The Presidential Election of 1860


Many factors enabled a fledgling Republican Party to capture the White House in 1860 but a chief reason may have been the division of the Democrats into three parties.

The dawning of 1860, an important presidential election year, found the nation in a mood of uncertain anxiety. Vivid memories of the John Brown raid at Harper’s Ferry a year earlier reminded everyone of a decade of growing separation that began with the raucous Senate debates on Henry Clay’s so-called “Compromise of 1850.” The newly consolidated Republican Party was keeping “Bleeding Kansas” – the fruits of Stephen Douglas’ Kansas-Nebraska Act, before the people. The Panic of 1857 and the tariff of that same year lowering certain schedules still angered many northerners, especially in Pennsylvania. And 1860 was the year South Carolina Senator James Hammond declared, “You dare not make war on cotton…cotton is king!”

The Republican Party in 1860

Although the new party fielded John C. Fremont, the western adventurer tied to the Bear Flag Republic, in 1856, the Democrats managed to put James Buchanan of Pennsylvania in the White House. During the Buchanan years, however, the Republican Party reached out to disparate northern groups, from Germans opposed to the Kansas-Nebraska Act to Know-Nothings and conservative New Englanders. By 1860 they were ready to capitalize on the one issue that bound together the coalition of ideologies: opposition to the extension of slavery into the territories acquired through the 1848 Treaty of Guadalupe-Hidalgo.

When the Republicans met in 1860, several prominent men vied for the nomination. A logical choice was New York Senator William Henry Seward, who represented the liberal wing of the party. His 1858 “irrepressible conflict” speech predicted that the nation would never be half free and half slave. Yet Abraham Lincoln, a contender, had made similar remarks with his analogy of a “house divided.”

Simeon Cameron of Pennsylvania, Edward Bates of Missouri, and Salmon Chase of Ohio were also prominent party leaders who would ultimately become part of Lincoln’s “team of rivals,” popularized by Doris Kearns Goodwin’s book. Abraham Lincoln secured the nomination, not having served in the National Legislature since the start of the Mexican War, and then only for one term.

The Divided Democrats in 1860

The selection of Charleston, SC as the Democratic National Convention did not bode well for party unity. South Carolina had always been the clarion call of secession since the Tariff of Abominations in 1828. Jefferson Davis, refusing any compromise language to the party platform, led the Southern core determined to see slavery expand and federally protected, against Stephen Douglas of Illinois who still held to his view of “popular sovereignty.”

The convention dissolved and the Democrats split into three factions. John C. Breckinridge led the secessionist Southerners; Stephen Douglas represented the Northern Democrats; John Bell of Tennessee, a former Southern Whig with pro-union sentiments, headed the newly formed Constitutional Unionist Party.

Results of the Election of 1860

Although Abraham Lincoln won the election with 180 electoral votes, it is worth noting that Douglas’ 12 electoral votes and Bell’s 39 represented pro-union votes. According to Page Smith, in Alabama – a deep South state with a large slave population, Breckinridge received 48,831 votes but the combined total for Bell and Douglas was 41,526. In Virginia, pro-union votes were 16,000 above Breckinridge’s and in Kentucky the figure was 40,000 more. Even though Lincoln’s name did not appear on Southern ballots, pro-union sentiment appeared to be strong.

Pennsylvania’s electoral votes went to Lincoln, a direct result of the 1857 tariff and a snub at the sitting president who came from the Keystone state. New Jersey’s electoral votes were split between Douglas and Lincoln, attributed to the state legislature’s desire to preserve the Union, a fact that emerged after Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation in 1863.

But the South did leave the Union, beginning with South Carolina in December. Lincoln’s victory, according to Southern editorials, would devalue slaves and result in the “underground Railroad becoming the over-ground Railroad.” 1860 began with a feeling of dread; it ended with a feeling of short-lived elation. The nation was separated, but the ensuing war would fill the nation’s graveyards.


  1. Paul F. Boller, Jr. Presidential Campaigns From George Washington to George W. Bush (Oxford University Press, 2004) see chapter 19.
  2. Stephen B. Oates, The Approaching Fury Voices of the Storm, 1820-1861 (Harper-Collins, 1997)
  3. Frederick Merk, History of the Westward Movement (Alfred A. Knopf, 1978) see chapters 41-43.
  4. Page Smith, The Nation Comes of Age: A People’s History of the Ante-Bellum Years Vol. 4 (McGraw-Hill Book Company, 1981) see chapter 63.
  5. Howard Zinn, A People’s History of the United States