There was a moment during the first Republican presidential campaign when Democrats were forced to confront the stark possibility that the anti-slavery party might actually win. It was a sobering moment for the defenders of slavery.
Modern-day Democrats briefly faced a politically — though not morally — comparable moment recently. The reactions of the 19th- and 21st-century versions of the party were not dissimilar.
When the upstart Republicans of 1856 swept the Maine state elections in early September, Democrats – who until then had mostly dismissed the new party’s chances of winning in November – faced an existential threat.
It was as if someone had suggested that men could fly. “The mere thought that such a thing might occur is enough to startle one,” wrote Jeremiah S. Black, an advisor to Democratic candidate James Buchanan.
So startled were they that Democratic Vice Presidential candidate John C. Breckenridge laid out the end result of a victory by Republican candidate John C. Fremont in the starkest of terms during a speech in Indiana just days after the Maine elections.
“If the Eastern States were to unite in solid phalanx against the West, or the Southern against the Northern, they happening to have a majority, would you submit to it? I am sure you would not, for I know you to be men,” he said. “And, should they further, accompany every act of their triumph with every expression of contumely and contempt, would you not believe revolution a solemn duty?”
In other words, Breckenridge argued, unless you elect me and Buchanan, you’re going to get calamity in the form of dissolution of the union.
Black wrote that a Fremont victory “would place the country in a condition so totally new that we could be guided in our course by no precedents which have been set since the days of the revolution.”
Virginia Governor Henry Wise threatened “to declare anyone who permits his name to go on a Fremont electoral ticket guilty of contemplated treason to the State,” and called for an emergency meeting of slave-state governors to consider secession.
That meeting was a non-event, but the anti-slavery side saw the same thing.
“He who doubts that the election of John C. Fremont to the Presidency would bring about an immediate dissolution of the Union, would deny the existence of the sun in heaven, or anything else equally palpable to the senses,” wrote abolitionist publisher William Lloyd Garrison, who was sympathetic to the Republican candidate, but was not a supporter.
Polls earlier in the month confronted modern-day Democrats with a similar stark reality – the heretofore unimaginable possibility of President Donald J. Trump.
Repeatedly laughed off, first by the press, then by his Republican primary competitors, and lastly by the Democratic opposition, GOP nominee Trump suddenly found himself tied in national polls and leading in key states such as Ohio and Florida.
How did Democrats react?
Not by threatening secession, although quite a number promised to individually secede by removing themselves from the country.
Beyond that, overwrought panic seemed to be the order of the day.
Writing in the Hill, one worried Democrat suggested that everyone brush up on the 25th Amendment, in case it’s needed to remove Trump against his will.
“It is essentially a safeguard against a president who runs amuck, or who goes insane,” wrote Ben Brenkert.
James Kirchik, writing in the Los Angeles Times, opined that a coup “would not be unfathomable in this country if Donald Trump were to win the presidency.”
Hillary Rodham Clinton harked back to Reconstruction, if not the ante-bellum days of 1856, when she worried out loud that the Ku Klux Klan “could be running the country” if Trump wins.
Certainly, any of those would be a possibility during a Trump presidency.
Of course, they’re a possibility during a Clinton presidency as well. Or a Gary Johnson presidency. Or a Jill Stein presidency.
The conceit of Trump’s entire candidacy is that the calamity has already arrived, and the dubious notion that he is the only person who can repair the damage.
This sort of fearmongering is not unheard of in modern presidential campaigns, although the volume does seem to be a tad higher this year.
Fast-forward a few weeks, though, and the panic seems to have subsided. The latest revelations about Trump’s tawdry behavior have taken the air out of his modestly ascending balloon, much the same way Democratic victories in the Oct. 15, 1856, Pennsylvania state elections (held separately from the presidential election in those days) deflated Republican hopes that had been inspired by Maine.
John C. Fremont lost the 1856 presidential election to Democrat James Buchanan. But four years later another Republican did win, and every prediction of calamity forecast by the would-be secessionists of 1856 came to pass.
But those disasters happened not because Lincoln or Fremont were bad men, but because calamity had a constituency.
Donald Trump is no Lincoln. He’s not even a Fremont. Hillary Clinton is no James Buchanan.
But calamity still has a constituency. As Garrison warned us, any who can’t see that “would deny the existence of the sun in heaven, or anything else equally palpable to the senses.”
John Bicknell is executive editor of Watchdog.org and author of “America 1844: Religious Fervor, Westward Expansion and the Presidential Election That Transformed the Nation.” His book on the 1856 campaign is scheduled to be published in spring 2017 by Chicago Review Press.