Ohio History Journal

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The 1856 Election in Ohio:

Moral Issues in Politics




In recent years a growing number of social scientists have taken the position that

ethnic and cultural diversity of American society, and not ideologies of platforms

of the major parties, have been the chief factors in determining American political

alignments.1 Samuel P. Hays insists that party ideologies never reflect the major

concern of the local electorate, and on that level ethno-cultural issues are much

more important in mobilizing the voters than national questions.2 This interest in

the effects of social and cultural factors on contemporary politics has led to re-

examinations of the importance of ethno-cultural influences on political alignments

in antebellum America.3 Most recently, historical debate on this question has cen-

tered around the relative importance of the slavery issues in contrast to the ethno-

cultural issues as determining forces in the origin and support for the Republican

party, especially the Radical wing.

Three main schools of interpretation can be identified as participants in the

debate. Historians James Ford Rhodes and Allan Nevins represent a group that

view slavery as the cause for the rise of the Republican party and for the Civil

War. Rhodes writes without reservation that "slavery was the cause of the War."

The South "went to war to extend slavery"; but it was the cruelty "as evidenced by

the rigor with which the lash was used" that aroused much of the indignation in

the North. In speaking about the incitement of public opinion against the Kansas-

Nebraska bill by the clergy, Rhodes says "the ministers would have been recreant

to their calling had they not proclaimed from their pulpits what the spirit of their

religion prompted them to speak."4 Thus, Rhodes sees the events of the 1850's

and the Civil War as a clash between good and evil; and Nevins, writing later,

retains Rhodes' stress on the moral issues of slavery as the ultimate cause of the



1. Walter Dean Burnham, "Party Systems and the Political Process," in William N. Chambers

and Walter Dean Burnham, eds., The American Party System (New York, 1967), 285; Samuel P. Hays,

"Political Parties and the Community-Society Continuum," in ibid., 158, 161-162.

2. Hays, "Political Parties," 158, 161-162.

3. Lee Benson, The Concept of Jacksonian Democracy: New York as a Test Case (Princeton, 1961),

165; Joel H. Silbey, ed., The Transformation of American Politics, 1850-1860 (Englewood Cliffs, New

Jersey, 1967), 3-4.

4. James Ford Rhodes, History of the United States from the Compromise of 1850 to the End of the

Roosevelt Administration (London, 1928), I, 27, 53, 325, 480.

5. Allan Nevins, The Emergence of Lincoln (New York, 1950), I, 12, 27.


Mr. Howard is professor of history at Morehead State University.