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United States Elections: Presidential Elections (1860)

election of 1860
Figure 1.--The election of 1860 was probably the most monentous in American history. Many if not most voters did not vote for or against slavery because of the positions taken by the candidates. No candidate including Lincoln advocated abolition. The candidates at the time did not always articulate it, but the election of 1860 was primarily about slavery and the issue determined the outcone of the election. The issue split the Democratic Party and allowed the candidate of the new Republican Party to win the election. And primarily because of slavery, the slave states proceeded to seceed from the Union. Slavery was not a common subject for American artist, but on artist did address the topic, William Aiken Walker (1838-1921). He painted this study in 1862 after the start of the Civil War, but before the Emancipation Proclamation.

The election of 1860 is arguably the most monentous in the history of the American Republic. The Kansas-Nebraska Act had huge political consequences. It shattered the Democratic Party which had doinated American political life in the first half of the 19th century. Technological developments were beginning to affect politics, especially improvements in comminications--trains and the telegram. The Democratic Party was one of the few remaining institutions holding north and south together by the 1850s. While the South supported Douglas's Kansas Nebraska Act, when he later temporized with the Freeport Doctrine they turned against him. The Republican Party was formed (1854) out if the whigs and anti-slavery Democrats alientated by the Kansas-Mebraska Act. The Northern Democrats nominated Douglas for presiddent in 1860. The Southern Democrats refused to accept this and nominated a sectional candidate, John C. Brekenridge. This split in the Democratic Party guaranteed the election of Abraham Lincoln, the candidate of the new Republicn Party. The election resulted in a major realignent in American politics. The brand new Republican Party would become the dominant force in American politics for the next 70 years.

American Debate over Slavery

The issue of slavery had gradually emerged as the fundamental American political issue. There had been compromises in the Constitutional Convention (1787). The Great Compromise defused the issue for a generation (1820). Another attempt at compromiose (1850) had just the opposite impact and throughout the 1850s the issue became increasingly bitter. Northern abolitionists promoted the end of slavery on largely moral issues. Southerners were outraged and it became impossible to even discuss the issue in the South or distribute books and newspapers which questioned slavery. The Compromise of 1850 has opened the possibility of new slave states and the result was "Bleeding Kansas". The Dread Scott Supreme Court decession and the John Brown raid further fueled sectional bitterness. The result was that the election of 1860 was a sectional election. South Carolina immediately succeeded from the Union. The state like the other Deep South States was dominated by the planter class.

Kansas Nebraska Act (1854)

The Kansas-Nebraska Act had huge political consequences. It shattered the Democratic Party which had doinated American political life in the first half of the 19th century. The Missouri Compromise (1820) has been called as perhaps the "most fatefull single piece of legislation in American history." [Catton] We might suggest Lend Lease, but the "Act to Organize the Territories of Nebraska and Kansas" was undeniably a Congressional act of enormous consequences. The Missosuri Compromise worked for over three decades to defuse the slavery issue until Congress, spearheaded by Seator Stephen Douglas, undid it with the Kansas-Nebraska Act (1854). Douglas wanted Congressional support to support the construction of a trans-continental railroad. Southern legislators were unwilling to support the railroad without opening the new western territories. Douuglas' answer was the Kansas-Nebraska Act which in effect repealed the Missouri Compromise. The issue of slavery would be taken out of Federal hands and put in the hands of the people in the territories. Douglas termed this "popular soverignty". Douglas believed that this would difuse the increasingly vitriolic debate over slavery in the Congress. Rarely has a politican been more wrong about the consequences of his actions. The result proved to be rising tensions, "Bleeding Kansas", the and a the breakdown of compromise, John Brown's raid on the Federal arsenal, and at last the final breakdown of comprosise and a terrible civil war.

Technological Developments

Technological developments were beginning to affect politics, especially improvements in comminications--trains and the telegram. The Lincoln-Douglas debates could be covered in real time by telegram and appear in the papers throughout the country the following day. This made Abraham Lincoln a national political figure and undetmined Stephen Douglas in the South.

