Top: Lincoln and Douglas. Bottom: Breckinridge and Bell.
Understandably, we mostly think about Abraham Lincoln as a wartime president, and rarely as a candidate. Believe it or not, voters in 1860 didn’t know he was the greatest president ever! Before Lincoln could put the country back together, others had to tear it apart. It’s time for the most consequential election in American history.
The Last Four Years
President James Buchanan was convinced he could solve the slavery crisis. Turns out, he couldn’t. In fact, he made everything much worse. In his inaugural address, he endorsed popular sovereignty and committed to not interfering with the institution of slavery. He hoped that the Supreme Court would settle the question of slavery in the territories. He hoped that because he had been secretly plotting it.
Dred Scott was a slave owned by Dr. John Emerson, a US Army surgeon. Because of his profession, Emerson traveled a lot with Scott throughout the 1830s, notably into the free territory of Illinois and Wisconsin. Emerson returned Scott to the South and died a few years later. Scott was then inherited by Emerson’s widow, and later sold to her brother, John Sanford. Scott eventually sued his owners on the basis that, because he had lived in the free territories for an extended period of time, he should be free. Dred Scott v. Sandford went all the way to the Supreme Court (and yes, they spelled Sanford’s name wrong). Buchanan saw the case as an opportunity to end the slavery debate once and for all. Justice John Catron, a Southerner, informed Buchanan that the Court was going to rule against Scott by deciding that slaves were not citizens and had no right to Constitutional protections. That was terrible enough on its own, but Buchanan wanted them to go further. He put pressure on fellow Pennsylvanian, Justice Robert Grier, to support the most extreme version of the decision. He succeeded. The Court ruled that Congress had no authority to ban slavery in the territories, thus negating the Missouri Compromise from almost 40 years earlier. No surprise here, this awful decision did not have the unifying effect that Buchanan thought it would. Republicans were outraged and instantly suspected that Buchanan had been in communication with the Court. Even the Democrats were split along Northern and Southern lines. In the end, Buchanan’s scheme only made war more certain.
Meanwhile, things were still going pretty rough in Kansas. Following lots of violence, settlers sent two new state constitutions to Congress for approval. Buchanan predictably backed the pro-slavery Lecompton Constitution. After some promises and deals were made, it passed the Senate, only to be defeated by the House. The free-staters’ Leavenworth Constitution banned slavery AND provided constitutional protections for women. Of course, this was far too progressive for the 1850s, and it also failed. Finally, Kansas agreed on the Wyandotte Constitution, which successfully outlawed slavery but was not as progressive overall. The pro-slavery faction gave up and Kansas was admitted to the Union as a free state right at the end of Buchanan’s term.
Kansas’ most radical abolitionist was John Brown. He rose to prominence as a radical abolitionist in Massachusetts, and a supporter of the Underground Railroad. He then moved to Kansas, where he was involved in many of the most violent incidents of the fight against slavery. After the bloodshed was over, he turned his attention next to US Armory in Harpers Ferry. The town lay at the border of Virginia and Maryland (and now West Virginia), where the Potomac and Shenandoah Rivers meet. Brown’s plan was to overtake the arsenal, send weapons into Virginia via the rivers, and incite a nation-wide slave revolt. Brown and his team of 18 men attacked the Armory in October 1859. After taking some hostages, they barricaded themselves in an engine house. President Buchanan sent the closest company of Marines, led by Colonel Robert E. Lee, to provide aid. After a few days of standoff, Brown was eventually captured and sentenced to hang, an event attended by actor John Wilkes Booth. John Brown’s final written words declared, “I John Brown am now quite certain that the crimes of this guilty land will never be purged away but with blood.”
On top of all this, the US was in the middle of an economic recession, known as the Panic of 1857! Being the good Andrew Jackson follower that he was, Buchanan blamed paper money and offered “[bank] reform, not relief.”
The major issue in 1860 was states’ rights, taxes, and tariffs! Nah, I’m just kidding. It was slavery.
Party Watch & The Candidates
The Democrats were having a rough time trying to hold the country together. James Buchanan was so unpopular that he was not considered for re-election. At their convention, Northern and Southern factions clashed. Southerners, known as fire-eaters, wanted a platform that stated the institution of slavery should be protected and extended into the territories. Northerners, led by Illinois Senator (and Kansas-Nebraska instigator) Stephen Douglas, refused to comply. In response, the Southern party members walked out. The remaining delegates failed to agree on any candidates, but reconvened a few months later and agreed to nominate Stephen Douglas as their candidate. In order to save face to the remaining Southerners, Douglas’ running mate was Herschel Johnson, the former governor of Georgia.
The Southern Democratic Party also reconvened at the same time as their Northern counterparts to nominate Vice President John C. Breckinridge of Kentucky. He was the last sitting VP to be nominated for his party’s ticked until Richard Nixon one hundred years later. His states’ rights policies won him the endorsement of former Presidents John Tyler, Franklin Pierce, and James Buchanan. He shared his ticket with Oregon Senator Joseph Lane.
