With the nation on the brink of the greatest catastrophe in its history, most San Diego County voters went to the polls 150 years ago this month and turned down the man who’d become America’s most beloved president.

Instead, they overwhelmingly voted for the pro-South rival who stood the furthest from him on the future of slavery, the biggest issue of the day. Four years later, they turned down Abraham Lincoln again.

Why didn’t they like the skinny railsplitter-turned-lawyer? Because many of San Diego County’s residents supported the South and thought slavery was a mighty fine system. Heck, slavery might even work here too, they thought.

Not that there were many people around at the time to own slaves or even be slaves here. While San Diego County was much bigger than it is now, spreading all the way to the border with the future state of Arizona, it had a tiny population of just about 4,300. But this “secession-tinged” county was still vulnerable to the same Civil War-era passions that would tear the state apart and leave one of California’s U.S. senators dead in a duel.

Back East, people tended to line up on the slavery issue based on where they lived: North, South or the border states in between. In the fledgling West, however, people were from all over and carried their regional allegiances with them.

“It’s important to think about how Westerners were very different than Northerners and Southerners. It wasn’t obvious which side they’d side with,” said Adam Arenson, a professor at the University of Texas at El Paso who grew up in San Diego.

In the Golden State, the lines of presidential politics were drawn between Northern California and Southern California. Then as now, the north was more liberal. And in 1860, just 10 years after California became a state, that’s where nearly everyone lived.

Many Northern California voters were miners, and they tended to support the newly created Republican Party (which was more sympathetic to workers than the Democrats) and Lincoln, its presidential candidate.

The huge issue at the time was slavery, and Lincoln — who become later known as the freer of the slaves — staked out a fairly moderate position. “The vast majority of Republicans like Lincoln weren’t abolitionists. They … wished to encircle slavery, keep it in the South and allow it to die slowly,” said Douglas R. Egerton, a history professor at LeMoyne College in New York and author of the new book “Year of Meteors: Stephen Douglas, Abraham Lincoln and the Election that Brought on the Civil War.”

In Southern California, where few people lived, voters were generally horrified by the idea of restricting slavery. They tended to support Democrats and oppose Lincoln.

The main industry here was ranching, and ranchers were “relatively suspicious of a stronger federal government and wanted to protect their property rights and their rights to keep laborers,” El Paso professor Arenson said. “The fear was that further restrictions on slavery would mean restrictions on contracts and labor.”

There was even some talk about finding a way to allow slaves in Southern California, even though it was a free state. One Southerner described the region as “admirably adapted to the institution of African slavery.”

It’s hard to know exactly how the 1860 campaign played out in San Diego since the only newspaper at the time, the Herald, closed up shop that year. However, Californians knew all about the campaign and the major presidential candidates — all four of them — thanks to the news from the East that came over telegraph wires. Even without a local newspaper, San Diegans would have learned about the presidential race as travelers brought in out-of-town papers.

In the 1860 election, just a third of California voters went for Lincoln. But they helped him squeak out a statewide victory and gain California’s measly four electoral votes. (The Golden State was hardly populated at the time: Maine had more people than California.)

As for San Diego County, 148 voters went for Southern Democratic candidate John C. Breckinridge, the sitting vice president and a mouthpiece for the South and slavery. Just 81 supported Lincoln, and only 29 supported his old debating partner, Northern Democratic candidate Stephen Douglas. Another eight went for a candidate who managed to win three states by taking a non-stand on the big issue of the day: He said virtually nothing about slavery.

Nationwide, Lincoln won just 40 percent of the popular vote — “60 percent of Americans voted against him on the grounds that he was too progressive on race,” Egerton said — but creamed his rivals in the Electoral College.

Within months of the election, the Civil War would begin in South Carolina. “Southern California was so pro-Confederate that they didn’t fly the Stars and Stripes in Los Angeles after the firing on Fort Sumter until troops came in,” said historian Glenna Matthews of Laguna Beach.

As for San Diego County, a man who dropped by to try to raise money to support the North glumly described it as a “secession-tinged area,” said Matthews, who’s writing a book about California and the Civil War.

San Diego County stayed in the Democratic column four years later in 1864; most voters here opposed Lincoln’s bid for a second term.

Instead, they threw their support to the Democrat, George McClellan, a former Civil War general who failed to pursue the enemy on the battlefield and had notoriously been described by his boss, Lincoln, as having a case of “the slows.” McClellan’s party was bitterly divided over whether to continue the war, and victories for the North before the election gave Lincoln enough mojo to win 55 percent of the popular vote (and California too).

As the two political parties evolved, San Diego County would eventually lose its affection for Democrats and become a Republican stronghold for much of the 20th century. But we still retain some links to the war that tore the country apart.

Several local Civil War veterans are buried at San Diego’s Mount Hope Cemetery, including one man named Jeremiah Nesbitt, who served in an Ohio infantry unit and survived all the way until 1937. In downtown, the famous U.S. Grant hotel is named after its founder’s father, Civil War general-turned-president Ulysses S. Grant, and several of his descendants live here. (Never mind that San Diego County voted against Grant when he first ran for president.)

And hundreds of thousands of San Diegans see a reminder of the Civil War each morning: The San Diego Union, now the Union-Tribune, was founded in 1868 and named in honor of the union of the states that the war preserved.

NOTE: I’d like to write more about San Diego and Southern California during the Civil War as the conflict’s 150th anniversary approaches next year. If you’ve got any insight, drop me a line at randydotinga@gmail.com. Follow me on Twitter: twitter.com/rdotinga.

Randy Dotinga

Randy Dotinga is a freelance contributor to Voice of San Diego. Please contact him directly at randydotinga@gmail.com...

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