The Fateful Presidential Election of 1860


By Gary W. GallagherUniversity of Virginia

The presidential election of 1860 was the most fateful in United States history. On its outcome rested the fate of the Union. The Democrats met first in April in Charleston, South Carolina—the worst imaginable place to meet, because that was an absolute hotbed of sectional feeling.

Chart showing the result of the Presidential election of 1860 by county
Although Abraham Lincoln just had under 40 percent of the total votes, he managed to win the presidential election of 1860. (Image: Tilden76/Public domain)

Unpopularity of Stephen Douglas

Stephen Douglas was the favorite of the northern wing of the Democratic Party, but he was unacceptable to the radical southern Fire-eaters because of his position on the Dred Scott decision, and for other reasons. The Southerners at the convention wanted a plank guaranteeing the right to take slave property into the territories. Douglas’s supporters opposed this.

Douglas won a majority of the delegates, and seemed to be on the verge of walking away from the convention with the nomination. However, he needed two-thirds. His supporters got the platform to endorse popular sovereignty, after which delegates from most of the cotton states simply walked out of the convention. 

The convention adjourned without selecting a candidate. The Democrats agreed to reconvene in Baltimore in June.

The Baltimore Convention

The Baltimore Convention opened with disputes over whether to seat the delegates who had walked out of the convention in Charleston, or to seat new delegates from those states. It was decided to seat new ones—those who supported Stephen A. Douglas. The convention went on to nominate Douglas, and to affirm its support for popular sovereignty.

Meanwhile, delegates from 11 southern states walked out again in Baltimore, and set up their own convention, where they selected John C. Breckinridge of Kentucky as their nominee.

The southern Democrats’ platform called for explicit federal protection of slavery in the territories, and for the annexation of Cuba—which, they thought, might be turned into at least one, and perhaps several, new slave states.

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Abraham Lincoln’s Candidacy

The Republicans met in Chicago. They were well aware of the fact that the turmoil in the Democratic Party offered them a golden opportunity. William Henry Seward of New York seemed to be the leading candidate.

Chicago Wigwam, where the convention on Abraham Lincoln’s nomination was held
The Republicans met in Chicago. (Image: Alexander Hessler/Public domain)

Seward had given a famous speech not long before, though, where he spoke about an irrepressible conflict. The convention decided, in the end, to select someone with more moderate views who didn’t have as many enemies, and didn’t have as long a career in politics as Seward had had. They settled, in the end, on Abraham Lincoln.

A Strong Republican Stance

The key in the election would lie in the northern states: Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Indiana, Illinois, and California. What would those voters do? The Republican platform tried to cater to various segments of the North. Its tenets were to keep slavery out of the territories. 

That was the main plank of the party, but its platform also said that the Republicans would accept slavery where it existed. There was no abolitionist element to the Republican platform. The platform called for a high tariff, which would appeal to many voters in Pennsylvania; a transcontinental railroad, which would appeal to many western voters; a Homestead Act, which was very popular in the Midwest; and internal improvement. 

Constitutional Union Party

A fourth party entered the field as well. It was called the Constitutional Union Party. You now have regular Democrats, Southern Democrats, Republicans, and the Constitutional Union Party. It was made up of persons who, above all, didn’t even want to talk about the slavery issue. They tried to run a campaign saying nothing but “We love the Union. We want the Union as it exists. We don’t want the Union to change. Our whole reason for being is the Union”. 

They nominated John Bell of Tennessee, a former Whig and a substantial slaveholder. They drew support from old Whigs, North and South, and from some southern former Know-Nothings.

Douglas, Still Popular

As in 1856, the election broke down into two contests. In the North, the contest was between Abraham Lincoln and Stephen Douglas. Bell and Breckinridge were on the ballots, but they pulled very few votes. In the South, it was Breckinridge versus Bell. 

Abraham Lincoln wasn’t even on the ballot in many of the slaveholding states. Southerners announced early on that a Republican victory would be a disaster, and might bring secession. Only Stephen Douglas campaigned across the whole nation, and it took great courage on his part to campaign in much of the South, where he was very unpopular.

The Sectional Results of the Election of 1860

In the end, it was a completely sectional result in this election. Lincoln carried every northern state except New Jersey. Douglas carried just Missouri and three of New Jersey’s electoral votes. Bell took Virginia, Kentucky, and Tennessee. John C. Breckinridge took the remaining 11 slave states. 

Lincoln won in the Electoral College with 180 votes to Breckinridge’s 72, Bell’s 39, and Douglas’s 12. If you put all of the other three candidates’ votes together, they still fall short of Lincoln’s total, so Lincoln would have won. 

In the popular vote, Lincoln had only about 40 percent of the overall vote, Douglas had about 30 percent, and Breckinridge and Bell split the rest. Lincoln was a minority candidate, and had now become a minority president who received not a single vote in 10 of the slave states. 

Common Questions about the Fateful US Presidential Election of 1860

Q: Why was the presidential election of 1860 important?

It was fateful since that presidential election carried the fate of the Country’s Union.

Q: What was the Constitutional Union Party?

A fourth party emerged during the election of 1860. It was called the Constitutional Union Party. It was made up of persons who, above all, didn’t even want to talk about the slavery issue. They nominated John Bell of Tennessee and drew support from old Whigs, North and South, and from some southern former Know-Nothings.

Q: Who were the four nominees of the 1860 presidential election?

Those who entered the 1860 presidential election include John C. Breckinridge, James Buchanan, Stephen Douglas, and Abraham Lincoln.

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