Pennsylvania is certainly a contested state in presidential elections but whether it’s a swing state anymore is open to debate.
Pennsylvania was a swing state in the elections of 1856 and 1860.
Democrat James Buchanan, Pennsylvania’s first and only president, won Pennsylvania in 1856. Republican Abraham Lincoln won the Keystone State in 1860.
The two elections occurred during a time of realignment of the nation’s political parties – spurred by the growing sectional divide over slavery yet influenced also by changes wrought by immigration, industrialization and western expansion.
In 1856, Buchanan emerged as the Democratic candidate helped by his absence from a domestic political scene shaken by the Fugitive Slave Law and open strife in the Kansas territory. Buchanan was acceptable to the party’s north and south sections.
Buchanan had been abroad as ambassador to Great Britain in the administration of Democratic President Franklin Pierce. He had previously served as Secretary of State. That with legislative service stretching back four decades made Buchanan one of the best-prepared presidents in terms of government experience.
The Whig party held together by Henry Clay and Daniel Webster despite internal contradictions had collapsed after the death of President Zachary Taylor in 1850. His successor, President Millard Fillmore, had signed the Fugitive Slave Act. This law not only allowed slave owners to pursue runaway slaves in the northern states but also created danger for free blacks in the north.
After the party collapse, northern Whigs such as former congressman Abraham Lincoln of Illinois and the anti-slavery Free-Soilers had coalesced into the new Republican Party. The Republicans opposed expansion of slavery into the territories as a threat to the freedom of workingmen.
The Republicans nominated James Fremont known as the Pathfinder. He was a romantic figure whose explorations in the Great West had gained national attention.
The American Party, meeting in Philadelphia, nominated former president Fillmore as its candidate. The American party sprang out of the nativist sentiment stirred up by the Irish Catholic immigration into the eastern seaboard cities.
Early on Pennsylvania was seen as the key to victory. Prominent politicians from other states canvassed the Keystone State.
Opinion polling was non-existent then, but politicians had something better to guide their efforts. Pennsylvania held elections for statewide candidates and congressional and state legislative candidates in October in 1856 and 1860, one month ahead of the presidential election.
Democrats won the statewide offices and achieved a majority in the General Assembly and congressional seats in October 1856 giving rise to optimism on their part. Republicans claimed fraud with voting by illegal immigrants.
On Nov. 4, 1856, Buchanan carried the state and its electoral votes made him president. Despite some fusion efforts, the anti-slavery Republicans and nativist American Party didn’t coalesce to present a unified opposition to the Democratic Party.
In 1860, the political situation was reversed.
The Republicans united behind Lincoln, while the Democrats split along sectional lines over slavery with Illinois Sen. Stephen Douglas and John Breckenridge of Kentucky, Buchanan’s vice president, both running for president.
All eyes were on Pennsylvania.
“Nationally, Republican hopes rested upon the party’s ability to retain the Fremont electoral vote of 1856 and to acquire the margin of victory in Pennsylvania, Indiana and Illinois – Buchanan states in the previous election,” wrote John F. Coleman in The Disruption of The Pennsylvania Democracy 1848-1860. “The nomination of Lincoln immediately enhanced the party’s appeal within his native state and in neighboring Indiana, but not in Pennsylvania where the candidate was comparatively little known. Yet, as the electoral vote of “The Keystone State” exceeded the combined total of the other two, it was in Pennsylvania that the most critical struggle took place.”
In 1860, Pennsylvania Republicans were able to co-opt the lingering nativist sentiment and make a successful appeal that expanding slavery was a threat to the economic rights of free white workingmen.
Republican Andrew Curtin won the governor’s race in October 1860, a prelude to Lincoln’s victory that November. — Robert Swift