The 1860 presidential election in the United States is possibly the most studied in American history. Divisions characterized the nomination of the candidates and campaigns due to varied views on the institution of slavery practiced mainly in the South. There were four main presidential contestants, including Abraham Lincoln of the Republican Party, John Bell of the Constitutional Union Party, the Democratic Party’s contender, Stephen Douglas, and John C. Breckinridge of the Southern Democratic Party (Mieczkowski 12).
During this period, the Democratic Party was the most dominant. However, the differences regarding the expansion of slavery led it to split into two regional factions of the party, each of them nominating its presidential contender. Indeed, the political parties at the time were in flux. Consequently, the division in the Democratic Party led to the win of the Republican candidate, although his party was relatively new in American politics. Fundamentally, the different standpoints on slavery and the desire to maintain parties’ unity inspired less aggressive and intense presidential campaigns in the 1860 election, leading to Lincoln’s victory, and ultimately, the eradication of slavery in southern states.
The Democratic and Republican parties were two major political formations in the 1860 presidential election, and they utilized different approaches to select their candidates. In this regard, Republicans held their second national conference in Chicago, Illinois, on May 16, 1860 (Shi and Tindall 51). During this meeting, they embraced a moderate stance on slavery and opposed all attempts toward its expansion. Notwithstanding, some delegates pursued the abolition of the entire institution, but they had to conform to the majority’s decision. Indeed, the Republican candidate had to abide by the Chicago resolution.
According to McClure, the two leading contestants for the party nomination were Willian Seward, New York Senator, and Abraham Lincoln (para. 6). Although the latter was not an elected representative, he was a prominent campaigner for anti-slavery legislation. Therefore, after three votes based on the Republican Party philosophy, Abraham Lincoln and his running mate, Hannibal Hamlin, won the nomination.
On its part, the Democratic Party was divided before the 1860 election. Although it was known as the party of unity, the slavery issue had led to persistent divisions. The Southern Democrats wanted to expand slavery, but the Northern Democrats disagreed (Mieczkowski 34). Another cause of disunity was the hotly debated topic of states’ civil rights. The Northern Democrats favored the Union and the establishment of a federal government, while the Southern Democrats sought the states’ independence to rule themselves. These disagreements caused confusion, which adversely affected the nomination of the party’s candidate.
Democrats engaged in party conflicts, which led to discrepancies in nominating their contender on different occasions. For instance, on April 23, 1860, Democrats had a meeting in Charleston, California, to choose their presidential contestant (McClure para. 1).
The Southern Democrats declined to support Stephen Douglas, the frontrunner, on the allegation that he would not accept a pro-slavery principle. Several delegates protested and walked out of the room, thus leaving an inadequate number of members to nominate Douglas. About two months later, Democrats also met in Baltimore, and representatives from the South left again. Fortunately, the remaining representatives attained the two-thirds requirement necessary to elect Douglas as the party presidential nominee. Equally, Southern Democrats selected John Breckinridge as their preferred candidate owing to his pro-slavery position. Consequently, the Democratic Party ended up having two presidential nominees from both the southern and northern regions.
The 1860 presidential campaigns were less intense and aggressive compared to modern-day elections. Apart from Douglas, the other presidential candidates took a passive role in campaigns, allowing famous party members and residents to talk to the voters on their behalf at parades and rallies. For example, Abraham Lincoln abandoned his law profession and decided to conduct a home-based campaign where he gave full-time directions to his teams (Shi and Tindall 63). However, Douglas led his delegation and supporters in rallies in the South and the North, hoping to unite the divided voter base. He gave several campaign speeches addressing the need to embrace the Union.
Different views on slavery and parties’ instability were two significant factors influencing the campaigns in the 1860 presidential election. For instance, the Republican Party focused on educating people on the evils of slavery and the dire need to respect and embrace human rights. Significantly, Lincoln’s speeches and political experience attracted thousands of supporters, especially those sharing a similar opinion on human rights (Rossiter 97).
