Miller Center

American President

A Reference Resource

Campaigns and Elections

The Campaign and Election of 1860

Going into the presidential election of 1860, the issue of slavery had heated the nation to the boiling point. How were the political parties going to maintain unity in the midst of such intense sectional conflict?

Winning Republican Support

After Abraham Lincoln's defeat in the race for the U.S. Senate, he spent the next sixteen months speaking and traveling all over the North making campaign speeches for numerous Republican candidates. His style avoided the wordy moral rhetoric of the abolitionists in favor of clear and simple logic. Lincoln was successful in laying the groundwork for his candidacy, since by the spring of 1860, many politicians were indebted to Lincoln for his support. Furthermore, because he was out of office and new to national prominence, he had offended no one in particular within the party. Most importantly, Lincoln had established a solid group of campaign managers and supporters who came to the Republican convention prepared to deal, maneuver, and line up votes for Lincoln. His chief opponent, and the man who was sure that he had the nomination in his pocket, was William H. Seward of New York. However, his front-runner status proved to be his greatest obstacle in that it opened him to political criticism even before the convention delegates had met.

The most powerful and prominent former Whig in the Republican Party, Seward—former New York governor and sitting U.S. senator—was known to be an uncompromising foe of slavery. Seward had voiced his opposition to the Compromise of 1850 and his hatred of slavery by saying, "there is a higher law than the Constitution" which should guide American actions regarding slavery. Eight years later, he coined the term "irrepressible conflict" in describing the state of relations between the North and the South as long as slavery remained alive in the nation. His close friendship with New York political boss Thurlow Weed alienated many midwestern Republicans, who feared political corruption. Additionally, Seward's long-established support for Irish immigrants, the basis of his New York City constituency, turned away former members of the anti-immigrant American Party, whose votes were needed to carry Pennsylvania and other states in the lower North.

When the Republican delegates gathered in Chicago at the Wigwam (a huge boxlike building) on May 16, they knew that the election of 1860 was theirs to lose. Almost immediately, a stop Seward movement emerged, based upon the argument that he would never carry Indiana or Pennsylvania. Seward led Lincoln on the first ballot 173 1/2 to 102. "I authorize no bargains and will be bound by none," Lincoln telegraphed his campaign managers, but they ignored him to line up delegate support. They won over Indiana and Pennsylvania by offering cabinet posts to those states. Lincoln then gained seventy-nine votes on the second ballot. With the momentum swinging his way, Lincoln won the third ballot.

The delegates then nominated the former Democrat from Maine, Senator Hannibal Hamlin, as Lincoln's vice presidential running mate. Holding true to its antislavery but moderate core, the party platform opposed the extension of slavery westward and denounced John Brown's raid on Harper's Ferry. The platform also considered other key constituents by endorsing a protective tariff, a transcontinental railroad, and a Homestead Act that promised to give free land to settlers. This new Republican Party offered to bind the nation together as a free-labor society modeled on northern capitalism, free wage-labor, and the ultimate extinction of slavery.

Democratic Disunity

After the historic debates with Lincoln, Stephen Douglas found himself vilified by southern Democrats. He tried unsuccessfully to argue that his middle way would enable the nation to pass over the momentary issue of slavery in the territories and thus preserve the Union. But southern radicals would have none of it. When the Democratic convention met in Charleston, South Carolina, on April 23, both northern and southern delegates were ready for a showdown. The traditional rule that a two-thirds majority was required for a candidate to win nomination enabled southern Democrats to veto the nomination if they voted as a bloc. The first test came when the southern delegates insisted on a plank favoring a federal slave code for the territories. Douglas, knowing that he would lose every northern state if he agreed, refused to endorse the plank. When the delegates defeated the plank by a small majority, fifty southern delegates, led by Alabama "fire-eater" William L. Yancey, walked out of the convention. Even with these radicals gone, Douglas could not win a two-thirds majority. Neither could anyone else, and after fifty-seven ballots, the convention adjourned to meet in Baltimore in six weeks to try again.

