The 1860 Presidential Election


The 1860 U.S. presidential election was one of the most contentious ever. Four candidates vied for the nation’s highest office. The underdog, Abraham Lincoln, won.

The 1860 presidential election is remarkable in that American voters had four candidates representing four different parties to choose from. The nation was on the brink of civil war, so the results of this election were critical. Three of the candidates: Stephen A. Douglas, John C. Breckenridge, and John Bell, were already nationally prominent political figures. The fourth candidate, on the other hand, was a folksy virtual unknown named Abraham Lincoln. When the final vote was counted, however, the virtual unknown was on his way to re-writing history.

A Man of the People

Abraham Lincoln, a one-time Illinois legislator and backwoods lawyer, had developed quite a following by 1860. This plain, gangly man, whom supporters called the Rail Splitter, had achieved popularity in his own neck of the woods for promoting his honesty and straightforwardness, as well as his humble roots. The truth of the matter was that beneath this carefully crafted image was a complex man. After delivering his now-iconic “A House Divided…” acceptance speech at the Illinois State Republican Convention in 1858, Lincoln was thrust into the national spotlight. Still, he was not extremely well-known outside Illinois, and he faced some stiff competition. Nevertheless, Lincoln became the Republican Party’s 1860 presidential nominee.

The Competition

Three other men– all much more famous than Lincoln– would emerge to become his competitors. The Democratic Party had become divided over the issue of slavery and split into two factions. The Northern Democrats, who opposed slavery, nominated Lincoln’s nemesis, Stephen A. Douglas. (The two men even competed for the same woman, Mary Todd, whom Lincoln ultimately married.) The Southern Democrats, who supported slavery, chose incumbent Vice President John C. Breckenridge of Kentucky for their nominee. In addition, the fledgling Constitutional Union Party nominated seasoned Tennessee legislator John Bell.

The Campaign and the Final Tally

Interestingly, Lincoln did not personally campaign very much in the months leading up to the election. This was a break from tradition, but this would be no traditional election. On Election Day, November 6, 1860, Lincoln followed the results coming into Springfield’s telegraph office. His name was not even on the ballot in many Southern states, and he and his party were hated in the South.

Even this could not stop Abe’s inevitable victory. Most of the Southern and border-state votes were divided between Bell and Breckenridge, while Lincoln won the majority of Northern votes, allowing him to handily defeat Douglas. Lincoln received 1,866,452 popular votes; Douglas received a mere 1,376,957. Lincoln also carried the Electoral College with 180 votes, compared to a mere 72 for Breckenridge, a meager 39 for Bell, and a paltry 12 for Douglas.

Lincoln then became the sixteenth President of the United States. Thus, the man who warned voters of a divided nation was chosen to become that nation’s leader during its most difficult time. For this reason, Lincoln, the underdog candidate, is now considered one of America’s greatest leaders.


  1. Various Authors. “Four-Way Brawl: The 1860 Campaign– Election, 1860,” excerpted from Abraham Lincoln: An Illustrated History of His Life and Times, p. 78. New York: TIME Books, Time, Inc., 2009.