Pole Raising in the Days of Lincoln

This year we are celebrating the 200th anniversary of the birth of Abraham Lincoln, one of the greatest presidents in American history. But in his own lifetime, the people of Hunterdon County didn’t agree.

Hunterdon County had always voted strongly for Democrats, all the way back to Andrew Jackson’s first race for president in 1824. But in 1860, the Democrats were challenged by a new Republican Party and its standard bearer Abraham Lincoln. Hunterdon voted solidly for his opponent, Stephen Douglas, but Lincoln carried the nation.

One of the ways that Hunterdon party leaders encouraged enthusiasm among their followers for an upcoming election was to hold a pole raising. Ever since the revolutions of the 18th century, people have celebrated their yearning for liberty and political independence by raising liberty poles. This practice was continued after the United States passed its Constitution and began to hold regular elections.

A pole-raising involved the planting of a long pole, or even a pine tree, in a public place and the ceremonial attachment of a flag or liberty cap on top. During the campaign of 1824, supporters of Andrew Jackson took to raising hickory poles, harking back to the days of the Revolution, but choosing hickory wood to honor their candidate, widely known as Ol’ Hickory, a tough wood and a tough man.

There’s a particularly interesting story about one pole-raising in the village that would eventually be named Sergeantsville. A hole was dug for a pole raising to take place the next day, undoubtedly in front of the tavern that is now our township municipal building. When the men returned the next day, they found a skunk family residing at the bottom of the hole. The story fails to explain how the skunks were removed from the hole, or if the pole raising ever took place. But supposedly, this incident inspired a name for the village: Skunktown.

The name Skunktown shows up in documents of the time, so it was more or less official until the postal service awarded a post office to the village in 1827 on the condition that a new name be chosen. Here another story comes in—supposedly the villagers assembled in a meeting to chose a name, and members of the Sergeant family managed to outnumber members of the Thatcher family, thus winning the vote. But the Thatchers got the first postmaster, storekeeper Jonas Thatcher.

Democrats were still pole raising when Lincoln ran for president. In 1929, Egbert T. Bush, a local historian who wrote a long series of articles in the Hunterdon County Democrat, described some pole raisings that took place in Franklin Township, just north of Croton, at the “Old Frog Tavern,” an important local landmark that is no longer standing. As a boy, he had been present at pole raisings in 1860 and then again in 1864. Bush wrote that the “quadrennial pole-raising” was

 “a purely Democratic meeting of course. It had to be, for it took many men to raise a pole eighty or ninety feet long; and practically nobody but Democrats lived in that vicinity then, however it may be now. The pole must be hickory, of course. Nothing else could fittingly represent the strong, inflexible character of old Hickory Jackson, who, though dead since 1845, was still a controlling power in the party. . . .
“The pole-raising of 1856 is a blur, and that of 1860 does not stand out as a great success. The trouble with the latter may have been the disruption of the party that year. Certainly, there were wide differences of opinion in that usually one-minded community. Many were the fireside discussions, and many the memorable if not convincing arguments. But in one thing they were still united: “Old Abe” and the abolitionists caught it from both sides of the divided host.”

You see, for many years leading up to 1860, the Democratic party had sided very firmly against the abolitionists. It was not that all Democrats favored slavery, but that the idea of ending it abruptly was seen as too traumatic for the country. The states that favored slavery and its extension into the new western territories were a powerful voting bloc that the Democratic party had relied on for its success. But by 1860, things had gotten uncomfortable for many of these Democrats, particularly northern ones, which is why there were so many “fireside discussions,” as Bush says. As for the divided host, the Democrats had split at their convention. After Stephen Douglas was nominated, the Southern Democrats who wanted protections for slavery in their platform nominated their own candidate, John C. Breckenridge.

The Hunterdon Gazette, which had for years been a Whig paper, and was decidedly sympathetic to Republicans by 1860, reprinted an article opposing Lincoln’s election published by the Savannah Republican on August 29, 1860. The Gazette editor wrote: “Let it be read by Union men, by Democrats, and by all good citizens who wish well to the country.” The Savannah Republican claimed that upon Lincoln’s election,

“between that time and March, we shall see cotton at five cents, negroes at five hundred dollars, Railroad, Bank and all other stocks, North and south, down among the dead men, business destroyed, creditors unable to collect their dues, and debtors ruined, and everything completely disorganized. . . . It becomes then the imperative duty of every patriot of the land, to labor to prevent Lincoln’s election, and to avert such dreadful consequences as will, in all human probability, flow from it.”

In the election of 1860, there were 6,446 votes cast in Hunterdon County for president; 3,619 for the “Democratic Union,” which was New Jersey’s solution to the split in the Democratic Party, and 2,827 for Abraham Lincoln. Delaware Township had the third highest number of votes cast among the townships: 476 for the “Dem. Union” and 166 for Lincoln. A pretty solid victory for the Democrats. In fact, among Hunterdon municipalities, Delaware Township had the largest majority of votes against Lincoln. No other township came close to its 310-vote margin.