When the badly shattered Democratic Party reconvened in June, there was no hope for unity. A raucous floor fight broke out over which delegates from the Charleston convention should be recognized. When the Douglas forces finally established dominance in this matter, the southern delegates pushed the slave code plank once again. For a second time, the Douglas forces beat it back and managed to nominate Douglas on a second ballot over John C. Breckinridge, the incumbent vice president. Herschel V. Johnson, a former governor of Georgia who supported both states' rights and unionism, was named to the second spot on the ticket. (He would later become a Confederate senator.) The party platform excluded reference to a slave code in the territories and supported the power of federal authority over the territories. It also affirmed its support for a transcontinental railroad to the Pacific and the acquisition of Cuba.

Furious southern delegates, including many who had boycotted the convention, then reconvened at Maryland Institute Hall to nominate John C. Breckinridge as the candidate of the Southern Democratic Party for the presidency. To run with him, the convention selected Senator Joseph Lane of Oregon. The party platform supported a federal slave code in the territories, the acquisition of Cuba, and the construction of a railroad to the Pacific Ocean.

Constitutional Union Party

As the Republicans prepared to meet in Chicago, and after the debacle of the Democratic Party meeting in April, a third group of political leaders met in Baltimore on May 9 to form the Constitutional Union Party. Twenty-one states were represented by men who had been members of the old Whig Party and felt uncomfortable about the new Republican Party's radical leanings. They were also southern Whigs who feared sectional division over slavery as a threat to property and domestic tranquility; some of these Whigs were former members of the American Party who were dissatisfied with either of the existing political groups. The Constitutional Union Party nominated John Bell of Tennessee, Speaker of the House in 1836, war secretary under Presidents Harrison and Tyler, and a long-time U.S. senator. He was a southerner who supported slavery but opposed its extension into the territories. Bell's running mate, former U.S. senator from Massachusetts and one-time president of Harvard University, Edward Everett, believed principally in the need to compromise on slavery in order to preserve the Union. Unlike the Republicans and Democrats, this new party refused to issue a platform statement other than to recognize "no political principle other than the Constitution" and the preservation of the Union.

White-Hot Campaign Trail

The campaign that followed witnessed none of the candidates except Douglas on the public stump. Breckinridge gave only one speech, Bell said nothing, and Lincoln, in keeping with campaign traditions, stayed at home in Springfield receiving delegations who came to pay their respect. Douglas, on the other hand, broke with tradition and campaigned all over the nation. He traveled from New England to the Deep South, shaking hands and giving speeches. Most of his appearances, to his dismay, were peppered with questions about what would happen should Lincoln be elected. In answering, he always affirmed the President's duty to enforce the laws. By October, concluding that the election was lost to Lincoln, Douglas began urging people to reject secession and work within the system.

Although the other three candidates did little or no active campaigning, each party sent hundreds of activists out on the trail. Southern firebrand William Yancey aroused northern crowds by his incendiary warnings of secession should Lincoln be elected. Bell supporters handed out bells and rang them loudly at their rallies. None outdid the Republicans, however, as thousands of young men turned out in "Wide Awake" torchlight parades in support of Lincoln. Barbecues, picnics, rallies, rail-splitter battalions, and marches composed of six-foot-four Lincoln supporters listened to party celebrities extolling the honesty of Old Abe, the "Woodchopper of the West." Sympathetic voters were urged to "Vote Yourself a Farm" by voting for Lincoln and his Homestead Act platform.

His opponents countered by making fun of Lincoln's limited experience as a statesman and his "slang-whanging stump speaker" style, which they said reflected a limited intellect that would be an embarrassment to the nation should he be elected President. The Charleston Mercury ridiculed his looks, depicting him as a "horrid looking wretch . . ." unfit for office. Cartoons showed Lincoln dancing with black women and championing "amalgamation" and "miscegenation" (mixing of the races). One widely distributed picture showed Lincoln steering a ship with a thick-lipped black man embracing a young white girl sitting at his feet on deck. Other pictures were much cruder and even more blatantly racist, of a type never before so prevalent in a national election. One secessionist in Georgia warned that Lincoln planned to force the inter-marriage of black and white children, and that within "ten years or less our children will be the slaves of Negroes."

