Election of 1860

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Election of 1860

The election of 1860 did much to increase the inevitability of civil war. An article published in the Charleston Mercury on November 17, 1856, conveyed South Carolina's apprehensions about the new presidential election cycle: "The Presidential contest of 1856 is ended, and that of 1860 has just commenced. The struggle for the Presidency is over, and James Buchanan is elected, but the issues involved in the contest are not yet settled. These are yet in the womb of the future, and what the next four years may bring forth, we must wait and see, hoping for the best while we should be forearmed against the worst." The debates that shaped the election of 1860 comprised a referendum on the nation's past, present, and future. And the election's outcome stood to affect the daily lives of millions of Americans, as the future prospects for a united nation hung in the balance.

Parties and Candidates

On November 6, 1860, approximately 81 percent of eligible voters in America went to the polls to cast their ballot in support of one of four national candidates for president. In reality, none of the four could truly call themselves a national candidate. During the 1850s, congressional debates over the future expansion of slavery had increasingly divided the nation into slaveholding and non-slaveholding sections. At the beginning of the 1860 election, the Democrats were the only party with a national constituency—but they too would soon splinter.

American politics has been dominated by a two-party system throughout most of its history. During the antebellum period, the Whig and Democratic parties vied for national supremacy until the former collapsed during the early 1850s due to sectional strife within the party. Some mourned the Whig Party's demise; for example, the editor of The Weekly Raleigh Register (North Carolina) asserted, "The Whig party more than once had saved the country from impending ruin, in 1820, 1832, and in 1850. Without Henry Clay where would we have been?" (March 8, 1854).

As the Democratic Party splintered and the Republican Party gained additional support among Northern voters, former Whig and Know-Nothing Party members formed a new Constitutional Union Party. During their May convention, the delegates nominated John Bell of Tennessee as their presidential candidate. The party's ticket also included the famed orator and former Whig, William Everett of Massachusetts. The Constitutional Union Party had constituents in most Southern communities, but their principal base of support came from Upper South states that longed for the days of Senator Henry Clay of Kentucky and wanted to resolve the nation's sectional tensions. Although the Constitutional Union Party had no chance of seeing its candidate elected, it sill had enough influence to shape the outcome of both the Republican and Democratic Conventions. Republicans sought a moderate candidate who would appeal to former Whigs and Know-Nothing Party members in the North. Southern Democrats, already distrustful of Northern Democrats, wanted to select a candidate who would force Southerners to take a stand on what they considered to be the key election issues. They worried that a more moderate stance might attract additional voters into the Constitutional Union Party fold.

Left without a national party, many Southern former Whigs reluctantly entered into the Democratic fold, whereas in the North, the collapse of the Whig Party gave rise to a new national party, the Republican Party. Founded in 1854, the Republican Party was from its earliest beginnings a sectional party supported by an unprecedented coalition of abolitionists, free-soilers, free laborers, former Northern Democrats, and former Northern Whigs. In 1856 the party ran its first presidential campaign, nominating John C. Fremont, a famed explorer, military officer, and one-time senator and governor of California, as its candidate. While Fremont lost that election, his party's strong showing among the New England and upper Midwestern states, and its victory over the American-Know Nothing-Whig Party candidate, Millard Fillmore, the thirteenth President of the United States, showed that it could successfully attract voters in areas that had once been Democratic Party strongholds.

During the 1858 congressional elections, Abraham Lincoln, a little-known Illinois lawyer, former Whig, and one-term congressman, attracted national attention as the state's Republican Party candidate, running to unseat six-term Democratic Senator Stephen A. Douglas. Lincoln's "House Divided Speech," given following his acceptance as the party's candidate for the Senate, expressed the sentiments of both the party and its growing number of supporters. "I believe this government cannot endure," declared Lincoln, "permanently half slave and half free…. Either the opponents of slavery will arrest the further spread of it, and place it where the public mind shall rest in the belief that it is in course of ultimate extinction, or its advocates will push it forward, till it shall become lawful in all states, old as well as new—North as well as South. Have we no tendency to the latter condition? " (Basler, 1953, vol. 2, pp. 461–462). Even though Douglas emerged victorious from that campaign, Lincoln's well-fought challenge attracted the attention of the national Republican Party.

