Top Republicans Should Say They'll Accept the Result

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Corey Brooks writes that GOP leaders should emulate Stephen Douglas on Abraham Lincoln’s election. christie's

In the final presidential debate, Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton responded with outrage when Republican opponent Donald Trump refused to pledge to accept the results of the upcoming election.  

Appealing to a long American history of peaceful transitions of power, Clinton remarked, “We’ve been around for 240 years. We’ve had free and fair elections. We’ve accepted the outcomes when we may not have liked them.”  

Of course, there is at least one exception Clinton overlooked.

In 1860, a great many Americans did not accept an outcome they did not like. Their response produced the greatest crisis in our nation’s history.

When Abraham Lincoln was elected as the first Republican president on a platform opposing slavery’s westward expansion, seven Deep South states renounced the union even before Lincoln entered the White House, and four other slaveholding states soon followed.

Many of the political leaders who drove the secession movement knew full well that their actions could precipitate civil war, but they persisted anyway (though few could predict how deadly such a conflict would become).  

Hardly anyone could have been completely surprised at this turn of events. The most extreme pro-slavery Southerners had been threatening secession for many years, and in the heat of the 1860 campaign, those threats had grown louder, more widespread and more popular.

When Lincoln ran for president, he faced three opponents in a chaotic four-way race. Kentucky’s John Breckenridge, the pro-slavery Southern Democratic candidate and sitting vice president of the United States, ultimately received the second-most electoral votes and the third-most popular votes in 1860. Throughout the campaign, it was widely known that a great many Breckenridge voters would view Lincoln’s election as cause for breaking up the Union.

As local and state election results in the North increasingly indicated a likely Republican victory, Lincoln’s main northern opponent, Illinois Democrat Stephen Douglas, abandoned his declining hopes for victory and took to the stump to argue that the election outcome must be accepted.

Douglas, a fiercely anti-abolitionist and overtly racist Democratic Party loyalist, nonetheless concluded weeks before Election Day that “Mr. Lincoln is the next president.” Consequently, he wrote, “we must try to save the Union.”

And so Douglas went south to make the case for preserving the union, a case he continued to make even as he faced hecklers and egg throwers in Deep South audiences.

When he knew he was going to lose, Douglas didn’t pass his time fighting a losing campaign, nor did he, like many Breckenridge supporters, spend his energies attempting to delegitimize the likely results of the pending election.  

Instead, Douglas defended the American system of democratic elections (however circumscribed by that time period’s racial and gender limitations), insisting, “If Lincoln is elected, he must be inaugurated.”

It seems that in our present political climate, with one presidential candidate expressing such unprecedented disregard for the American electoral system, the leadership of the conservative movement and the Republican Party should now emulate Douglas’s actions in the final weeks of his unsuccessful campaign.

Trump dismissing in advance the legitimacy of a contest he is now projected to lose obviously will not lead to secession or civil war. But there is real danger that his rejection of the democratic process could inspire political unrest or even a handful of deeply disruptive or violent reactions.

To help reduce the likelihood of any such threats on the part of Trump’s most extreme adherents, it would behoove more responsible members of the party that seems increasingly likely to be on the losing side of this election to take a page from Douglas’s book and speak out in defense of our democracy and against those, including their own nominee, who would undermine it.

We know now that Douglas’s efforts would fail. And yet, even in the election that literally divided the country, we saw perhaps more faith in the political system than we are seeing today.

Corey M. Brooks is associate professor of history at York College of Pennsylvania. He is the author of Liberty Power: Antislavery Third Parties and the Transformation of American Politics.