Impact of 1860 Election

The election of 1860 positioned the nation on the brink of fundamental change. A Republican win would end the South's political dominance of the Union. Southerners had been President of the U.S. for two-thirds of the time since 1789, and none of the northern Presidents had ever won reelection. Up to that point in American history, southerners had also controlled the speakership of the House, the presidents pro tem of the Senate, and the majority of Supreme Court justices for most of the time. A Lincoln victory needed only the addition of Pennsylvania, plus either Indiana or Illinois, to the Republican list of states won by Frémont in 1856.

When the votes were tallied, Lincoln, who was not on the ballot in any southern state, carried all of the North but one state in the popular vote. With respect to popular support, Douglas came in second, followed by Breckinridge and Bell. The electoral college results, however, placed the candidates in a different ranking. Most southerners voted for Breckinridge, who carried eleven slave states of fifteen. Bell won in the more conservative upper South states of Virginia, Kentucky, and Tennessee. Despite his popular support, Douglas carried only Missouri. In the final electoral college count, Lincoln beat Breckinridge 180 votes to 72. Bell polled 39 and Douglas came in last with 12 votes.

Clearly, the extreme positions identified with Lincoln and Breckinridge appealed to the majority of voters. On the other hand, the combined vote for Bell and Douglas was nearly one hundred thousand more than that for Lincoln. Taken together, those two candidates beat Breckinridge in large parts of Georgia, North Carolina, Virginia, Tennessee, and Kentucky as well as in substantial portions of Alabama, Arkansas, Mississippi, and Louisiana. Had the Democratic Party stayed united, it would have carried the popular vote but still lost in the electoral college due to Lincoln's win in the North. Thus, the 1860 election revealed the importance of the heavily populated northern states in achieving victory in the electoral college.

The Campaign and Election of 1864

The amazing fact about the election of 1864 is that it occurred in the first place. In the middle of a devastating civil war, the United States held its presidential election almost without discussion about any alternatives. No other democratic nation had ever conducted a national election during times of war. And while there was some talk of postponing the election, it was never given serious consideration, even when Lincoln thought that he would lose.

The second noteworthy fact about the election is that Lincoln won with a huge electoral college victory and a substantial popular vote of 55 percent. Up to the very eve of the election, Lincoln was doubtful about his chances, and most of his key advisers had been warning him through the summer of 1864 to expect the worst. Part of the problem stemmed from the growing dissatisfaction within his own party by Radical Republicans, who doubted Lincoln's commitment to ensuring political equality for the formerly enslaved once the war had ended. They also opposed Lincoln's mild approach to reconstruction that he had applied to Louisiana. The President's strategy allowed for the reorganization of the state's government if only 10 percent of its white males swore loyalty to the union and accepted the abolition of slavery. Radical Republicans contended that if such a plan were applied broadly to all the defeated Confederate states, the former rebels might return to power with little protection for the former slaves. To counter Lincoln's plan, Radical Republicans in Congress passed the Wade-Davis bill, which established a more severe reconstruction model—50 percent of the voters had to swear loyalty to the Union—to be administered by Congress. When Lincoln pocket vetoed the bill and invited Southerners to rejoin the Union under his 10 percent plan or else the Wade-Davis plan, his opponents within the party publicly attacked him—and this was just months before the election of 1864.

Although Lincoln won nomination for a second term on the first ballot when the Republicans met in Baltimore in June, a dissident convention of Radical Republicans had met earlier in Cleveland on May 31. They chose the name Radical Democracy for their party, and they nominated John C. Frémont as their presidential candidate. This move for Frémont never got off the ground, however, and most Radicals swung back to Lincoln by summer's end. The initial break indicated, however, the uncertainty in the political support for Lincoln within his own party.

