The Presidential Election of 1860

By Michael F. Holt, Ph.D.

The presidential election of 1860 featured a four-way race that vividly illustrated the sectional tensions that were tearing the nation apart, and its outcome would detonate the consummation of that sectional split. Democrats, meeting in April at Charleston, South Carolina, were the first to attempt to choose a candidate. But that convention immediately polarized along sectional lines over the candidate and the platform. Northerners, who had a majority of delegates, favored the nomination of Stephen A. Douglas on a platform that repeated the pledge of Democrats' 1856 platform to popular sovereignty, with a modification to take account of the Dred Scott decision. Southerners and a few Northerners loyal to President James Buchanan, who had split with Douglas over the Lecompton constitution, were determined to prevent Douglas's nomination and to secure a platform committed to the enactment of a federal slave code protecting slavery in all federal territories. When the northern Douglasites rejected the Southerners' preferred platform, they bolted the convention, leaving it with an insufficient number of delegates to nominate Douglas. Thus Democrats had to reconvene two later conventions, one at Baltimore and one at Richmond. At Baltimore, Southerners again bolted, and the remaining Northerners then nominated Douglas. The southern bolters then named Vice President John C. Breckinridge as their candidate, a decision that was ratified by the Southerners at Richmond. Some southern Democrats would support Douglas in the race while a few Buchanan loyalists in the North would back Breckinridge, but essentially the Democrats had one candidate in the North and another in the South.