The Southern Democratic Party also concentrated on a less intense campaign to maintain the unity of the South and their support for slavery expansion. On his part, Douglas, together with his Democratic Party, believed it was essential to conduct rigorous campaigns in both the South and the North to unite the fragmented voter base. Lastly, the Constitutional Union Party failed to engage in aggressive campaigning because they took no official stance on states’ rights and slavery. They mainly comprised resentful democrats, former Whigs, and unionists, and thus, their motive was to safeguard the Union and the constitution.
Additionally, the instability of political parties shaped the campaigning mode experienced during the 1860 presidential election. The Democratic Party was already divided, and thus, the two candidates from both regions focused on safeguarding their voter base (Holt 26). Douglas engaged in intense campaigns in the South because he knew his support was minimal from the region. Similarly, he was forced to lead the rallies in the northern area because it had more electoral college votes than the southern part, and the Republican Party had substantial support from the residents. Equally, Lincoln understood his party was relatively new in American politics, and he had to ensure it remained united.
As a result, he chose to stay at home and provide directions to his campaign teams to promote their harmony and cohesion rather than engage in parades and rallies. Therefore, primary Lincoln’s objective was to unite his party and use his well-known citizens and delegates to capitalize on the Democratic Party’s division to gather more popular and electoral college votes.
The election results favored Lincoln because he defeated his competitors considerably. According to Rossiter, although Lincoln received less than 40% of the popular vote, he secured 180 electoral college votes, which vastly exceeded the 72 garnered by his closest challenger, Breckenridge (36). The split of the Democratic Party prevented either of the two candidates from gaining sufficient votes to win the election. Indeed, Douglas received only 12 electoral votes compared to 72 for Breckenridge (Rossiter 36).
Consequently, the regions and parties’ campaign ideologies determined the outcome of the election. The unity of the Republican Party and teams comprising famous party members helped to outdo Douglas, who also came from the North and had almost similar ambitions as Lincoln. Moreover, Lincoln’s political experience and speeches on the tribulations of slavery played an indispensable role in strengthening his win.
The 1860 election became the most significant for two primary reasons, including shaping the country towards slavery abolition and cultivating the unity of the political parties. According to Holt, it confirmed the inherent views on states’ rights and slavery between the South and the North (127). Indeed, eleven states in the South withdrew from the Union and formed a confederate army, which led to civil war. Notwithstanding, President Lincoln refused to recognize the Confederacy’s legitimacy, leading to its cessation after suffering defeat in battle. He later focused on embracing human rights, thus shaping the country towards abolishing slavery entirely.
Importantly, the election outcome led to enduring and sharp changes in parties’ loyalty across America. The Republican and Democratic parties became major political formations in a considerably two-party system. Rossiter argues that between the 1870s and 1890s, the two parties experienced a rough balance in terms of support, although the South solidly remained democratic (47). Subsequently, the politics of the United States revolves around the Republican and Democratic ideologies present.
The 1860 presidential election significantly shaped the political and social spheres of American history. The divisions in the Democratic Party led to the rise of a newly formed political party under the leadership of President Lincoln. The defeat served as an excellent lesson for Americans that unity is power. Since then, representatives decided to strengthen the two political parties and focus on specific philosophies.
As a result, President Lincoln continued his fight against slavery, thus leading to a considerable achievement in embracing human rights and uniting the country. Although some states are currently solidly democratic, the Republican Party has been an essential instrument in American politics. The aftermaths of the 1860 election campaigns demonstrated the dire need to remain united and focus on promoting democracy. Irrefutably, the 1860 presidential election will always be a critical element of American history because the two-party political system, mature democracy, and party loyalties witnessed in the United States’ politics today originate from it.
Holt, Michael Fitzgibbon. The Election of 1860: A Campaign Fraught with Consequences. University Press of Kansas, 2017.
McClure, John M. “United States Presidential Election of 1860”. Encyclopediavirginia. Web.
Mieczkowski, Yanek. The Routledge Historical Atlas of Presidential Elections. 2nd ed., Routledge, 2020.
Rossiter, Clinton. Parties and Politics in America. 1st ed., Cornell University Press, 2018.
Shi, David E., and George Brown Tindall. America: A Narrative History. 10th ed., WW Norton & Company, 2016.