Ironically, Lincoln then came to nearby Trenton during his triumphant 1861 train ride from Springfield, Illinois to Washington DC. He delivered two addresses in Trenton, one to the New Jersey Assembly and one to the Senate. In his Senate speech, Lincoln recalled his childhood fondness for the story of Washington’s crossing of the Delaware River during a critical moment of the Revolutionary War. His words seem to presage his Gettysburg Address. The speeches of President Obama often echo these words:

“ . . . you all know, for you have all been boys, how these early impressions last longer than any others. I recollect thinking then, boy even though I was, that there must have been something more than common that those men struggled for. I am exceedingly anxious that that thing which they struggled for; that something even more than National Independence; that something that held out a great promise to all the people of the world to all time to come; I am exceedingly anxious that this Union, the Constitution, and the liberties of the people shall be perpetuated in accordance with the original idea for which that struggle was made, and I shall be most happy indeed if I shall be an humble instrument in the hands of the Almighty, and of this, his almost chosen people, for perpetuating the object of that great struggle.”

Lincoln also recognized the terms under which he was invited to speak:

“You give me this reception, as I understand, without distinction of party. I learn that this body is composed of a majority of gentlemen who, in the exercise of their best judgment in the choice of a Chief Magistrate, did not think I was the man. I understand, nevertheless, that they came forward here to greet me as the constitutional President of the United States—as citizens of the United States, to meet the man who, for the time being, is the representative man of the nation, united by a purpose to perpetuate the Union and liberties of the people. As such, I accept this reception more gratefully than I could do did I believe it was tendered to me as an individual.”

Within three years of that speech, the country was at war with itself. Bush observed that much had changed among New Jersey Democrats.  Bush wrote:

“But 1864 made up for all previous lack of unity. The greatest enthusiasm prevailed. The pole was a beauty. The banner was finely decorated with the names of McClellan and Pendleton.”

Bush refers to New Jersey native, George McClellan, the Democrats’ candidate for President and future governor of New Jersey. Nationally, the Democratic party was divided over the war. McClellan was nominated as a compromise candidate, since he strongly supported the war, while the Democratic platform called for a halt to the fighting and a negotiated settlement with the Confederacy. McClellan did his best to take advantage of the mood of defeatism in the north, and seemed likely to win, until Sherman’s successful march through Georgia.

Given that this pole raising Bush wrote about took place so close to Delaware Township, and, according to Bush, attracted men from far and wide, I think it is safe to say that the opinions of the people Bush describes could be attributed to Delaware Twp. residents. As Bush put it:

“In truth most of the men from a considerable distance around were there, anxious to show their colors and to protest against the “usurpations” of Old Abe and the Republican party.”

The “usurpations” of Old Abe were probably the suspension of the writ of habeas corpus, imprisonment of Confederate sympathizers without trial, and the Emancipation Proclamation of 1862.

This pole-raising business was not only confined to Democrats; it was confined to male Democrats.

“Women were by no means so plentiful. They were not thought to count for much in politics, of course, and rarely appeared to take much interest. The men of that day all knew that women were not fit to vote because they did not know enough about government. Like all men wise in their own esteem, they did not stop to consider whether they themselves knew enough or not. Things are very different now, except that the evidence of self-examination is not much more noticeable to-day than in that long ago. . . .”

Bush does not tell us any more about the pole-raising of 1864, other than a short reflection on his own feelings about the Civil War:

“Of course I felt that those present must be right about the contest, though I can recall consciousness of only one deeply-rooted article of faith that seemed to bind me to theirs: I hated the thought and even the name of war. I feel no shame in confessing that there has been no change in that matter to this day.”

Bush suggests that these Hunterdon men, and most of New Jersey, blamed Lincoln for the war and hoped that McClellan would end it. They were mistaken, of course, but it helps us to understand from such a great distance in time why there was such opposition to a man we now venerate.

It should also be said that following Lincoln’s assassination, attitudes about Lincoln changed dramatically. This was published in the Hunterdon Gazette on May 10, 1865:

“A little over four years ago Abraham Lincoln, then a comparatively untried man, left his quiet home in the little town of Springfield, Illinois, to assume the high and responsible duties of President of this republic, the most exalted and honorable of all worldly positions. On Wednesday last all that is mortal of Abraham Lincoln returned to that same quiet little town.—But in those four years what mighty events in the history of the republic and of the world have occurred, how wonderfully have been the developments in the character of the then improved man. . . . Upon the face and heart of [the] nation has been ineffaceably stamped the character and genius of that then comparatively obscure man, whom in all its ages to come, it will recognize as its savior. Honors such as the people of the United States have never before paid to the remains of a distinguished citizen they have shown to the dead body of Abraham Lincoln as well because they loved the man himself as that in the assassin shot which terminated his life they recognized the blow struck at each and all of themselves.”