Campaign of 1860

by Drew E. VandeCreek, PhD.


On May 10, 1860, a united Illinois Republican Party chose Abraham Lincoln as its presidential candidate, dubbing him the "Rail Splitter," a nickname that harkened to Lincoln's humble frontier origins. The Republican National Convention subsequently turned to Lincoln after the supporters of William H. Seward of New York, Simon Cameron of Pennsylvania and Edward Bates of Missouri failed to resolve their differences at the party's Chicago convention.

The Democratic Party split into northern and southern wings, and each faction chose its own presidential candidate, Stephen A. Douglas for the northerners andJohn C. Breckinridge of Kentucky for the southrons. A third party candidate, John Bell, emerged to represent conservatives, mostly former Whigs, who were dissatisfied with the other parties.

The campaign of 1860 proved to be the most spectacular of the century. The deepening sectional crisis dominated public debate. Four candidates brought their diverse appeals to the voting public, yet none managed to forge a broad coalition from a badly fractured electorate.

Lincoln focused his campaign on the northern and western states, and rightly considered himself persona non grata in the slaveholding South. Breckinridgesimilarly built upon a strong base in the southern states, but was widely reviled in the North. Bell spoke for his core constituency of aging Whigs and other conservatives who believed the sectional crisis would go away if they merely ignored it. Douglas meanwhile exhausted himself by taking the unprecedented step of delivering campaign addresses on his own behalf. In this era candidates themselves maintained a dignified silence while party stump speakers delivered their message to the voters on the local level.

Douglas toured both the North (where he was a popular candidate) and the South (where fevered southern-rights advocates increasingly viewed his doctrine of popular sovereignty as a betrayal of their demands). Vainly Douglas argued that he was the only national candidate and the candidate able to avoid disunion.

Both Breckinridge and Douglas Democrats mounted a withering attack on the Republican Party's perceived advocacy of African-American social and political equality. One Democratic newspaper argued that if Lincoln was elected "hundreds of thousands" of fugitive slaves would immediately "emigrate to their friends - the Republicans - (in the) North, and be placed by them side by side in competition with white men." Other attacks employed graphic racial slurs to cow northern voters. Many Republicans found these sorts of attacks compelling, and local Republican organizations across the North often downplayed slavery as a moral issue and returned to attacks upon the familiar "slave power."

The antebellum political system's participatory pageantry reached its apex with the campaign of 1860. Close electoral competition obliged the parties to rely upon high voter turnout to secure elections. In an era before mass media politics, the parties relied upon stump speakers and mass publications like campaign song books to inspire partisan picnics, parades and rallies. These events often provided the faithful with free food and drink, served to whip up party fervor, and encouraged voter turnout.

Republicans marshalled their armies of electoral activists, many of them young men organized into groups known as "Wide Awakes." Clad in oilcloths and caps, the Wide Awakes mounted a succession of torchlight parades which took Lincoln's message to the streets. Here they often met up with Democratic flying squadrons and other rivals.

When the dust settled, Lincoln was elected president with a mere thirty-nine percent of the vote. He carried no state south of the Mason-Dixon line.