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Election of 1860 and Civil War

1860 Election of Abraham Lincoln as President

Civil War 1861-62

Civil War 1863-65


The 1860 Election of Abraham Lincoln as President

The Currier & Ives print below depicts the 1860 election, highlighting the split in the Democratic Party over its platform and the division of Democratic votes between the competing tickets headed respectively by Stephen A. Douglas and John C. Breckinridge, leading to the election of the Republican slate of Abraham Lincoln and Hannibal Hamlin. For additional cartoons from the 1860 campaign, see Cartoons of Lincoln's First Campaign, BoondocksNet Editions.
1860 election

As the 1860 presidential election approached, the Democratic Party was sharply divided. When the Democratic National Convention convened in Charleston on April 23 through May 3, the leading candidates for the nomnation were Vice President John C. Breckinridge of Kentucky and Senator Stephen A. Douglas of Illinois.

Breckinridge, who would later serve as a Confederate general and Secretary of War in the cabinet of Jefferson Davis and was backed by outgoing President James Buchanan, supported the Southern-dominated platform committee's insistence on a plank promising congressional protection of slave property.

John C.Breckinridge, Image Source: Library of Congress

John Breckinridge
Douglas, during his famous debates with Abraham Lincoln in his successful 1858 re-election campaign for his third Senate term, had been forced by Lincoln into articulating his so-called "Freeport Doctrine" (named after the site of the second of the seven Lincoln-Douglas debates) in which he took the position that territories

Stephen Douglas
Stephen A. Douglas ImageSource: Library of Congress

and states applying for admittance to the union could either allow or prohibit slavery by popular will and that Congress had no legislative authority to either allow slavery or exclude it. The position, which Douglas also had championed in the Senate in the course of drafting the regional compromises incorporated in the Missouri Compromise and Kansas-Nebraska Act, helped Douglas win the 1858 Senate election in Illinois, but alienated Southern Democrats that he needed to gain the presidential nomination in 1860.

The conflict within the party deadlocked the Charleston convention as no faction could gain a majority, with the southern delegates ultimately walking out. The remaining delegates from the North and West could not agree on Douglas or any other nominee, and the convention was adjourned for six weeks.

After the Democrats adjourned without nominating their candidates, the Republicans convened in Chicago beginning on May 16. The early front-runner was New York's U.S. Senator and former governor William Henry Seward, but Seward's popularity within the Party was undermined by concerns among its leaders over whether his strong abolitionist stance, along with his past criticism of the anti-immigrant movement, would alienate critical voters from border states and from former members of the nativist American or "Know-Nothing Party", which had received over a fifth of the popular votes in the 1856 presidential election.

Although Lincoln was still little-known outside Illinois, his position at the Chicago convention was helped by the unity of the Illinois delegation behind their favorite son and the boisterous enthusiasm of home-state supporters inside the convention hall--demonstrations possibly orchestrated by Lincoln's campaign manager, David Davis, with the help of counterfeit admission tickets. Lincoln also had backed tariffs and expanded government funding of roads and other internal improvements, positions that garnered support in manufacturing states like Pennsylvania and New Jersey. While opposed to slavery, Lincoln also had appeared to be somewhat less extreme than Seward, making his potential candidacy attractive to those leaders seeking a nominee who could win the November election. On the first ballot, Seward led with 173½ votes to 102 for Lincoln, but was well short of the majority of 233 needed for nomination. When Seward was unable to win as expected on the first ballot, he steadily lost support as delegates previously pledged to other candidates swung to Lincoln, who won the nomination on the third ballot with 364 of the 466 votes.

Lincoln's instructions to his secretary, William Nicolay, in July 1860, at the commencement of the general election campaign

Image Source: Abraham Lincoln Papers at the Library of Congress

Lincoln notes  

Ascertain what he wants —

On what subject he would converse with me —
And the particulars if he will give them —
Is an interview indispensable?
And if so, how soon must it be had?
Tell him my motto is "fairness to all" —
But commit me to nothing.

Meanwhile, the Democrats reconvened in Baltimore from June 18 to 23, six weeks after their failure to agree on nominees in Charleston. Once more, however, the convention split over the Party's slavery position. Ten delegations left the Party to organize a Constitutional Democratic Convention and nominate Breckinridge, apparently with the tacit approval of President Buchanan. The remaining delegations at the Baltimore convention nominated Douglas, leaving the majority party badly divided going into the fall campaign. See: Official proceedings of the Democratic national convention, held in 1860, at Charleston and Baltimore, University of Michigan Library.

