HomeHistoryUS History: The Election of 1860 - Honest Abraham Lincoln Steps Up

US History: The Election of 1860 – Honest Abraham Lincoln Steps Up

The Election of 1860: Undoubtedly one of the most important presidential elections in American history as the nation is on the brink of civil war with four different candidates looking to become the president, but at what cost? The Republicans have nominated one of the most iconic figures in American history. “Honest” Abraham Lincoln.

A Divided Nation

For much of the 1850s, the United States is destroying itself over the issue of slavery as several events like the brutal canning of Charles Sumner at the hands of a fellow senator, Preston Brooks on the Senate floor to the conflict known as ‘Bleeding Kansas’ which was a result of the Kansas-Nebraska Act to the 1859 arsenal raid and later public hanging of abolitionist John Brown, the U.S. was divided more than it had ever been before. Perhaps one of the greatest examples of the how slavery became such a dividing topic in America would have to be the Supreme Court decision regarding African American slave, Dred Scott who sued the widow and brother of his former slave master to get his and his family’s freedom and the case was ultimately taken to the Supreme Court.

In March of 1857, seven out of the nine supreme court justices agreed with the previous decision made by the courts regarding Scott’s case in that he was indeed still a slave whether or not he entered free states as he and fellow African Americans were not supposed to be treated as citizens but treated more like property.

The decision further fueled racial tensions while also firing up the anti-slavery supporters to protest the increasing rise of ‘Slave Power’…So, it’s safe to say that by the time of the 1860 presidential election, the fate of the nation was truly at stake. 

Issues Within the Democratic Party

Due to James Buchanan’s failure in keeping the country together during his time in office as well as his decision to not seek another term, the Democratic Party were splintering and couldn’t figure out who their nominee be would.  During the Democratic National Convention, many pro-slavery Democrats who were referred to as ‘Fire-Eaters’ decided to walk out of the convention as they refused to compromise on the issue of slavery and decided to nominate their candidates.

The remaining Democrats would meet up once again to nominate a candidate of their own and after 59 ballots they ended up choosing Stephen A. Douglas who was still the Senator of Illinois and the man who came up with the idea of the Kansas-Nebraska Act and the idea of “Popular Sovereignty” which allow states in the U.S. to decide on the issue of slavery for themselves while also allowing Douglas to be somewhat neutral on his opinions regarding the issue. 

Benjamin Fitzpatrick, who was the Senator of Alabama was nominated as Douglas’ running mate, but he refused the nomination, so they chose the former Governor of Georgia, Herschel V. Johnson instead with Douglas and Johnson being supported by a group of Northern/Moderate Democrats who became known as the “Northern Democratic Party”.

Not too long after this, the pro-slavery Democrats later known as the “Southern Democratic Party” decided to hold their convention to nominate a candidate for president and while names like Daniel Dickinson and Jefferson Davis were thrown in as possible contenders, the party went on and nominated James Buchanan’s vice president, John C. Breckinridge from Kentucky with Joseph Lane, the Senator from Oregon as his running mate.

Honest Abe

On the opposite side of the political spectrum, the Republican Party returned to run another candidate for president as the divisions going on within the Democratic Party gave the GOP hope that they could finally win the presidency, but there was some stiff competition when came to determining a candidate. A few of the names who ran for the Republican Party’s nomination were:

  • Salmon P. Chase: The former Governor of Ohio
  • William L. Marcy: The former Senator of New Jersey and running mate for the Republicans in 1856
  • John McLean: The Associate Supreme Court Justice from New Jersey 
  • Edward Bates: The former Representative from Missouri
  • William H. Seward: The Senator of New York
  • Abraham Lincoln: The former Representative of Illinois

Lincoln who was a self-taught country lawyer and a moderate on the slavery issue, had become well known to many following several tremendous debates between himself and Stephen Douglas back in 1858 for the position of Senator of Illinois, which saw Douglas come out as the winner.

After Lincoln gave a rousing speech in New York City to many of the higher-ups in the Republican Party, ‘Honest Abe’ believed he had a chance to become the party’s nominee and sure enough it came down to Lincoln and Seward but the path to getting that nomination wasn’t going to be easy.

Dirty Dealings & Dirtier Tricks

While many of us know Lincoln to be an honest politician, that didn’t stop him from playing dirty, especially if it meant getting the nomination for president and sure enough that’s exactly what he did. Like most presidential hopefuls of that period, they didn’t go out and actively campaign but instead allowed their allies and advisors to do all of the heavy liftings and when it came to Abraham Lincoln and William Seward, he had the best political organizers of their time. Seward’s political organizer is a fellow New York politician and former newspaper publisher named Thurlow Weed, a man who helped to run the campaign of John C. Fremont (the previous Republican candidate for president), but Weed was also instrumental in William Henry Harrison and Zachary Taylor becoming the next presidents of the United States under the Whig Party. Weed’s plan when it came to the convention was to stack the halls with people who would support William Seward while also making deals with the delegates that would help Seward’s chances of winning. Weed’s ability of persuasion and intimation was so well known that he was nicknamed “The Dictator”. 

