Running parallel to Essex Street and crossing Hudson Street only a block south of the Bergen County Courthouse, Kansas Street in Hackensack is a nominal reminder of political passions, once so virulent, that they rendered the Nation asunder. A fraudulent attempt to foster admission of Kansas under the pro-slavery Lecompton Constitution in 1857 fractured Democratic ranks throughout the Free States. Although Anti-Lecomptonite Democrats “entirely disclaimed the intention, falsely charged upon us by interested office holders and seekers, of dividing or distracting our honored and glorious [Democratic] party,” they nevertheless withdrew and organized separate political meetings in March 1858 to strongly oppose any attempt to force Kansas into the Union with a constitution repudiated by her own citizens. Many local Republicans joined them.
In the midst of this great controversy, Democrats held their Fourth Congressional District Convention in Washington Hall, Morristown, on October 11, 1858. Joseph E. Edsall, of Sussex County, was elected president, supported by the following vice-presidents: Robert J. Tuttle, of Morris County; Capt. G. F. Griffith, of Passaic County; Peter Smith, of Sussex County; and Albert S. Terhune, of Bergen County. On motion of Phillip Rafferty, of Passaic County, the Hon. John Huyler, of Bergen, was nominated as candidate for Congress by acclamation, evoking great applause. The Convention then declared its adhesion to the platform of the National Democratic Convention, adopted at Cincinnati in June 1856. The gathering expressed confidence in the Buchanan Administration and the midterm election campaign was on. The Anti-Lecomptonites, however, triumphed at the polls on November 2, 1858, electing Dr. Jetur R. Riggs to Congress. Dr. Riggs defeated his Democratic opponent in the Fourth Congressional District by a majority of 678 votes. In consequence of the election, Regular Democrats controlled the New Jersey State Senate while the Opposition, a loose coalition of Republicans, Anti-Lecompton Democrats and Know Nothings, controlled the General Assembly.
In March 1860, the political season gathered warmth as factious northern Democrats shambled towards a precipice. Many moderate Democrats threatened to bolt to the new Republican Party unless Stephen Douglas, an architect of the Compromise of 1850, won the Democratic Presidential nomination on an Anti-Lecompton platform. Other Anti-Lecompton leaders nodded in agreement. When the Democratic National Convention met at Charleston, South Carolina, on April 23, 1860, delegates spent a week sparring over the platform in a fruitless effort to harmonize the party. Repudiating the Southern extremist position, Northern Democrats engineered adoption of the minority platform report, endorsing Douglas’ political doctrine of Popular Sovereignty for the Territories. Despite the withdrawal of delegates representing ten States of the Deep South, Douglas’ nomination was blocked. Resisting the call for party discipline, three members of the New Jersey delegation refused to support any candidate other than Stephen Douglas. The Convention adjourned until June 18th, choosing Baltimore, Maryland, as a middle ground and hoping the center would hold.
Once gathered in Baltimore, the so-called National Union Convention refused to admit the Charleston seceders, resulting in the nomination of two competing Democratic national tickets. General Cushing, president of the Douglas Convention, led representatives of twenty States including Massachusetts, Virginia, a portion of the Pennsylvania delegation and others, to nominate Stephen Douglas, of Illinois, for President, and Herschel V. Johnson, of Georgia, for Vice-President. The National Democratic faction, dominated by Deep Southerners, but also including representatives of twenty States, proclaimed the nomination of Vice-President John C. Breckinridge, of Kentucky, for President, and General Joseph Lane, of Oregon, for Vice-President. To further divide the conservative vote, a rump gathering of Border State Whigs and Know-Nothings nominated John Bell, of Tennessee, for President, and Edward Everett, of Massachusetts, for Vice-President, on the Constitutional Union ticket. Meeting in Chicago, the Republicans nominated Abraham Lincoln on May 18, 1860.
Greeted with a standing ovation, Benjamin B. Edsall, editor of the staunchly Whig-Republican Sussex Register, of Newton, New Jersey, accepted the Republican nomination for Congressman in the Fourth Congressional District, embracing the counties of Sussex, Morris, Passaic, Bergen and the townships of Essex lying outside the city of Newark, on October 10, 1860. The deeply divided Democrats, however, quickly fell to infighting. Judge Martin Ryerson, of Newton, New Jersey, sponsored a meeting at Deckertown [Sussex] on October 15, 1860 to persuade Anti-Lecompton Democrats and straight-Douglas supporters to either nominate their own Democratic candidate for Congress or to endorse the Republican candidate. The Regular Democratic Convention met at Morristown and nominated George T. Cobb, of Morris County, for Congress.