Lincoln's "Cooper Union Speech," delivered in February of 1860, further enhanced his newfound position as party spokesperson. "If [slavery] is right, we cannot justly object to its nationality—its universality; if it is wrong, they cannot justly insist upon its extension—its enlargement. All they ask, we could readily grant, if we thought slavery right; all we ask, they could as readily grant, if they thought it wrong. Their thinking it right, and our thinking it wrong, is the precise fact upon which depends the whole controversy. Thinking it right, as they do, they are not to blame for desiring its full recognition, as being right; but, thinking it wrong, as we do, can we yield to them?" (Basler, 1953, vol. 3, p. 549).

When the Republican Party met in Chicago in June 1860 to nominate a presidential candidate, the initial frontrunner was New York Senator William H. Seward, but his bid lost momentum as the members began to see the need for a less polarizing figure. Two years earlier, during a speech delivered in Rochester, New York, Seward had referred to the nation's sectional crisis as an "irrepressible conflict." Democrats cast Seward as a radical whose abolitionist zeal would bring the country to war. Northern voters did not see Lincoln as a radical. Indeed, his views on slavery, sectionalism, secession, and numerous other issues, as displayed during the Lincoln-Douglas debates (1858), appeared to be quite amorphous. On the issue of slavery, Lincoln's support of Congress's power to prohibit slavery in the territories permanently alienated Southern voters. Many Northern farmers who saw slavery as a threat to free labor shared Lincoln's views, however. While Northern farmers and industrial workers alike feared that emancipation might drive down wages and create massive unemployment, their anxieties were calmed by Lincoln's assurances that he would uphold the slaveholder's constitutional rights where the institution currently existed. Lincoln's nomination was also the result of the party's pragmatism. Republicans needed to win Illinois, a Democratic stronghold. Lincoln, rather than Seward, most appealed to Midwestern voters.

While the Democratic Party was still a national party at the start of the 1860 election, finding a candidate who could appease its Northern and Southern constituents proved to be an insurmountable obstacle. James Buchanan, the fifteenth President of the United States, did not seek a second term. Illinois Senator Stephen A. Douglas seemed to be the party's leading potential candidate. Douglas had spent the better part of his life preparing to become president. But his popularity had waned among Northern and Southern voters during the late 1850s. In the North, many believed that Douglas's support of popular sovereignty catered to Southern interests. On March 1854 a crowd in Cleveland, angered by Douglas's role in the proposed territorial expansion of slavery, hung "an effigy of Senator Douglas…with the words, 'Stephen Arnold Douglas, hung for treason,' attached" (Daily Cleveland Herald, March 24, 1854). At the same time, statements made by Douglas during the 1858 senate campaign had alienated large segments of Southern voters. During a debate with Lincoln held in Freeport, Illinois, Douglas argued "the people have the lawful means to introduce it [slavery] or exclude it as they please, for the reason that slavery cannot exist a day or an hour anywhere, unless it is supported by local police regulations" (August 27, 1858). His views became known as the Freeport Doctrine. This version of popular sovereignty angered Southerners, who argued that the Constitution protected a slaveholder's right to transport his property anywhere in the country.

National events further divided the Democrats. In October of 1859, the abolitionist John Brown led an attack on a Federal arsenal at Harpers Ferry, Virginia. Brown intended to capture the arsenal's weapons and distribute them to slaves along the Shenandoah Valley, thus inciting a massive slave rebellion. Though his plan failed, Southerners saw the scheme as a product of Northern abolitionism and the Republican Party. Despite Northern Democrats' (as well as many Republicans') condemnation of Brown's actions, large numbers of their Southern counterparts entered the 1860 election season convinced that Northern interests threatened slavery and the Southern way of life.

In February of 1860, two months prior to the scheduled Democratic National Convention, Senator Jefferson Davis of Mississippi prepared a series of resolutions that became the Southern platform. Davis, who later served as the President of the Confederate State of America, called for the adoption of a federal slave code as a means of enforcing the recent Dred Scott Supreme Court ruling. Chief Justice Roger Taney's decision argued that Congress lacked the power to restrict slavery in federal territories. Davis now wanted a federal slave code that would ensure slaveholders' right to transport their slaves wherever they pleased. The Southern-sponsored federal slave code was a direct response to Douglas's Freeport Doctrine. Southern Democrats made it clear that if Douglas did not endorse a federal slave code, they would block his nomination.

