The United States Capitol in 1860. Courtesy: Library of Congress

Every presidential election is consequential, but the Election of 1860 would play a significant role in whether the United States would remain one nation. The division of the North and South on the issue of slavery threatened to cause a secession of the South. The result of the election would determine whether that threat would materialize and cause a Second American Revolution.

The Republicans and Democrats were the major political parties going into the election season, with Democratic President James Buchanan finishing his term. While the Democrats were the more established party, dating back to the 1820s, the Republicans had developed a sophisticated party infrastructure and were seeking to win the White House for the first time. The party conventions were the first indicator for the turmoil to come.

The Democrats initially convened in Charleston, South Carolina for ten days. Unable to achieve a consensus on the candidate, the convention adjourned for six weeks and re-convened in Baltimore, Maryland on June 18, 1860. See David Potter, The Impending Crisis: America Before the Civil War, 1848-1861, 407.

Depiction of the Democratic Convention in Charleston, South Carolina. Courtesy: Wisconsin Historical Society.

When balloting began in Charleston, Stephen Douglas, Senator from Illinois, had a bare majority, short of the two-thirds threshold necessary to clinch the nomination. See id. at 408. He had twice been in a position of power going into the convention, in the Elections of 1852 and 1856, ceding to Franklin Pierce and James Buchanan respectively. See id. Douglas’ chief concern was winning sufficient southern support to achieve the two-thirds majority required for the nomination.

With that concern in mind, the party’s platform was destined to be a point of contention, as the issue of slavery would inevitably arise. The delegations from Georgia, Alabama, and the “five Gulf Coast states” met and “agreed to withdraw from the convention if Douglas should be nominated.” Id. at 409 citing Austin L. Venable, “The Conflict Between the Douglas and Yancey Forces in the Charleston Convention,” JSH, VIII (1942), 237. Meanwhile, the states in the northwestern part of the country vowed to resist southern insistence on a platform permitting slave codes. See David Potter, The Impending Crisis: America Before the Civil War, 1848-1861, 408.

The southerners proposed a plank in the platform affirming the “duty of the Federal government, in all its departments [meaning Congress also] to protect, when necessary, the rights of persons and property [meaning slaves] . . . in the territories.” Official Proceedings of the Democratic National Convention Held in 1860, at Charleston and Baltimore (Cleveland, 1860), 47-48. Pro-Douglas forces rejected the plank when put to a vote, prompting formal withdrawal from the convention of the delegations of Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana, South Carolina, Florida, Texas as well as parts of the Delaware, Arkansas, and Georgia delegations. See David Potter, The Impending Crisis: America Before the Civil War, 1848-1861, 410.

Following the departure of the mostly southern delegations, after 57 rounds of balloting, Douglas did not achieve the two-thirds in votes necessary. See id. at 411. Needing 169 votes to clinch, he never rose above 152.5 or below 145.5, primarily competing with R. M. T. Hunter of Virginia and James Guthrie of Kentucky. See id. citing Official Proceedings, 73-89. On the tenth day of the Charleston convention, the delegates realized that nothing but a deadlock had been achieved. The convention adjourned to June 18, 1860 in Baltimore. However, those who had bolted from the convention agreed to holding their own convention in Richmond, Virginia on June 11, 1860. See David Potter, The Impending Crisis: America Before the Civil War, 1848-1861, 412.

Stephen Douglas. By: Mathew Brady.

Ultimately, the Richmond convention accomplished nothing, and pro-Douglas forces sought to send to Baltimore their own delegations from the southern states that were not in accord with his candidacy and had withdrawn from the Charleston convention. See id. Soon after reconvening in Baltimore, the convention brought to a vote acceptance of the pro-Douglas delegations from Alabama, Louisiana, Georgia, and Arkansas, and despite southerners’ best efforts to stop the vote, Douglas prevailed. Id. Outraged, delegations from Virginia, North Carolina, Tennessee, Maryland, California, Oregon, Kentucky, Missouri, and Arkansas withdrew from the convention. Id. at 412-13. Then, the convention voted for Douglas, adopting a resolution declaring him unanimously nominated. The northern Democratic ticket had been punched: Senator Douglas for President and Herschel Johnson, former Senator and Governor of Georgia, for Vice President.

John C. Breckinridge. By: Mathew Brady.

The day after Douglas clinched the Democratic Party’s nomination for the presidency, the disaffected Democratic delegates assembled at another hall in Baltimore and nominated then-Vice President John C. Breckinridge for the presidency by an overwhelming majority. See id. at 413. Thus, the southern Democratic ticket: Vice President Breckinridge for President and Senator Joseph Lane of Oregon for Vice President.

John Bell. By: Mathew Brady.