Facing rejection at the polls, New Jersey's Democratic leadership met at the Astor House in New York on October 26, 1860, in a futile attempt to resolve their divisions and patch together a national Fusion electoral ticket. Here they agreed “to withdraw the straight-Douglas Electoral Ticket, and unite upon a Union Ticket acceptable to both wings of the Democratic Party, and also to the Constitutional Union Party.” They then submitted a single list of electors who promised to vote against Lincoln.
Efforts at compromise failed and, only four days later, the straight-out Douglas men denounced the Bell-Breckenridge-Douglass Fusion. Consequently, Abraham Lincoln was elected President on November 6, 1860, winning 180 electoral votes. All the northern Free States went Republican by large majorities, except New Jersey, where the Democratic Union Electoral ticket won by 2,500 votes. The Southern states voted overwhelmingly for Breckinridge, giving him 72 electoral votes. The Border States of Tennessee, Kentucky and Virginia gave 39 electoral votes to Bell, while Stephen Douglas won Missouri’s nine electoral votes and three out of New Jersey’s seven.
In northern New Jersey’s Fourth Congressional race, Cobb beat Republican Benjamin Edsall in his bid for Congress by 975 votes. Edsall immediately denounced the treachery of Douglass supporters, who had promised their votes. He attributed his defeat to a "boodle fund," manipulated by the Democratic leadership. Nevertheless, local Republicans celebrated Lincoln's election with torchlight parades of the Wide Awakes. Partisan passions quickly reached the combustion point. South Carolina seceded from the Union on December 20, 1860, touching off an unprecedented political crisis. Events moved swiftly toward civil war. On January 9, 1860, shore batteries fired upon the steamer Star of the West, carrying 300 troops and supplies for Major Robert Anderson, who was holed up at Fort Sumter in Charleston harbor.
The ensuing years of bloody Civil War further widened the political divide. On June 8, 1864, the National Union Convention, meeting in Baltimore, nominated incumbent Abraham Lincoln for President and War Democrat, Andrew Johnson, for Vice-President. On August 31, 1864, the Democratic National Convention at Chicago nominated former Union General George B. McClellan for President and George H. Pendleton for Vice-President. The Democratic national platform declared the war a failure. On August 26, 1864, the Republican editor of the Sussex Register commented on the political opposition, saying, “It is an easy enough thing for a man to take sides against his country in its extremity, but no man should do so unless he is perfectly sure the enemy will succeed. The Tories of the Revolution have not had one appreciable atom of fragrance added to their memories in 80 years.”
In this highly charged atmosphere, the Fourth District Democratic Convention convened at Morristown on August 17, 1864, and re-nominated Copperhead Democrat, Andrew “Jack” Rogers. Before first being elected to Congress in November 1862, Rogers had declared his loyalty to the “Hard Shell Democracy” and stated that “if Lincoln’s [Emancipation] Proclamation was carried out the horrors of the French Revolution and the St. Domingo insurrection would burst upon this country.” In accepting the nomination in October 1862, A. J. Rogers had promised “to bury in one grave the Secessionists of the South and the Abolitionists of the North, and then devote their energies to restoring the country to its former prosperity.” Their battle cry became "The Constitution as it is, the Union as it was."
On September 2, 1864, bells rang, salutes were fired and general rejoicing was heard throughout the loyal North at the news of the fall of Atlanta. Despite Union victories, the national political contest grew heated. Those who think today’s politics are entirely mercenary need only consider the scene when 3,000 Democrats attended their county convention at Deckertown (now Sussex Borough) on September 23, 1864, reputedly the largest political convention that had met up to that time in Sussex County. Not less than 500 Republicans were reportedly on hand to watch the fun. According to the recollection of the Register’s editor, the Deckertown convention proved quite a spectacle: “Voters were paid from $2 to $50, with transportation and dinner tickets free. Men were bought in broad day and the whippers-in carried memorandum books in which they registered their purchases as freighting agents buying pigs and calves for market. It was estimated that $25,000 was spent in behalf of the Senatorial candidate. The nomination of Martin cost the Camden & Amboy monopoly $15,000 (and in the last year of his term he sold them out); William H. Bell, his antagonist, spent $6,000, and the candidates for Sheriff had expenses running into the hundreds. Jesse Ward and James Smith were the leading candidates for Sheriff. Ward proved stronger than the [Newton] clique anticipated, and when thirteen townships had sent in their reports to the chairman, Samuel Fowler, the vote stood 80 for Ward and 56 for Smith. The former needed only four more votes, and it became necessary for the clique to do some manipulating. Wantage, by dint of double and treble voting, added 21 votes for Smith, bringing him up to 77, but Ward carried Montague, and that would have nominated him, but the return was held back until Green township (part of whose votes had started home) was brought in use, and by barefaced cheating its vote was reversed by a majority of two, four outsiders being used to accomplish it. The final result, as manipulated, was 87 for Smith and 80 for Ward.”
