Constitutional quandaries and critical elections

In his book on Liberalism against Populism , William Riker argued that Lincoln's success in the 1860 election was the culmination of a long progression of strategic attempts by the Whig coalition of commercial interests to defeat the `Jeffersonian-Jacksonian' Democratic coalition of agrarian populism. Riker adduced Lincoln's success to his `heresthetic' maneuver to force his competitor, Douglas, in the 1858 Illinois Senate race, to appear anti-slavery, thus splitting the Democratic Party in 1860. Riker also suggested that electoral preferences in 1860 exhibited an underlying `chaotic' preference cycle. However, these accounts do not explain why the slavery question became paramount in 1858-60. I suggest here that US politics, from 1800 to 1858, can be interpreted in terms of a single land-capital axis that sustained the pre-eminence of an agrarian coalition, first created by Jefferson, of both slave interests and free labor. Lincoln's strategy in 1858-60 was to persuade free labor in the northern and western states that they were threatened by the consequences of the Dred Scott decision by the Supreme Court in 1857. Lincoln argued that although the decision applied to the territories, it was indicative of the intention of the South to extend slavery to the free states. Lincoln's speeches in 1858-60 made this threat credible to the North, and initiated a belief cascade among the electorate. For southern voters, the North consequently appeared to be a `tyrannical' majority, whose creation violated the constitutional logic of Union, and legitimated secession. I argue that this second `civil rights dimension, created in the election of 1860, is necessary for understanding critical elections that have occurred at irregular intervals in US political history. Key Words: constitutional transformation • belief cascade • contingency.
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DOI 10.1177/1470594X03002001422
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