A new party, the Constitutional Union party, emerged in the months leading up to the Election of 1860. Senator John Crittenden of Kentucky led a movement of rallying conservatives throughout the country and, in December 1859, led a conference of approximately 50 “opposition” Congressional members. See id. at 416. This conference led to its members organizing a convention on May 9, 1860 to nominate a candidate for the presidency. See id. citing Dwight L. Dumond, The Secession Movement, 1860-1861 (New York, 1931), 92-112. Delegates from 23 states met and agreed that the party would not have a platform other than preservation of the Constitution and the Union. See David Potter, The Impending Crisis: America Before the Civil War, 1848-1861, 417. Many former Whigs had become members of the new party, including Winfield Scott, but neither Scott nor Crittenden had the youth to be viable candidates as they were both 74 years old. Former Senator John Bell of Tennessee, then 64 years old, secured the nomination for President and former Senator and Governor Edward Everett of Massachusetts the party’s nominee for Vice President. Bell was a cold-mannered slaveholder but had voted against the Kansas-Nebraska Act and the Lecompton Constitution and could be trusted to limit the expansion of slaverySee id. citing Joseph Howard Parks, John Bell of Tennessee (Baton Rouge, 1950) 353-55.

Chicago in 1860.

In May 1860, the Republican Party convened in Chicago at a new hall built for the convention: the Wigwam. See David Potter, The Impending Crisis: America Before the Civil War, 1848-1861, 418. Coming into the convention, the Republicans were a party that was ambitious but untested as compared to the Democratic Party, the mainstay in politics. In the four years from the Election of 1856, the party had broadened its base through supporting “bills for a protective tariff, for internal improvements, and for free homesteads of 160 acres.” See id. Given the composition of the country, and the results of the Election of 1856, with Republican John Frémont earning 114 electoral votes (35 short of a majority), Republicans knew they needed to carry Pennsylvania, and one of the following: Illinois, Indiana, or New Jersey. See id. at 419.

The most prominent Republican candidate was William Seward, who was Governor of New York for four years and a Senator for 12 years. See id. However, he had an established reputation for being antislavery, finding an “irrepressible conflict between freedom and slavery.” Id. In the late winter and early spring of 1860, he began walking back this narrative of slavery, painting himself as more of a moderate capable of building consensus. See id. Seward arrived at the convention feeling himself to be a favorite with his 13 train cars filled with supporters, champagne, and money. See id. at 422.

Another candidate enjoyed the full and hearty support of Horace Greeley, a New Yorker and founder and editor of the New York Tribune, an influential newspaper: Edward Bates of Missouri. Greeley wanted to back a winning candidate and viewed Bates, a man who had freed his own slaves, as ideal:

Horace Greeley. Courtesy: Library of Congress.

“[Y]et I know the country is not Anti-Slavery. It will only swallow a little Anti-Slavery in a great deal of sweetening. An Anti-Slavery man per se cannot be elected; but a Tariff, River-and-Harbor, Pacific Railroad, Free-Homestead man may succeed although he is Anti-Slavery. . . . I mean to have as good a candidate as the majority will elect.” Greeley to Mrs. R. M. Whipple, April 1860, quoted in Jeter Allen Isely, Horace Greeley and the Republican Party, 1853-1861: A Study of the New York Tribune (Princeton, 1947), 266.

Bates, although he was capable of earning support, had a “colorless personality,” was 67 years old, an open nativist, and was a Whig as late as 1856. See David Potter, The Impending Crisis: America Before the Civil War, 1848-1861, 421. Despite these shortcomings, Greeley had found his man for the contest in Chicago.

Abraham Lincoln Photographed After Securing the Republican Party’s Nomination. By: Alexander Hesler.

Abraham Lincoln, an Illinoisan, had come to prominence through his debates with Douglas during the senatorial contest in 1858. A group of fellow Illinoisans had been promoting his candidacy leading up to the Republican convention. Lincoln boosted his chances when he accepted an invitation to speak at Cooper Union in New York on February 27, 1860. In his speech, through sound research, he characterized the Founding Fathers as regarding slavery “as an evil, not to be extended, but to be tolerated and protected only because of and so far as its actual presence among us makes that toleration and protection a necessity.” Text of Cooper Union address in Roy P. Basler (ed.), The Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln (8 vols.; New Brunswick, N.J., 1953), III, 522-50. He vowed that Republicans would see the wrong in slavery but acknowledge its necessity and presence in the South. See id. Although he was not a widely known candidate going into the convention, Lincoln had articulated a vision of the Republican Party’s policy that was well-reasoned and capable of broad appeal.

Depiction of the Wigwam in 1860.

The Wigwam was a sight to behold. Filled to the rafters with Republican delegates and onlookers, it may have been the largest gathering in America up to that point. See David Potter, The Impending Crisis: America Before the Civil War, 1848-1861, 423. The hall itself was packed, and 20,000 overflowed out of it. Liquor flowed, delegates swung their hats and canes, and brass bands belted out tunes, all of which created an ebullient atmosphere: a festival of democracy.

