Abraham Lincoln, Stephen Douglas, and the Election of 1860

Abraham Lincoln

Although adversaries during the Illinois Senate race as well as the presidential campaign of 1860, Lincoln & Douglas fought together to preserve the Union.

The contest in the North during the Election of 1860 was between Stephen Douglas and Abraham Lincoln, both from Illinois. Douglas had spent his adult life in politics, serving in the House of Representatives and the U.S. Senate. Known as the “Little Giant,” Douglas was formidable and ambitious. Douglas never wavered from his solution to the expansion of slavery, clinging to “popular sovereignty” even as Southern states were leaving the Union. Lincoln had only served one term in the Congress and came back into national politics after passage of the 1854 Kansas-Nebraska Act. The Election of 1860 and Disunion brought both men together in a common cause: preserving the Union.

The Northern Candidates in 1860

“Honest Abe” was nominated by the Republicans, meeting in Chicago, on the third ballot, defeating the clear front-runner, New York’s William Henry Seward. The other potential nominees included Edward Bates of Missouri, Simeon Cameron of Pennsylvania, and Salmon Chase of Ohio. Each of these men would serve in the Cabinet. Lincoln won every Northern state except Missouri and New Jersey, gathering 180 electoral votes.

The “Little Giant” represented the hopes of Northern Democrats after the party split during the Charleston convention. Southern factions supported either John C. Breckinridge or John Bell, who’s Constitutional Union Party was pro-Union and rejected outright secession. Douglas received 12 electoral votes, the lowest number of any candidate. Although disappointed and bitter, Douglas, while in New Orleans shortly after the election, declared that “the mere election of any man to the Presidency does not of itself furnish just cause for dissolving the Union.”

The Coming Disunion of the Republic

Historian Page Smith comments on a “remarkable exchange of letters…” a month after the election between Lincoln and Douglas. Lincoln urged Senator Douglas to allay Southern fears, pointing out that neither he nor the Republican Party desired to end slavery in the South. Part of Douglas’ reply suggested that Lincoln make some gesture to the South addressing the contention that Southern slavery was morally wrong.

Lincoln made no public statements, however, deferring to the sitting President, James Buchanan. But Buchanan was no Andrew Jackson – the fiery hero of New Orleans who, as President, threatened to send federal troops to enforce the tariff during the nullification crisis. Buchanan was linked to the South and had done his best to sabotage the party nomination of Stephen Douglas. When South Carolina left the Union in December 1860, Buchanan remained aloof.

Douglas Supports Lincoln after Secession

Douglas recorded that on the evening of April 14, 1861, he called on President Lincoln: “…while Mr. D was unalterably opposed to the administration on all its political issues, he was prepared to sustain the President in the exercise of all his constitutional functions to preserve the Union…” Fifteen days later, Douglas wrote to Lincoln from Illinois that “unanimity in the support of the government and the Union” characterized the Illinois citizenry. There had been some concern that Southern Illinois might side against Lincoln.

Lincoln and Douglas at the Inauguration

One of the most interesting and perhaps endearing moments between the two adversaries occurred at Lincoln’s Inauguration on March 4, 1861. Preparing to take the oath of office, Lincoln removed his hat, holding it out to the assembled dignitaries so that he could place his hand on the Bible. Stephen Douglas jumped up and offered to hold his hat. The spontaneous gesture reflected, according to historians, the respect Douglas had for Lincoln as a person – not just the high office.

The anecdote was questioned for decades although mentioned in memoirs written long after the fact, such as Carl Schurz’s recollections. But in 1959, Historian Allan Nevins, then at Columbia University, verified the story from an original source found in a March 11, 1861 item in the Cincinnati Commercial newspaper. His findings appeared in the February 1959 American Heritage Magazine.

Opposing Viewpoints and a Common Cause

They debated across the state of Illinois for the U.S. Senate seat in what became known as the Lincoln-Douglas Debates. In 1860 they opposed each other for the Presidency, Douglas chastened by a man who was self-taught and had spent less than six months in formal schooling. But both men fought together to preserve the Union, putting principle above personal feeling.


  1. Robert W. Johannsen, Editor, The Letters of Stephen A Douglas (University of Illinois Press, 1961)
  2. Allen Nevins, “He Did Hold Lincoln’s Hat,” American Heritage (February 1959, Volume 10, Issue 2)
  3. Stephen B. Oates, The Approaching Fury (Harper/Collins, 1997)
  4. Page Smith, The Nation Comes of Age: A People’s History of the Ante-Bellum Years (McGraw-Hill Book Company, 1981)