Lincoln-Douglas Debates (1858)

The most famous debate in the history of America occurred in 1858 between Senator Stephem A. Dougla. the most important figure in the Democratic Party, and Abraham Limcoln, a virtually unknown Illinois lawyer. There was no real issue until 1858 that profoundly motivated Lincoln. It was Stephen Douglas, the prominent Illinois Senator, that gave Lincoln an issue. Douglas proposed the Kansas-Nebraska Bill and popular soverignity. Now Linclon saw the possibility of slavery expanding. Lincoln did not dare to challenge slavery's existence--it was after all enshired in the Constitution and most Americans accepted or supported it. He had hoped, however, that it would slowly wither away. Now there was the possibility that it would expand. Lincoln ran against Stephen A. Douglas for Senator in 1858. Lincoln in the speech accepting the nomination made perhaps his most famous speech, questioning whether America coul endure both half slave and half free. The famed Lincoln-Douglas debates framed for the entire country the issue of slavery. Douglas accused Linclon of codeling the blacks. Lincon replie that while blacks may not be equal that they are entiled to the income that they earn from their labor. Douglas also stressed the importance of majority rule. Lincoln evoked moral principles. Lincoln won a small majority, a major accomplishment in heavily Democratic Illinois. He lost the election in the Democratic state legislature. In debating with Douglas, a principal Congressional engineer of the Compromise of 1850 which had postponed Civil War, Lincoln gained a national reputation. He continued speaking out, assuming the middle ground between the abolistionists and the slave holders of the South. The Lincoln-Douglas deabates were a key element that was to enable him to win the Republican nomination for President in 1860.

Democratic Party

The Democratic Party since defeating the Federalists (1800) had dominated American political life in the first half of the 19th century. The Democratic Party was one of the few remaining institutions holding north and south together by the 1850s. While the South supported Douglas's Kansas Nebraska Act, when he later temporized with the Freeport Doctrine they turned against him. The rift between President Bucanan and Senator Douglas also helped shatter the party. Through control of patronage, the President helped fuel anti-Douglas sentiment in the South. [Milton] The Whig Party had been created out of opposition to Preident Jckson. It contested aeries of ekections for about 25 years with the Democrats, but finally desentegrated in the the mid-1850s because of the increasingly bitter sectional dispute on slavery. The Democratic party was able to remain intact throughout the 1850s despite the increasingly acrimonious debate. But as with the Whigs, slavery was slowly creating conflicts between the Democrats as well.

Republican Party

The Republican Party was formed (1854) out if the whigs and anti-slavery Democrats alientated by the Kansas-Nebraska Act. They participated in the presidential election for the first time in 1856. The Republicans nominated John Fremont who made a name for himself in California during the Mexican War. Southeners were inclined to view the Republicans as wild-eyed abolitionists. This was not an acurate depiction. There were ceryainly abolitionists in the Party. But this was not the dominant position in the Party. What Republicans agreed upon was that there should be no expansion of slavery into the Territories. Repoublicans took this position for a variety of reasons. Some because they were abolitionists. Others oposed slavery, but not out of great concetn over blacks. Instead their concern was reserving the Territories for free whites. It should be stressed that even among abolitionists there was not wide spread support for black citizenship and civil rights. While many Republicans (like Lincoln) did not openly advocate abolition, they favored it as the eventual goal. They held back from advovating it becuse it was not popular poltically and was a virtual invitation to civil war. The Republicans were precisely a single-issue party, but it is fair to say that slavery was the most important issue within the Party. And by slavery we are talking azbout opposition to the expansion of slavery. They Republicans did not do very well in the first presidential election they contested (1856). The Democrats not only carried the South, but many large Northern states as well. It seemed unlikely that the Republicans could seriously challenge the Democrats--as long as the the Democratic Party remained united.

