Blue and Gray Trail
Civil War Encyclopedia
Civil War in Georgia
On the Blue and Gray Trail
Civil War by state
Today in the Civil War
This year in the Civil War
The Election of 1860
Civil War Encyclopedia >> Politics
Election of 1860
Talk of disunion over the past 40 years was sparked into action with The Election of 1860, when Abraham Lincoln became the first modern Republican president. His vote totals by percentage were the lowest ever recorded, but with the Democratic Party split three ways, it was more than enough to win the electoral college.
Election of 1856
Republicans stunned the nation in 1856 when their candidate, John C. Fremont ran stronger than expected against Democrat James Buchanan and Know-Nothing/Whig Millard Fillmore. Fremont was the first modern Republican to challenge a Democrat, gaining almost a third of the popular vote (South Carolina, however, voted for presidential candidates in their General Assembly, so they had no popular vote). Although the Republicans are frequently pictured as being a party of abolitionists they did have other issues, such as being against the Kansas-Nebraska Act and the Mormon practice of polygamy. To create anti-Buchanan sentiment, the Republicans also were against the Ostend Manifesto (it was pro-slavery). Buchanan, then ambassador to Britain, had played a large role in the creation of the document.
Following Buchanan's election, the United States became significantly less united. While many of the events (Dred Scott decision, John Brown's raid on Harper's Ferry) tore at North-South relations, Bleeding Kansas split the Democrats at the end of 1857. Kansas submitted the pro-slavery Lecompton Constitution to enter the United States and Stephen Douglas was against it because it was not "free and fair." President Buchanan supported Lecompton.
As a result of the split Buchanan waged a massive anti-Douglas campaign. Congress approved Lecompton but returned it to the state for modification. Anti-slavery forces voted it down in August, 1858, vindicating Douglas. With that victory Douglas turned his attention toward the U. S. Senate "race" for Illinois and little-known Congressman Abraham Lincoln.
Although Douglas was pretty much guaranteed election in the race, he chose to debate Lincoln in a series of 7 appearances across the state of Illinois because it would give him the chance to defend popular sovereignty while arguing against abolition. The plan backfired and when the votes were counted in November popular election, Lincoln defeated Douglas. Still, the popular vote was meaningless, since the U. S. Senator would be appointed by the Democrat-controlled Illinois General Assembly. Douglas returned to the Senate and both he and Lincoln began looking towards the Presidential race in 1860.
Lincoln, though, did not see much chance of success running against Republican stalwarts William Seward (New York) and Salmon Chase (Ohio). He returned to his law practice and ignored calls for him to run for president. He did, however, speak from time-to-time, including a fateful, 8-city speaking tour in September, 1859 through Ohio and Indiana. Henry Beecher then asked him to speak at his church in Brooklyn, New York.
At the time of Lincoln's Ohio visit, he was not the only one to believe he didn't have a chance. It was generally believed William Seward was the leading candidate and the Republican nomination was his to lose. He had been an early abolitionist and convinced President Zachary Taylor, a fellow Whig, to annex California quickly, kicking off the Compromise of 1850. When the Republican Party formed he was an early leader and supported free-state forces in Bleeding Kansas.
Seward wanted the Republican presidential nomination in 1856, but lost to Fremont when the party decided it wanted a candidate with wide-ranging appeal when the Know-Nothing faction bolted the party. Seward had managed to alienate many with his righteous conviction against slavery. Now, with everyone in agreement that Seward would be the nominee, he decided to take an extended vacation in Europe.
While he was away events began to change the shape of the Republican Convention. Both Chase and Seward supporter radical free-stater John Brown in Kansas. When Brown tried to start a general uprising of slaves with a raid on the arsenal at Harper's Ferry, both men were caught unaware. Brown's action had gone a long way to leveling the playing field at the Republican Convention.
