The Election of 1860

If you wished, you could devote the rest of your life writing about Abraham Lincoln.  His election was the most significant of all time.  Many believed that his election would plunge the country into an inevitable civil war, yet they voted for him anyway.  The furor on both side was enormous and the chances of compromise was gone.  In 1860 the dominant party of the time was the Democratic Party, they met in Charleston, South Carolina to select a presidential candidate. The Southern delegates insisted that the party endorse a platform that guaranteed the rights of slaveholders in the territories. When the convention rejected the proposal, delegates from the deep South walked out. The remaining delegates reassembled six weeks later and selected Stephen Douglas as their candidate. Southern Democrats formed their own party and proceeded to choose John C. Breckinridge as their presidential nominee.

In May of 1860, the Constitutional Union Party, which consisted of conservative former Whigs, Know Nothings, and pro-Union Democrats nominated John Bell of Tennessee for President. This party platform denounced sectionalism and attempted to rally support for the Constitution and the Union. Meanwhile, the new Republican Party met in Chicago that May and recognized that the Democrat’s turmoil actually gave them a chance to take the election. They needed to select a candidate who could carry the North and win a majority of the Electoral College. To do that, the Republicans needed someone who could carry New Jersey, Illinois, Indiana and Pennsylvania — four important states that remained uncertain. There were plenty of potential candidates, but in the end Abraham Lincoln had emerged as the best choice. Lincoln had become the symbol of the frontier, hard work, the self-made man. His debates with Douglas had made him a national figure and the publication of those debates in early 1860 made him even better known. After the third ballot, he had the nomination for President.

The 1860 election revealed how divided the country had become. There were two separate sectional campaigns: one in the North, pitting Lincoln against Douglas, and one in the South between Breckinridge and Bell. Only Stephen Douglas mounted a truly national campaign. The Republicans did not campaign in the South and Lincoln’s name did not appear on the ballot in 10 states.  It is significant to know that Abraham Lincoln did not campaign at all.  In those days the party did the campaigning using Lincoln’s previous material from the just published  Lincoln-Douglas Debates and his House Divided speech.

With four candidates in the field, Lincoln received only 40% of the popular vote and 180 electoral votes — enough to narrowly win the crowded election. This meant that 60% of the voters selected someone other than Lincoln. With the results tallied, the question was, would the South accept the outcome? A few weeks after the election, South Carolina seceded from the Union.

The newly elected president would once again deliver a stirring public speech at his inauguration.  The following is his closing remarks.

In your hands, my dissatisfied fellow-countrymen, and not in mine, is the momentous issue of civil war. The Government will not assail you. You can have no conflict without being yourselves the aggressors. You have no oath registered in heaven to destroy the Government, while I shall have the most solemn one to “preserve, protect, and defend it.  I am loath to close. We are not enemies, but friends. We must not be enemies. Though passion may have strained it must not break our bonds of affection. The mystic chords of memory, stretching from every battlefield and patriot grave to every living heart and hearthstone all over this broad land, will yet swell the chorus of the Union, when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature.” – Abraham Lincoln

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