The Sesquicentennial of the Election of 1860

By Ron Bryant


Rarely has a presidential election affected the course of American history as much as the one in 1860.  November 2010, marked the sesquicentennial of that momentous contest.  The men who stood for the presidency knew the outcome the election would affect their nation.  What they did not know, is how it would.

For years, the United States had become less united.  The Mexican War (1846-1848) had unleashed a wave of discontent in an already discontented nation.  With their victory in the war, and the subsequent Treaty of Guadalupe-Hidalgo, America had taken a huge portion of northern Mexico, including the territories that would become California, Arizona, New Mexico, Utah, and Colorado.  With these lands added to the United States, arguments over whether slavery would be permitted or not, soon consumed the time and talents of Congress, and the presidency.

Feelings became so bitter, the South contemplated leaving the Union.  In June 1850, delegates from Alabama, Arkansas, Georgia, Mississippi, South Carolina, Tennessee, and Virginia, met in Nashville, Tennessee to consider what course of action they would take if Congress banned slavery from the newly acquired territories taken from Mexico.  John C. Calhoun (1782-1850) of South Carolina had instigated the Nashville Convention, hoping the slave states would unite in opposition to what he perceived to be the work of meddling abolitionists.

Disappointing to the Southern extremists, all the slave states did not participate in the Convention.  Furthermore, Henry Clay (1777-1852) of Kentucky had hammered out a compromise between North and South that averted a showdown between the two sections over the expansion of slavery.  While the Compromise of 1850 left much to be desired, anti-slavery and proslavery supporters got something.  The North rejoiced that the rich territory of California would become a free state, and the slave trade would be banned in the District of Columbia.  The South received a fugitive slave law that required the citizens free states to return runaway slaves to their masters.

The Compromise of 1850 became the last of Clay’s famous compromises that kept the Union together.  Radicals on both sides of the slavery issue found little comfort in what they believed to be only another postponement of an inevitable rupture between North and South.  Some Northern abolitionists advocated violence if needs be, to overthrow the institution of slavery.  Southern “Fire eaters” called for secession from the Union if slavery could not expand into new territories.

In the Kansas Territory, a civil war had already erupted between anti-slavery and slavery settlers.  Marauding bands of extremists pillaged, burned, and murdered.  Their hapless victims suffered untold cruelties.  One of the most fanatical of the extremists—John Brown (1800-1859), along with his sons, led what they believed to be a crusade against slave owners.  He proclaimed that any killings done in the name of freedom for the slaves could be justified.  In 1859, he became an abolitionist martyr, when his plans to foment a slave uprising, armed with guns from the arsenal at Harper’s Ferry, Virginia, failed.  His arrest, trial, and subsequent hanging, only increased the tension between North and South.

To exacerbate an already deplorable situation between the anti-slavery and slavery factions, a presidential election would occur in 1860.  Many Southerners dreaded the election.  Although born in Kentucky, the Republican candidate, Abraham Lincoln (1809-1865) had lived, and worked in the free state of Illinois. A successful lawyer, he had also represented Illinois in the House of Representatives.  He lost reelection due in part, to his opposition to the Mexican War.

Abraham Lincoln

Lincoln’s stand on slavery was well known.  He disliked it, and felt that the nation could not long survive half free and half slave.  He opposed the expansion of slavery, and determined to stop it any where he could.  To the South, he, and the Republican Party seemed to be an undeniable enemy.  To the North, he sometimes seemed a milksop in regard to the destruction of slavery.

Other candidates for the presidency in 1860 included Senator Stephen A. Douglas (1813-1861), also of Illinois, who now represented one faction of the divided Democrats.  Vice-President, John C. Breckinridge (1821-1875) of Kentucky, led the slave holding faction the party.  John Bell (1797-1869) of Tennessee ran as the candidate of the Constitutional Union Party, a coalition of former Whigs, as well as pro-Union Democrats.

John C. Breckinridge

In November, 1860, American voters went to the polls to cast their ballots.  A sense of anticipation, and uneasiness permeated the election.  The governor of South Carolina had threatened secession of his state if Lincoln won the presidency.  Other Southern states would watch and wait to see if South Carolina would indeed leave the Union if Lincoln and the “Black Republicans” triumphed at the polls.

As the tally of votes began, it became apparent that Lincoln would carry the election.  The results shocked the South.  Lincoln won 180 electoral votes, and 1,865,593 popular votes.  Breckinridge came in second with 72 electoral votes, and 848,356 popular votes.  The third highest number of electoral ballots went to John Bell, with 39, and in popular votes, 592, 906.  Douglas finished last, with only 12 electoral votes, but with 1,382,713 popular ballots.

True to his threat, South Carolina’s governor called for a convention to decide if his state would secede.  On December 20, 1860 the convention’s delegates voted unanimously to leave the Union.  Six other slave states had seceded by February 1861.  Representatives of seven Southern states, South Carolina, Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana, Florida, and Texas, met and formed the Confederate States of America.  After the Confederates fired on Fort Sumter, located in Charleston, South Carolina’s harbor, and President Lincoln’s call for 75,000 volunteers to put down the rebellion of these states, four other slave states seceded, Virginia, North Carolina, Tennessee, and Arkansas.  The slave states of Kentucky, Maryland, Missouri, and Delaware officially remained in the Union.

Not since the election of 1800, and 1828, had the choice of president had such an effect on the course, and future of the nation.  In less than six months, the federal Union had been disrupted, a new nation had been created, and a civil war had begun.  In less than four years, slavery had ended in the rebelling states in theory, if not reality, with the Emancipation Proclamation.  In over five years, slavery had been abolished; the Confederacy defeated, and over a million young American men had been killed, captured or wounded.  The South lay in ruins, and would not recover economically for decades, as well as billions of dollars spent to prosecute the war.

The election of 1860 forever changed the United States.  The bloodshed engendered by Abraham Lincoln’s victory that year, did not end with the soldiers who had died on the field of battle; it ended with his death on April 15, 1865.  The president had been shot the evening before, by John Wilkes Booth a vainglorious actor, and Southern sympathizer.  No presidential election in American history had the impact of the one in 1860.  Its repercussions are still felt today.

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