The Election of 1860 saw 4 Presidential Hopefuls. The Democratic Party had split. Northern and Southern democrats couldn’t agree over their position on the extension of slavery into the territories or for a candidate for that matter so – they ran two candidates. John Breckinridge who was from Kentucky and had served as James Buchanan’s Vice President. The two men didn’t work together much as President and VP, yet when he ran for President Buchanan along with two other former Presidents endorsed him. Breckinridge who came from a wealthy Kentucky family was a lawyer, served in the Kentucky legislature and was a member of the House of Representatives, was also a slave owner. As the South’s candidate he supported the passage of a federal law protecting slave holder’s interests living in western territories. Breckinridge was friendly with opposing candidate Stephen A. Douglas and while he had the support of many political heavy weights, he came in 3rd in the popular vote and in second place in the electoral college. He even lost his home state of Kentucky to John Bell. As the outgoing VP it was his responsibility to announce the election results and declared Abraham Lincoln the President elect. He briefly served in the senate and attempted to work for unity between the North and South. He would eventually pick sides and joined the Confederacy, even serving a President Jefferson Davis’ secretary of war. He would flee the US after the end of the Civil War and after President Andrew Johnson pardoned former Confederate officials, he was able to return to the US. The once former VP of The United States and Presidential candidate was now considered a traitor.
The short lived Constitutional Union Party which was made up of mostly former Whigs who hadn’t joined either the democrats or republicans, they ran candidate John Bell. The Constitutional Union party hoped to prevent secession and preserve the union by avoiding debates over slavery. Party members knew winning was a long shot at best but the hope, was that no candidate, would win the majority of votes needed in the electoral college and then, the election would be decided in the house of representatives. Their candidate might be seen as the least dangerous candidate to the North and South and might have a shot at winning. This didn’t happen.
The Northern Democrats put up Illinois Senator, Stephen A. Douglas. The election of 1860 is often discussed in terms of it being a battle between Lincoln and Douglas. While Douglas came in second place in the popular vote, he received the least number of electoral college votes among the 4 candidates. Douglas, like Breckinridge supported the notion of Popular Sovereignty. After all, it had been Douglas who supported the Kansas-Nebraska Act. He put his full support behind it, thinking that it would help him in his future bid for the presidency. Douglas who had served as a member of the House of Representatives and then went on to become a Senator from Illinois. Served a long political career. During his time in the legislative Branch he was a staunch supporter of Westward Expansion and fully supported Popular Sovereignty. When it came to slavery, he felt it was an issue each state had the right to decide for itself. When it came to racial equality, he was quoted as saying many times that he did not believe blacks and whites to be equal and that even though in his home state of Illinois slavery was illegal, blacks or negroes as was the most common label of the time period shouldn’t be citizens or given the right to vote. It was not the fashion as they say for Presidential candidates to promote themselves, but Douglas went around giving speeches on his own behalf. His battle with Lincoln in the election of 1860 was not their first. The two men had faced off in 1858 for a seat in the US senate.
The newly created Republican put forth Abraham Lincoln originally born in Kentucky but lived the majority of his life in Illinois. Abraham Lincoln was a former Whig who had served in the Illinois state legislature and served one term in the House of Representatives. Working in Illinois as a lawyer, after he briefly left politics. He tried twice to win a seat in the US Senate and lost both times. He made a name for himself in 1858 when he challenged Incumbent senator Stephen A. Douglas for his seat in the senate representing Illinois. This was a fierce campaign which caught national attention. Douglas who had gained both supporters and opponents throughout the country with his staunch support for popular sovereignty, would prove to be a tough opponent for Lincoln. In 1858, Lincoln and Douglas traveled throughout the state of Illinois partaking in a series of 7 three hour long debates. People traveled great distances to hear the two men debate and the transcripts were often reprinted in newspapers throughout the country. The main topic of the debate was slavery. The 7 cities the debates were held in represented 7 of the 9 congressional districts in the state. If you read the transcripts of the Lincoln-Douglas debates, you can see the difference in their tones based on the location of their audience. This was a charge each candidate made against the other which they both denied. For example, in the 3rd debate in Jonesboro, Illinois which is in Southern Illinois, Douglas used Lincoln’s famous House Divided Speech against him. Using the quote “Mr. Lincoln says that a house divided against itself cannot stand, and pretends that this scriptural quotation, this language of our Lord and Master, is applicable to the American Union and the American Constitution? Washington and his compeers, in the Convention that framed the Constitution, made this Government divided into free and slave States. It was composed then of thirteen sovereign and independent States, each having sovereign authority over its local and domestic institutions, and all bound together by the Federal Constitution. Mr. Lincoln likens that bond of the Federal Constitution, joining free and slave States together, to a house divided against itself, and says that it is contrary to the law of God and cannot stand. When did he learn, and by what authority does he proclaim, that this Government is contrary to the law of God and cannot stand? It has stood thus divided into free and slave States from its organization up to this day.” Douglas goes on that debate to affirm his position on racial equality. He talks of how Illinois has chosen not to allow slavery but that they have also chosen not to grant citizenship to blacks or the right to vote.
