Choosing 1860’s Presidential Candidates

From the lecture series: The American Civil War

By Gary Gallagher, Ph.D., University of Virginia

What made 1860 such a volatile electoral year? One reason was the wide range of presidential candidates put forth by America’s major political parties. Follow the path of four potential candidates, including Abraham Lincoln and Stephen A. Douglas.

Political Cartoon. Storming the Castle. Currier and Ives [Public domain] via Wikimedia Commons
Here, Republican presidential candidate Abraham Lincoln carries a lantern and a spear-like wooden rail. He rounds the corner of the White House, foiling the attempts of three other candidates to enter surreptitiously. (Image: Currier and Ives/Public domain)

Since the time of Thomas Jefferson, the Democratic Party had always been the majority party, elected more presidents than any other, and had controlled Congress to a far greater degree than any other.

In 1860, the Democrats met in one of the worst imaginable places: Charleston, South Carolina. The city was among the most radical of the hotbeds of Southern sentiment.

The Douglas and Yancey Platforms

When the delegates met, they were immediately confronted with the choice of choosing between two platforms.

This is a transcript from the video series The American Civil War. Watch it now, Wondrium.

The Yancey platform was put forward, which called for the absolute protection of slavery in the territories. The rival platform was the Douglas platform, named after Senator Stephen A. Douglas of Illinois, the most prominent Democratic politician in the country, and the figure who had defeated Abraham Lincoln in a famous senatorial election in Illinois in 1858.

Photograph of Stephen A. Douglas [between 1855 and 1865]
Senator Stephen A. Douglas, democrat, defeated Abraham Lincoln in the Illinois senatorial election of 1858. (Image: Brady-Handy Photograph Collection, Library of Congress LC-DIG-cwpbh-00882/Public domain).

The Douglas platform was much more moderate than the Yancey platform and called for allowing the people of individual territories to vote and decide whether they wanted to have slavery within their borders or not. Coupled with that, the Douglas platform promised to abide by a definitive decision from the Supreme Court on the question of whether the people of territories would be able to collectively decide whether to allow slavery within their borders.

The two platforms came up for a vote, and the Douglas platform won on an almost straight sectional vote, with Northerners voting for the Douglas platform and Southerners voting for the Yancey platform. Forty-nine delegates from eight Southern states walked out of the convention, met in another hall, and adopted the Yancey platform. They waited to see what would happen. Stephen A. Douglas proved unable to get two-thirds of the remaining delegates to support his platform.

The Democrats in Shambles

The convention adjourned and agreed to reconvene in Baltimore a few weeks later.

There, the same fissures appeared between the Southern Democrats and the Northern Democrats, and there was another walkout on the part of Southern delegates. This time 110 left—more than a third of the whole.

The regular Democrats nominated Douglas and a moderate from Georgia named Hershel V. Johnson to be his running mate. The Southern Democrats nominated John C. Breckinridge of Kentucky, vice president under James Buchanan and later a Confederate general and Confederate Secretary of War for part of the Civil War. His running mate was Joseph Lane of Oregon.

Learn more about early Union triumphs in the West

The Democratic Party, in short, was in shambles as the 1860 presidential election approached.

The Republican Convention

The Republicans met in Chicago in mid-May, and they were upbeat. They understood very well what was going on with the Democratic Party. Republicans knew that they would carry most of the North, and that to win the electoral college, they needed only to carry the states they had carried in 1856, plus Pennsylvania and either Illinois or Indiana—all three of which had voted Democratic in 1856.

The Republicans sensed victory, but they were going to be careful in this election. They faced the prospect of choosing from many potential candidates. Most of the party wanted to pick someone who would appeal to the widest possible spectrum of Northern voters.

Photograph of William Henry Seward. Mathew Brady [Public domain] via Wikimedia Commons
William Henry Seward was the frontrunner for the Republican presidential nomination, but was too much of an abolitionist for moderate voters. (Image: Brady National Photographic Art Gallery, Library of Congress/Public domain)

The frontrunner was William Henry Seward of New York, but he was considered too far toward the abolitionist end of the ideological spectrum to appeal to more moderate Northern voters. Salmon P. Chase of Ohio was another man the convention considered too radical on the slavery issue to appeal to the broad spectrum of Northern voters.

A conservative named Edward Bates from Missouri was also put forward, an ex-Whig, and was supported by Horace Greeley, the powerful editor of the New-York Tribune. But Bates was considered too conservative by many delegates.

The Rise of Abraham Lincoln

Abraham Lincoln (1809-1865), portrait of June 3, 1860 by Alexander Hesler. This is one of three portraits made that day, after Lincoln had won the Republican nomination.
It took the Republican Convention just three ballots to decide on Abraham Lincoln. (Image: Everett Historical/Shutterstock)

Weaknesses in the appeal of each of these men strengthened the candidacy of Abraham Lincoln of Illinois. Lincoln had only held national office very briefly in the 1840s as a one-term member of the House of Representatives. He had a fairly high national profile because of some lectures he had given in the late 1850s and 1860, and because of the famous senatorial contest in Illinois in 1858 with Stephen A. Douglas.

Lincoln was a very good second choice. He was a moderate. He was against the extension of slavery, but he was not for immediate emancipation. He was antislavery, but politically, he felt that the Constitution protected slavery where it already existed, and the nation must respect that. He was also safe on the Republican economic issues. He was potentially strong in the Lower North, where abolitionist sentiment was not nearly as strong as it was in New England and parts of the Upper North.

It took the Republican Convention just three ballots to decide on Abraham Lincoln. A former Democrat from Maine, Hannibal Hamlin, was nominated for the vice-presidential slot.

Learn more about the plight of African-Americans behind Union lines

The Republican platform called, first, for no slavery in the federal territories. Second, it deplored John Brown’s raid. Third, the platform said it would not strike against slavery where it already existed.

Finally, the platform called for a Homestead Act. This act stressed government support for big public works projects such as railroads, harbor improvements, and canals. The legislation would also include funding for a transcontinental railroad and support for protective tariffs to help the fledgling industry in the United States compete with products from abroad.

Enter the Constitutional Union Party

A fourth party also put forward a ticket: the Constitutional Union Party. This was essentially the old American or Know-Nothing Party of the mid-1850s without the fiercely nativist, anti-Catholic, anti-immigration element.

Many of these Constitutional Union supporters took a middle-of-the-road course. They didn’t even mention slavery in their official platform. What they tried to do was appeal to the nation strictly based on the Union. The candidates were John Bell of Tennessee and Edward Everett of Massachusetts.

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Approaching the 1860 presidential election, there were four candidates: Lincoln, Douglas, Breckinridge, and Bell.

Common Questions About the 1860 Presidential Candidates

Q: Who was the primary opponent to Lincoln in the 1860 election?

John C. Breckenridge was the 1860 Southern Democratic nominee whom Lincoln defeated easily.

Q: What nationality did Abraham Lincoln claim?

Abraham Lincoln was an American with largely English ethnicity.

Q: Who ran as Lincoln’s vice president in the 1860 election?

Hannibal Hamlin ran as Lincoln’s vice president in the 1860 election.

Q: What other opponents vied for presidency in the 1860 election?

The 1860 Democratic Party Ticket held Stephen A. Douglas and Herschel V. Johnson. The Southern Democratic Party Ticket held John C. Breckinridge and Joseph Lane. Then, of course, the Constitutional Union Party Ticket held John Bell and Edward Everett.

This article was updated on October 21, 2019

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