Divided Nation: The 1860 U.S. Presidential Election

Introduction

The 1860 U.S. Presidential election was one of the most important and controversial in the country’s history. Characterized by four candidates from a split Democratic Party, a Republican Party making its second presidential run, and an emergent Constitutional Union Party, the election would see undemocratic elements, all the candidates winning electoral college votes, and a culmination of what had become a national quarrel over slavery.

Background

Slavery, which had existed in the U.S. since its earliest days of colonial settlement in the 1600s, had been debated for years, with some states like New York, which initially allowed it, choosing to abolish the practice. But in the South, slavery had become an integral part of the economy and way of life. While there were dissenting voices, the region, in large part, wanted to continue the practice. 

The debate fervor grew in the middle of the 19th century as the U.S. saw important changes that impacted the slavery conversation. Abolitionists were coming together to help enslaved people escape through the Underground Railroad. That led to policy changes like the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850, putting those who helped also at risk. 

The debate further intensified as America expanded its territories, bringing the question of slavery’s extension into new regions to the forefront of national discourse. As territories and states became part of the nation, one of the central questions was whether or not slavery should be permitted in those regions and who would make that decision: the inhabitants or the federal government. 

Then, one of the most important events leading up to the election occurred in October 1859. An abolitionist by the name of John Brown, who believed that “slavery is a state of war,” led a group of about twenty in a raid on the town of Harper’s Ferry, Virginia. They captured influential people and took control of the federal armory and arsenal. But within a day, the rebellion was quelled by U.S. Marines led by Colonel Robert E. Lee. 

While John and a number of his men were captured and later executed after being found guilty, the use of violence had a profound effect on the psyche of Southerners, deepening the divide between North and South and heightening tensions. In some places, hostility towards Northerners grew. Some Southerners chose to stop or reduce trade with the North in hopes that Northerners would understand the importance of respecting Southern rights. As one newspaper wrote then, “The Harpers Ferry invasion has advanced the cause of disunion more than any other event that has happened since the formation of the Government.”

All this set the background for the election.

The Candidates & Party Stance on Slavery

Four political parties would nominate candidates for the election. 

  • The Republican Party nominated Abraham Lincoln, who had not held a political position since serving in the U.S. House of Representatives from Illinois from 1847 to 1849, as its candidate. The party took a moderate stance on slavery, opposing its expansion, though some delegates favored its total abolition. 
  • The Democratic Party chose Stephen A. Douglas, a U.S. Senator from Illinois, as their candidate. On the issue of slavery, the party’s stance was for settlers in each territory to decide. This position led to Southern Democrats breaking from the party and holding their own convention. They chose the sitting Vice President, John C. Breckinridge, as their candidate.
  • The final party was new to the political scene. Named the Constitutional Party, it didn’t take much of a stance on slavery, preferring to keep things as they were: “The Union as it is, the Constitution as it is,” they said. Their candidate was John Bell, a former U.S. Secretary of War and, most recently, a U.S. Senator from Tennessee. 

Election

“A house divided against itself cannot stand.” I believe this government cannot endure, permanently half slave and half free. I do not expect the Union to be dissolved—I do not expect the house to fall—but I do expect it will cease to be divided. It will become all one thing or all the other.” – Abraham Lincoln

Despite the Republican Party’s attempts to adopt a moderate stance on slavery, Southern states perceived Abraham Lincoln, because of quotes such as the one above, as a significant threat to the institution. This led to ten Southern states excluding Abraham from their ballots.

While this was undoubtedly a setback, Abraham had several advantages going into the election. First, there was the split among Democrats. Secondly, the voting population in the North was much greater than in the South. Another advantage for Abraham came from a new organization called the Wide Awakes, which the Republican Party developed. Made up of younger men, the group reached a membership of about 500,000 around the election. Abraham, who followed the tradition of the time of presidential candidates not campaigning, received much benefit from the campaign activities of this group. 

The election saw an unprecedented 81.2% participation rate, the highest in Presidential election history up to that point. The results were as follows:

  • Abraham Lincoln: 39.8% of the popular vote, 18 states, 180 Electoral Votes
  • John Breckinridge: 18.1% of the popular vote, 11 states, 72 Electoral Votes
  • John Bell: 12.6% of the popular vote, 3 states, 39 Electoral Votes
  • Stephen A. Douglas: 29.5% of the popular vote, 1 state, 12 Electoral Votes

Abraham Lincoln was elected on November 6, 1860, and became President on March 4, 1861. Between December 1860 and April 1861, eleven Southern states would secede from the Union. 

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