When the national party convention convened at South Carolina Institute Hall in Charleston, South Carolina, on April 23 through May 3, 1860, Douglas and other Northern Democrats staunchly refused to include a federal slave code in their party platform, asserting that its insertion would alienate their Northern constituents. When Douglas's supporters rejected the Southern platform, a party of Deep South delegates, along with a handful of Upper South members, protested by walking out of the convention. The Alabama delegate and renowned "fire-eater" William Lowndes Yancey declared that the South was as a minority whose rights had been trampled upon by rising industrial powers.

We have come here, with the twofold purpose of saving the country and of saving the Democracy; and if the Democracy will not lend itself to that high, holy and elevated purpose [,]… it will be our duty to go forth and make an appeal to the loyalty of the country to stand by that Constitution which party organizations have deliberately rejected…[The party's Northern leaders who] ask the people to vote for a party that ignores their rights, and dares not acknowledge them… ought to be strung upon a political gallows higher than that ever erected for Haman. (Walther, 2006, pp. 249–252).

As Yancey led the Southern delegation out of the Charleston Convention, the national Democratic Party perished. Without a uniform platform that appealed to both Northern and Southern constituents, the Democratic Party appeared to be incapable of contending for the office of president in light of the ascendancy of the Republican Party.

On June 18, 1860, the Democratic Party reconvened its nominating convention in Baltimore, Maryland. Initially, only a handful of Southern delegates attended the meeting. Those who had walked out of the Charleston Convention had decided to hold their own meeting in Richmond, Virginia, on June 11. Hoping to somehow reform the national party, most of the Richmond delegates eventually traveled to Baltimore to participate in the Northern convention, but the split proved to be irrevocable. In Baltimore, the issue of endorsing a federal slave code remained the central divisive issue. Consequently, Northern Democrats nominated Stephen A. Douglas as their candidate for president, whereas Southern Democrats formed a Southern wing of the Democratic Party with Vice President John C. Breckinridge of Kentucky as their presidential nominee. In an effort to appeal to Southern voters, Douglas selected a former Georgia governor, Herschel Johnson, to be his running mate.

The Campaign

The former Louisiana governor and prosecessionist Paul O. Hébert told the readers of The Weekly Mississippian that "Mr. Lincoln's election is a foregone conclusion..What will the South do?'… We have the power to bring these men—this aggressive majority—to rue with sorrow the day they forced us to the wall, and we should do it; now is the time" (November 7, 1860). Like Hébert, most Americans understood that the election of 1860 would only further aggravate the nation's sectional division. Astute observers understood that if Lincoln and the Republicans managed to win the collective electoral votes of the nation's non-slaveholding states, this gain would be sufficient to secure victory without garnering a single Southern supporter. The key to Lincoln's victory would be defeating Douglas in such pivotal states as Illinois and Pennsylvania, which had supported the Democratic candidate in 1856.

The 1860 election saw the introduction of what would prove to be a significant aspect of American politics. For the first time ever, a presidential candidate, Stephen A. Douglas, actively campaigned in person during a whirlwind tour that included stops in Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, Iowa, Michigan, Illinois, Missouri, Tennessee, Georgia, and Alabama. Typically, electors chosen by the party represented candidates locally, by making a select number of campaign speeches, writing newspaper editorials, or engaging in debate with the opposing party's local elector. Lincoln, Bell, and Breckinridge, the election's other candidates, made few public appearances. By and large, they relied on local electors to promote their campaigns. Douglas's campaign was aided by the nation's expanding railroad network, which allowed him to tour large sections of the country during a short period of time. During his trips, he made numerous campaign stops, frequently addressing a mixed crowd of supporters and critics. His behavior attracted sharp criticism from several newspaper editors who found his campaign to be unpresidential. "The movements of this most stupendous of all demagogues [Douglas] are laughable," wrote an editor for the Atchison, Kansas, newspaper Freedom's Champion. "The fellow is a bore. Without an idea that a statesman should be proud of…. It seems as if he feared that if he got hold of a new idea it would choke him to death. If he would only say something new, or even say his old things in a new way, it would be some relief" (September 22, 1860).

