Party Crasher

A local Democrat changes sides—and politics.

Chester County’s John HickmanStarting a new political party isn’t rocket science. Just take an existing one that’s gotten too big, been in power too long, and cut too many corners. Then, organize its malcontents.

One such malcontent was John Hickman, a U.S. Congressman from West Chester who began his political career as a Democrat. His 1855 split with pro-Southern party leaders was the wedge that inspired local Know-Nothings, Whigs and disaffected Democrats to coalesce into the new Republican Party of Chester County, which has mostly controlled county government ever since.

As a Republican, Hickman exhibited the fervency of the converted. In the early days of the Civil War, he criticized the Lincoln administration’s slowness to move against the Confederacy. After emancipation, he condemned the government’s failure to embrace full citizenship for freed slaves.

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Democrats hated him. A Democratic newspaper editor mocked Hickman’s fraternizing with his “woolly-headed (African American) brudders.” On the grounds of the U.S. Capitol, a Southern congressman took a swing at him.

“He did not seek an early political life,” said fellow attorney William Darlington on the occasion of Hickman’s death. “But having entered into its arena, he devoted his characteristic vim to its work, and may well be said to have always proved himself a true representative of the people who rallied to his standard.”

Born in West Bradford Township, Hickman was the son of farmers John and Sarah Hickman. The Hickmans valued education, hiring a private tutor to drill their boy in the classics and mathematics.

Hickman had intended to become a physician, but he couldn’t endure the required hours in the dissecting rooms. He next considered the ministry, but eventually settled on law. Admitted to the bar in 1834, he spent the following 10 years building a practice.

Hickman got his first taste of politics in 1844, when he offered himself to local Democrats as a candidate for Congress. He ultimately lost the nomination to a more established party member. Perhaps as a consolation, Hickman was sent as a delegate to that year’s national convention, which nominated Democrat James K. Polk for president.

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It was the age of Jackson. Beginning with the election of Andrew Jackson in 1828, the Democratic Party—typically headed by land-hungry Southerners—had led the nation on a 30-year expansion spree. The Cherokee and Choctaw tribes were evicted from their lands in the Deep South. The country also confronted Great Britain, walking away with Oregon and Washington. Under Polk, the U.S. would seize California and the entire Southwest from Mexico.

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All this land grabbing suited the national mood—except in the effete Northeast, where the Whig Party ruled. The Whigs’ priorities were internal improvements, public schools and protective tariffs—a platform supported by business and financial interests and the growing anti-slavery movement. (The Know-Nothings had similar domestic interests, plus a dislike for immigrants.) The Northeast had little interest in additional real estate that would have to be defended and developed on its own—and would become slave territory anyway.

“In the murder of Mexicans upon their own soil, or in robbing them of their country, I can take no part,” said Joshua Giddings, an Ohio Whig who voted against troops and weapons for the Mexican War. “The guilt of these crimes must rest on others.”

To Democrats, this disinterest in empire on the part of Northeastern Whigs marked both the region and their party as a little wimpy, if not treasonous.

Whigs aside, the country was in the hands of a coalition of northern and southern Democrats, held together by agreements to give each section some of what it wanted—and to leave the South alone about slavery. Northern Democrats, who often shared the distaste for slavery of their Whig and Know-Nothing neighbors, were accustomed to holding their noses for party unity.

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At the 1844 convention, the issue was Texas. Independent since 1836, Texas had first petitioned to be admitted as a state in 1837. Martin Van Buren, president from 1837-41, rejected the request rather than risk war with Mexico. His successor, John Tyler, favored annexation, but the Senate did not approve. A majority of Democrats came to the convention favoring annexation, but the leading candidate was Van Buren, who did not.

Long story short: The pro-Southern, pro-slavery, pro-war side muscled Van Buren aside and nominated Polk, who was elected. Annexation and war followed.

Surely impressed with the power of pro-slavery Democrats, Hickman came home to consider his future in the party. In 1845, he was appointed district attorney for Chester County, serving 15 months before taking over as chair of the state Democratic Central Committee. Both were handy spots for an up-and-comer.

In 1854, Hickman tried once again for a coveted congressional seat. This time, he was elected.