Douglas became the first presidential candidate to depart from the historical precedent that had kept candidates from campaigning personally on their own behalf. Aided by the growing network of railroads, Douglas set a model for future campaigns in an ultimately unsuccessful direct appeal to take northern votes away from Lincoln and persuade southern Democrats to return to the party.

The Douglas campaign began with a stump tour of New York and New England. Surprised by the strength of Lincoln and the Republicans, Douglas next turned south to Norfolk, Raleigh, and Richmond, urging his listeners not to follow the breakaway Democrats out of the party fold. He moved through Pennsylvania and New York, trying to lure voters away from Lincoln and the Republicans. In Indiana, Illinois, Iowa, Wisconsin, and Michigan, Douglas pressed the case for the preservation of the Union. With time running out and secession still threatening, Douglas returned to the South. [His wife] Adele joined him as he moved through Tennessee, Alabama, and Georgia. Douglas received death threats. In Montgomery, he and Adele were hit by eggs thrown at them, and at Selma the deck of a steamboat gave way, severely bruising Senator and Mrs. Douglas. Adele stayed behind to recover, but Douglas hobbled on with a crutch, arriving in Mobile for his final stop on the day before the election.

Source: Stephen A. Douglas and the American Union,
University of Chicago Library

The competition for votes was further fragmented by the newly-organized Constitutional Union Party that supported compromise to maintain the Union without advancing a specific agenda, which was made up largely of former members of the Whig and "Know-Nothing parties . The Party chose former Senator John Bell of Tennessee as their presidential nominee, over Governor Sam Houston of Texas, Senator John Crittenden of Kentucky, and former Representative John Botts of Virginia, all Southern moderates. Edward Everett, former Secretary of State and Massachusetts governor and senator, was named as Bell’s vice-presidential running-mate.

Meanwhile, the Southern Democrats backing Breckinridge attacked the Republicans and Lincoln as threats to the Constitution and to the union, hoping that the fear of secession and war might throw the election into the House of Representatives, where the South had greater leverage.

Excerpts from speech of Jefferson Davis in support of Breckinridge before crowd in Washington, D.C., transcribed from the Washington Evening Star, July 11, 1860.

Source: The Papers of Jefferson Davis, Volume 6, pp. 357-60 (Rice University).

Then, my friends, there is the "rail-splitter" [Lincoln], aptly selected for the purpose, first proclaiming there was an "irrepressible conflict" between the sections; and having proved himself able to rend the yoke, who so fit as he, with such a theory as that, to be selected for the accursed performance of rending the Union? Then, my friends, comes the true democracy, proclaiming the Constitution and the Union, and what the Constitution is; writing your opinions on your banner, throwing it to the winds, and inviting all who believe to command worship at the altar of truth. [Applause.] This banner proclaims the futility of Abe Lincoln's efforts to rend the Union. Though he did rend the yoke, he will find the Constitution and the Union worse than any black gum in the forest.

Our cause is onward. Our car is the Constitution; our fires are up; let all who would ride into the haven of a peaceful country come on board, and those who will not, I warn that the cow-catcher is down--let stragglers beware! [Cheers.] We have before us in this canvass the highest duty which can prompt the devoted patriot. Our country is in danger. Our Constitution is assailed by those who would escape from declaring their opinions--by those who seek to torture its meaning, and by those who would trample upon its obligations. What is our Union? A bond of fraternity, by the mutual agreement of sovereign States; it is to be preserved by good faith--by strictly adhering to the obligations which exist between its friendly and confederate States. Otherwise we should transmit to our children the very evil under which our fathers groaned--a government hostile to the rights of the people, not resting upon their consent, trampling upon their privileges, and calling for their resistance....

The national democracy present a ticket to the country which may well inspire the most lofty patriotism. The name of Breckinridge comes down by lineal descent from one who asserted the great principles of 1798, as reaffirmed at Baltimore; and as for Lane, he is too modest to boast of the deeds of his younger days. No doubt he has split a hundred rails to Lincoln's one! [Laughter and cheers.] Let us then be encouraged to go into the conflict, determined to succeed, and transmit to our children the rich inheritance we have received from our fathers unimpaired. [Applause.]

While the Republican ticket of Lincoln and Hamlin did not follow the Douglas pioneering campaign model of the candidate making personal appearances and speeches, it nonetheless aggressively employed surrogate speakers and used other tools to generate public attention and support. The Republican campaign also sought to broaden the debate beyond slavery, emphasizing economic issues such as the tariff and internal improvements, like a Pacific railroad, as well as criticizing incidents of corruption in the outgoing Democratic administration of President Buchanan.

