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"A Confused Melee": Politics in New Jersey Before the Civil War

"A Confused Melee": Politics in New Jersey Before the Civil War

In the late 1850s, the controversy over slavery in the new territories led to political turmoil, out of which emerged the new Republican Party, which was against the expansion of slavery and pro-immigration. Politics at the state level reflected the national turmoil. The Republicans were challenged by “the Opposition,” made up of former Whigs, the nativist American Party (Know-Nothings), and disaffected Republicans. The Opposition was strong enough to elect Charles S. Olden as governor by a small margin in 1859. Although a Quaker, Olden was conservative on slavery issues. This uneasy coalition broke apart in the national elections the following year. The New York Times described politics in New Jersey in 1860 as “a confused melee.” The Democratic Party split in four: supporters of Stephen Douglas, who was nationalist and neutral on slavery; supporters of the South’s view of slavery and states’ rights; the Constitutional Union, which tried to avoid the issue of slavery altogether; and the remnants of the Opposition. Republican Abraham Lincoln received fewer popular votes than Douglass in New Jersey, but won four of the state’s seven electoral votes.

In December 1860, South Carolina rejected the election results and seceded from the Union. South Carolina was followed by ten other southern states, forming the Confederate States of America in February. In New Jersey, the constitutional crisis created confusion and further division, with many people seeking compromise. The outbreak of war in April and Lincoln’s call for troops led to an outpouring of patriotism and support for the Union cause in the state. As the months passed, conflict with those who advocated a negotiated peace again surfaced.

Treason! A notice declaring a meeting of the citizens of Monmouth County treasonable due to their support of southern conspirators. Keyport, Monmouth County, New Jersey, August 27, 1861.

Charley Deshler as President of the Know-Nothing Council and as President of the Democratic Meeting. Political Cartoon. ca. 1855.

Turn Out Democrats!

A notice urging democrats to come to the Windsor to see the Hightstown Zouaves Parade and hear some good democratic talk. Hightstown, Mercer County, New Jersey, October, 1860.