For Lincoln, there is often this mystical shroud that blankets his political legacy. In response to Douglas’ claims Lincoln responds the fierce debate and violence erupting over the issue of slavery didn’t come to ahead until Douglas meddled with the Missouri Compromise line. He talks of his support of The Fugitive Slave Act because the Supreme Court has stated that slaves are property and that the property of slave owners must be protected. Lincoln when it comes to the issue of slavery is not the radical Douglas and the Democrats paint him out to be. He’s definitely more of a moderate. One of my favorite historians on this topic is Eric Foner, a prof at Columbia University and a leading author on Lincoln, the civil war and reconstruction. There are a number of interviews of Foner you can use on YouTube discussing these topics in your classroom or to gain more insight for your own knowledge. Foner is right when he says that you can’t pinpoint Lincoln’s stance on slavery to one primary source document, speech or debate transcript. For Lincoln his stance on slavery is one that evolves over time. I’ve said it previous podcasts and I’ve said it in my classroom thousands of times. People are products of the time in which they live and Abraham Lincoln and other historical figures are no different. They too are products of the time period in which they live. For Lincoln, while he had declared that he had always felt slavery immoral. Did not favor immediate emancipation. He too felt that whites were superior. His views on slavery and rights of freed blacks changed over the course of the Civil War.
To understand why Abraham Lincoln and the Republican Party were feared as much as they were by southern slave holding states, one just has to look at the Republican Party platform. In 1860s, the Republican Party advocated for the following: Preserve the rights of the people, protect the constitution, the rights of the states and the Union, many republicans disagreed with the Dred Scott decision and popular sovereignty. They supported the Homestead Act (which would help to further settle the west) the building of a Transcontinental railroad and a variety of internal improvements as well as an increase on tariffs (you can see why the republicans won all but one northern state) But the biggest cause of concern was the republican belief that slavery should not be extended into the territories. This part of the platform is what led many southerners to increase talks of secession should Lincoln, the Republican candidate win the election. For Lincoln, where slavery existed, it could continue to exist, but it wouldn’t spread into the territories. For southern slave holding states, they knew they would quickly be outnumbered by free soil states. Those states could then push for the Legislative branch to pass a law banning slavery.
You can see sectionalism alive and well in just the election itself. You have two different regional contests:
Breckinridge vs Bell in the South And Lincoln vs Douglas in the North
Sectionalism caused a problem for political parties. It all but destroyed the Whigs, divided the democrats which made it possible for Lincoln to win the election.
If you go to 270towin.com and look at the election results you see that Abraham Lincoln wins the popular vote with 39.9% and the Electoral College with 180 votes.
In the Popular Vote, Douglas comes in second, but in the electoral college vote, Breckinridge comes in 2nd but 3rd in the popular vote.
Smithsonian magazine has a wonder article by Harold Hozer from Nov. of 2008 which almost gives a play by play of how Lincoln spent election day in 1860 and provides a bit of a glimpse into his unassuming personality.
Later in the evening, Lincoln watched the returns come in at the Illinois and Mississippi Telegraph Company so he could learn of the election results as soon as they came in.