Party leaders may have thought they had a regular, toe-the-line Democrat in Sixth District freshman John Hickman. Apparently not. Critics would charge that—like Republican-turned-Democratic Sen. Arlen Specter—Hickman’s political independence was more opportunistic than principled. John Hodgson, editor of the Democratic Jeffersonian newspaper, sneered that Hickman had merely gotten bored with the law and was lusting for a $3,000 Congressional salary.

Hickman’s independence became plain in 1855, when he refused to support his party’s choice, South Carolinian William Aiken, for Speaker of the House against Nathaniel P. Banks (R-Mass). Hickman voted for an obscure Democrat instead.

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It was not a minor issue. The House was narrowly divided between slave and free states. Throwing the speakership to one side or the other would affect the balance of power. Banks was a leading opponent of the Kansas-Nebraska Act, which had opened territory above the Mason-Dixon Line to slavery. “The handful of votes from northern Democrats like Hickman, who refused to be dictated to by the South, cost Aiken the speakership,” wrote historian Douglas R. Harper.

Banks took the gavel. And back in Chester County, Hickman was damned as a party traitor. Hodgson raged that Hickman and another local congressman “threw away” their votes. “These two votes would have elected the Democratic candidate and defeated Banks,” he said.

Except that many local Democrats weren’t upset at all. They didn’t like slavery either, and they were tired of the South telling them what to do. Whigs and Know-Nothings, meanwhile, were positively pleased.

According to Harper, Northerners generally were disgusted with their elected leaders in the 1850s. In particular, there was the Fugitive Slave Act, which required local authorities to help capture runaways. Suddenly, they could see the face of slavery right in their neighborhoods.

But because Hickman had offended entrenched Washington politicians, the folks at home loved him. With quiet support from Whigs and Know-Nothings, he was re-elected in 1856 as a Democrat. It was a good year for the Pennsylvania party because James Buchanan of Lancaster was running for president. Publicly, Hickman supported Buchanan and the Democratic platform but did not campaign for either.

As president, Buchanan leaned predictably toward the South. He’s believed to have lobbied a Supreme Court justice to vote in favor of the Dred Scott decision, which denied Congress had the right to exclude slavery from the territories. In Kansas, where pro- and anti-slavery settlers were fighting a low-grade civil war, Buchanan favored its admission as a slave state under the Lecompton Constitution written by the pro-slavery side.

Hickman, for his part, was a hardcore anti-Lecompton Democrat. In early 1858, the Jeffersonian’s Hodgson practically frothed when he described Hickman’s appearance on the post office steps “surrounded by scores of Black Republicans attracted by his anti-Lecompton ravings about the ‘tyranny of the South,’ ‘cowardly rascals and doughfaces of the North,’ and other Abolition lingo.” (“Black Republicans” weren’t actually African Americans, but sympathizers of their cause.)

Two years earlier, while campaigning as a Democrat, Hickman had dismissed as “traitors to the Union and the Constitution” the abolitionists who now cheered him. According to Hodgson, Hickman has proven himself “a kind of Democrat that approximates so nearly to a Black Republican that it is scarcely possible to distinguish one from the other.”

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Something had to change. The Democrats moved first, nominating a different candidate for Congress in 1858. A few weeks later, Hickman walked up West Chester’s High Street to a mass meeting of the disenchanted—Democrats, Whigs and Know-Nothings—plus members of the still-forming Republican Party. There, he was praised by the likes of William Whitehead, a Republican and abolitionist whom Hickman had defeated in 1854. “I never voted for, never supported him,” said Whitehead. “But I am bound to sustain him.”

In October, Hickman was elected as an independent. He’d carried nearly half of Democratic voters and large majorities of those from other parties. By 1860, when he ran again as a Republican, those other parties had disappeared.

A year later, Hickman was still on the House floor to declare that the North would never permit secession. “How will you prevent it?” came the reply of Georgia representative—and future Confederate general—Lucius Jeremiah Gartrell.

“I will tell you how it can be prevented,” Hickman responded. “With all the appliances of art to assist, 18 million men—reared to industry, with habits of the right kind—will always be able to cope successfully with 8 million men without these auxiliaries.”

The Republicans cheered.

The Democrats hissed.

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