune Almanac show there was considerable support for the Democratic Party in the state; party factionalism split votes enough to prevent victory. Although Lincoln won the election, the Democratic candidate, who under the fusion ticket became Stephen Douglas, carried a considerable amount of votes in Pennsylvania, capturing forty-four percent of the popular vote. The voting totals showed the geographical striations of Democratic support throughout the state. [18]Almost all central Pennsylvania counties voted in favor of the Democratic nominee, many of their votes originally cast to the Southern leaning Breckinridge. A few counties bordering Ohio were heavily influenced by western peace sentiment. Though Lincoln prevailed among the Eastern counties, the votes were alarmingly close. In over fourteen counties, Lincoln won only by a margin of ten percent or less.[19]

In April of 1861, shots were fired on Fort Sumter and the Democrats’ fears were realized. The Southern States had seceded from the Union and Northern troops were being rallied to end their rebellion at gunpoint. Suddenly, what was once a matter of political resolution became a debate of loyalty or treason. And although the North made a fairly united effort to start the war effort, the Democrats remained divided on how to handle the conflict. In his study of the anti-administration but pro-war democrats, historian Christopher Dell noted that “there was always disunity in the free states, on a grand scale: there was disunity in fact, to provide the leaders of the Peace faction with a strong sense of self-confidence from the beginning of the war”.[20] Many the citizens that had formerly saw themselves as “Breckinridge Democrats” were now frustrated by a war they considered unnecessary if not unconstitutional. The Peace Democrats longed for “peace at any price”, previously willing to accept a slave code, they were now willing to accept any compromise that would bring war to an end. Yet other members of their party did not share their “peace at any price” beliefs. Although the War Democrats disliked the policies and leadership of the Lincoln administration, they did not fully oppose war. Rather, they supported the effort to “end the rebellion” believing that no other means would cause the south to rejoin the Union. When a national War Congress was assembled in July of 1861, both forms of the Democratic Party were present. During the summer of 1861, the War Democrats out numbered the Peace Democrats nearly three to one. Yet the majority did little to quell the conflict.

By the winter session, divisions only multiplied as the War faction split into those stoutly for the war and those favoring peace on “conditional” terms. These “Conditionals” included two influential Pennsylvania politicians, Charles J. Biddle and Sydenham E. Ancona, who had straddled the line between Peace and War democrats. Biddle himself represented the conflict well. Considered a “Breckinridge Democrat” during the election of 1860, he was often accused of having southern leanings and held no objections to enforcing the fugitive slave law or the creation of a slave code. However Biddle was also a military man who had severed honorably during the Mexican War. His service saved him from the accusations of being a traitor – a threat that prevented many Democratic politicians from gaining influence.

It was only a matter of time however until compromising “Conditional” voice fell to the great party divide. Eventually, these politicians either joined the opposing ranks of the Peace or War Democrats. In the 37th Congress, five of Pennsylvania’s ten Democratic Representatives supported war, but still held strong anti-administration platforms.[21] Only the 38th Congress could consider three of the Pennsylvania representatives considered war Democrats. The majority of the war “Conditionals” had switched to a Peace Democrat platform, including men like Charles J. Biddle. Of the forty-six Peace Democrats, six considered themselves Peace Democrats. The shift was reflected of a larger shift towards an anti-war stance in the Democrat party. Where the War Democrats once held majority, the Peace Democrats now numbered forty-six to the War Democrats’ thirty-five. [22] The conditional attempts at bridging the partisan split had ultimately failed, opposing voices on each side of the party were too powerful and long-standing.

For many Democrats, this split was a dangerous weakness in running against the republicans. Fears about losing a conservative voice nationally due to inner party turmoil were very real. In September of 1860 the Erie Observer, pleaded “Let Us Have Union” to western Democrats. As Douglas and Breckinridge, who continued to campaign against each other, faced a rise in third party candidates such as the shortlived Constitutional-Union party, the chances of a Democratic nominee narrowed.[23] The western paper warned the dangers of a Republican victory, but the their fears were not convincing enough to unite factions.  By 1861, Pennsylvania’s elected congressmen began speaking out against the war and the Lincoln administration. Elected in the summer of 1861, the long time Democrat Colonel Charles John Biddle was typical of the anti-administration politicians in Pennsylvania. A former Whig and son of wealthy banker Nicholas Biddle, Colonel Charles Biddle was unquestionably a Union supporter – he was elected lieutenant of the 13th Pennsylvania Reserves and did not suggest any form of immediate peace treaty. Yet he routinely criticized his fellow congressmen for their abuses towards civil liberty law. Directed towards the republicans, he argued, “A party that can silence opposition and muzzle the press is the worst kind of tyrant”.[24]

Plenty of citizens were hesitant of the war effort and skeptical that taking up arms was the best form of conflict resolution. Census records of the War’s earliest enlistment drives show Pennsylvanians’ tentativeness to join the war effort. Although the initial 1861 volunteers made up just over one third of Pennsylvania’s 344,408 total enlisted men, they still remained a fairly small group in comparison to Pennsylvania’s military age population. According to the census, “military-aged” referred to any healthy white male between the age of eighteen and forty-five. Only in one in four of the 550,000 men of military age in Pennsylvania volunteered to fight at the onset of war.[25] The rest either joined later from various political, social, and familial pressures or through conscription. Others choose not serve entirely, a surprising forty percent of this population.

