1860 Presidential Election Essay

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Every four years, each presidential candidate proclaims that the problems facing the nation this year is graver and more important than any other time in American history. The 1860 Presidential election stands alone as the most important presidential election in American history because this actually was the case. There have been other elections that have been important. If Wendell Wilkie had beaten Franklin Roosevelt in the 1940 election or if Al Gore had beaten George W. Bush in the 2000 election, this world may have been very different. But that probability was brought to the light months or years after the election was over. The chief difference with the 1860 election was that the country knew that the nomination of each candidate along with who would be elected would have immediate and then long term results for the country.

The 1860 presidential election saw four distinct candidates, all trying for the most important office in the land at our most important time. Abraham Lincoln, a Republican from Illinois, his rival for the 1856 senate race, Stephen A. Douglas representing the Northern Democrats and also from Illinois, John Bell, a Constitutional Unionist and John Breckenridge a Southern Democrat were all in the race. The fact that the Democrats had split over the issue of slavery, forcing members to walk out of two Democrat conventions forced the party to have to send two different candidates and thus, increase the chances that the election would go to Lincoln.  The nomination of Abraham Lincoln for the Republican ticket was unsure from the start and even Lincoln assured himself that he would lose.

In the bestselling book Team of Rivals, Doris Kearns Goodwin details in fascinating fashion, the list of more qualified, more educated and possessing more resources, fought for their nomination for president. But Lincoln was chosen because he was a moderate on the number one issue of the day: slavery. I have no purpose, directly or indirectly, to interfere with slavery in the States where it exists, said Lincoln early in the conflict.[1] Seward and Chase, two of the others who brought competition to the field, were seen as either too radical or apathetic towards the issue of slavery and made their displeasure known. While Seward was taking a European tour, Lincoln was meeting and greeting the people. His attendance and speech at New Yorks Cooper Union in 1860, solidified him as a man of the people.

The Democratic Nomination was complicated as well. The Democratic Party was split over the issue of slavery in the same way the country was. At their convention in April of 1860, fifty Democrats walked out to form their own faction of the party.[2] John Breckenridge was nominated by the Southern Democrats and Stephen A. Douglass was nominated by the Northern Democrats. The Democrats met again on June 18 and this time 100 delegates walked out and would not adopt a resolution supporting slavery in the territories.

The Northern Democrats nominated for their candidate Stephen A. Douglass, Senator from Illinois. Douglass had been involved in the famous Lincoln Douglass Debates for the senate. In this senate race, Douglass won but in the process, alienated the South by saying that popular sovereignty could prevent slavery from being enacted in the new territories. The South remembered this and would make sure that his answer would come back to haunt him in the election. This was a chief motivating factor which caused the split within the Democratic Party, thus giving an advantage to the Republican Party which took advantage of such factions.

For years, Democrats had united behind the doctrine of popular sovereignty. It was this fact which helped Douglas get elected to the senate in the 1858 debates with Abraham Lincoln. The idea behind this was that slavery within a new territory was up the majority of people within that state. Popular Sovereignty also promised to keep the future of slavery out of the hands of the politicians in Washington as they were distrusted for the most part by the people within the slave states. On the surface, the idea seemed to be a sound and practical compromise to the threat of a civil war. Most Northern Democrats assumed that slavery would not be allowed to spread into the West due to natural impediments. The climate, terrain and the swift movement of Free State settlers into the West would discourage slaveholders from entering the territories.

While Southerners demanded that the Democratic Party come out with a platform that defended slavery, Douglas and his supporters could not agree. Despite the fact that the convention went through 54 ballots, Douglas failed to achieve the needed 2/3 vote to receive the nomination of a single Democratic party. However, once the Southern Democrats walked out of the convention, Douglas did receive the needed 2/3 vote from the delegates that were present.[3] Only then was did he receive the nomination of the Northern Democrats. It was a hollow victory. However, his nomination resulted in the splitting of his party and another candidate would only help to confuse the issue as well as spread out the limited number of electoral votes available.

The Republicans, after seeing the problems that had been caused within the Democrats, saw this as an opportunity that they could use to their advantage. They were confident, going into their convention in Chicago, that they had a real chance of winning.  The only question was who was going to be nominated. William Seward was considered the front runner.  He was more established, had a classical education, the money and proper connections that prompted the party bosses, at first, to consider him a viable candidate for the nomination. But this all changed at the convention. Alienated factions seemed to arise and served as an unmistakable impediment for Seward and his hopes of becoming the Republican nomination for the 1860 Presidential election: an occurrence which seemed like a foregone conclusion just six months earlier.

