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Image Regional Cultures and the Republican Coalition: Greater New England and the Midlands against the Coastal and Highland South, 1856-1924

During the decade of the 1850s, a revolution of parties occurred in American politics. The Whig party disintegrated after the election of 1852, and eight years later the Democratic party came to pieces as well. The critical factor was the emergence of a new issue which shattered both the Whig and the Democratic omnibus strategies and polarized sectional opinion.

That issue of course was slavery and particularly the question of its expansion into new territories, which threatened to upset delicate sectional balances. The question had been compromised many times before—in the Constitutional Compromises of 1787, the Missouri Compromise of 1819-21, the Compromise of 1850, and the admission of almost every new state. In 1854, Stephen Douglas tried compromise once again. He introduced the Kansas-Nebraska Bill, which proposed to preserve sectional balances and regional autonomy by adopting the doctrine of popular sovereignty, which held that the question of slavery in the territories would be left for local populations to settle in their own way.25

The result was political disaster—for Douglas himself, his party and his nation. By 1854 slavery was increasingly regarded in many parts of the north and south as a moral issue which could not be compromised. This perception defeated Douglas’s proposal. It shattered the Democratic party, destroyed the Whigs, gave birth to the new Republican party and revived regional and sectional voting in American politics.

In presidential politics, these new regional and sectional patterns first clearly emerged in the election of 1856. The new Republican party swept every state in the northern tier from New England to upstate New York, Ohio, Michigan, Wisconsin and Iowa. This pattern of Republican support in 1856 was a map of greater New England. Every state that voted Republican had been colonized by descendants of the Puritan migration. Within those states, votes by county for Republican candidates correlated more closely with the proportion of the population who sprang from New England stock than with any other variable.26

But the support of one cultural region was never enough to carry a national election. In 1856, the Democrats nominated an omnibus candidate named James Buchanan, a Pennsylvanian of border ancestry with strong ties to the south. Buchanan’s candidacy attracted the electoral votes of three cultural regions of midland America, the coastal south and the southern highlands. He won every electoral vote outside the northern tier except the boundary state of Maryland, and promised to build a new coalition of midland and southern cultures.

The events of Buchanan’s presidency quickly shattered this emerging coalition. Chief Justice Roger B. Taney’s proslavery and negrophobic decision in the Dred Scott case deeply outraged opinion in the north, and John Brown’s raid at Harpers Ferry polarized opinion in every region. One by one, the national institutions of the republic divided on sectional lines. Churches such as the Presbyterians, Methodists and Baptists who had been able to recruit members in many regions broke apart into northern and southern wings. After Harpers Ferry, northern colleges lost their southern students. And in 1860 the Democratic party itself disintegrated.

At the same time, a new coalition of northern regional cultures began to form—the first time since Washington’s administration that the north had been firmly united. In the election of 1860, the Republican candidate Abraham Lincoln was himself a fitting personal symbol of this new coalition. On his father’s side, Lincoln was descended from New England Puritans who had intermarried with Pennsylvania Quakers and migrated to Appalachia and the Ohio Valley. He represented every regional component of the Republican coalition.


The election of 1860 was carried by this new sectional alliance. Lincoln won every New England county, most of the northern tier, and all but three electoral votes in the middle tier from the Delaware Valley west to the Pacific. At the same time, he lost every electoral vote in the southern states. This pattern became the basis of a Republican coalition that dominated American politics from the Civil War to the New Deal.

In the elections of 1864 and 1868, the Republican coalition grew a little stronger with the addition of non-slaveholding parts of the highland south—West Virginia, eastern Kentucky, eastern Tennessee, western North Carolina, north Georgia and northern Alabama. This region was courted in 1864 by a presidential ticket composed of Abraham Lincoln and Andrew Johnson, a back-country Democrat from East Tennessee. Upper Appalachia began to vote Republican in that year, and continued to do so for more than fifty years. With its accession in 1864, the Republican coalition was complete. It governed the nation from the inaugural of Abraham Lincoln in 1861 to the retirement of Herbert Hoover in 1933, with only occasional intermissions. Throughout that long period, the hearth states of Massachusetts and Pennsylvania voted together in every presidential election from 1860 to 1924 except one (1912).

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