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Beginnings of the Civil War: 1858–1861

U.S. Presidential Election of 1860

Lincoln–Douglas Debates

In seven debates, Illinois senatorial candidates Abraham Lincoln and Stephen A. Douglas debated the national issue of slavery and its extension into the Western territories.

The Lincoln–Douglas Debates were a series of seven public debates held throughout seven of the nine Congressional Districts of the state of Illinois in 1858. Abraham Lincoln, a lawyer, and Stephen A. Douglas, a Democratic senator, debated the issue of slavery and its extension into the territories. In the late 1850s political disagreements ran deep, creating a sectional divide, a division between North and South over the question of slavery and whether to extend it to the territories. The two men differed. In Lincoln's view, slavery was ripping the nation apart, but to Douglas the problem was the controversy over the territories.

Lincoln and Douglas debated the Kansas-Nebraska Act which Douglas had sponsored into law in 1854. The Kansas-Nebraska Act repealed the solution established in the Missouri Compromise of 1820, which had prohibited slavery north of latitude 36°30'. Instead, it established the doctrine of popular sovereignty, a doctrine calling for the people living in federal territories to decide whether their territories would join the Union as free or slave states. In Kansas, the law led to a violent conflict from 1854 to 1859 that spawned the phrase "Bleeding Kansas." Douglas's doctrine of popular sovereignty had not created a common ground for proslavery and antislavery forces to reach a peaceful agreement. Lincoln and Douglas also debated the 1857 Supreme Court's controversial Dred Scott decision, a ruling claiming Dred Scott, a slave, was not entitled to his freedom even though he had lived in a free state and territory—areas prohibiting slavery.

Lincoln argued against the extension of slavery into the territories and feared a breakdown of the federal government if slavery were to persist: "I believe this government cannot endure, permanently half slave and half free." He explained issues clearly and without excessive wordiness. Douglas argued in favor of popular sovereignty and often spoke in wordy phrases. Douglas supported the Freeport Doctrine, the idea that residents of a territory could make slavery illegal if they refused to pass laws favoring slavery. Douglas's unwillingness to take a strong stance on the slavery issue created a rift between him and the Southern Democrats. However, the Illinois state legislature elected senators and Douglas won by just eight votes. Although Lincoln lost the Senate race, he won national acclaim as an articulate spokesman of principles later adopted by the Republican Party in the 1860 presidential race.

The debates had significance extending well beyond the Illinois Senate seat. They addressed issues dividing the nation into hostile camps—such as slavery and states' rights issues—and threatening the Union's very existence. Although Douglas won the Senate seat, his relationship with the Southern Democrats was strained and their power in the Senate was lost. This also caused division among the Democratic Party while boosting the newly formed Republican Party. The telegraph and the railroad guaranteed the debates a national audience. Using shorthand, stenographers took down each debate word for word. Runners would then collect the shorthand notes and catch the train to Chicago (the nearest telegraph office). The runners transcribed the shorthand on the train ride and, once in Chicago, the debates were telegraphed and published in newspapers—though often summarized or otherwise altered.
Though the seven Lincoln-Douglas debates took place in Illinois, they gained national attention due to their focus on slavery and its extension into the territories.
Credit: Shelby County (Ill.). Historical Society; Root, Robert Marshall, 1863-1937/University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign/

1860 Presidential Candidates and Platforms

In 1860 four political parties with four different platforms each ran presidential and vice-presidential candidates.

The presidential campaign for the 1860 election was contentious and crowded. Four political parties ran presidential and vice-presidential candidates and each had a different platform, a statement of principles and policies adopted by a political party. The parties had to create platforms promising to resolve a number of complex sectional issues, including slavery and the Western territories, states' rights versus federal power, and the issue of militant abolitionists. One of these militant abolitionists was John Brown, who organized a bloody, violent raid against a federal arsenal in Harpers Ferry, West Virginia, in 1859. Brown believed he was appointed by God to help put an end to slavery and had plans to build a stronghold for runaway slaves in the mountains of Virginia and Maryland. He did not incite a nationwide slave rebellion but his actions hastened the coming of the Civil War.

State delegates advocating slavery in the territories walked out of the Democratic convention held in Charleston, South Carolina, in April 1860. A reconvened convention met in Baltimore, Maryland, in June, but many Southern delegates failed to attend. Stephen A. Douglas was nominated as the Democratic presidential candidate, and former governor of Georgia, Herschel V. Johnson, as vice president. However, the platform of the Democratic Party, a long-standing proslavery party based in the South, did not address the issue of slavery in the territories.

