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.

Paoli Pike, as it was in the late 1800s.

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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.”

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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