Elections, Presidential: The Civil War

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The election of 1860 attracted enormous attention across the nation. All four presidential candidates were men of good intentions but with very different solutions for the crisis America faced. The Republican Party nominated Abraham Lincoln. A relatively new political organization, the Republican Party, first organized in 1854, arose from the outrage over the Kansas-Nebraska Act (1854) which, through the concept of popular sovereignty, permitted slavery in those newly created territories. By 1860 the Republicans had devised two effective strategies. What they did not recognize was how far they brought the nation to the verge of civil war.

The first Republican strategy was to energize the North against an enemy the party called the "Aggressive Slavocracy." Many Northerners were apathetic toward enslaved African Americans, but they did not want slavery spreading to the West. Furthermore, many Northerners were appalled at the influx of immigrants, particularly Catholics from Ireland and Germany, who had arrived over the past decade. Republicans argued that there was an "Aggressive Slavocracy" that conspired to pervert the Constitution and favor the will of Southern slave owners over the liberties of the northern people. In the minds of Republicans, these wealthy Southerners with their immigrant allies, who controlled the Democratic Party, truly threatened the nation. Whether one hated Catholics, slavery, or Democrats, one could find a home in the Republican Party. There was no conspiracy, of course, but this anti-South rhetoric was effective, and it deeply offended Southerners.

The second goal was to choose an electable candidate. The nomination of Abraham Lincoln of Illinois was designed to capture midwestern states the party had lost in 1856. The relatively unknown Lincoln was a fresh face for a new and energetic party. Lincoln believed his political relationships with former Whigs (a party that had died out in the mid-1850s) in the South would prevent any trouble once he won the election. Neither he nor the Republican party understood the depth of animosity generated south of the Mason-Dixon Line towards them.

Southern anger, in fact, tore apart the Democratic Party. At the Democratic convention in Charleston, South Carolina, in May 1860, Southern delegates refused to support Stephen A. Douglas's candidacy because he would not pledge the unconditional protection of slavery in the Southern states and all territories. Southerners were scared by Republicans who, they felt, were abolitionists and supporters of John Brown's attack on the Harper's Ferry arsenal in 1859. Brown had planned to arm slaves with the arsenal's weapons and begin an insurrection. Southerners feared the Republican party was composed of others who would bring death and destruction to the entire region.

When the Charleston convention failed, Southern Democrats nominated John C. Breckinridge of Kentucky. Northern delegates reconvened in Baltimore and selected Douglas. When the Democratic Party broke apart, the final means for intersectional communication broke down. Breckinridge's campaign focused on protecting the South. Douglas, on the other hand, recognized the possibilities of disaster and made an heroic attempt to keep Democrats and the nation together.

The final candidate, John Bell of Tennessee, ran under the Constitutional Union Party label. A former Whig like Lincoln, Bell wanted to avoid the slavery issue and focus on economic and social issues. Frightened Americans, however, ignored Bell's traditional appeals. Republicans feared the "slavocracy" would destroy liberty, while Southerners, slaveholders and non-slaveholders alike, viewed the Republicans as destroyers of their property rights, society, and economy.

Over eighty percent of the eligible voters cast ballots. Lincoln captured 180 of 183 Northern electoral college votes, which gave him the election. He received only 39 percent of the total popular vote. The Southern states backed Breckinridge. Douglas received the second highest number of popular votes, but they were spread throughout the entire nation and he finished last in electoral votes. Fearing a Republican president would annihilate their constitutional rights, South Carolina in December 1860 and Deep South states in early 1861 seceded from the Union. Although Lincoln issued no controversial statements, there was nothing he could have said to calm the waters. Lincoln's call for troops after Fort Sumter fell convinced Virginia, North Carolina, Tennessee, and Arkansas that Republicans were indeed the threat that had been so often discussed in the 1860 presidential campaign; they also seceded. The war no one wanted or anticipated had begun. The country's deep divides spurred the transition of America's national political parties into sectional organizations and allowed the election of a president who had the support of only one section of the country and little more than one-third of the popular vote.

1864 election

Three years of war had a profound effect on society and presidential politics. Presidential contenders in 1864 had to explain how to achieve victory. Since Lincoln did not doubt the outcome, he knew another vital issue was how to bring rebellious Southerners and millions of freed slaves into a reinvigorated and stable Union.

With the secession of the Southern states, the Democratic Party in the North was vastly outnumbered. A noisy minority, the so-called Peace Democrats, wanted an immediate end to the war. Republicans called them Copperheads, suggesting they were traitorous, venomous snakes who would kill the United States. Leaders of this faction, such as Clement Vallandigham of Ohio, portrayed the president as an incompetent radical who was more interested in freeing slaves than saving the nation. Peace Democrats believed that time would heal all wounds and the United States would be united again.

Most Northern Democrats supported the restoration of the Union through war, but they also felt that Lincoln's military policy caused too much bloodshed. Their eventual nominee, General George B. McClellan, argued the war could be won by careful maneuvering and training, not by the butchery seen at battles such as Fredericksburg and the Wilderness. War Democrats also castigated Lincoln for his Emancipation Proclamation and the social disaster that they believed would necessarily follow as millions of former slaves became citizens. Reconciling these two groups of Democrats was nearly impossible. The party platform condemned "the experiment of war" and called "for a cessation of hostilities" with later negotiations to restore the Union. On the first ballot, McClellan was nominated with a Peace Democrat, George H. Pendleton of Ohio, as his running mate. McClellan immediately renounced the peace plank of his party's platform and ran as a War Democrat.