In addition to the pioneering personal campaign waged by Douglas, the 1860 campaign also also featured widespread use of photography, with images of the respective candidates used in various campaign flyers and other items intended to motivate voters.

Lincoln campaign flag Lincoln campaign button
Republican 1860 campaign flag and medal.

Images Source: Eds. of American Heritage, An American Heritage Pictorial History of the Presidents of the U.S., I, 1968, The History Project, University of California at Davis

The antebellum political system's participatory pageantry reached its apex with the campaign of 1860. Close electoral competition obliged the parties to rely upon high voter turnout to secure elections. In an era before mass media politics, the parties relied upon stump speakers and mass publications like campaign song books to inspire partisan picnics, parades and rallies. These events often provided the faithful with free food and drink, served to whip up party fervor, and encouraged voter turnout.

Republicans marshalled their armies of electoral activists, many of them young men organized into groups known as "Wide Awakes." Clad in oilcloths and caps, the Wide Awakes mounted a succession of torchlight parades which took Lincoln's message to the streets. Here they often met up with Democratic flying squadrons and other rivals.

Source: The Campaign of the Century, 1859-1861, by R.D. Monroe, Ph.D.

Lincoln/Net, Abraham Lincoln Historical Digitization Project

As election day approached, it became clearer that the Republican base in the northern states remained solid. Late attempts by the Democrats to create "fusion" tickets with the Constitutional Union party also failed to stem the Republican tide. The Lincoln-Hamlin ticket received 39.9% of the popular vote to 29.5% for the Democrats, winning in every northern state except New Jersey and also taking California and Oregon. Breckinridge won 18.1% and most of the Southern states; while Bell garnered 12.5% and carried three states—Kentucky, Tennessee, and Virginia. The Democratic defeat was even more striking in the Electoral College when Douglas was able to add only Missouri to New Jersey, thus gaining a total of only 12 electoral votes compared to the Republican tally of 180 electoral votes with 150 required for election.

1860 Election Returns

Popular vote
Electoral Vote
% Popular Vote
Lincoln (Republican)
Douglas (Democrat)
Breckinridge (National Democrat)
Bell (Constitutional Union)

Following Lincoln's election, activists in South Carolina quickly moved to follow through on earler threats to leave the Union, with its legislature authorizing a special convention where delegates voted 160 to 0 for secession on December 20, 1860. In January and February of 1861, Mississippi, Florida, Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana and Texas also approved articles of secession.

We, therefore, the People of South Carolina, by our delegates in Convention assembled, appealing to the Supreme Judge of the world for the rectitude of our intentions, have solemnly declared that the Union heretofore existing between this State and the other States of North America, is dissolved, and that the State of South Carolina has resumed her position among the nations of the world, as a separate and independent State; with full power to levy war, conclude peace, contract alliances, establish commerce, and to do all other acts and things which independent States may of right do.

Declaration of the Immediate Causes Which Induce and Justify the Secession of South Carolina from the Federal Union

Source: The Avalon Project, Yale Law School

Lincoln's own efforts to avoid the dissolution of the Union were hampered by the prolonged period then set by the Constitution between the November election and the inauguration in the following March. The final attempts to reach an accomodation with the South were focused on the "Crittenden Compromise", a proposed constitutional amendment introduced in Congress in December 1860 by Senator John J. Crittenden of Kentucky with support from the National Union party. The amendment accepted the boundary between free and slave states set by the Missouri Compromise of 1820, extended the line to California, and assured the continuation of slavery where it already existed. It also allowed slavery in the District of Columbia, upheld the fugitive slave law with minor changes, and called for suppression of the African slave trade. At a peace conference called by the Virginia legislature in 1861, the compromise gained support from four border state delegations. In the Congress, however, it was defeated by votes of 113 to 80 in the House of Representatives in January 1861 and in the Senate in March by 20 to 19. Its failure marked the last attempt to avoid armeddconflict.



Lincoln/Net, Abraham Lincoln Historical Digitization Project

Stephen A. Douglas and the American Union >> University of Chicago Library

The Papers of Jefferson Davis >> Rice University

The Avalon Project, Yale Law School

Educational Tools

Lesson Plan: The Civil War >>Small Planet Communications

Attitudes toward Emancipation >> EDSITEment

Eve of the Civil War: People and Places in the North and South >> EDSITEment

Lincoln Goes to War >> EDSITEment

Slavery and Emancipation—E-Seminar 1, The Origins of Slavery in the New World >> Columbia American History Online