As war progressed, these factions continued to exist and only became more vocal. The early years of anti-war sentiment were largely masked by social pressure and legal limitations to freedom of speech and freedom of press. This does not mean however that anti-war sentiment did not exist. The considerable efforts to shut down critical newspapers and arrest citizens show that the anti-administration sentiment was powerful and popular enough to be perceived as a legitimate threat. One example of such repression was seen in Uniontown, Pennsylvania. The editor of the “Genius of Liberty”, a popular Democratic newspaper, was threatened with police action and imprisonment if he continued printing.[26] Similarly, a large Democratic Rally was held in Easton, Pennsylvania on August 19th, 1861. The event had been widely published in the Easton Sentinel and Easton Argus. After the audience cheered loudly during several anti-administration speeches during the rally, an angry Republican mob stormed through the city and physically destroyed the Sentinel’s and Argus’s press rooms. Individuals with unpopular opinions could easily be arrested on account of treason or for discouraging enlistment and recruitment of troops. In his diary, Sidney George Fisher noted the dangers of voicing an anti-war opinion. It was only “at the risk of any man’s life,” he observed, “that he utters publicly a sentiment in favor of secession or the south”.[27]

These threats to freedom of speech and press fueled antagonism to the Republican Administration, and the party became increasingly appealing to Pennsylvanian citizens. Eventually the Democrats, fighting for long established beliefs, regained their once jeopardized civil liberties and were even able to amass popular support for the party in the 1864 presidential election. Yet again, the party was split between two very different candidates. General George B. McClellan became the popular candidate amongst the War Democrats, whose nebulous platform asked for a swift military victory and a return to status quo antebellum. The controversial Indiana politician Clement Vallandingham became the exemplary spokesman for the Peace Democrats, with heavy emphasis on “peace at any price” and an immediate ceasefire. The Democratic party split in 1863 and after has been brought to light and examined thoroughly by historians Frank Klement, Arnold Shankman, and more recently Jennifer Weber. However a closer look shows that factions had existed in the party since the election of 1860, well before war began, and continued to exist in the early war years. No where was this more true than in Pennsylvania, whose diverse, outspoken citizens had a long, tumultuous history of conflicting opinions on the necessity of war and the future of slavery.  


[1] James A. McPherson. Battle Cry of Freedom. New York: Ballantine Books, 1989.

[2] Campbell, James to Franklin Pierce. October 22, 1860, Pierce Letter Collection. Library of    Congress. Microfilm, Reel 5. Pennsylvania State University Libraries.

[3] Shankman, Arnold M. The Pennsylvania Antiwar Movement, 1861-1865. Madison, Wisc.: Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 1980. 24.

[4] Bedford Inquirer. December 14th, 1860. Pennsylvania Civil War Newspapers Database.

[5] Arnold M. Shankman. The Pennsylvania Antiwar Movement, 1861-1865. 24.

[6] Muncy Luminary. December 25, 1860. Pennsylvania Civil War Newspapers Database.

[7] Jennifer Weber. Copperheads: The Rise and Fall of Lincoln's Opponents in The North. London: Oxford University Press, 2006. 31

[8] Franklin Venango Spectator quoted in Arnold M. Shankman. The Pennsylvania Antiwar Movement, 1861-1865. 26.

[9] “Our Federal Bastiles” Clearfield Democratic Banner. April, 1861.

[10] Jean H. Baker. Affairs of Party: The Political Culture of Northern Democrats in the Mid-Nineteenth Century. New York: Fordham University Press, 1998. 177-179.

[11] Fulton to Wise, December 15, 1859. Wise to Fulton, December 20, 1857. Fulton Manuscript Collection. Pennsylvania Historic and Museum Commission.

[12] John Campbell. “The Political Parties of Philadelphia; The Nominees That Ought to be Elected In 1861”. Philadelphia, 1861. Pennsylvania State Archives Digital Collection.  accessed Nov. 2010.

[13] “The Democratic Platform: As Appointed at Cincinnati in 1856”. Tribune Almanac and Political Register. 1860-1864. 32-34.

[14] Jennifer Weber, Copperheads. 20.

[15] Ebensburg Democrat and Sentinel. March 2, 1860. Pennsylvania Civil War Newspapers Database.

[16] Arnold M. Shankman. The Pennsylvania Antiwar Movement, 1861-1865. 29.

[17] Pittsburg Post, July 31, 1860. Pennsylvania Civil War Newspapers Database.

[18] Tribune Almanac. 1860-1863. 50-51.

[19] Tribune Almanac. 1860-1863. 50-51.

[20] Christopher Dell. Lincoln and the War Democrats: The Grand Erosion of Conservative Tradition. Cranbury, N.J.: Associated University Press, Inc. 16.

[21] Christopher Dell. Lincoln and the War Democrats. 371

[22] Christopher Dell. Lincoln and the War Democrats. 372-376

[23] Erie Observer. September 7, 1860. Pennsylvania Civil War Database.

[24] Biddle, Charles John. Address of the Democratic State Central Committee. Philadelphia, 1863. p. 7. Accessed Sept. 2010.

[25] Kennedy, Joseph C. Population of the United States n 1860: Compiled from the Original Returns of the Eighth Census. Washington, D.C.: Government Printing Office, 1864. .

[26] Arnold M. Shankman. The Pennsylvania Antiwar Movement, 1861-1865. 73.

[27] Nicholas B. Wainright. eds. A Philadelphia perspective : the diary of Sidney George Fisher covering the years, 1834-1871. Philadelphia: Historical Society of Pennsylvania, 1967.