In December, archaeologists digging in what was once a yard near the northeast corner of 11th and K streets NW pulled from the soil that classic example of political memorabilia: a campaign button. It was from the presidential race of 1860, but if its owner was somehow transported to the present, he might feel right at home amidst 2016’s fractious campaign.
The disk is a little bigger than a quarter. When the button was new, its center would have held tintype portraits of the candidates. The images long ago disintegrated, but lettering around the edge shows that the button was for John Bell and Edward Everett, Constitutional Union Party candidates in the 1860 presidential race.
Paul Kreisa of Stantec, the firm that did the digging, said that in his 36 years as an archaeologist, he had never before found anything as interesting.
“It really does help people connect with history,” he said.
I’ll say. I was a little rusty on the events of 1860 so I consulted A. James Fuller, professor of history at the University of Indianapolis and editor of “The Election of 1860 Reconsidered” (Kent State University Press).
“What happened in the election of 1860 was that the Democratic Party split,” James said. “The Southern Democrats walked out of the national convention, broke away and nominated John C. Breckinridge of Kentucky, who had been James Buchanan’s vice president. The Northern Democrats nominated their favorite, the man who had been expected to get the nomination: Stephen Douglas of Illinois.”
The Republican Party, less than a decade old, was splintered, allowing a dark-horse candidate to snatch the nomination. His name was Abraham Lincoln.
As if that wasn’t enough confusion, a brand-new party had sprung into existence: the Constitutional Union Party, which nominated John Bell of Tennessee. “He was a longtime congressman and had been involved in politics for many, many years,” James said. “He had been a member of the Whig Party, like Lincoln.”
Spoiler alert: Lincoln won. Looking at the confusion — argumentative conventions, dueling nominees, third-party candidates — sure made me think of the situation currently brewing.
I’m not alone. While maintaining the rigorous demeanor of a professional historian, James acknowledged that there are some eerie similarities. He noted the chatter that, should Donald Trum p get the Republican nomination, another conservative — Mitt Romney? — might enter the race. Until this week, it looked as if former New York mayor Michael Bloomberg might throw his hat in the ring.
Is it 1860 all over again?
“I always remind myself we’re not looking at civil war over this,” James said. “Or I hope not.”
Bell and Everett ran on a platform of compromise. Everyone knew a civil war might be the only way to resolve the divisive issue of slavery, but Bell and Everett thought they could at least forestall that.
Bell’s “opponents portrayed him as an old man,” James said. “They looked at him as an old man with old-style politics.”
Voters weren’t in the mood for compromise. That sounds familiar, too.
“Today, ‘compromise’ is a bad word to a lot of people,” James said. “Before the Civil War, compromise was what you thought politics was supposed to be. You were supposed to come to an agreement to put the good of the country above party interests.”
The Bell-Everett ticket won just three states: Virginia, Tennessee and Kentucky. After the Battle of Fort Sumter in 1861, Bell threw his support to the Confederacy. Everett, from Massachusetts, stayed true to the Union. At the 1863 dedication of the military cemetery at Gettysburg, Pa., he delivered a two-hour oration. It was overshadowed by the brief address Lincoln gave.
At the 11th and K site, a building from the 1870s will become part of a new Moxy Hotel, developed by Douglas Jemal. The Bell-Everett button wasn’t the only interesting relic discovered there. Paul and his crew found the base of a woman’s folding fan and an old toothbrush made of bone. They don’t have a clear picture of who lived there — the properties were rented, and details are scarce — but they do know that a boy named Willie Denham was among the residents. His death there in 1870, at age 6, was noted in the newspaper.
“We actually found quite a few marbles,” Paul said. “I can’t say the marbles are his, but it would be nice to think there’s a connection to this young child and a little bit of his memory remains.”
Paul said he tries to imagine how the Bell-Everett button ended up in the ground. Maybe, he said, “somebody wasn’t too happy with the election and took their campaign pin and just threw it away.”
Just imagine what the archaeologists of 2172 will find amid the rubble of Washington.
For previous columns, visit washingtonpost.com/johnkelly.