“The Union Saved.”
“Lincoln Elected by the People.” Telegraph wires flashed with election updates throughout the sixth of November 1860. Congressman Abraham Lincoln of Illinois was running for president against three candidates, a competition fueled by the decision of President James Buchanan—a Democrat and Pennsylvania’s only presidential son—not to run for re-election. Of particular note was the race between Lincoln and Stephen A. Douglas, a Northern Democrat and the Senator of Illinois, an office that Lincoln had lost two years before. Their 1858 Lincoln-Douglas debates had put the tall man from Illinois in the national spotlight. On November 7, the Wellsboro Agitator announced America’s sixteenth president to Wellsboro’s population of 809. It praised Tioga County’s Republicans for doing their civic duty, a responsibility that the paper had feared people would ignore in the months leading up to the election. “You have covered yourselves with the glory of another victory,” it wrote, “by increased majorities over the advocates of Disunion, Slave Labor in the Territories, and Free Trade. You have been vigilant and faithful and to you belongs the honor.”
Twenty-three-year-old Frank R. Root was the living image of these words. He had traveled 1,500 miles from his Kansas home to vote in his native Wellsboro.
In the 1850s, Kansas had a mythical draw for young Tioga County men like Root. Their wanderlust had as much to do with ethics as it did fertile soil, a calling that many scholars say fueled Lincoln’s election and the start of the Civil War.
The Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854 had opened the frontier territories to settlers, ignoring the government’s promise of the land to Native American tribes. The legislation sparked instant controversy for other reasons. Located north of the 36’30 parallel, the Nebraska territory lay on the abolitionist side of the Missouri Compromise of 1820, which prohibited slavery in the north. At the hand of Senator Stephen A. Douglas, the Kansas-Nebraska Act usurped this “Compromise” by declaring “popular sovereignty,” a doctrine that meant the people of the new territories could decide for themselves whether or not to permit slavery.
Some pilgrims were true entrepreneurs, hopeful of staking good land at a good price, and eager to facilitate the passage of a transcontinental railroad. Hundreds of pro-slavery Missourians rushed the territory for political reasons. These “border ruffians” wanted to colonize a new slave state, which prompted northern anti-slavery “Free Staters” to run south and combat Southern slaveholders and their ideology. Violent conflicts ensued in what became known as “Bleeding Kansas.”
In 1855, Irish immigrant and journalist Hugh Young left his Potter County home for Kansas, where he covered the guerrilla fighting for the New York Tribune. His “letters,” syndicated nationally, did much to inform the American public about the violence provoked by the Kansas-Nebraska Act and the smaller-scale civil war that brewed in America’s heartland. It was in part due to Young’s correspondence that New England abolitionists and Tioga sons moved south—as settlers and as Free Staters.
Eight years before Horace Greeley, Young’s colleague at the Tribune, popularized the phrase “Go West, young man,” Frank Root followed it to Kansas. In April of 1857, he disembarked from a Missouri river steamboat and walked to Wyandotte (now part of Kansas City, Kansas, in the county of Wyandotte), a town with several frame buildings in its three-block business stretch and less than 2,000 people in its immediate surroundings. The closest railroad depot was over 250 miles away. Root settled for a while in Atchison, the center of the border wars. There, he began working for the mail service, becoming a deputy postmaster and chief clerk. As an agent for the post office, he traveled across the plains from Atchison to Denver, passing through the Rocky Mountains.
On December 2, 1859, Root went to hear Abraham Lincoln give a speech in a Methodist church in Atchison. For two hours and twenty minutes, the Congressman challenged the Democratic narrative that Republicans were radicals in a speech that became famous two months later, after Lincoln delivered it to leading Republicans at the Cooper Institute in New York.
To challenge the presumption that radical Republicans wanted to change the American identity, Lincoln spoke about the Founding Fathers and their fight for basic human rights. He considered the role of each significant framer of the Constitution as he argued that it was the Southern slaveholder who departed more from America’s founding philosophies.
“I do not mean to say we are bound to follow implicitly in whatever our fathers did,” said Lincoln. “To do so would be to discard all the lights of current experience—to reject all progress—all improvement. What I do say is, that if we would supplant the opinions and policy of our fathers in any case, we should do so upon evidence so conclusive, and argument so clear, that even their great authority, fairly considered and weighed, cannot stand; and most surely not in a case whereof we ourselves declare they understood the question better than we.”
Lincoln spoke directly to the border ruffians that fought hard in Atchison to protect slavery. “Bring forward your charges and specifications, and then be patient enough to hear us deny or justify,” Lincoln charged. “Your purpose, then plainly stated, is, that you will destroy the Government, unless you be allowed to construe the Constitution as you please, on all points in dispute between you and us. You will rule or ruin in all events.”
He addressed Republicans.
“Neither let us be slandered from our duty by false accusations against us, nor frightened from it by menaces of destruction to the Government, nor of dungeons to ourselves. Let us have faith that right makes might; and in that faith, let us, to the end, dare to do our duty, as we understand it.”
Six months later, in May of 1860, Frank Root read that the Republican convention in Chicago had indeed nominated Abraham Lincoln for president. But he had a problem. Because Kansas wasn’t yet a state in 1860, residents couldn’t vote there in a national election. It would be the first time that he could vote for president, and Frank Root wanted to support the tall, skinny man who so moved him in the pioneer church.
“I wanted to cast my first Presidential vote for the famous “rail-splitter,” Root wrote in “The Early Days in Wellsboro: Recollection of Frank A. Root, a Wellsboro Boy, Now Long Years in Kansas” (printed in the Agitator). “I was determined to vote for him.”
