With all of the silly talk about states seceding we have had after the last election, perhaps it is time to take a look at a past election in which the talk of secession was deadly serious. I refer, of course, to the election of 1860, the election that preceded and sparked the American Civil War. Slavery and secession were the two main issues of that Presidential campaign, and before I write any more about the campaign, I will have to give a little historical background on each of these issues.
Slavery was legal in all thirteen colonies when the Declaration of Independence was adopted by the Continental Congress in 1776. Slavery was rather rare in the northernmost states, such as New Hampshire and Massachusetts and much more common in the southern states where the climate and land permitted large-scale plantations. Nevertheless, slavery was not a sectional issue at that time.
During and after the War of Independence, it seemed obvious to many that the institution of slavery was incompatible with the ideals of liberty expressed in the Declaration and a movement to end slavery developed. In the northern states, slavery was largely abolished by the beginning of the nineteenth century, although because the larger states legislated gradual emancipation, there were still a few slaves in bondage as late as 1830. More importantly for the future of the new nation, slavery was prohibited in the Northwest Territory was the Northwestern Ordinance of 1787.
The founding fathers who held slaves had somewhat ambiguous feelings about the institution. They thought it necessary, but disliked it and believed that over time it would gradually die out. This didn’t happen. The invention of the cotton gin made slavery more profitable and attitudes hardened over time. In the north a newer generation of abolitionists were no longer willing for slavery to gradually die out, especially since it was beginning to show few signs of doing so. They wanted slavery abolished immediately, or at the least prevented from expanding into the new territories. The abolitionists were never a majority in the north but they were a vocal minority and over time their numbers and stridency grew. In the south, slave holders became increasingly defensive about their “peculiar institution”, all the more so as slavery was abolished throughout the civilized world. By 1860, only Brazil and the Spanish colony of Cuba still practiced slavery. By 1860, it was becoming increasingly clear that the United States could not continue to exist as a nation in which slavery was legal in half the country and prohibited in the other half. Either the country would have to be all free, all slave, or split into two.
This brings us to secession. In the early decades of the country, it was never entirely clear whether the United States was a federation of smaller sovereign states or a nation with sovereignty shared between the central government and the states but with the federal government pre-eminent. As early as 179, John Tyler of Virginia proposed that Virginia secede over the Alien and Sedition Acts. Thomas Jefferson wanted the Kentucky and Virginia legislatures to nullify the acts. In 1814, there was a movement in New England to secede over the War of 1812. South Carolina threatened to secede over the “Tariff of Abominations” in 1828, over the admission of California as a free state in 1850, and was the first state to secede in 1860.
Now, I can get to the election of 1860. The previous election, that of 1856 had seen the end of the second party system in the United States with the break up of the Whig Party and the rise of the anti-slavery Republicans. In that election, the Democrats had won the entire south, while the Republicans won New England and a few mid-western states. In the next four years, sectional tensions grew in the United States until a division between North and South became a real possibility. Already there was a sort of miniature civil war in Kansas over whether the territory would be admitted as a free state or a slave state. The infamous Dred Scott decision in 1857 polarized opinion as did the publication of the phenomenally successful Uncle Tom’s Cabin. The 1859 raid on Harper’s Ferry by John Brown terrified the South, naturally fearful of a slave revolt led by abolitionist, while Brown’s execution made him a martyr among abolitionists.
The Democratic convention was held in Charleston South Carolina in April. The obvious candidate was Stephen Douglas from Illinois who campaigned on a popular sovereignty position on the slavery issue. This “pro-choice” position did not please the increasingly radical southern delegates who wanted an out right pro-slavery platform in which slavery would be permitted in all territories under federal protection. This, the northern delegates would not agree to, so the convention broke up.
The Democrats met again the following month in Baltimore, this time the northern and southern delegates holding separate conventions. The northern delegates selected Stephen Douglas while the southerners nominated John C. Breckinridge from Kentucky. The irony here is that if the Democrats had united behind one candidate, that candidate would almost certainly have won the election since the Republican Party was not even on the ballot in the south. By dividing their efforts between two candidates they allowed the Republicans to win.
Meanwhile, the Republican Party had its convention in Chicago. William H. Seward of New York was a favorite at the convention but he had made too many political enemies. Although he had not had an especially prominent political career previously, Abraham Lincoln was well liked and articulate. He was firm on the slavery issue but not too radical, so he was selected on the third ballot.
Then, because things were not confusing enough with three candidates, a fourth candidate jumped into the ring. There was another nominating convention in Baltimore in May. This was a group of former Whigs who were determined to keep the Union together at all costs. Calling themselves the Constitutional Union Party, they nominated John Bell, a former Speaker of the House from Tennessee.
As one might imagine, this turned out to be an exciting and tumultuous election. Stephen Douglas broke with tradition and actually went out to campaign in person, all over the country. The other candidates stayed at home and tried to look dignified and presidential but their supporters made up the difference in raucous energy. Bell’s supporters rang bells at rallies. Republicans held parades featuring rails that the great rail splitter Abraham Lincoln had personally split. Breckenridge’s people warned that a Lincoln victory would split the country. If it weren’t for the great seriousness of it all, it would have been a lot of fun.
You probably already know the result of the election of 1860. No candidate got a majority of the popular vote but Lincoln won a plurality with 1,866,452 votes or 40% of the total. Douglas was second with 1,376,957 votes or 29 %. Breckinridge got 849,781 or 18 % and Bell 588,879 or 13%. The electoral vote was more decisive. Lincoln won all of the northern states except New Jersey which was split between Lincoln and Douglas for a total of 180 electoral votes. Douglas, although second in popular votes was last in electoral votes winning only Missouri and three New Jersey votes for a total of 12. Breckinridge won all of the south except for the states of Kentucky, Tennessee, and Virginia for a total of 72 votes. Bell won those three states and 39 electoral votes.
Stephen Douglas realized that a Lincoln victory would divide the country and immediately after the election he traveled south and gave speeches upholding the Union. It was of no avail, however, and a month after the election , on December 20 1860, South Carolina seceded from the Union and America’s bloodiest war began.
- Matthew Pinsker: Was Lincoln Anti-Slavery or Pro-Union? (therecoveringpolitician.com)
- You Have the Right To Secede (lewrockwell.com)
- Is Secession a Right? David Gordon says it is (flyoverpress.wordpress.com)