In response, Lincoln has selected his friend, David Davis who was a member of the Illinois House of Representatives at the time to take charge of his campaign. The team under Davis goes on to make deals with several delegates in hopes that they will throw their support to Lincoln during the convention, in exchange, many of them have been persuaded with the promises of cabinet positions in his administration if elected president, however, Lincoln himself goes on to tell his team that he doesn’t wish to know anything about these deals that they’re making to remain the “honest politician” he presented himself to be.

On the day of the convention, Weed and many of Seward’s supporters attempt to enter the halls but they soon discover that the halls are already filled up with the reason being that Lincoln’s team got a hold of a convention ticket and made a large number of counterfeit tickets and stacked the halls with those who would support Lincoln…In other words, Lincoln’s team used Thurlow Weed’s strategy against him.

After much balloting and deal-making, Abraham Lincoln wins the Republican Party’s nomination for president with Hannibal Hamlin, a Senator from Maine as his running mate. So those are the nominees for the Democrats and the Republicans, but there’s still one more party that will play a crucial role in this election. 

The Constitutional Union Party

Realizing that the Democratic Party is fractured during this election and the Republicans were looking to abolish slavery (even though they promise to do the opposite) many Americans are looking to find an alternative who promise to keep the country together during this tumultuous time. The alternative came in the form of “The Constitutional Union Party” which was created out of other political parties that wanted the United States to remain unified with their party slogan being: “The Union as it is, and the Constitution as it is”. The party would nominate a former Senator of Tennessee, John Bell with Edward Everett, a former Senator from Massachusetts as his running mate.

Both Bell and Breckinridge would fight for the electoral votes in the Southern region of the U.S. while the other candidates would fight for the electoral votes in the Northern region, meaning the winner of this election would get less than 50% of the popular vote. Now that all of the main candidates have been mentioned for this four-way race for the white house, it’s time to briefly talk about the country’s atmosphere as the election draws closer and closer.

Arming For War

Despite Lincoln and the Republican Party promising that they would not abolish slavery, most Americans more specifically Southerners refused to believe that and in fact, they even went as far as to prevent Lincoln from getting on the ballot in several Southern states and even in the one’s he did appear on, Lincoln only got less than 1% of the popular vote. Most Southerners went as far as to say that if Lincoln became the new president of the United States, then there would be no United States of America anymore, in other words, several states would actively secede from the Union to go and create their own country. 

Realizing what was occurring in the South, Stephen Douglas heads to the Southern states not to campaign for president but to convince them not to break up the Union for the sake of the country, but alas his words fall on deaf ears in the South.

This election is also known for having the states of Oregon and Minnesota officially become part of the Union and the voter turnout for the 1860 election was at 81%, the highest it has ever been for a presidential election in American history, so with all of that bit of info out of the way let’s look at the results.

The Results

Most people today will tell you that the electoral college combined with the popular vote can be a bit of a convoluted system and this election is an example of why, as it was very sectional in how Americans voted from looking at this map. When it was all said and done…

Abraham Lincoln won and became the 16th president of the United States receiving 180 electoral votes and 39.8% of the popular vote with ‘Honest Abe’ winning just enough of the Northern states to get the victory.

John C. Breckinridge came in second place receiving 72 electoral votes but came in third place in the popular vote receiving 18.1%; Breckinridge would be the last vice president until 1960 to run for the office of president upon getting his party’s nomination without his predecessor dying years earlier. 

John Bell came in third place in the electoral college receiving 39 electoral votes but came in fourth place in the popular vote with 12.6%; The Constitutional Union Party would cease to exist following this election.

Stephen A. Douglas came in fourth place receiving 12 electoral votes but came in second in the popular vote with 29.5%; Douglas only won the state of Missouri but got three votes in the state of New Jersey making him the only one out of the four to win votes in both a slave and free state.

The common misconception is that Douglas, Bell and Breckinridge all campaigning in the South cost them the opportunity to win the election, which isn’t true as the number of electoral votes all three men had together would have been 123 and you needed 152 to win.

So, Abraham Lincoln has done it he is now the first Republican to become president of the United States, but as soon as he gets sworn in problems begin to rear their ugly head.

The Civil War Begins

Not too long after Lincoln has won the election, seven Southern states (South Carolina, Georgia, Mississippi, Florida, Louisiana, Alabama and Texas) secede from the Union to create their own country known as the “Confederate States of America” (or the C.S.A. for short) with Jefferson Davis, the Senator from Mississippi being sworn in as their president just days before Lincoln became the new president of the United States.

As Lincoln was to begin his time in office, he did not recognize the C.S.A. as a legit country and even tried to tell the remaining Southerners at his inauguration speech that we must not be enemies, but that doesn’t work as the South continues to secede and outgoing president, James Buchanan tells ‘Honest Abe’ something around the lines of “Sir, if you are as happy entering White House as I shall feel returning to Wheatland (Pennsylvania), you are a happy man indeed.”

In April of 1861, the Battle of Fort Sumter saw a South Carolina militia attack the military base leading to a shocking surrender at the hands of the Union while also becoming the first official battle in what would become “The American Civil War”.

And that was the election of 1860, Abraham Lincoln has officially become the president and mere weeks into his term, he will have to find a way to lead the country through one of the bleakest periods in the nation’s history.

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