Delegates were concerned that Seward was too closely identified with the radical wing of the party. Also, Seward, being deeply religious, saw the issue of slavery as an issue that was above that of the Constitution as he called for a higher law to dictate the end of slavery. 19th century America was a deeply religious age but such beliefs seemed to pull him to the right of center in this regard. Over the years, his angry phrases calling upon a higher law than that of the Constitution that had come from men of freedom¦ had alarmed Republicans moderates in the West. This only proved that Lincoln was the man to elect.[4]Compared to Seward, Lincoln had more of a chance to help avoid a civil war as he was seen as more of a moderate within the Republican Party on many issues that were troubling the country and the Southern states at this time. But this did not being much comfort to the Southern States because the main position that the Republican Party held on slavery was not in doubt.

The key to the success of the Republican Party was its position on slavery as well as the fact that the Democrats were now split. The Republican Party opposed the expansion of slavery and many within the party condemned it as an immoral institution. Republicans thought that by limiting its expansion would put slavery on the road to eventual extinction. Even though this stance was made public, the Republican base rejected a more radical stance that would have Southerners associate them with the abolitionist cause. So in this fact, Republicans upheld slavery within the states where it already existed. Also, there was a faction of the party which included Lincoln, which was willing to support a Constitutional amendment that would guarantee slavery forever in the hope that a civil war would be avoided.

In this fact, Lincolns announcement in September 1862, that he would be issuing an Emancipation Proclamation, came to the shock of his cabinet because it was contrary to what the platform of the Republican Party during the 1860 election.[5] Republicans would be willing to compromise a great deal with regard to the issue of slavery in order to avoid a civil war and in the process, distance themselves from the abolitionists who were seen as too radical from both the South and even parts of the North. However, as long as the strong Republican base and their beliefs on slavery served as an impediment and a threat to the South and their protection of slavery, either Lincoln or Seward would have garnished a negative response from the Southern States.

Since it was essential to carry the West and because Lincoln had a national reputation from his debates and speeches, most notably, the 1858 debates with Stephen A. Douglass, Lincoln won the partys nomination. This is true also because Lincoln was seen as a moderate on the issue of slavery. It would not be until the Civil War was well under way when Lincoln became more certain that slavery must not continue. But at this time, Lincoln had said that he would leave slavery alone if it meant that the Union would be saved and a civil war would be avoided. The party platform states that slavery would not be allowed to spread any further. This was heavily unpopular in the South but it was in line with what Lincoln believed. The containment of slavery was the best that the moderates within the Republican Party could hope for while at the same time, avoiding a civil war. Doris Kearns Goodwin, in her book Team of Rivals, spoke to the appeal that Lincoln had among the people and the characteristics that helped Lincoln, an unlikely candidate in many ways, secure the nomination.

Lincoln was aware that being a man of the people was an advantage, especially in the raw Western states critical to the election of a Republican candidate¦ Lincoln was astute enough to capitalize upon this invaluable political asset.[6]  It was also seen that Lincoln was more of a candidate for the people and on the surface, it did not seem that he was as hungry for the office as the others and therefore, would remain true to his own self instead of saying and doing only what was needed in order to get elected. Though Lincoln desired success as fiercely as any of his rivals, he did not allow his quest for office to consume the kindness and open heartedness with which he treated supports and rivals alike, nor alter his steady commitment to the antislavery cause.[7] These are the characteristics that helped endeared Lincoln as a man of the people.

The campaign was an interesting one that garnished a great deal of interest among the country. The turnout from the 1860 election would be one of the highest in history as the country knew all too well, that the results may lead to a civil war. Stephen A. Douglas became the first presidential candidate in history to undertake a nationwide speaking tour; something that is now seen as essential in order to win within contemporary candidates. Douglas traveled to the South even though he did not expect to win many votes. He spoke for the maintenance of the Union and would so until the official start of the Civil War.