Lincoln won every Northern state except NJ. New York was actually considered a SWING state in the election of 1860. When word came in that he won NY which had the greatest number of electoral college votes in the country at the time, his victory was sealed. It is believed Lincoln kept the paper with NY’s results as a souvenir. Lincoln returned home to awaken his wife, Mary, telling her, “we have been elected”
When Lincoln won, the south felt that they would be the minority within the political system. The southern states looked at Lincoln’s election as a clear message from the North that they no longer wanted the south in the union. The north was willing to deprive them of their property which threatened their very way of life. The south referred to the republican party as the abolitionist party or the black republicans. Lincoln wasn’t even on the ballot in a number of southern slave holding states. Voting was different in the election of 1860 as it is today. In that time, you would bring the ballot for the candidate you wanted to the polling station and place it in a particular ballot box. It wasn’t anonymous. Based on what the ballot looked like people could tell which candidate you were voting for. The threat of violence towards republican voters in many of those states led the Republicans not to send ballots to those states.
After the election of 1860 and the success of the republican party, southern states seceded from the union. The American Battlefields trust has a very interesting discussion on the secession of Southern States. If you go to Battlefields.org you can get full transcripts of the Declaration of Causes that 4 states issued in addition to the Southern Secession articles that each state in the Confederacy issued. These declaration of causes are very strongly worded, especially South Carolinas.
4th of July, 1776, in a Declaration, by the Colonies, "that they are, and of right ought to be, FREE AND INDEPENDENT STATES; and that, as free and independent States, they have 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."
They further solemnly declared that whenever any "form of government becomes destructive of the ends for which it was established, it is the right of the people to alter or abolish it, and to institute a new government."
Thus were established the two great principles asserted by the Colonies, namely: the right of a State to govern itself; and the right of a people to abolish a Government when it becomes destructive of the ends for which it was instituted. And concurrent with the establishment of these principles, was the fact, that each Colony became and was recognized by the mother Country a FREE, SOVEREIGN AND INDEPENDENT STATE.
When the Constitution was created, states entered into a compact with this new strong central government. They point to the 10th Amendment – any powers not specifically delegated to the federal government are given to the states.
These four documents call out a variety of reasons why this drastic measure was taken. The abolition movement, the emergence of the republican party, the election of Lincoln, slavery, states’ rights, the actions taken by northern states and the federal government that has denied southern slave holding states of their rights and property.
Timeline is important
Election day Nov. 6, 1860
South Carolina becomes the first southern state to secede Dec. 20. 1860
By Feb. of 1861, 7 southern states had seceded and the Confederate States of America was created. 4 more states would secede by June of 1861.
March 4, 1861 Lincoln is sworn in as President
Once up on a time, the president was sworn in on March 4th. So you have to understand the difficulties that emerged having so much time in between election day and inauguration day. As a lame duck president, there was little President James Buchanan could do or wanted to do. While he felt secession was illegal, but that the Federal Government didn’t have the right to stop it”
In 1933, after President elect FDR ran into similar problems with outgoing President Hoover’s inaction during the start of what would become known as The Great Depression, the 20th amendment was passed. Along with Presidential succession and the new start of the newly elected Congress. It changed Inauguration Day to noon on January 20th.
For Lincoln, he had tried repeatedly during and after the election to give assurances to southern states that he wouldn’t do anything to stop slavery where is already existed and that they had no reason to fear his election. His attempts to lessen the fears of southern states were to no avail. Buchanan’s message to Congress in Dec of 1860, was of no help in preventing southern secession. In his speech, he talks of the illegality of secession but in the same breath, states that the Federal Government can do nothing to stop it. He proposes an amendment to the Constitution that would appease the south and perhaps prevent a possible civil war but do to sectionalism and high rising tensions over the future of slavery, there is no way that a law protecting slavery where it already existed, stronger fugitive slave laws and permit slavery in all territories until those territories became states and the decision of whether they be a free state or slave state was decided. By the end of December, the first southern state seceded and more soon followed. No response from the federal government only emboldened the southern slave holding states.
When he departed by train for his inauguration, Lincoln was quoted as saying
I now leave, not knowing when, or whether ever, I will return, with a task before me greater than that which rested upon Washington.
In Lincoln’s Inaugural address, he attempts to reassure the southern states that slavery would be protected where it already existed. He recognized the south’s fears that a Republican had become President. And used quotes from previous speeches to prove his stance on slavery. He discussed his belief that it was impossible to destroy the union and rejected the notion of secession. He wanted to prevent a civil war and made it clear that intended to enforce federal law in the south.
After the attack on Fort Sumter, President Lincoln issued a Proclamation which called for a special session of Congress to deal with the rebellion and called for State Militias to send troops.