On This Day

Abraham Lincoln, Abraham Lincoln portrait, Abraham Lincoln candidate, Abraham Lincoln 1860
Library of Congress
Abraham Lincoln, June 1860

On This Day: Abraham Lincoln Elected President

November 06, 2010 07:00 AM
by Denis Cummings
On Nov. 6, 1860, Abraham Lincoln beat three other candidates in a presidential election divided along geographical lines. By the time Lincoln was inaugurated four months later, seven Southern states had seceded from the union.

Lincoln Defeats Douglas, Breckenridge, Bell

In the mid-19th century, the United States government was divided over the issue of how slavery would expand into the Western territories. Many Southerners supported a federal slave code that would ensure the spread of slavery; many Northerners believed that slavery should not expand; moderates supported popular sovereignty, which held that each territory would decide whether it allowed slavery.

The slavery issue came to a head in the 1860 presidential election, which featured four candidates representing four distinct positions on slavery.

The Republican Party, formed in the mid-1850s by moderate members of the Whig Party, was a mostly Northern party that was united in its opposition to slavery. Heading into its national convention in Chicago, the favorite for the nomination was New York Sen. William Seward, but many in the party believed his strong anti-slavery beliefs were too radical to win a national election. They favored Abraham Lincoln, a former Illinois congressman, who was a moderate on slavery and, as a Westerner, could attract moderate voters in the Western states. Lincoln defeated Seward in a close vote.

The Democratic Party was divided between members who supported popular sovereignty (generally Northerners) and those who supported a federal slave code (generally Southerners). Angered over party opposition to the slave code, Southern delegates walked out of the April convention in Charleston, S.C., creating a split in the party.

The mostly Northern Democrats went on the nominate Illinois Sen. Stephen Douglas, while the Southern Democrats nominated Vice President John C. Breckenridge, a native of Kentucky.

The campaign also featured a new party, the Constitutional Union Party, which was formed by conservative members of the Whig Party and the nativist American Party (the “Know-Nothings”). The party, which sought to largely ignore the slavery issue in the hopes of keeping peace within the union, nominated Tennessee Sen. John Bell.

The election was basically divided into two separate elections. Lincoln and Douglas, who faced each other in the 1858 Illinois senatorial election, competed for votes in the North, while Breckenridge competed with Bell in the South.

The Republican strategy was to campaign almost exclusively in the North; Lincoln was included on the ballot of only one of the 11 Southern states that would later secede. The Northern states’ numerical superiority in the electoral college ensured that Lincoln would win even without Southern support. He won just under 40 percent of the popular vote, but received nearly 60 percent of the electoral vote.

Douglas attempted a nationwide speaking campaign and drew voters from all parts of the country, but he could not compete with Lincoln in the North or Breckenridge in the South. He finished second in the popular vote, receiving nearly 30 percent, but he finished last in the electoral vote, winning in only Missouri and earning part of the electoral votes in New Jersey.

Breckenridge won all of the Deep South, but fell well short of Lincoln in both the popular and electoral vote. Bell won three border states, finishing last in the popular vote, but ahead of Douglas in the electoral vote.

Reaction: The South Secedes

Many Southerners believed that Lincoln presented a threat the institution of slavery, either by preventing its expansion or even by attempting to outlaw it in the South. Further, they feared that, because a president could be elected with no Southern support, they would have little influence in the federal government.

Politicians in the South had been agitating for secession for many years over the issues of slavery and protective tariffs, and the election of Lincoln provided the incentive to do so. On Dec. 20, after attempts by Congress to create compromise amendments failed, South Carolina announced that it was seceding.

In its declaration of secession, South Carolina declared that, come Lincoln’s inauguration on March 4, “The guaranties of the Constitution will then no longer exist; the equal rights of the States will be lost. The slaveholding States will no longer have the power of self-government, or self-protection, and the Federal Government will have become their enemy.”

Six other states seceded before the inauguration, and began forming their own government, the Confederate States of America, immediately after Lincoln took office. These states believed that the Constitution guaranteed a right to dissolve the union. Lincoln, however, declared that secession was unlawful and would lead to anarchy.

On April 12, 1861, South Carolina militia opened fire on federal troops positioned at Fort Sumter, forcing them to surrender. Lincoln ordered U.S. troops to South Carolina to recapture the fort, marking the start of the Civil War.

Biography: Abraham Lincoln

Lincoln was born on Feb. 12, 1809, in Kentucky. He moved to Indiana and to Illinois, working various odd jobs and educating himself. He became a postmaster in 1833 and began to study law around the same time. He soon won a reputation for being an effective lawyer and debater—one that would only be furthered with Lincoln’s showing in the Lincoln-Douglas debates of 1858, arguing that slavery should be kept out of the new territories.

Lincoln’s term was one of the most tumultuous in the country’s history, seeing the secession of the South, the Civil War and the emancipation of slaves. Though Lincoln was unpopular for a long stretch of his presidency, he was celebrated after the Union’s victory and idolized after his death. He is today remembered as one of the greatest presidents in American history.

“Within days of his death, his life was being compared to Jesus Christ,” writes the Miller center of Public Affairs. “Lincoln was portrayed to a worshipping public as a self-made man, the liberator of the slaves, and the savior of the Union who had given his life so that others could be free. President Lincoln became Father Abraham, a near mythological hero, ‘lawgiver’ to African Americans, and a ‘Masterpiece of God’ sent to save the Union.”

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