The 1860 Campaign, despite the presence of four separate candidates was more organized than the 1856 campaign. In 1856, John C. Freemont, the first Republican candidate,  crusaded zealously against slavery and these efforts were then countered with the warnings of civil war. As a result, James Buchanan was elected and did absolutely nothing to either speed up or curtail the threats towards a civil war. What also helped the chances of the Republicans was the 1857 Supreme Court Decision regarding the Dred Scott Case. This resulted in a clear advantage in the 1858 general election which gave a commanding lead to the Republicans. By 1860, every observer could see that the Republicans had an almost unbeatable advantage in the Electoral College as well since they dominated every Northern state. This would come to fruition as the number of popular votes that Douglas got in relation to the number of electoral votes he received was far below that of Lincolns.

The election was held on November 6, 1860. The notable difference was the exaggerated sectionalism of the vote. In nine southern states, Lincolns name did not even appear on any of the ballots. Also, the importance of the Electoral College would be as important as any other election history, second only to the 2000 election. Due to the fact that there were four candidates, it would be unlikely that any one candidate would receive the popular majority. While Lincoln only captured 40% of the vote, the division of the Electoral College allowed him to capture 17 states plus four electoral votes from the state of New Jersey to receive a total of 180 electoral votes and the win. Although the three-way split among the non Republicans complicated the issue, Lincoln would have still won the election because he won the majority of the electoral vote. Lincoln also won a popular majority in every state that cast its electoral votes for Lincoln. He finished the campaign with 1,865,908 votes. Douglas finished second with 1,380,202 votes but because of the split in the electoral votes throughout the country, he only received twelve electoral votes, far short of the 152 needed to win.[8] He received nine electoral votes from Missouri and three of the seven electoral votes from New Jersey. Bell won Kentucky, Tennessee and Virginia while Breckenridge won every slave state except for Missouri.

The result of the 1860 election was almost an immediate one. On December 20, 1860, South Carolina voted to succeed from the country.  The southern states had been waiting for an excuse to break away from the country and the election of Lincoln fit the bill. Stephen A. Douglas threw his support behind Abraham Lincoln and went on a speaking tour to try to stop a civil war from coming. He died in this process in April of 1861 and neither his efforts, nor the efforts of any single man, could stop what the country knew was about to come. With the succession of South Carolina in December 1860. Not surprisingly, South Carolina acted first. There is nothing in all the dark caves of human passion so cruel and deadly as the hatred the  South Carolinians profess for the Yankees,[9] With the following of twelve more states, the Civil War had become a foregone conclusion. With the attack on Fort Sumter in April of 1865, despite the only casualty being a Union horse, the Civil War had started and only after four years and 620,000 casualties, did the war finally come to and end as did the institution of slavery within the country forever.

The end of the Civil War also led to the assassination of President Lincoln and his Vice President, Andrew Johnson serving as an impediment to the Reconstruction of the South. The 1860 Presidential Election was one of the most important elections in the countrys history. The main difference with this election over others, was that the entire country knew that the outcome of the election had a direct impact on whether or not there would be a civil war, how the civil war would play out and what would be included in peace. Abraham Lincoln, right before the end of the Civil War, said: With malice towards none and charity for all,[10] in talking about the need for the North and South to come together as one people again. History knows that the people made the right choice that November day in 1860. And all those that are motivated by his speeches and actions are the benefactors of such wisdom and future generations will continue to do the same.


Burns, Ken. 1989.  The Civil War. Boston: PBS Video.

Burns, Ken. 1992. The Civil War Companion Book.  Boston: Alfred Knoff Publishers

Goodwin, Doris Kearns. 2006. Team of Rivals. New York: Harper Collins

McPherson, James. 1998. Battle Cry of Freedom. London: Oxford University Press.

[1] McPherson, James. 1998. Battle Cry of Freedom. London: Oxford University Press.

[2] Goodwin, Doris Kearns. 2006. Team of Rivals. New York: Harper Collins p. 142.

[3] Goodwin, Doris Kearns. 2006. Team of Rivals. New York: Harper Collins p. 167

[4] Goodwin, Doris Kearns. 2006. Team of Rivals. New York: Harper Collins

[5] Burns, Ken. 1989.  The Civil War. Boston: PBS Video.

[6] Goodwin, Doris Kearns. 2006. Team of Rivals. New York: Harper Collins

[7] Goodwin, Doris Kearns. 2006. Team of Rivals. New York: Harper Collins p. 178.

[8] Burns, Ken. 1992. The Civil War Companion Book.  New York: Alfred Knoff Publishers

[9] McPherson, James. 1998. Battle Cry of Freedom. London: Oxford University Press. P.641

[10] Burns, Ken. 1992. The Civil War Companion Book.  Boston: Alfred Knoff Publishers p. 321

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