Would York County, Pa., back Abraham Lincoln’s presidency today?
This graphic showing the 1860 election results in York County, Pa., comes from G. A. Mellander and Carl E. Hatch “York County’s Presidential Elections.” It shows the local electorate supported candidate Abraham Lincoln’s opponents. (See results for 1864 election below.) Also of interest: Pro/Con: Should York’s leaders have surrendered to the rebels? and When York County rolled up its red carpet to people of color and In the 1800s, York County voters sided with the Democrats, the party of the South
Abraham Lincoln’s election in 1860 started the Civil War.
I made that observation in my York Sunday News column (10/31/10) and raised a hypothetical scenario: If Abraham Lincoln were running for office today and slavery was still an issue in U.S. holdings, how would York County vote in the election on Tuesday?
I answer that question in a moment.
Tuesday’s election also marks the 150th anniversary of Lincoln’s rise to the presidency.
It also kicks off the start of the 150th anniversary of the Civil War. I’m aware that fighting started in April 1861 at Charleston Harbor in South Carolina.
But the nation started coming apart with the 1860 election.
Here’s my York Sunday News column:
The 1860 general election launched a new American president and a new war — the Civil War.
Abraham Lincoln became the nation’s chief executive in that election 150 years ago, causing a symbolic — and actual — schism in America.
Southern states started seceding soon after voters left the polls, and the nation came apart with the onset of fighting at Fort Sumter, S.C., in April 1861.
The American public will be presented with a string of 150th anniversary dates from now to 2015. This five-year window presents an opportunity to thoroughly explore the Civil War, its roots and branches.
The 1860 presidential election is a logical place to start because it’s the beginning.
In that election, Abraham Lincoln easily won the American popular vote.
He outgained Southern candidate John C. Breckinridge and other challengers in Pennsylvania.
But Lincoln lost to his opponents in York County by a 1,500-vote margin.
Lincoln lost in York County? But we’re in the North, people say with surprise.
Such was the case recently when I related the Lincoln vote to a learned student of history.
Intrigued, he paused and commented: “I’ll have to look into that.”
Of course, the next question is: Why?
“Why” is tougher to explain than “what,” but consider:
• In the 19th century — and for parts of the 20th — agrarian York County consistently voted for Democratic presidential candidates. The Democratic Party was influenced by Southern landowners and slaveholders Thomas Jefferson and Andrew Jackson.
Those U.S. presidents generally opposed intervention by a strong federal government and supported states rights. The philosophy that government that governs least governs best fit the minds of the York County farmers just right.
York College researchers G.A. Mellander and Carl E. Hatch wrote in 1972 about this local sympathy toward Southern presidents. They also noted that Abraham Lincoln and his Republican Party portended federal intervention in stopping the spread of slavery in western territories and deploying military force to preserve the Union.
• The extension of the railroad from Baltimore to York in 1838 gave county farmers and businesses ready access to that major Southern port city and other points south.
“The railroad tied York County’s economic interests to the South
before the war, and for this reason many county inhabitants were reluctant to voice any opposition to slavery and the southern way of life . . .,” historian Mark A. Snell wrote in 1987, “They also shared many of the same values and political ideals of their southern neighbors.”
The same was true of social, family and cultural connections.
• Generally, York County’s long border, the heralded Mason-Dixon Line, with the slave state of Maryland provided an avenue for Southern ideas to flow into York County.
To adapt author William Ecenbarger’s observation about Delaware to York County, York County was a northern county with a southern exposure and a southern county with a northern exposure.
• Any discussion about the emancipation of slaves raised the fear of an influx of freedmen into the border county of York.
The York Gazette, the county’s leading Democratic newspaper, showed its opposition to emancipation with this example: Suppose 100 slaves were freed. They would potentially take 100 jobs from white working men in York County. If the freed-man didn’t work, then the community would need to support them.
“They will fill our Jail and Almshouse,” the newspaper opined, “and live off the taxes wrung from the people.”
• York countians were concerned federalists like Lincoln would unglue the U.S. Constitution in their quest to undo slavery.
This position was summed up in the Democratic mantra cited around York County: “The Union as it was, the Constitution as it is, the Negroes where they are.”
The Constitution permitted slavery until the North’s decisive win in 1865 spawned amendments banning bondage.
• A.B. Farquhar, a leading York County businessman, served as a barometer of political thought in York County in 1860.
“York was distinctly Northern, but not bitterly anti-Southern,” he wrote in 1922. “The community felt that slavery was wrong in principle. At the same time, being acquainted with many slave owners, we also knew that slavery was better in practice than in theory and that the planter who was cruel to his Negroes was a rare exception.”