On November 8, 1864, Lincoln and Johnson carried every loyal state, except for the border states of Delaware, Kentucky and New Jersey, which voted for the Peace Democratic ticket headed by McClellan and Pendleton. New Jersey provided McClellan with a 7,402-vote majority. The majority for Democratic Congressman Jack Rogers over Theodore Little in the Fourth Congressional District was 1,387. On the eve of the vote, Jack Rogers and his Copperhead Clique confidently stationed themselves outside the telegraph office in the McClellan House, opposite the Newton Depot, to await the National election returns. Stunned by the unexpected news of McClellan’s defeat, he and his retinue appeared at the telegraph office to deny the truth of dispatches announcing Lincoln’s re-election. He then boarded the train for New York to get the “correct returns,” calling for three cheers for McClellan, groans for Newton “aristocrats” and wound up shouting, “Now, boys, give three cheers for me.” Congressman A. J. Rogers was noticeably absent and reportedly ill when the United States House of Representatives approved a Constitutional amendment to abolish slavery, 119 yeas to 56 nays, on January 17, 1865.
Colonel Sam Fowler, of Franklin Furnace, caught cold about ten days before he departed for Trenton to take his seat as Assemblyman from the First Assembly District. He died January 13, 1865, aged 48 years, exacerbating the political stalemate by leaving the Assembly divided between 30 Unionists and 29 Democrats. Governor Parker and members of the Legislature attended his funeral at Franklin on the 18th of January, traveling by sleighs from Newton in intensely cold weather. Rev. Nathaniel Pettit, of Newton, preached the funeral sermon. After two weeks of wrangling and negotiation, the evenly balanced parties in the New Jersey Assembly smoked the calumet of peace on January 25, 1865 and divided the offices. Speaker Crowell then scheduled a special election in the First Assembly District of Sussex County to elect Fowler’s successor. Richard E. Edsall won without opposition to fill the vacancy on February 14, 1865.
With spring in the air, Grant and Sherman’s armies pressed in upon Charleston and Richmond, betokening an early end to the war. On April 1, 1865, General Sheridan decided the Confederate capitol’s fate with a hard-fought victory at Five Forks. Taking advantage of this success, General Grant’s troops overwhelmed the Petersburg defenses in a night attack, ending a six months’ siege. The Confederate government hastily evacuated Richmond and its mayor surrendered the city to General Wetzel on April 3, 1865. The fleeing Rebel army was badly defeated at Amelia Court House. General Lee turned north, but found himself trapped at Sailor’s Creek, south of Appomattox. Beaten in one last fight, he surrendered the Army of Northern Virginia to General Grant on April 9, 1865. Following Lincoln’s assassination at Ford's Theater, businesses were closed, bells tolled and church services held throughout northern New Jersey. Many private residences, stores and other buildings were decorated in mourning and flags flew at half-mast, some draped in black. There were reports, however, of some people openly rejoicing at word of the President’s murder.
If you are interested in further insight into this topic, please join us for the next Bergen County Historical Society Lecture Program at 7:30 pm on Thursday, October 18, 2012, in the Second Reformed Church, 436 Union Street, Hackensack, NJ 07601, when Bill Marsch will speak on “Why Lincoln lost New Jersey twice.”
Bill Marsch made a successful career in fundraising, marketing and management with major non-profits such as The Salvation Army, Cystic Fibrosis Foundation, and Juvenile Diabetes Foundation. In the early 1980s he started his own consulting business to benefit non-profits and still serves this vital community interest. Always a lover of American History, he earned an MA degree at Monmouth University in 2011 with honors as the highest ranking Master’s Degree recipient in History. His thesis challenged the reasons historians proposed for why New Jersey was the only Northern state to vote against Abraham Lincoln in 1860 and 1864. By tackling the two accepted core reasons–--it was uniquely a pro-South and pro-slavery state---he explored the position that New Jersey was not unique among most Northern states in 1860, but yet our state was the only one to vote against Lincoln. And then, four years later, with victory on the horizon and economic benefits of a wartime economy, we stood alone and voted against him again. Why? In his talk, Marsch examines the geographic location and limitations of the state as well as its history since the days of East and West Jersey to formulate a mindset (what he refers to as a “New Jersey mentalité”) to explain our reactions to Federal power, the growth of this power during the Civil War, and, ultimately, the votes against Abraham Lincoln. As a new interpretation of the state’s 1860 and 1864 vote, Marsch offers new insights and encourages reaction and discussion.
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