The election of 1860 featured a number of candidates vying for the Presidency, with the tensions over slavery at the forefront. Abraham Lincoln would carry the North for the Republican Party and win the election over numerous candidates, including three contenders that garnered significant votes. Other essays in this series cover the 1860 Presidential election and certain of the candidates. This essay focuses on John Bell, the 1860 nominee for President from the newly formed Constitutional Union Party, and his understanding of the Constitution.
John Bell’s Life and Career
Bell was born near Nashville, Tennessee, on February 18, 1796, to Samuel Bell, a farmer and blacksmith, and his wife Margaret (Edmiston) Bell. Bell attended Cumberland University (later known as the University of Nashville), graduating in 1814. Bell then studied law and was admitted to the bar in 1816, establishing his private practice in Franklin, Tennessee. In 1817, he successfully ran for the Tennessee Senate, where he served one term but refused to run for reelection. He returned to private practice in 1819, partnering with Henry Crabb in Nashville.
In 1827, Bell ran for the United States House of Representatives from Tennessee’s 7th District. Bell won a close contest and served seven terms in the House of Representatives, including as Speaker of the House from March 1834 to March 1835. As a Representative, Bell opposed the Tariff Act of 1828. In his second term, he wrote the Indian Removal Act, which was signed by President Andrew Jackson and led to the “Trail of Tears” during the 1830’s. Bell opposed efforts of South Carolina during the Nullification Crisis and was a supporter of the Force Bill. The Nullification Crisis was a sectional crisis during 1832 and 1833 in which South Carolina was most vocal that challenged tariffs that the Federal government had enacted in 1828 and 1832. South Carolina declared the acts null and void, leading President Jackson to push Congress to pass the Force Bill in 1833, which authorized the President to use whatever force was needed to enforce the tariffs. The Nullification Crisis ended when South Carolina repealed the Nullification Ordinance it earlier had passed. Bell voted in favor of the Force Bill and vocally spoke out against South Carolina’s nullification efforts. Bell was also very much opposed to the spoils system of government appointments and jobs, something he would be criticized for in 1841 when he was appointed Secretary of War in part as a reward for his campaign efforts on behalf of President-elect William Harrison.
When Harrison died shortly after his inauguration, President John Tyler agreed to retain all of Harrison’s cabinet appointments. Bell resigned in protest from his position on September 13, 1841, claiming that Tyler had not stayed loyal to Whig principles, and returned home to Tennessee.
Bell returned to politics in 1847, having been elected to the Tennessee House of Representatives. Shortly after the election, the Whig-led Tennessee legislature had responsibility to fill a vacant United States Senate seat. After numerous rounds of voting, Bell obtained a majority vote and returned to Congress, this time as a Senator. In the Senate, Bell proposed a compromise that would have permitted California to be admitted as a State, which was put aside in favor of the Compromise of 1850 proposed by Senator Henry Clay. In 1854, Bell was one of two Southern Senators to oppose the Kansas-Nebraska Act and its amendment repealing part of the Missouri Compromise of 1820.
Presidential Candidacy and the Election
Bell was distressed by the sectional strife over slavery he witnessed in the Senate and considered forming a third party to attract moderates. In May 1860, Bell and other former Whigs met in Baltimore, Maryland, forming the Constitutional Union Party. The Party developed a broad platform that was intentionally silent on the question of slavery. Bell and Sam Houston were the main candidates for the Party’s Presidential nomination, with Bell beating Houston for the nomination. The Party’s slogan was, “The Union as it is, and the Constitution as it is.” Bell campaigned on the message that he could save the Union from the inevitable secession of southern States that would result from a Lincoln victory. Given the fragmented, sectional candidacies and the split of North and South on the question of slavery, Bell was not successful in defeating Lincoln. Bell finished fourth with just under 13% of the popular vote, placing third in the Electoral College with 39 of the 303 total votes. Bell won Virginia, Kentucky, and Tennessee.
Shortly after the 1860 election, Bell began to doubt Lincoln’s statement to him that he had no intent to use force against the South. Bell became a strong advocate for Tennessee to become part of the Confederacy, defecting from the Unionist views he had advanced for years leading up to the election. Bell’s defection shocked many who knew him, and was attributed to his panic over the prospect of President Lincoln and the Union taking over Tennessee. On June 8, 1861, shortly after the Battle of Fort Sumter, Tennessee seceded from the Union. Bell soon retired from public life.
Bell’s Understanding of the Constitution
Bell and the Constitutional Union Party maintained a platform “to recognize no political principle other than the Constitution of the country, the Union of the states, and the enforcement of the laws.” As noted, the Party and Bell believed that the Constitution and the Union were best served by remaining as they were. Bell, a Southern slaveholder, opposed slavery’s expansion during the 1850’s while in the Senate but maintained that the United States Constitution protected the institution of slavery as it currently existed, but not its expansion to newly admitted states. Bell argued that this position on slavery could best maintain the Union and prevent secession.
Bell was proved correct after he warned the nation that it was about to become a “House Divided” with the election of Abraham Lincoln as President. Civil War commenced soon after Lincoln’s election and Tennessee, Bell’s home state, seceded from the Union. However, it is doubtful that the election of Bell instead of Lincoln would have led to long-term peace in the United States, given the tensions that had existed in the nation for many years prior to the Civil War and leading up to the 1860 election. The intentional silence on the question of slavery by the Constitutional Union Party was not likely to be a solution to the strife and threats of secession brewing at the time.
Dan Cotter is a Partner at Butler Rubin Saltarelli & Boyd LLP and an Adjunct Professor at The John Marshall Law School, where he teaches SCOTUS Judicial Biographies. He is also Immediate Past President of The Chicago Bar Association. The article contains his opinions and is not to be attributed to Butler Rubin or any of its clients, The Chicago Bar Association, or John Marshall.