Some historians have argued that Lincoln's reelection was far from certain, but the Republicans had few reasons for pessimism. It is true that some conservative Republicans wanted Lincoln to backtrack on the Emancipation Proclamation. On the other hand, many radicals saw Lincoln as too slow and incompetent, and attempted to promote Secretary of the Treasury Salmon P. Chase or General John C. Fremont as a candidate, but only failed miserably. An indication of Lincoln's future plans was his acceptance of former Tennessee Senator Andrew Johnson for his running mate. Republicans wanted to recast themselves as the "Union Party" in order to attract War Democrats, and Johnson was an appealing symbol.

The ebb and flow of the military campaigns alternately energized and discouraged each political party. General William T. Sherman's slow progress toward Atlanta and the awful bloodletting as General Ulysses S. Grant pushed General Robert E. Lee back towards Richmond caused Lincoln to despair. Republican spirits soared, however, when Atlanta fell in September. Some feel this victory assured Lincoln's reelection.

It is also quite significant for what did not happen in 1864. Despite being in the midst of a horrible war, the American people conducted politics as usual. War added salient issues about military competence, emancipation, and reconstruction, but no one thought to delay or cancel the presidential election. The two-party system remained the best setting to resolve deep political divisions among the northern electorate. The fate of the Union was in dispute, but not the political processes outlined in the Constitution.

1876 election

Questions about how to reconstruct the Union began to be asked as soon as the war began. The subsequent history of reconstruction is long and complex, but many of the issues were settled by the presidential election of 1876. The eventual election of Rutherford B. Hayes of Ohio was an equally tangled affair.

Ulysses S. Grant's presidency had been a failure, marred by the corruption of his supposed friends serving in his administration. Republicans were frantic to distance themselves from it. The party convention in Cincinnati in June 1876 was deadlocked until Governor Hayes of Ohio, a former Union general and an untainted war hero, received the nomination on the seventh ballot. What the Republican party stood for, however, had been muddied by the pursuit of office.

Democrats chose Governor Samuel J. Tilden of New York as the antidote for all Republican ills. Tilden's reputation for honesty stemmed from his eliminating the Tweed Ring and corrupt officeholders in his state. Tilden also supported "home rule" for the ex-Confederate states. This did not bode well for the remaining Southern state administrations that protected the freedmen. The Democratic platform did accept the Thirteenth, Fourteenth, and Fifteenth Amendments to the Constitution ending slavery and guaranteeing black rights, but it also condemned "the rapacity of carpet-bag tyrannies" in the South. Democrats were further encouraged by their party's capture of the House of Representatives in the 1874 elections. Many Northern voters seemed to be weary of the Civil War's remaining problems and federal corruption.

On election day, Tilden received over 250,000 more votes than Hayes. The Electoral College tally, however, was terribly unclear. The election was plunged into chaos because of the violence and fraud that Southern whites used to seize control of the last three carpet-bag administrations in South Carolina, Louisiana, and Florida. If those three states were counted for Hayes, he would be the victor.

Democrats who controlled the House of Representatives refused to cooperate with the Republican Senate in counting the votes. Both political parties, however, were desperate to settle Civil War issues. The stalemate was broken in March 1877 when Hayes assured Southern Democrats that they would have "home rule" under his administration as well as political appointments and federal money for rebuilding war damages and for railroads. Since Hayes also promised to remove the last federal troops in the South, African Americans would not be seeing many of the benefits of post–Civil War legislation. Upon these conditions, Southern Democrats threw their support to a Republican president a few days before the inauguration.

The Civil War left powerful memories in the North and the South. Presidential candidates for the rest of the century would draw upon those feelings, but the election of Hayes in 1876 left most people satisfied that the Civil War was finally over and the nation could attend to other business. Nevertheless, presidential election campaigns for the remainder of the nineteenth century would often remind voters of the legacy of the Civil War.


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McPherson, James M. Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era. New York: Oxford University Press, 1988.

Morison, Elting. "Election of 1860." In History of American Presidential Elections, 1789–1968, vol. 2, edited by Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr. New York: Chelsea House, 1971.

Neely, Mark E., Jr. The Union Divided: Party Conflict in the Civil War North. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2002.

Pomerantz, Sidney I. "Election of 1876." In History of American Presidential Elections, 1789–1968, vol. 2, edited by Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr. New York: Chelsea House, 1971.

Silbey, Joel H. A Respectable Minority: The Democratic Party in the Civil War Era, 1860–1868. New York: Norton, 1977.

Trefousse, Hans L. Rutherford B. Hayes. New York: Times Books, 2002.

Waugh, John C. Reelecting Lincoln: The Battle for the 1864 Presidency. New York: Crown Publishers, 1997.

Woodward, C. Vann. Reunion and Reaction: The Compromise of 1877 and the End of Reconstruction (1951). New York: Oxford University Press, 1991.

M. Philip Lucas

See also:Davis, Jefferson; Grant, Ulysses S.; Johnson, Andrew; Lincoln, Abraham; Political Parties.