For the Republicans, things were finally looking promising. Even though they lost the election four years earlier, they had established themselves as the main opposition party to the Democrats. Their platform directly opposed the expansion of slavery, though they ultimately called for upholding the Union and denounced radicals like John Brown. Again, they proposed strong economic policies that would benefit Northern businessmen and Western farmers. The front-runners for the nomination were New York Senator William H. Seward, ohio Governor Salmon P. Chase, and former Missouri Representative Edward Bates. Unfortunately, Seward was considered too radically anti-slavery, Chase had close ties with Democrats, and Bates was a former Know Nothing which alienated immigrants. The emergent moderate alternative was former Illinois Representative Abraham Lincoln! Lincoln was best known nationally for his failed 1858 senate run, coincidentally also against Stephen Douglas. They argued over slavery in their series of “Lincoln-Douglas Debates” around Illinois. Lincoln even published the debates as a book afterward. Due to his comparatively short career in politics, Lincoln had few enemies. He was considered a self-made man and someone who could appeal to the plain people of the West. Lincoln was joined by VP candidate Hannibal Hamlin, a Senator from Maine and a former Democrat.
Since it’s the mid-1800s, we have another third party in the mix! The Constitutional Union Party mainly consisted of old, former Whigs who wanted to ignore the slavery question all together and simply focus on the preservation of the Union. They nominated long-time Democrat-opposer Tennessee Senator John Bell, along with Massachusetts politician Edward Everett, a famous orator at the time. Their strategy hinged on an undecided electoral college that would defer to the House of Representatives.
As with the election four years prior, the Republicans had virtually no presence in the South. This was because, at the time, campaigns were responsible for printing their own ballots and finding voters willing to become actual electors. But these things required local support and that was not going to happen in the South. The election could be seen as Lincoln vs. Douglas in the North, and Breckinridge vs. Bell in the South.
Douglas actively campaigned (remember, this was still considered a faux pas by most contemporary politicians) and even made the first nationwide campaign tour. Even in the South, though, he maintained that states should never secede because of a Constitutional election of a president. Breckinridge, on the other hand, warned of a Republican victory in order to provoke the South.
The Republicans ran an energetic campaign, much like the 1840 push for William Henry Harrison. They attacked the corrupt Buchanan and promoted Lincoln’s many nicknames, including “Honest Abe” (a nickname he earned during his legal career), the “Woodchopper of the West,” and the “Railsplitter” (references to his earlier, more physical jobs).
Bell’s gimmick was to have supporters ring bells at his rallies. Sadly, the Constitutional Union Party was mocked as the “Old Gentleman’s Party” and the “Do Nothing Party.” Opponents who thought they stood for nothing claimed, “No North, no South, no East, no West, no anything!”
Lincoln’s Beard Pause!
Abraham Lincoln grew his famous beard at the suggestion of an 11 year-old girl! Just before the election, little Grace Bedell wrote to Lincoln to tell him he would look good if he wore whiskers. A few days later, he wrote back, asking if people would call his beard “a silly affectation.” Sure enough, by the time Lincoln boarded the train to Washington, DC, in February, he had grown a beard. The train made a stop in Grace’s hometown in Western New York. In front of a crowd, Lincoln called out to see if Grace was in attendance. She was, and he invited her up to the front where he showed off his whiskers and gave her a kiss on the cheek. Personally, I think she was right! Lincoln wasn’t known for good looks, but he had a sense of humor about it. In response to an accusation from Douglas that he was two-faced, Lincoln joked, “If I had another face, do you think I’d wear this one?” Luckily, the beard transformed him into arguably the most stoic figure of the 1800s.
I spot two new free states, Minnesota and Oregon!
There was huge turnout for this election. As you can see, the results were very closely tied with regional divides. Lincoln won 18 free states, Breckinridge won 11 slave states, Bell earned a few border states, and Douglas captured Missouri and part of New Jersey (the only one to get electors from a free state and a slave state).
Surprise! Abraham Lincoln won! He became America’s 16th president, with 180 electoral votes. Up to that point, Lincoln/Hamlin was the only winning ticket that had not featured a Southerner. Breckinridge came in second with 72 electors, Bell had 39, and Douglas brought up the rear with 12. While Lincoln certainly benefitted from the split in the Democratic party, he still won more electors than the rest of the candidates combined. That being said, the popular voter was much closer. Lincoln came away with over 1.8 million votes, but it was actually Douglas who trailed him, with almost 1.4 million votes. Breckinridge had over 800,000, and Bell was just shy of 600,000.
What Did It Say About America?
Preserving the Union was still the most important thing to Northerners. Lincoln was the moderate choice against an increasingly radical Democratic Party. Also, maybe underrated in this election, Lincoln won partly by playing the Whigs’ “hardworking everyman” card. Douglas and Bell were grasping at the last hope for compromise. Southerners, on the other hand, were at their most extreme. They had made clear what was coming next.
Was It The Right Decision?
Yes! It’s Abraham Lincoln.
Talk of secession started immediately after the election. To his credit, Stephen Douglas continued to tour the South and try to save the Union. In his final message to Congress, President Buchanan claimed the South didn’t have the authority to secede, but still placed blame on the North. He desperately tried to strike a deal with the South, even offering a Constitutional Amendment to protect slavery in states where it already existed. Oddly enough, Republicans did not oppose the amendment and it passed Congress, though it was never ratified by the states. In any case, the offer wasn’t enough. South Carolina seceded on December 20, 1860. Before Lincoln took office, seven more states had left the Union. Buchanan told Lincoln, “If you are as happy, my dear sir, on entering this house as I am in leaving it and returning home, you are the happiest man in this country.”
The remaining members of Buchanan’s cabinet became concerned about protecting federal property in the South. They convinced Buchanan to send reinforcements to Fort Sumter in South Carolina. The relief ship took fire and was forced to turn back. Abraham Lincoln took office just in time to learn that Fort Sumter was running out of rations.
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