Saturday, February 22, 2020

Schenectady in the election of 1860

This post was written by library volunteer George Wise.

This election year of 2020 seems unprecedented in its turmoil and polarization, but there was at least one more turbulent and polarized precedent: the election year of 1860. How did that one play out in Schenectady?

Slavery was the main polarizing national issue, but what did that mean locally in the city? Slavery had been abolished in New York decades previously, and the Schenectady's African American population had fallen from nearly 10% of the city's population, almost all slaves, in 1800, to less than 2% of the population, all free, in 1860.

In the Schenectady of 1860 that central national theme of slavery was overshadowed by a list of issues surprisingly similar to a list for 2020: the impact of new information technologies, immigration, race, and the power of corporations.

The new information technologies included the engine-powered high-speed printing press. By 1860, Schenectady, like other cities, used this new type of printing press to turn out daily newspapers in place of the previous weeklies. This greatly shortened a citizen's political response time.

Schenectady had helped pioneer this new technology. The city's Clute Brothers Machine Works was a principal manufacturer of a low cost competitor to the steam engine that was used for running those new high speed printing presses. This was the hot air engine invented by the Swedish American engineer John Ericson. Though important in 1860, its use would soon fade. However, the connection between the Clute Brothers and Ericson would have a more important sequel a few years later when the Clute Brothers supplied an important mechanism for Ericson's most famous invention, the ironclad warship Monitor.

Advertisement for Clute Brothers, circa 1868. Grems-Doolittle Library Collection.

Schenectady's Democrats, the city's party of wealth and prestige at the time, got the technological  jump on rivals by controlling the city's first daily newspaper, the Daily News. This enabled an 1860s version of a flash mob, sending the Democrats' political young men's club, the "Little Giants" (a reference to the nickname of Democratic Presidential candidate Stephen Douglas), on impromptu torchlight processions through the city, in numbers reported (probably with some exaggeration) as in the "thousands." Republicans responded with their own marchers, the "Wide Awakes." They were, however, at a disadvantage due to the lower frequency of their newspaper, the Weekly Republican.

In Schenectady, in the 1850s, both of those familiar parties lagged behind a competitor that made opposition to immigration its main issue. This was the American or "Know Nothing" party. In Schenectady that party's anti-Catholic message was largely directed at the rapidly growing Irish-born  population. Their nativist message succeeded. The Know Nothings won almost all of Schenectady's local elections from 1854 until 1860.

Nationally, the Know Nothings peaked in 1854, and were in serious decline by 1860. Schenectady, however, bucked that trend. It served as the site of the 1860 New York State Convention of the Know Nothing Party. The Weekly Republican reported on 31 Aug 1860 that “the political waters of the state were troubled yesterday, and the vilest maddest eddy of all seemed to center and whirl its political filth in our city.” The Know Nothing Party's chairman, General Gustavus Scroggs of Buffalo, opened proceedings protected by what the paper described as his “motley gang” of thugs. Suspecting a plot by Scruggs to turn the convention to support of the Republicans, members of the audience charged the stage, routed Scruggs' bodyguards, and tried to turn the party's support to the Democratic candidate, Douglas.

Some of the convention, however, led by Schenectady's most prominent Know Nothing, ex-mayor  Abel Smith, retreated to a local hotel where they nominated Tennessee's John Bell of the Constitutional Union Party for president. Meanwhile, another Know Nothing faction retired to another hotel and nominated Texas war hero and ex-governor Sam Houston.

This splintering of parties in the city mirrored party politics across the nation. Among Schenectady Democrats, the most recently elected Democrat mayor (and first Jewish mayor), Mordecai Myers, supported the Southern Rights Democrat nominee, John Breckinridge of Kentucky. The city's venerable Democrat leader, former state senator and current State Supreme Court Justice Alonzo Paige, supported the organization Democratic candidate Stephen Douglas. Paige was, in turn ambushed by his own brother-in-law Platt Potter, who switched to the Republican party and then defeated Paige for his elective Supreme Court post.

