Election Guide

Excerpt from a political overview in the New York Times by “Observer”, 8/6/1860:

Recent developments indicate that DOUGLAS is much stronger in the South, and particularly in Virginia and other border States, than I had supposed. I hear, indeed, that his friends in the gulf States are far more numerous than the public at a distance had been induced to believe. But whatever be the fact, one thing is clear, viz: that the power of DOUGLAS in the South, is only for evil to the Breckinridge Party, just as the power of BRECKINRIDGE in the Free States is only for evil to the Douglas Party. In the one case the Democratic feud will enure to the benefit of the Bell and Everett ticket, and in the other to that of LINCOLN. It is probably that DOUGLAS will poll more individual votes in the nation at large than his Democratic rival; but BRECKINRIDGE will carry several States, while there is nothing that amounts to a probability that DOUGLAS will receive an electoral vote. The strength of DOUGLAS in Virginia is indicated by the readiness of the Breckinridge faction to unite upon a common electoral ticket, pledged to cast the vote of the State for the candidate who could thereby be elected. Nothing but a quaking sense of weakness could so humble the negro Democracy as to suggest this compromise with a man whom they regard as a factious traitor. DOUGLAS’ strength lies in the Valley and the West. Among the F.F. V.’s of the negro-holding region his name is scarcely less odious than that of LINCOLN. The strength of DOUGLAS, therefore, only goes to the extent of enabling him to make his enemies “esteem and hate” him, as GIBBON would say, but no further. So with all the Slave States, except Missouri, where he is conceded to be stronger than his opponent; but the division of the party is so nearly equal that the plurality of votes will, in all probability, be given to BELL and EVERETT.

This is a good time to go over the complicated presidential race of 1860. There are a number of good sources for this topic, but the best is still Potter’s The Impending Crisis. McPherson gives the election some space in his The Battle Cry of Freedom. Doris Kearns Goodwin, in Team of Rivals, gives particularly thorough treatment to the maneuvering in the Republican party. Glenn Linden’s Voices from the Gathering Storm collects contemporary documents relating to the decade preceding the Civil War, including the election.

John Bell of Tennessee John Bell

It was already apparent that the Republicans and Democrats had mainly sectional appeal, and conservatives in both North and South, concerned about the danger of civil war, organized a convention to propose a compromise candidate. The convention was made up of the remnants of the old Whig party, as well as the American or “Know-Nothing” party. The new group adopted the name “Constitutional Union Party”, and met in Baltimore on May 9, where they nominated John Bell of Tennessee, a slaveowner but not a strong advocate for slavery. With his vice-presidential nominee, Edward Everett of Massachusetts, Bell represented an attempt to sidestep the issues of slavery and extension into the territories.

Democratic front-runners for the 1860 nominationProminent Democratic Candidates. Sorry, Breckinridge, you got lost in the crease there.

Meanwhile, the Democratic party was trying to nominate presidential candidates of its own, with little success. They met in Charleston, South Carolina in April for 10 days. The first problem was the platform; Southerners wanted a “slave code” — a set of laws guaranteeing Federal protection of slavery in the states and territories. Northern Democrats were steadfastly opposed. The platform adopted was the Northern version, which proposed to let the Supreme Court decide the relationship between territorial and Federal powers on the issue. Most of the deep South delegates walked out. Stephen A. Douglas, the Northern Democrats’ favored candidate, couldn’t get the required 2/3 majority of the total delegates even after 57 ballots, and the convention adjourned until June 18, when it met again in Baltimore.

Stephen A. Douglas Stephen A. Douglas

This time, the Douglas supporters had brought delegations from some of the states that had walked out before. Meanwhile, the original delegations wanted back in, and there was a rules fight over the admission of delegates. The Douglas forces won, and as a result almost all the remaining Southerners walked out. Douglas was nominated fairly easily.

John Cabell Breckinridge John C. Breckinridge

The Southern Democrats, having bolted the convention, held another of their own in Baltimore, where they nominated vice-president (and newly elected Senator from Kentucky) John Cabell Breckinridge.

Abraham LincolnAbraham Lincoln

In the midst of the Democrats’ power struggle, the Republican party met in Chicago. The Republicans had nominated John C. Fremont in 1856, and he had won 114 electoral votes, 35 short of winning. The Republicans calculated that they could win in 1860 with those votes, plus those of the new state of Minnesota, plus 34 from free states that Fremont hadn’t been able to carry. In practice, they had to have Pennsylvania and one other state on the border between North and South. Fremont, or anyone similar to him, would be too radical an abolitionist to pull this off. They needed someone more moderate. The party leaders such as William Seward and Salmon P. Chase were known widely as abolitionists, and unlikely to gain border state support. Edward Bates of Missouri was thought to be a strong challenger to Seward, as he came from the border state of Missouri and was a former slave-holder. As a former Know-Nothing, he couldn’t win support from areas with large immigrant populations, though. There was a large field of possible contenders, but one had the advantage of having the convention in his home state; Abraham Lincoln, a newcomer on the political scene. Lincoln had garnered a lot of national attention in the debates held during his unsuccessful Senate bid against Stephen A. Douglas, and as a moderate and an opponent of the Know-Nothings, he had broad appeal. Lincoln’s supporters used some skillful maneuvering, and even unauthorized promises of patronage jobs, to ensure that Lincoln would be the second choice of a large number of state delegations. He showed growing strength in the first and second ballots, while Seward held steady. By the third ballot, it was clear Lincoln could get to a majority. Four votes from the Ohio delegation switched to Lincoln, taking him over the top in a victory made all the more dramatic by the presence of loud-voiced Lincoln supporters planted in the crowd.

Thus there were four candidates for president in the 1860 election. Bell and the Constitutional Union party attempted to ignore slavery altogether. Douglas’ Northern Democrats wanted slavery in the territories to be determined by the locals, the “Popular Sovereignty” position, though the Dred Scott decision hampered them. Breckinridge’s Southern Democrats wanted a Federal slave code that would ensure slavery would be legally protected in all the territories. The Republicans, and Lincoln, wanted to exclude slavery from the territories altogether. As Potter points out, the policy choices presented to the voters were unusually clear-cut.

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