While the platform for the convention in 1856 was primarily focused on slavery at the expense of other issues, the platform for this election softened the party’s handling of the issue. Rather than label slavery a “relic of barbarism,” as the platform in 1856 did, the platform in 1860 “denounced disunionism, efforts to reopen the African slave trade, and the extension of slavery into the territories.” See id. This platform was much more likely to succeed, given the delegations at the convention. Of the slave states, delegations had come from Maryland, Delaware, Virginia, Kentucky, and Missouri, as well as a partial delegation from Texas. See id. at 424.

William Seward. Courtesy of Library of Congress.

While Seward enjoyed significant support from the New England area, his support in the “battleground” states (Pennsylvania, Indiana, and Illinois) was not so secure. Republican candidates for governor in Pennsylvania and Indiana, Andrew Curtin and Henry Lane respectively, expressed their doubts as to the potential for Seward to carry their states in the general election. See id. at 425-26 citing Reinhard H. Luthin, “Indiana and Lincoln’s Rise to the Presidency, IMH, XXV (1929), 1-13; Reinhard H. Luthin, “Pennsylvania and Lincoln’s Rise to the Presidency,” PMHB, LXVII (1943), 61-82.

With these doubts in mind, Republicans looked elsewhere for their candidate. Salmon Chase, former Governor of Ohio and current Senator, was well-known but too antislavery to be a viable national candidate. Simon Cameron of Pennsylvania was a possibility, but he had a well-established reputation as being a “spoilsman and machine politician.” David Potter, The Impending Crisis: America Before the Civil War, 1848-1861, 426 citing Lee F. Crippen, Simon Cameron: Ante-Bellum Years (Oxford, Ohio, 1942), 204-21; Erwin Stanley Bradley, Simon Cameron, Lincoln’s Secretary of War (Philadelphia, 1966), 136-57. There was also Bates, but outside of Missouri, it was not clear he was capable of garnering the significant support that would be necessary to propel him to the White House.

Lincoln figuratively stepped into the spotlight. This was not because he was a favorite for the nomination; far from it. He had worked as a rail-splitter and lacked any aristocratic notion that could have tainted his candidacy. His team of supporters intentionally presented him as a dark horse candidate, not even listing him in a booklet that identified 21 choices for the nomination. See David Potter, The Impending Crisis: America Before the Civil War, 1848-1861, 427. Through his articulation of his vision for the party, he:

“[C]ombined moderation and antislavery in the most attractive combination possible by making full concession of the constitutional right of the southern states to maintain slavery, and by confining his attack to the view that slavery was morally wrong and that it ought not to go into the territories.” Id.

Lincoln’s group of supporters was not going to leave anything to chance during the balloting. The men handed out counterfeit tickets to pack the galleries of the Wigwam with Lincoln supporters, planted men throughout the hall with “notorious lung-power” to shout for Lincoln at certain intervals, and made offers for government positions to men in Indiana and Pennsylvania, perhaps even Maryland. See id. at 428. Where some saw divine intervention placing Lincoln into the Republican nomination, others saw desperate politicking at its finest.

The Wigwam. Courtesy: Chicago Historical Society.

The number of votes required to clinch the nomination was 233. On the first round of balloting, Seward earned himself 173.5 votes as compared to 102 for Lincoln, 50.5 for Cameron, 49 for Chase, and 48 for Bates. See id. Then, the second ballot gave Seward a boost of 11 votes but Lincoln a boost of 79 votes. See id. The third ballot put Lincoln 1.5 votes away from the nomination, as he absorbed Chase’s support in Ohio and Bates’ support in Maryland. See id. On the fourth ballot, he clinched the nomination. The Republican ticket was punched: Abraham Lincoln for President, and Senator Hannibal Hamlin, former Democrat from Maine, for Vice President. See id. at 429 citing H. Draper Hunt, Hannibal Hamlin of Maine: Lincoln’s First Vice-President (Syracuse, 1969), 116-18.

The Republican Party’s Ticket.

With the four candidacies established, the campaign was underway and comparison of each candidate’s policies began. As to slavery, while Lincoln wanted to exclude slavery from new territory, Douglas argued that popular sovereignty required territories to individually decide the matter (just as he had when debating Lincoln in 1858), and Breckinridge believed Congress had an obligation to protect slavery in the territories. See David Potter, The Impending Crisis: America Before the Civil War, 1848-1861, 430.