Meanwhile, a third prominent Democrat, former U.S.Representative Peter Rowe, successfully urged Democrats to fuse locally with the Know Nothings. Four parties took part in the April 1860 local elections: Republican, Citizens, Democratic-Know Nothing Fusion, and Independent Know Nothings. The Democratic-Know Nothing Fusion Party swept all the local offices except mayor. The Republicans won that post when the Citizens Party withdrew its own candidate and endorsed the then victorious Republican.
Arthur W. Hunter, mayor of Schenectady 1861-1863. Hunter Family Photos, Grems-Doolittle Library.
Further adding to the partisan confusion, while foreshadowing today, was the issue of big money and corporate influence. In those days that money and influence was wielded by the Democrats. The Weekly Republican condemned  the Democratic Party’s "New York Central candidates." Chauncey Vibbard of Schenectady, Superintendent of the New York Central railroad, was running for U.S. Congress in Schenectady County. His boss, New York Central chairman Erastus Corning, was the Democrats' Congressional candidate in Albany County. The Weekly Republican described them as “running while they hold in their hands the immense patronage and power of our state’s greatest and richest corporation.”

Amid all these issues, splits, and fusions, the national issue of slavery was, locally, subdued. The Democrats did not defend slavery, but instead accused the Republicans of promoting racial equality.

A local Democratic newspaper urged voters to “ask your neighbor if he is in favor of aiding unprincipled politicians in their ambitious designing for office and power by continuing the agitation on the slavery question either in reference to the states or territories when there is in fact no practical open issue remaining on the subject, short of insurrectionary abolition toward the slaveholding states.”

The territorial question, the article continued, “is substantially settled in favor of freedom.” Republicans were accused of the “placing of the black population upon a political and social level with the white descendants of the men who achieved our National Independence” and of “negro diffusing doctrines.”

Lincoln was denounced as  a radical abolitionist: “How can a man supporting such views take the oath to support the constitution  .... he hates what that instrument upholds... it is a wonder that he was not in the expedition of John Brown against Virginia” Continuing this theme, Schenectady's Daily News accused the local Republican candidate for Congress of favoring the giving “to every negro in New York the right to vote, the right to sit as a juror, the right to hold office.”

In response, the Republicans did not so much attack slavery or defend African American rights as position themselves as the party of moderation. “The Republican party is the only truly conservative and national party of the country, standing between the ultraists of the slave extending Democracy on the one hand, and the abolitionists on the other.”

Schenectady's Weekly Republican  dismissed abolitionists Wendell Phillips and Theodore Parker as “lunatics” and described female abolitionists as “strong minded women whose platform has sunk lower and lower until it is almost under the mire of vice and sensuality.” The presidential election, the Weekly Republican said, was "an uprising of Northern freemen against the tyranny of southern domination," not a contest for “negro rights." Republicans were here responding to a general lack of sympathy in Schenectady County for the political rights of New York's free African Americans. An 1860 state wide referendum aimed at removing property requirements from New York's African- American voters lost in Schenectady County by the landslide margin of 2215 to 552. This was even  higher than the 2-to-1 margin by which the measure lost statewide.

After all the chaos, accusations and enthusiasm of the campaign, the local presidential balloting in November was anticlimactic. By then, Lincoln's nationwide victory was assured.  The city of Schenectady, however, remained contrarian, with the Democrat and Union Party candidate Stephen Douglas edging Republican Abraham Lincoln 998 to 965. This reversed the Schenectady County result, a victory by a 5% margin for Lincoln, and the 2-to-1 statewide  Lincoln victory. Democrat-plutocrats Vibbard and Corning won their races for Congress.

The Democrats would retain their city edge throughout the Civil War, winning again in 1864 for Democratic candidate George McClellan. The Know Nothings in contrast, would disappear after 1860, leaving the Republicans as the city's second party.

In conclusion, in Schenectady the election of 1860 was far from a referendum on the subject of slavery, or even of slavery in the territories. Instead it was a chaotic mixture of political realignment, negative stereotypes of immigrants, abolitionists, and African Americans, and hinted at the emerging importance of communications technologies and corporate power in politics.