More serious than the division among Republicans was the threat posed by the Democratic Party, which met in Chicago in August. The Democrats boldly proclaimed the Civil War a failure, demanded the immediate ending of hostilities, and called for the convening of a national convention to restore the Union by negotiation with the Confederate government. The Democrats nominated General George B. McClellan, former commander of Union forces whom Lincoln had fired because of his failure to pursue Confederate General Robert E. Lee's army after the battle at Antietam in 1862.

Vicious Campaign

The ensuing campaign attacked Lincoln, and the Republicans gave equal measure in return. In its September 24, 1864, issue, Harper's magazine listed all the abusive terms that had been applied to Lincoln in the previous months: Filthy Story-Teller, Despot, Liar, Thief, Braggart, Buffoon, Usurper, Fiend, and Butcher. The Democrats confidently believed that the nation had grown weary of the war and of the way Lincoln had conducted it. Thousands of Americans disliked the draft, and at one point Lincoln had been forced to send troops to quell draft riots in New York City. Then too there was the hue and cry raised by the Democrats over Lincoln's abuse of power as President in censoring the press, extending military rule over areas adequately served by civilian government, and arresting and detaining war critics without benefit of a trial. The Democratic platform attacked Lincoln's use of presidential powers and claimed he had acted unconstitutionally.

Most importantly, Democrats believed that Lincoln had doomed his chances for reelection by turning the war from a conflict to preserve the union into a battle to abolish slavery. Evidence of the President's shift in purpose was found in Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation, which was announced in September 1862 and officially proclaimed in January of 1863. Additionally, his decision to arm blacks and to allow them to serve in the U.S. Army was also perceived as having changed the war into a crusade to end slavery, which most northerners—so the Democrats believed—only weakly supported.

Political Realities

In reality, however, Lincoln's chances were better than anyone (including he) guessed at the time. His campaign slogan of "not changing horses in mid-stream" made sense to most Americans. Moreover, large numbers of northern Democrats supported Lincoln as the best hope of preserving the Union. When Vice President Hannibal Hamlin was replaced by Andrew Johnson, the Union Democrat from Tennessee who was Lincoln's military governor of occupied Tennessee, thousands of moderate Democrats in the border states moved into the Lincoln column. Additionally, the anti-Lincoln Democrats were in great disarray. Although the Democratic platform condemned the Union war effort as a failure and called for the immediate halt to the fighting and a negotiated settlement, McClellan denounced the platform and came out strongly for the preservation of the Union "at all hazards."

Equally important, the Republican platform took a firm stand on the war and its aftermath, appeasing Lincoln's Radical opponents within the party. It vowed to crush the Confederacy and punish rebel leaders, supported a constitutional amendment to end slavery, offered aid to Union veterans, and demanded unconditional surrender. It seems, too, that most northerners accepted the Emancipation Proclamation and the arming of black soldiers as a military necessity that would cause anarchy within Confederate lines and weaken the South's will to continue fighting. The fact that the Emancipation Proclamation did not apply to border slave states still in the Union and parts of secessionist states that had remained Unionist greatly reassured many Democrats that it was a reasonable tool of war, one that tried to protect the property of loyal slaveowners.

Most importantly, the vast majority of U.S. soldiers and their families supported Lincoln and wanted to end the war with victory rather than a negotiated stalemate. On election day, General Grant insured that the soldiers could and would vote by absentee ballot; and for those who came from states where no absentee provisions existed, he furloughed them by the thousands so that they could go home and vote for Lincoln. This vote by the soldier-citizens of the war—who overwhelmingly supported Lincoln—when combined with the military victories won by Admiral Farragut in seizing Mobile Bay and General William Tecumseh Sherman at Atlanta in the late summer of 1864, united the Republican Party behind Lincoln and won him the election. In this landslide victory, the President won the electoral votes of twenty-two states, losing only Delaware, Kentucky, and New Jersey to McClellan.