As openly predominant an issue as slavery was, disunion was a stealthier, more divisive issue. Voters did not have a complete understanding of this dynamic, however. See id. at 431. Breckinridge’s supporters argued that they were for preserving the Union, but in reality, they viewed preservation as being contingent on maintaining the institution of slavery. While talk from Breckinridge’s corner of disunion was muted at best, Lincoln’s forces were scarcely more vocal. Realizing the potential consequences of his election to the presidency, they “had nothing to gain by pointing out that the election of their candidate might produce the grimmest emergency the republic had ever seen.” Id. Instead of acknowledging any such risk, they trivialized talk of disunion amongst southerners, calling it “old Mumbo-Jumbo,” and “the old game of scaring and bullying the North into submission to Southern demands and Southern tyranny.” James Russell Lowell, Political Essays (New York, 1904), 50; New York Tribune, July 28, Sept. 22, 1860; Carl Schurz quoted in Mary Scrugham, The Peaceable Americans of 1860-1861 (New York, 1921), 46. Historian David Potter wrote that the North misunderstood the feeling of the South, as southerners viewed the election of Lincoln as inevitably leading to a persecution of the institution of slavery. David Potter, The Impending Crisis: America Before the Civil War, 1848-1861, 440-41.

Abraham Lincoln. By: William F. Cogswell.

One Ohio journalist, Donn Piatt, interviewed Lincoln and later memorialized his impressions:

“Mr. Lincoln did not believe, could not be made to believe, that the South meant secession and war. When I told him, subsequently to this conversation, . . . that the Southern people were in dead earnest, meant war, and I doubted whether he would be inaugurated at Washington, he laughed, and said the fall [in the price] of pork at Cincinnati had affected me.” Donn Piatt, Memories of the Men Who Saved the Union (New York, 1887), 28-30.

Lincoln also wrote to a correspondent in 1860 that he had received:

“[M]any assurances . . . from the South that in no probable event will there be any very formidable effort to break up the Union. The people of the South have too much of good sense, and good temper, to attempt the ruin of the government, rather than see it administered as it was administered by the men who made it. At least, so I hope and believe.” Roy P. Basler (ed.), The Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln (8 vols.; New Brunswick, N.J., 1953), II, 355.

Political Cartoon from a Republican Campaign Newspaper dated June 23, 1860.

With the tickets punched and the issues floating in public discourse, the candidates sent out their messages by “campaign speakers and violently partisan newspapers.” See David Potter, The Impending Crisis: America Before the Civil War, 1848-1861, 435. The Republicans outmaneuvered the other parties, using their superior fundraising to inundate the North in their rhetoric. See id. In an election where there were four major-party candidates, the widespread dissemination of campaign literature was a crucial advantage. To further benefit the Republicans, the two Democrats running, Douglas and Breckinridge, controlled warring factions. Whereas in a traditional American two major-party presidential election there is only one adversarial relationship, there was contention and discord flowing between all four candidates and their supporters. See id. at 437. However, the northern states generally favored Lincoln and Douglas while the southern states gravitated toward Bell and Breckinridge. See id. at 438.

Douglas toured the country with a simple message: no matter the result of the election (which he believed Lincoln would win), the Union must be saved. See id. at 441. Allan Nevins, a journalist and historian, said of Douglas:

“Never did Douglas’s claims to statemanship stand higher than when he thus pointed to a danger which most Republicans were denying or minimizing, and defied the Southerners and border men who were attacking him on the ground that he was a brutal coercionist.” Allan Nevins, The Emergence of Lincoln (2 vols.; New York, 1950), II, 290-98.

View of the United States Capitol from Pennsylvania Avenue.

On November 6, 1860, Americans went to the polls for the 19th quadrennial presidential election. With approximately 1,865,000 votes and 180 electoral votes, Lincoln won the election, surpassing the 152 electoral vote threshold. In the popular vote count, Douglas finished second with approximately 1,000,000 votes, and Breckinridge finished behind him. See David Potter, The Impending Crisis: America Before the Civil War, 1848-1861, 442. Lincoln won the “battleground” states of Pennsylvania, Illinois, and Indiana, just as he knew was necessary. With Lincoln winning the northern states plus Oregon and California, Breckinridge won the bulk of the South with 72 electoral votes. See id. at 444. Thus, describing the election as in fact “two elections simultaneously” is not entirely inaccurate as the North and South chose their respective winners. See id. at 439. For the elections of Andrew Jackson, Martin Van Buren, William Henry Harrison, James Polk, Zachary Taylor, and Franklin Pierce, a majority of free states and a majority of slave states had voted for the winner. See id. at 446. In the Election of 1860, that trend was broken.

The long process of sectionalization of the country had finally manifested itself in presidential politics. The Republican candidate, Lincoln, had won solely by winning the North. One consequence was immediately clear to the country: slavery, long an established institution of American life, was to “be placed in the course of ultimate extinction.” Id. at 445. The southern talk of disunion, and northerners’ skepticism of that talk, was to be tested in short order.