After the Brown raid Abraham Lincoln agreed to speak at Beecher's church. Advanced ticket sales forced Beecher to find a larger meeting room, so he moved the speech across the East River to an assembly hall in Manhattan. In February, 1860, Lincoln traveled to New York and spoke at Cooper's Union. Lincoln attracted an overflow crowd (the hall held 1500 people). Essentially the speech attacked each justification of slavery and it took Lincoln months to write.
Powerful editor of the New York Tribune Horace Greely heard the speech and his paper moved to the forefront of the pro-Lincoln, anti-Seward forces. Still when the 1860 Republican Convention met in Chicago, it seemed to Seward supporters that their man would win. Lincoln, however, benefited heavily from the location of the convention and the experience of his floor managers, who, in the end promised Salmon Chase and Simon Cameron cabinet positions in exchange for their states votes.
Like the Republicans, the deep divisions between the Democratic candidates created controversy, but going into the 1860 Democratic National Convention in May it seemed as though Stephen Douglas was the clear-cut leader. The failure of popular sovereignty in Kansas and the Douglas-Buchanan feud over the Lecompton Constitution dramatically reduced Douglas' support in the South and the border states. In spite of his lead, Douglas failed to get the needed 2/3rd majority to win when Southern delegates walked out following the defeat of a platform plank.
Meeting again in June, the Democratic Convention once again broke down when Southern delegates walked out. This time the Northern Democrats were ready, made a quick change to the rules and elected Stephen Douglas as their nominee and former Georgia governor Herschal V. Johnson for vice-president, hoping to regain southern voters.
The ploy did not work. Southern Democrats nominated dashing John Breckinridge, the current Vice-President as their candidate less than a week later. Breckinridge, however, refused to avow disunion because he felt it violated the oath of office he took to become VP. A fourth candidate, John Bell, ran on the hastily formed Constitutional Union ticket formed by disavowed Whigs and Know-Nothings. This party advocated staying in the Union and keeping slavery.
Most people believe that the campaign in the summer and fall of 1860 was about slavery. While the voting may have been about slavery, most of the campaigning was not. Lincoln did not campaign but he did write letters and was interviewed. Going by stump speeches and letters, transcontinental telegraph and railroads were of the highest interest to the people. Protective tariffs, homesteading and internal improvements were also included in almost all speeches and letters. Douglas, of course, defended popular sovereignty while Lincoln promised not to end slavery, just prohibit its spread.
Going into the Election eve the race was actual two separate races, Lincoln and Douglas in the North and Breckenridge and Douglas in the South, where Lincoln wasn't even on the ballot. Only in the border states did the Constitutional Union party compete effectively.
Election Day shocked America. 81.2% of registered voters went to the ballot box, the most in any election until 1876. Lincoln swept the North (181 electoral votes) and Breckenridge the deep South (72 votes) with the border states going to Bell (39 votes) and Douglas (12 votes). In spite of adding 500,000 votes to Fremont's total, Lincoln only won with 39.8%, an increase of 6% from Fremont's showing.
South Carolina had been expecting a Lincoln victory and immediately began moving towards secession. The other Deep South states quickly followed, officially forming the Confederate States of America in February, 1861, but the Presidential election wasn't quite over yet.
The Electoral College, in the United States Constitution, is given a good deal of freedom. For example, a member is not required to vote for the man he was elected to vote for. In February, 1861, fears ran high in Washington D. C. that a crises of Constitutional proportion would occur if the Electoral College met and something unexpected happened. Additionally fueling the concern was the president of the college was the Vice President of the United States, in this case defeated Southern candidate John Breckinridge.
General-in-Chief Winfield Scott assigned a regiment to protect both the building and the members from unruly people. On February 16 the vote of the Electoral College went off without a problem and Abraham Lincoln was officially elected President of the United States.
Notes: John Breckinridge waited until March 4, 1861, to state he supported disunion, honoring his Vice-Presidential oath of office.
Links appearing on this page:
1860 Democratic National Convention
The Election of 1860 was last changed on - October 30, 2007
Battles | Places | Events by year | Events by date | Feature Stories |
Bookstore | Links | Who We Are |