Nominating Conventions

The Democrats, however, did not remain united. Srephen Douglas who had attempted to unite the Party under the banner of Popular Soverignity split it wide open--creating a Northern and Southern faction. . There was a result, three major candidates for president in 1860. The Northern Democrats nominated Douglas for president in 1860. The Southern Democrats refused to accept this and nominated a sectional candidate, John C. Brekenridge. The new Republican Party nominated a relatively unknown Illinois lawyer--Abraham Lincoln.

The Republicans

The Republicans convened in Chicago during mid-May, after the aborted Democraric convention in Charleston. While only afew years old, the Republicans saw a Democratic Party desintegrating and thus saw that they might be able to win the election. William H. Seward of New York was the most prominant Republican and seemed likely to win the nomination. Other important candidates were Salmon P. Chase of Ohio, and Missouri's Edward Bates, and a lesser known candidate--Abraham Lincoln of Illinois. As the nomination process developed, Seward, Chase, and Bates while prominant, had managed to alienated important factions of the Party. As long-term politicans, they had taken many positions during their public careers, gaining support and alienating others. Seward was most strongly associated with the radical wing of the party. In an effort to win the nomination, he had moved toward the center. This had won him few delegates, but alienated some of his long-term radical supporters. Chase had problems of his own as a former Democrat. He was thus acceptable to the Whig-vore of the Paarty. His position on issues like tariffs had cost him support, eben within his own Ohio delegation. Bates positions on slavery and citizenship alienated supporters in the border states constiueny. In addition, his envolvement with the Know-Nothings alienated ethnics and German-Americans were important in the Party. As Seward and the other better know candidates showed themselves unable to garner sufficent votes to win the nomination, eyes increasingly turned to Lincoln. As Lincoln's political career outside of Illinois had been but 2 unexciptionl years in Congress, he had no real opportunity to alienate the various factions. He had made a national name for himself during the Lincoln-Douglas debates (1858) and captured the attention of the Party at his Cooper Union speech as a responsible moderate. And delegates realised that to win the Party need to carry the West (at the time meaning the Midwest). To the shock of Seward and Chase, the Convention nominated Lincoln on the third ballot (May 16, 1860). The Convention then nominated Hannibal Hamlin of Maine. The party platform did not advocate abolition, but opposed any further spread of slavery, essentially a return to the Missouri Compromise. The Republicans were not aingle issue party. They also advocated a higher protective tariff and a homestead law to granting free farm land in the Territories to settlers. Although not as incendiary as opposition to the pread of slavery, these planks were also unpopular in the South.

The Democrats

The Democrats convened their convention in Charleston. The Democratic Party was badly divided on slavery. When a dispute erupted over slavery, 50 southern Democrats walked out. The remaining Democrats had several candidates to chose from, including Stephen A. Douglas of Illinois, Andrew Johnson of Tennessee, Daniel S. Dickinson of New York, Joseph Lane of Oregon, James Guthrie of Kentucky, and Robert Mercer Taliaferro Hunter of Virginia. Douglas was the most prominant Semocrat at the time. He was a moderate on slavery and developed the principle of "popular sovereignty" to defuse the issue. It infact enflamed the issue--leading directly to Bloody Kansas. Douglas led on the first ballot, but fell 57 votes short of the needed two-thirds of the delegates. After an incredible 57 ballots, Douglas still needed 50 votes. The Convention was forced to adjourn without a candidate or platform (May 3). The Democrats reconvened in Baltimore (June 18). The Southern Democrats had planned to meet in Richmond on June 11, but instead descended on the Baltimore Convention. They were not any more favorably disposed toward compromise. Again a despute arosen over the platform and delegate credentials. The �Fire-Eaters� or "Ultras" demanded that the platform support slavery in the territories. When the Convention refused to endorse slavery, 110 southern delegates stalked out. The Douglas forces manage to win out and the Convention finally nominated him (June 23). After the War, Lost Cause historians attempted to downplay the importance of slavery. It is important to note that in both Charleston and Baktimore, Southern delegates did not walk out because of tariffs or states rights. They walked out as a result of disagreements on the issue of slavery. It took many ballots, but Douglas still failed to achieve the needed two-thirds of the delegates. Finally the Convention just voted to confirm that he had the needed two-thirds. The Democrats then nominted Senator Benjamin Fitzpatrick of Alabama for vice president, but he declined, so the convention turned to Herschel Johnson of Georgia, who accepted.