Such a mindset did not easily accept the change Lincoln would bring.
OK, that was then. Hypothetically, how would Abraham Lincoln fare with York County voters today if slavery were still permitted in U.S. holdings?
Today’s York countians clearly would depart from their ancestors in their abhorrence of slavery. History brings home how wrong slavery is.
And how racist.
One point that backers of slavery never got was that servitude in the South lined up according to race. No white slaves were born into bondage and labored in the South. To the Southern mind, dark skin somehow equated to property, a being less than human.
York countians further would back Lincoln because he was Republican. Somewhere on or about 1983 — at the time of a local Democratic implosion in reputation and Reagan explosion in popularity — York County forged a lasting Republican advantage.
That does not necessarily translate to staunch conservatism, for some residual suspicion of undue government intervention flows in the veins of York countians. Ask supporters of transforming Lower Windsor Township’s Lauxmont Farms into a park about that.
As one local observer of the York County political scene once told me: York County isn’t necessary conservative. People just vote Republican.
Some York countians would have trouble with Lincoln’s fiddling with the U.S. Constitution and its slavery provisions. The “Constitution as it is” slogan would resonate with some and create support for any opposing candidate who backed strict adherence to that document.
Of course, some York countians — a few, no doubt — would not support Lincoln for the same reason that their forebears did not support him in 1860. In the mold of A.B. Farquhar, they would stick to some delusional notion that the South was somehow justified in maintaining the peculiar institution.
They would pragmatically argue that it was not our problem. After all, slavery was gradually abolished in York County and the rest of Pennsylvania after 1780. And heavy-handed government intervention should not gore the Southern ox.
Still, if Lincoln should run today, York countians would support him this time.
In the 1864 election, Lincoln ran against former Union Army General George B. McClellan.
After Union forces took Atlanta, it was obvious the North would win the war.
Voting states re-elected Lincoln. Pennsylvania backed Lincoln.
York countians supported McClellan.
In fact, Lincoln lost by a wider margin in York County than he did in 1860. And that vote came after an estimated 11,000 or more Confederate solders overran York County the summer before, raiding farms and stealing livestock at will.
Sometimes, it’s hard to get a bad idea out of our hard York County heads. That’s why we must use this 150th anniversary to better understand the Civil War and its causes.
That philosophy that the government that governs least governs best?
The Civil War suggest it’s not always the best.
Ok, here are local resources to draw from in contemplating the Civil War with the hope that the 5-years in which we’ll observe the 150th anniversary of that war will be thought-provoking and informative:
This table shows York County voters widened their support for Lincoln’s opponent George McClellan versus 1860.
Civil War resources
Pennsylvania Civil War 150, pacivilwar150.com, has released a Pennsylvania Civil War Road Show 2011 schedule, listing the 22 Pennsylvania counties that will play host to a traveling exhibition in the first year of the 150th anniversary of the war.
Based in a 53-foot expandable trailer, the road show will bring interactive exhibits and special programming on Pennsylvania’s vital role in the war to local communities, according to a news release. The road show will travel to each of Pennsylvania’s 67 counties at least once during the four-year anniversary of the war.
The trailer will sit in York County – at York’s Penn Park -from Aug.18 to 22. The York County Heritage Trust will serve as host.
– “York County’s Presidential Elections,” G. A. Mellander and Carl E. Hatch. Available at York County libraries, www.yorklibraries.org.
– “Flames Beyond Gettysburg,” Scott L. Mingus, www.yorklibraries.org. Also, Cannonball blog, www.yorkblog.com/cannonball.
– “A Northern County Goes to War: Recruiting, the Draft, and Social Response in York County, Pa., 1861-1865,” Mark A. Snell’s master’s thesis, York County Heritage Trust archives, www.yorkheritage.org.
– “All politics is local” and “Civil War” categories, yorktownsquare.com blog.
Did you know?
President Abraham Lincoln linked up with York County at least three times.
On his way to Gettysburg for his famous address in 1863, Lincoln’s car paused in Hanover after he had changed trains at Hanover Junction. “Father Abraham,” someone called out, “your children want to hear you.” The president emerged from his car. “Well, you have seen me,” Lincoln said, “and according to general experience, you have seen less than you expected to see.”
Two years earlier, Lincoln’s train, without the president-elect aboard, paused in York. Lincoln had been rerouted because of a suspected assassination plot. His absence disappointed a large York crowd.
In 1865, Lincoln’s body was aboard his touring funeral train when it stopped in York. Within earshot of a Philadelphia Inquirer reporter, an elderly black man proclaimed, “He was crucified for us.”
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