A Four-Man Race
Meanwhile, the Democrats tried again to reach consensus in Baltimore on June 18, six weeks after their debacle in Charleston. Once again, Southern delegates led by Fire-Eaters walked out of the convention when Northerners refused to adopt a resolution supporting the imposition of slavery on territorial residents. After two ballots, the remaining, dispirited Democrats finally nominated Douglas as their candidate for president, but everyone there knew their man—once the frontrunner to win the White House—had been dealt a serious political wound.
Southern Democrats left Baltimore much more upbeat. Most headed for Richmond, where on June 28, they gathered to nominate the proslavery standing vice president, John C. Breckenridge of Kentucky, for president. The party of Thomas Jefferson and Andrew Jackson had been split in two by the slavery issue, and for the first time it placed two separate candidates before American voters: one sectional candidate who appealed mostly to slaveholders (Breckinridge) and a weakened national candidate (Douglas), who faced stiff competition from Republicans in the North and didn’t have a chance in the South.
In the toxic political atmosphere of 1860, Bell and his fellow compromisers faced an uphill battle even to be heard.
As if the presidential race wasn’t already complicated enough in 1860, ex-Know-Nothings and what was left of the once-proud Whig Party in the border and middle states, convened as the new Constitutional Union Party and nominated former Senator John Bell of Tennessee for President. Bell, a former Whig like Lincoln, advocated a grand compromise between the sections to preserve “the Union as it is.” In the toxic political atmosphere of 1860, Bell and his fellow compromisers faced an uphill battle even to be heard.
The split in the Democratic Party meant that there were essentially two separate presidential campaigns waged in the fall of 1860: one in the South between Breckinridge and Bell (although Douglas had some support in Southern cities among Irish immigrants), and another in the North between Lincoln and Douglas. Following a long tradition in American politics, Lincoln stayed put in Springfield, Illinois and let surrogates make his case for him, although he maintained a “hands-on” role in the campaign and wrote and received hundreds of letters and visitors.
Most of the time, Lincoln referred questioners to his voluminous published public comments from before the Republican convention. Douglas, on the other hand, struck out in a campaign much more reminiscent of modern canvasses, taking to the stump all over the country (all the while pretending to be “visiting his mother” or “tending to legal business”) to make his case for popular sovereignty as a final solution to the slavery issue.
For such a weighty election, the campaign of 1860 was almost subdued – and certainly less frenetic than the Republicans’ first nationwide canvass in 1856. Republicans who could read the electoral tea-leaves knew they had numbers on their side in New England and the upper-Midwest, which, due to an explosion in population, contained enough electoral votes for a candidate to win the race without support in the relatively smaller Southern states. Therefore there was little effort to persuade non-Republicans to vote for Lincoln and more emphasis placed on motivating the Republican faithful with odes to the party platform and nods to Lincoln’s thrilling life story. Republicans declined to campaign in the South at all, aside from rallies in a few contested border cities like Baltimore, Wheeling (a Virginia river town now in the state of West Virginia), and St. Louis.
The closest the campaign came to drama was in a handful of so-called “doubtful” states, where Northern Democrats and Republicans seemed evenly matched. Four years earlier, the Republican candidate John C. Frémont won all but five of the Northern states; flipping three or even two of the states won by James Buchanan would thus deliver the presidency to Lincoln without a single Southern ballot. So Lincoln and the savvy Republican Party concentrated money, newspapers, and persuasive German-language lecturers in Pennsylvania, Illinois, and Indiana, to great success. Despite last minute attempts at anti-Republican “fusion tickets” in states like Rhode Island, New Jersey, New York, and Pennsylvania, Lincoln carried all the “Doubtful” states in 1860.
Republicans declined to campaign in the South at all, aside from rallies in a few contested border cities.
With Kansas’s petition for statehood bogged down in Congress, most residents believed the territory would play a relatively small role in the campaign. But Republicans kept the slavery issue in Kansas and Nebraska front and center, and several senior figures visited the region. Just six weeks before election day, William Seward heaped praise on the territory and its residents for their antislavery zeal.
"[You have] made Kansas as free as Massachusetts, and made the Federal Government, on and after the 4th of March next [inauguration day for the next president] the patron of Freedom – as it was at the beginning. You have made Freedom national, and Slavery sectional," Seward told a crowd of 6,000 people in Lawrence (6,000 people who couldn’t even cast a ballot in the election because they resided in a territory). “No other hundred thousand people in the United States have contributed so much for the cause of freedom.”
Turnout for the election was massive – 82 percent of eligible voters cast a ballot, making it the second highest percentage in American history, behind 1876. Lincoln won just under 40 percent of the popular vote nationwide, but he took a commanding majority of the votes in the Electoral College (180 out of 303; 28 more than he needed to prevail) without a single Southern state in his column.
Similarly, neither Bell nor Breckinridge won any states outside of their own region. Breckinridge came in second with 72 electoral votes (and a sweep of the Deep South), with Bell earning 39 by winning border states like Tennessee, Kentucky, and Virginia. Douglas – the only candidate with significant national appeal, and the only one to win electoral votes in more than one region – was a distant fourth with just 12 votes in the Electoral College. His only outright victory was in Missouri; he also won three of New Jersey’s seven electoral votes. But even if all of the anti-Lincoln voters agreed on a single “fusion” opponent, they still would have lost the election, 169 to 134.
Lincoln’s decisive victory did nothing to stem the disunionism that had hummed throughout the Bleeding Kansas crises, through John Brown’s raid, and the electoral campaign.
Lincoln’s decisive victory did nothing to stem the disunionism that had hummed throughout the Bleeding Kansas crises, through John Brown’s raid, and the electoral campaign. Even before President-elect Lincoln took the oath of office on March 4, 1861, seven states (South Carolina, Mississippi, Florida, Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana, and Texas) chose to secede from the Union rather than be governed by a Republican president. The seceding states formed the Confederate States of America on February 4, 1861, and promptly seized control of the federal property and forts within their borders. In response to a call by President Lincoln for troops from each state to recapture this lost property, four other states (North Carolina, Tennessee, Arkansas, and Virginia) joined the Confederacy.
As the representatives of the South resigned their seats in Congress, Republicans were finally able to free the legislative logjam that had been set up by slaveholders and their allies. The new laws included: the Homestead Act, which distributed public lands free of charge to actual settlers; the Morrill Act to enable the formation of land-grant colleges; and, on January 29, 1861, the admission of Kansas to the Union as a free state under the new Wyandotte Constitution.
Whether slavery would be legal in Kansas—and in all territories—was the key question during the political crisis of the 1850s and the election of 1860. The election proved to be one of the most momentous in American history, coming in the midst of the nation’s severest crisis and paving the way for the Civil War. During that conflict, Kansas and the neighboring state of Missouri became the site of a particularly brutal form of guerrilla warfare, again taking center stage in the national drama over slavery, race, sovereignty and freedom.
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Egerton, Douglas R. Year of Meteors: Stephen Douglas, Abraham Lincoln and the Election that Brought on the Civil War. New York: Bloomsbury, 2010.
Green, Michael S. Lincoln and the Election of 1860. Carbondale and Edwardsville, IL: Southern Illinois University Press, 2011.
Luthin, Reinhard H. The First Lincoln Campaign. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1944.