Main Line History: Clayton Phipps and Charles Malone's Limestone Bet

The election of 1860 was momentous, and two farmhands observed it in their own way.

People place bets for all sorts of reasons. Money is a big one, of course. But betting to show passion or conviction is also common—perhaps in the hope that doing so might unnerve an opponent or even change the outcome.

Certainly, there was little practical reason to walk 10 miles on a bad road pushing a bushel of crushed limestone. Yet that was the deal Clayton Phipps and Charles Malone cut with each other amidst the election hoopla of 1860. A Lincoln supporter, Phipps told Malone that he’d push a wheelbarrow of lime from Green Tree—a neighborhood just east of Malvern—to West Chester if the Republican lost. Malone promised to do the same if Democrat John C. Breckinridge lost.

Malone followed through. At 10 a.m. on Nov. 15, according to the Village Record, he loaded the lime—“all that remained of the Democratic party,” gibed the editor—into a specially built wheelbarrow whose weight rested on his shoulders, and started walking. “It was like no campaign ever waged
before, except possibly the log-cabin-and-hard-cider monstrosity of 1840,” wrote Civil War historian Bruce Catton. “The nervous unease that lay across all sections of the country drove men to sudden displays of wild enthusiasm, as if in the flare of torches and the excitement of moving parades some reassurance about the future might be found.”

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The country was split over slavery. More important from a political standpoint, the Democrats were split. And when one party splits into a two-party system, prospects for the rival party brighten. James Buchanan was in the White House. Elected in 1856 with a promise to serve only one term, he had failed miserably in his stated goal “to restore harmony to the Union.” Buchanan’s official position was that the Supreme Court, not politicians, should decide the slavery issue. But he had intervened behind the scenes to produce a broad pro-slavery, pro-Southern statement. According to the Dred Scott decision, Washington had no power to interfere with slavery in its territories.

In Kansas, pro- and anti-slavery settlers promptly went to war with each other. Rival groups each produced their own constitutions and applied separately for statehood. Despite the opposition of most Kansas settlers, Buchanan supported the pro-slavery constitution. He was opposed in the U.S. Senate by fellow Democrat Sen. Stephen Douglas, who believed the pro-slavery side had rigged the voting. Douglas would not sacrifice his honor “to enable a small minority of the people of Kansas to defraud the majority.”

The Democratic Party split into northern and southern factions. The former defended “popular sovereignty” and Douglas. The latter demanded the right to own slaves anywhere in the United States, eventually coalescing around Buchanan’s vice president, John C. Breckinridge of Kentucky. When the factions were unable to compromise on a candidate at the party’s 1860 convention, each nominated its own man.

At that point, informed ob-servers considered the election over. “The peculiar condition of the (Democratic Party), with double nominations for president and vice president, causes the same embarrassment in the veteran members of the party in Chester County that we see manifested elsewhere,” observed Henry S. Evans, editor of the Republican-leaning Village Record in West Chester.

Even the county’s two Democratic newspapers split. Douglas got the backing of The American Republican & Chester County Democrat, while the Jeffersonian supported Breckinridge. Evans’ Record supported Lincoln.

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As Chester and Delaware county Democrats tried to unite behind Douglas or Breckinridge, the Republicans perfected their skills of political display. A memorable feature of the 1860 election was the Wide-Awakes, a paramilitary organization affiliated with the Republicans. Members wore identical uniforms—a full cape, a black glazed hat and a six-foot torch mounted with a large, flaming, pivoting whale-oil container—and turned out en masse for political rallies and speeches.

The Wide-Awakes did seem to be everywhere locally. The Village Record reported clubs at Coatesville, Concord, Kennett Square, Edgemont, Willistown and places in between. The largest was in West Chester, where an office was opened in July over Worrall’s Bookstore and kept lit every night through the campaign.

In West Chester, the 1860 election campaign opened like a fireworks display, with the massive “Grand Demonstration” at Everhart’s Grove in late July. The Village Record estimated turnout at 10,000 people. Flags hung over every intersection. A cannon brought from Phoenixville began early in the morning. All day long, “every avenue leading to West Chester was thronged with people on foot, on horseback, in carriages and in big teams,” reported the Village Record.

The lead speakers, Republican gubernatorial candidate Andrew Curtin and Congressman John Hickman, were escorted from the train station by 120 Wide-Awakes carrying a banner that read, “Labor Is King, Not Cotton.” They were followed by bands and Wide-Awake delegations from across the county.

Meanwhile, at a Democratic county convention in September, “Mr. McCaughey” of Valley Township proposed that the party abstain from that year’s election, rather than choose between Douglas and Breckinridge. Instead of a campaign, local Democrats offered snark. John Hodgson, editor of the pro-Breckinridge Jeffersonian, excelled at this. Describing a rally in Wilmington, Del., he labeled that city’s Wide-Awakes “John Brown Volunteers,” and the evening a “drunken disorderly time”—as political rallies often were. 

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Hodgson hated the very idea of political progress. “The Black Republican candidate for the presidency confesses ‘the obligations of the higher law,’” he sneered. “Which means that he confesses the obligation to follow the dictates of prejudice, fanaticism, caprice, passion, of self-interest whenever they conflict with the Constitution.”

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None of this dampened Republican enthusiasm. In September,  about 25,000 Lincoln supporters gathered at Brandy-wine Battlefield for demonstrations and speeches by local writer Bayard Taylor and Ohio Congressman John Sherman, a brother of general-to-be William Tecumseh Sherman. “Let us come now to the duty we have to perform as our Revolutionary fathers performed their duty in their time,” Sherman told the enthusiastic throng. “We have a country to preserve, a constitution to preserve, a Union to preserve and the principles for which they fought.”

The election wasn’t even close. With 82 percent turnout, Lincoln won about 7,800 of the 13,000 votes cast in Chester County; Breckinridge, about 5,000. Douglas and Bell received only a few hundred each.

All of which left Charles Malone with an obligation to walk from Green Tree to West Chester with a wheelbarrow filled with lime.

Neither Phipps nor Malone left much evidence of their lives. Phipps may have been the man of that name who died in 1887 at Clarkesburg, W.Va., where he worked in lumbering. According to the Daily Local News, he had moved there in 1862 and left relatives at Exton and Frazer. Malone left no trace in the files of the Chester County Historical Society; most members of the Malone family at that period lived around Atglen.

Why lime? Crushed limestone is commonly spread to raise the pH level of acidic soil, increasing crop productivity. Farmers usually calculate the amount to be used in tons per acre. In that era, it was all spread by hand. A bushel would have weighed perhaps 120 pounds. The fact that Malone and Phipps chose this particular wager suggests a couple of farmhands, talking politics while they worked.

In the lingering enthusiasm of Lincoln’s election, the walk was a bigger deal than either Phipps or Malone likely expected. Several companies of Chester County Wide-Awakes and the Charlestown Brass Band showed up to escort the losing Democrat. Paoli Pike remained unpaved into the 20th century, but the day was clear so the road was probably reasonably passable. The walk took three hours.

“Mr. Malone put himself down to the work with a zeal worthy of a better cause,” related the Record. “He [finished] at the Black Bear [tavern], where he was quickly surrounded by a host of friends, who congratulated him upon the gallant style in which he had propelled the wheelbarrow.”

The wheelbarrow was later auctioned for $9, and the lime for 40 cents.

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