Southern Democrats

The Southern Democrats who walked out of the Baltimore Convention reconvened in Richmond, Virginia. They nominated the incumbent Vice President, John Cabell Breckenridge of Kentucky, a pro-slavery cabdidate (June 28). In an effort to give a national look to their candidate, they nominated Joseph Lane of Oregon for Vice President. It is not clear just why the Ultras were so intransigent. Many must have been politically astute enough to know that only a split of the Democrats would allow the Republicans to win the election. This mean essentially that already the South was preoaring for secession. Apparently, Southern Democrats did not want to be in a pary or nation that restricted the spread of slavery.

Constitutional Union Party

There were still Whigs who had not joined the Republican Party. They and some determined Know-Nothings refused to join either the Democrats or Republicans. They formed another new party, the Constitutional Union Party. John Bell of Tennessee and an ageing Governor Sam Houston of Texas contested the nomination at their convention in Baltimore. Bell was a former Whig who had opposed the Kansas-Nebraska Act and other actions designed to appease southerners seeking to expand slavery. Sam Houston had alegendary reputation as the commander who had lead Texas to independence from Mexico. He supported slavery, but oposed secession. Bell won on the second ballot. They nominated a Harvard academic and former secretary of state, Edward Everett, for vice president (May 9). The Party's platform was focused on saving the Union. Their slogan was "the Union as it is, and the Constitution as it is." bell and his suporters did not think that they could win, but they did hope to the electoral votes to throw the election into the House of Representatives. Neither they are the Southern Democrats envisioned a Republican sweep of the North.


The campaign of 1860 may have been the most importaht in American history, but it was nor in reality a national election, but a highly sectional effort. Lincoln did not even appear on most Southern ballots. The North and South were essentially insulated from each other. An indication even before secession that the country was dividing into two separate countries. The Republicans could not conduct campaign events in the South. Douglas did, however go South. There was even restrictions on the distribution of campaign literature, mostly in the South. And Southern Democrats, with a few exceptions, did not conduct a campign in the North. Thus the election developed into two regional contests.

Northern campign

The Republicas and Northern Democrts contested the North and Midwest. Lincoln and Douglas essentially renewed their Illinois debates. The possibility of Southern secession was not significabtly addressed in the northern campign. The issue was not totally absent. �Fire-eater� William Yancey did go North and warned that the South would secede if Lincoln won the election. The Republicans waged the presidential election united behind Lincoln, with party leaders, including his disappointed rivals (Seward, Chase, and Bates) campaigning for him. The campaign was boisterously enthusiastic. The Republicans formed �Wide Awake� clubs. They wore helmets and capes and snake-danced in torchlight parades throughout the North. Douglas did not have a united Party behind him. Not only had the Southern Democrats walked out, but he had critics in the North. In addition, President Bucanan had a personal vendetta against him which complicated his ability to use the Democratic Party machinery. [Milton] Presudential campaigns at the time were conducted by the party organizations. The candidates themselves played a very small role--it was considered unseemly. Douglas was an exception. He became the first presidential candidate in history to undertake a nationwide speaking tour. He even traveled to the South where he had little expectations of wining any substantial number of electoral votes. He spoke pasionately for union. The Democrats seemed drained by their bruising convention and internal divisions. Douglas at the onset of the campign hoped that his sollution of Popular Sovereignty would prove appealing in the North. It did not. There was little support for abolition, but Northern voters appear to have come to oppose the expansion of slavery that the South was demanding. The Republicans were energized and ran a vigorous campaign. They were also far better organized than the Democrats. Political analysts believe that organization was a major factor in their sweep of the North.