Consequently, Democratic proslavery leaders formed the Southern Democratic Party, an offshoot of the Democratic Party that advocated for slavery in the territories. It nominated John C. Breckinridge of Kentucky who was vice president of the United States at the time. His running mate was Oregon Senator Joseph Lane.

The Republican Party was a mostly antislavery party that had partly evolved in the 1850s from the Whig Party—which had itself formed for the 1834 election out of the National Republican Party and conservative political opponents of the Democratic-Republicans. The Republicans held their convention in Chicago in May. Most party members were opposed to slavery in the territories. Abraham Lincoln, famous because of the Lincoln–Douglas debates, was nominated on the third ballot. His running mate was Maine Senator Hannibal Hamlin. Lincoln pushed for a moderate party platform in order to preserve the Union. The platform did not advocate restricting slavery in states where slavery was already established, but it did stand for the prohibition of the expansion of slavery into the western territories.

A group of former Whigs formed the Constitutional Union Party, which sought to resolve sectional differences by emphasizing the importance of upholding the Constitution. Nominees were Tennessee Senator John Bell and his running mate, Edward Everett, a former Massachusetts congressional representative. The party platform did not address the slavery issue.

Because of the number of parties vying to put their candidates in office, voters had a wide variety of choices in this contentious election.
The candidates in the 1860 election reflected the sectionalism of the period. In this political cartoon, titled "Dividing the National Map," Lincoln and Douglas fight over the Western states, John Breckinridge rips the South out of the map, and John Bell tries to glue the Northeast together.
Credit: Courtesy of the Library of Congress, LC-DIG-ppmsca-33122

Outcome of the 1860 Presidential Election

Abraham Lincoln won a majority of the total number of electoral votes and the national popular vote in the presidential election of 1860.

Because of strong political differences in America in 1860, sectional divisions determined the election. Voter turnout was high and over 4.6 million white men (only white men could vote) voted in the election. Lincoln and Douglas dominated in the North. Breckinridge and Bell fought in the South. Ultimately, Lincoln won the election by garnering 40 percent of the national popular vote. More importantly, he won a majority of the total votes in the electoral college.

Established by the Constitution, the electoral college is the federal election system for selecting a president and vice president. Each state selects a number of electors equal to the number of their congressional representatives (two senators plus the number of House of Representatives for the state). These electors each vote for a candidate. A candidate must win a majority of the total votes in the electoral college to be elected president. In practice, most of the electors vote for the candidate who won the popular vote in their state. But if a candidate wins in states with large populations and wins many electors in the electoral college, this candidate is usually elected president—even if he did not win the majority of the national popular vote.

Lincoln won big in the populous Northern states. He won the popular vote and all the Northern electoral college votes except for New Jersey, which split its vote between Lincoln and Douglas. Lincoln did not win in any Southern state.

Douglas won almost 30 percent of the popular vote, but he only won a majority of the popular vote in two states—Missouri and New Jersey—thereby winning their 12 electoral votes. Breckinridge won 18 percent of the national popular vote and 72 electoral votes. He won the Southern states as well as the Northern states of Maryland and Delaware. Bell won 12.6 percent of the national popular vote. He also won 39 electoral votes thanks to the support of Kentucky, Tennessee, and Virginia.

Historians consider the election of 1860 a critical election in the United States because of its impact on party loyalties. After this election, the Republican and Democratic Parties dominated American politics. They appealed to the widest voter base and the broadest interests. In some cases they differ very little, especially on foreign-policy issues. The Republican Party and Democratic Party became the major parties in what is still today a mostly two-party system, a political system consisting of two major parties usually equal in strength, and one of which wins a majority in an election.

Outcome of the 1860 Presidential Election

Political Party Presidential Nominee VP Nominee Electoral College Votes Won National Popular Vote Percentage of National Popular
Republican Abraham Lincoln Hannibal Hamlin 180 1,866,452 almost 40%
Southern Democratic John C. Breckinridge Joseph Lane 72 847,953 18%
Constitutional Union John Bell Edward Everett 39 590,901 12.6%
Democratic Stephen A. Douglas Herschel Johnson 12 1,380,202 almost 30%

1860 Electoral Map

The election of 1860 was dominated by the Republican and Southern Democratic parties.