In a bold effort to rekindle support among Southern voters, Douglas embarked on a tour of the Deep South states of Georgia and Alabama. While Douglas did not achieve a broad base of support among Southern voters, he did garner significant amounts of local support in select counties. In Cass County, Georgia, for example, the editors of the Cassville Standard published several biographical sketches of Douglas in an attempt to convince locals of his southern sympathies. Such portrayals appeared in a few other regional newspapers. Most contained some account of Douglas's Pearl River, Mississippi, plantation home or made reference to his efforts to resolve the nation's sectional divide. When Douglas's Western and Atlantic Railroad train made an overnight stop in Kingston, Georgia, for fuel and water, crowds soon flocked to the town in anticipation of a Douglas speech. Here Douglas's inclusion of Herschel Johnson, a close friend of many locals, helped his cause. While Douglas attracted perhaps the largest crowd in the county's antebellum history, his efforts fell short of producing a local victory in the election. Other stops along the trip found residents less hospitable. In Montgomery, Alabama, an unidentified man hit Douglas with several eggs following a poorly received speech. Most Southern newspaper editors strongly condemned Douglas's campaign. The editor of the Charleston Courier, Tri-Weekly, for example, declared: "Keep it before the people that Stephen Arnold Douglas, who is coming South, to divide and distract the sons of the South, and sow discord among brethren, has lately made stumping tours through the leading Free-soil States, and had not one word to say against stealing the property of the South" (October 22, 1860).

Election Results

On November 6, 1860, voters across the nation went to the polls in record numbers to cast their ballots. The results displayed and foretold the nation's impending crisis. Lincoln won the election, receiving 39.8 percent of the popular vote and 180 electoral votes despite not appearing on the ballot in ten slave states. Douglas won the second-largest percentage of the popular vote with 29.5 percent, but managed only a meager twelve electoral votes, winning Missouri and a portion of New Jersey. The nation's slaveholding states, except Missouri, split their votes between Breckinridge and Bell. Perhaps most revealing was the fact that the electoral totals won by Breckinridge, Bell, and Douglas combined were still fifty-seven votes shy of Lincoln's total.

The Southern slaveholding states responded to Lincoln's election in piecemeal fashion. One week after the election, the residents of Aiken, South Carolina, angrily "turned out en masse to celebrate the event by a torch light procession….All the residences along the line were filled with the fair sex, who sanctioned the proceedings…Midway in the procession…was the effigy of Abe Lincoln, with the following placard suspended in the right hand: 'Abe Lincoln First President Northern Confederacy."' (Charleston Courier Tri-Weekly, November 15, 1860). Similar acts occurred throughout the region. On December 20, 1860, the state of South Carolina seceded from the Union. By the time Lincoln delivered his Inaugural Address on March 4, 1861, seven slave states had followed suit. When Alabama seceded on January 11, 1861, their secession ordinance proclaimed that "the election of Abraham Lincoln…to the office of president…by a sectional party, avowedly hostile to the domestic institutions and to the peace and security of the people of the State of Alabama…is a political wrong of so insulting and menacing a character as to justify" secession (Ordinances of Secession of the 13 Confederate States of America, 1861).

While historians remain divided over precisely when the Civil War became an "irrepressible conflict," the results of the election of 1860, as evidenced by the actions of seven slaveholding states, clearly shows that Lincoln's election only further aggravated existing sectional tensions. Even if the election did not directly push the nation into civil war, its results clearly hastened the South's journey toward disunion.


Barney, William L. Battleground for the Union: The Era of the Civil War and Reconstruction, 1848-1877. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall, 1990.

Basler, Roy P., ed. The Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln, vols. 2 and 3. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 1953.

Donald, David Herbert. Lincoln. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1995.

Gienapp, William E. The Origins of the Republican Party, 1852-1856. New York: Oxford University Press, 1987.

Johannsen, Robert W. Stephen A. Douglas. New York: Oxford University Press, 1973.

Walther, Eric H. William Lowndes Yancey and the Coming of the Civil War. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2006.

Keith S. Hébert