The Men Who Wanted to be President 1860 to 1864

The White House

These two Presidential elections where the most momentous in American history. One election helped to cause the Civil war, the other held during it.

The two Presidential elections of 1860 and 1864 fundamentally changed the United States Presidential system.

Stephen Douglas – Northern Democrat -1860

Douglas from Illinois, was elected as a Congressman in 1843 and served two terms before becoming Senator in 1847.In 1858, he was challenged for his Senate seat by Republican Abraham Lincoln. The two men engaged in a now famous serious of debates. Douglas held onto the Senate seat, although the election set both men up for their parties Presidential nomination two years later.

He went into the convention in Charleston, South Carolina as the front-runner, but the party fell apart over slavery, delegates from the south walked out. The Northern Democrats went to Baltimore and nominated Douglas.The election was in fact two campaigns, Lincoln V Douglas in the north, and Bell V Breckinridge in the south.Douglas became the first candidate to make a nationwide campaign tour, and though he fought hard against Lincoln, because of the split nature of the election he stood little chance of winning. He was second in terms of the national popular vote with 1,376,957 votes but fourth in terms of the Electoral College winning just 12 Electoral votes, in Missouri and New Jersey. After the result, Douglas attempted everything he could do to avoid succession of the Southern States, but failed.

Douglas died less than six months after the election. He died in June 1861 from typhoid when he was 48 years old.

John C.Breckinridge – Southern Democrat – 1860

Born in Lexington, Kentucky he was a lawyer before fighting in the Mexican War of 1847-48. After the war he entered Congress in 1851 where he served for four years. In 1856 at just the age of 36 he was elected as Vice-President to James Buchanan. After four years as Vice-President, he was chosen by the Southern Democrats as their choice for President at the 1860 election, after the split of the party into regional factions. He was third in terms of the popular vote winning 849,781 votes, but second in the Electoral college winning 72 Electoral Votes.

He joined the new Confederate Army, fighting in several battles. In 1865 he became the last Confederate Secretary of War. He was charged with the escape of the Government from Richmond in April 1865. With the war lost he attempted without success to get Confederate President Jefferson Davis to stop the fighting. He accompanied Davis on his flight through the Carolina’s in May 1865, before they got separated. Although Davis was captured, he himself escaped to Cuba via Florida on a raft. He was at sea for over three weeks. He next travelled to the United Kingdom and Canada before returning to Lexington Kentucky in 1869, after being granted an amnesty. He refused to return to politics, and became President of the of a Railroad firm. He died in May 1875, he was 54 years old.

He is the youngest Vice President of the United States to be sworn into office, at 36 years old, although was only 35 when elected.

John Bell- Constitutional Union-1860

Bell was born in Tennessee, and was the last Presidential candidate to be born in 18th century. He was elected to Congress in 1826, and served until 1841. He was Speaker of the House between 1834 and 1835. He then served as Secretary of war under President’s Harrison and Tyler, before resigning. He returned to Washington as Senator for Tennessee from 1847 to 1859.

With the collapse of the Whig Party , Bell attempted to keep the party alive in another form and supported the “No-nothing” candidacy of former President Fillmore in 1856, before the Constitutional Union Party was formed and Bell chosen as the nominee. It’s sole policy was to preserve the Union at all costs. He was the main competitor to Southern Democrat John C. Breckinridge in the south. Nationally he was last in the popular vote winning 588,879 votes but third in the Electoral College winning 39 votes.

Before the outbreak of the war he worked hard to keep his state in the union, but he failed. He retired from politics, joining the board of a Furnace company in Cumberland, but the business and its works where destroyed in the war. He died in September 1869, aged 73.

George McClellan-Democrat-1864

McClellan was a career solider, entering West Point at age 16 in 1842. He served during the 1847-48 Mexican War where he made a name for himself. After the war he commanded Engineers before resigning in 1857 to become Chief Engineer of a railroad company.

At the outbreak of war, was appointed as Commander of the department of Ohio in May 1861, with the rank of Major-General.

Some minor victories in what was to become West Virginia, lead to his appointment of Commander in chief replacing Winfield Scott in November 1861. Although McClellan was a great organiser, and trainer of troops, on the battlefield he proved himself to be over cautious, and slow moving.

After falling to force home an advantage after the Battle of Antietam in September 1862, McClellan was removed from command by President Lincoln.

A life-long Democrat he was chosen by the party to face the man that had sacked him, Lincoln in the 1864 Presidential election. McClellan disagreed with the Democratic platform of peace, forcing some confusion in regards to his campaign message. During August, and September it looked likely that would beat Lincoln, but a serious of military victories by the Union Army, sealed his defeat. He carried only three states, Kentucky, Delaware and New Jersey getting 21 Electoral votes to Lincoln’s 212, although the popular vote was closer with him getting 1,802,237 votes to Lincoln’s 2,213,665 votes, a margin of 411,428 votes.

After the election he departed on a three-year trip to Europe. When he returned he kept away from politics before returning as Governor of New Jersey in 1877 where he served a single term. He died in October 1885, aged 58.


  1. Paul F. Boller, Presidential Campaigns, From George Washington to George W. Bush, Oxford University Press (2004)
  2. US Election Website