In the months leading up to the November 6 presidential election, the Republicans knew they needed to secure Pennsylvania and Indiana. Prior to his nomination, Abraham Lincoln had not given a speech in Pennsylvania, although readers of newspapers had heard of “Tall Abe,” “Long, lank, lean Abe,” “Abe, the giant-killer” from coverage of the 1858 Lincoln-Douglas debates. With only the printed word as a primary source, Pennsylvanians respected Lincoln for the strength of his rhetoric. Republicans had not held the state since 1856. To ensure its support at the gubernatorial and presidential levels, the party turned to Senator Simon Cameron, a politician credited with crafting and operating the state’s “Republican machine.” A one-time frontrunner for the Republican nomination, Cameron emphasized the importance of local elections and encouraged his powerful colleagues to campaign for those with less political capital; the strategy built a strong Republican brotherhood. On the eve of Lincoln’s election, Cameron guaranteed Pennsylvania’s convention votes to Lincoln’s advisors, but only if they would give him a cabinet position. Without Abraham Lincoln’s knowledge, his team agreed, and a midnight caucus turned Pennsylvania into a swing state. Senator Cameron became President Lincoln’s first Secretary of War, before scandal dismissed him from office.
Little local archival information on this period may suggest that politics was a larger urban concern, that rural, village life focused more on agricultural duties and family provision. But this isn’t so. Tioga County’s forests of oak, maple, and pine trees may have offered an isolation from the fierce slavery battles that Hugh Young and Frank Root witnessed in Atchison, Kansas, but its people certainly cared about the themes of Lincoln’s campaign phrases: “Free soil, free labor, free men” spoke to the individual’s agrarian connection to land, the importance of one’s land ownership, and the integrity inherent in hard work. As evidenced by editorial pages of the time, Wellsboro felt a sharp patriotic anger at the threat of the Southern states to secede from the Union should Abraham Lincoln win the election.
During the summer and early fall of 1860, Lincoln and Douglas crisscrossed Pennsylvania, holding campaigns full of speeches and patriotic songs that rallied voters.
“The great debates between Douglas and Lincoln were eagerly read by my father to neighbors,” remembers Governor William Stone in his memoir The Tale of a Plain Man. He was a young teenager when Abraham Lincoln ran for president. After Stone and his friends played sockball, or stained their faces with the juice of elderberries and pretended to be Native Americans, or absorbed themselves in dime novels of western adventures, or helped their neighbors with potato hoeing, corn husking, haying, he would pay attention to his father’s political activities. As the election approached Wellsboro, “Dad would write out tickets or ballots and pass them out.”
With two months to go before the election, the Wellsboro Agitator worried that Lincoln’s momentum would keep people from voting, as evidenced from its perceived lack of excitement surrounding the occasion. By now, Hugh Young had returned home to Tioga County after contracting malaria in Kansas. He purchased the Agitator in 1858. The paper’s frustration with the pace of political activism reflects Young’s recent return from an uncivilized land of guerrilla wars.
“It is frequently remarked that the present political campaign is unprecedentedly quiet,” the paper said. “There is comparatively very little excitement, and many are wondering why it is so, when all allow that the decision to be made this Fall has an importance perhaps unparalleled in our history under the Constitution.”
The Philadelphia Daily News agreed, voicing the same sentiment in a very different location.
“The party, or rather the combination of parties, supporting Mr. Lincoln are too confident of his success to be noisily demonstrative, even if it was their nature to be so. Confident assurance of triumph indisposes them to be loud or to appear concerned.”
The Agitator echoed its election fears throughout September and October. “If the Republicans desire a solid and permanent victory, now is the time for action. If the government shall remain in the hands of thieves, slaveholders and dough faces, four years longer, it will be the fault of the strong Republican districts in Pennsylvania, where the people are too confident, simply because, in the same districts, the fool is weak.”
The paper issued a seven-point guide for citizens to use in properly organizing their voting districts:
1st. To make a list of the Republican voters in alphabetical order, with doubtful voters in a separate list.
2nd. Ascertain who have not been assessed, and get them assessed at least ten days before election.
3rd. Allot to each working Republican his special business.
4th. Have the tickets cut and folded and put up in a convenient form for distribution.
5th. Make provision for bringing out the in rm voters and even the lazy if there be any such.
6th. Appoint two or more suitable persons to superintend the outside work at the polls, who will understand how to keep the right men in the right places.
7th. Appoint one suitable person to check the names of the voters as their votes are pulled, so that it may be known who has not voted in time to bring them in.
Frank Root completed his 1,500-mile journey home to Wellsboro on November 5, 1860. The next day, on what he called “one of the proudest days of my life,” he cast his vote for president. Abraham Lincoln won 56.7 percent of the Pennsylvania vote, and according to historian Dr. Gale Largey, carried Tioga County by a four to one margin.
The influence of Lincoln’s rhetoric on the region, and the patriotic fervor of its people, became only more evident in the following five years. Two months after the election, Kansas became the thirty-fourth State with the passage of the Wyandotte Constitution in January of 1861. That same month, seven Southern states broke from the Union and formed the Confederate States of America. On April 12, 1861, Confederate forces attacked Fort Sumter, a Union post in South Carolina, initiating the start of the Civil War. In The Price of Patriotism, W. Wayne Smith writes that, according to the War Department, in proportion to population, Pennsylvania sent more volunteers to the Union Army than any other state, and Tioga County produced more Union soldiers than did any other county in Pennsylvania.