Southern campaign

The Constitutional Union Party and Southern Democrats contested the South. To some extent there was more of a contest in the border states (slaves states of the Upper South), although the Republicans could not compete there. Neither Breckinridge nor Bell threatened secession. But they did not stress thir devotion to the Union as Sam Houston did. What they did do was to challenged each other in their Southern campaign as to who would be the most fervent defender of slavery znd other southern rights and interests. Firey oratotrs in the South did vocally attack Lincoln and the Republicans and warned that his election would justify secession.

Election Results

This split in the Democratic Party guaranteed the election of Republican Abraham Lincoln. Lincoln carried 17 free states, Breckinridge took 11 eleven slave states. This would be the core of the Confederacy with the exception of Virginia. Neither of the two candidate captured even a single state in the opposite section. Bell and Douglas carried only a few states. Bell carried some of the border states and Virginia. Douglas only one a border state (Missouri) and part of New Jersey. It is not surprising that Breckinridge carried the South or that Bell carried some of Border states and Virginia. It is somewhat surprising that Lincoln (40 percent) out polled Douglas so badly (30 percent) to sweep the North. The electoral vote was thus a landslide for Lincpln..


Lincoln's election probably made secession inevitable. Feeling was just too volitile in the Deep South. Southerners were convinced that Lincoln was a closet abolitionist. (Here they were not far from the truth, but Constitutionally thare was not a great deal he could do.) Southerners saw Lincoln's House Divided speech as proof he was an abolitionist. Lincoln did little to allay Southern fears or to speak in more detail on his position. He repeated his his previous statements that slavery was immoral and he hoped it would be ended someday, but he vowed not to disturb it where it already existed. Here he mean disturb it by force, because he had a secret plan to end slavery ny buying the slaves freedom. He would attemp to carry out in Deleware after his election. It proved ineffective even in Deleware and the cost of buying the slaves freedom in the Deep South would have been enormous if the slave owners have consented and this was highly unlikely. There was, however, some reason to believe at the time that compromise was possible. Uionists including many in the upper South had some hope for optimism. While Lioncon won, he did not receive a majority of the popular votes. He won only about 35 percent of the vote. He would be a minority President without any clear mandate. And in particular there was no mandate for abolition. And the strength of the Southern Congressional delegation, that even if he wanted to force abolition on the South, it was not Constitutionally possible. This meant that Lincoln was politically vulnerable in both the 1862 Congressional byelectiins and the 1864 ptrsidential elections. Nor did Breckinridge who won in the South pile up impressive vote totals, suggesting that there was no fire storm for secession among the Southern population. Only Southern secession would give the Republicans control of Congress that would allow chaznges in the Constitution. But this is just what the Ultras in the Deep South proceeded to do


The election resulted in a major realignment in American politics and major changes in American society. The brand new Republican Party would become the dominant force in American politics for the next 70 years.

Civil War

The South was horified with the electiin of Lincoln even though it was their splitting of the Democratic Party had made hos election possible. The president-elect had made it clear during the campaign that he did not intend to use force to end slaveryin the South, although he had in mind legal approaches which he did not articulate. Lincoln's campaign was based on resisting the spread of slavery not on ending it. And in fact he had neither the constitutional authority to do so or the votes for a Condtitutional amendment. The South had been alienated by the North's sympathy for abolititionists and morality based attacks on slavery. John Brown' raid had conformed in many minds tht slavery was inder attack. Hot heads backed by the planter class clamored for seccession. South Carolina was the first. Other souther states followed. The War began when Conderderate batteries ipen fire on Fort Sumter in Chaleston Harbor. Ironically it was the South's secession that made it possible for Lincoln to end slavery.


Catton, William and Bruce.

Milton, George Fort. "Stephen A. Douglas' efforts for peace," Journal of Southern History Vol. I, No. 3 (August 1935), pp. 261-275.


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Created: 3:17 PM 3/4/2007
Last updated: 2:02 AM 2/21/2012