Following on from the recent post about the various arguments surrounding slavery in the 1850s, it was logical to follow on with the next crucial step in the outbreak of the American Civil War: that of the 1860 presidential election. This election exposed the fragile political alignments that had been prodded and tested throughout the 1850s, and fully revealed a nation that was divided and at odds with itself. The winner of the election – Abraham Lincoln – attempted to keep the Union in tact, but his very elevation to the White House led to the secession of the Southern states and the establishment a rival American nation: the Confederacy.
As well as being its most important one, it is also one of its oddest in terms of the various people who were vying for power. Usual American elections boil down to two choices: generally male, generally on similar platforms, and generally seeking similar solutions. But the one in 1860 split voters and offered various possible futures. For a start, it wasn’t a typical two-party race: there were four candidates in for the running. The reasons for this fragmentation can be traced back to the 1840s-1850s and the building tension regarding the expansion of slavery to the west of the continent.
Years earlier in the late 18th century, at the time of the writing of the Constitution, the slavery issue was mostly left untouched by the founding fathers. Perhaps fear of tackling it risked the end of the Union before it had even begun, and therefore they quietly avoided the issue (as can be seen in the scant references to slavery in the Constitution itself). The likes of Jefferson hoped that slavery would slowly fade away due to the demands of a civilising society, and the importation of slaves was banned from 1808 onwards. However, rather than fade away the institution of slavery increased, aided by the impact of the industrial revolution. The famous Cotton ‘Gin led to an unforeseen boom in the production of cotton, which only increased the dependence on slaves in the South.
Along with the effects of industrialisation was the other potent factor of new land for the Union. The 1800s was the time of Manifest Destiny; Americans poured across the continent in search of cheap land and in fulfilment of the American Dream. The continual removal of native Americans, and the dramatic expansion of land following the Mexican Wars in the 1840s created new opportunities. This led to slavery being expanded across America, and rather than be stifled it boomed (with the domestic slave population expanding from under 1 million to 4 million by 1860).
This issue of westward expansion was at the forefront of politics during this period, and it led to the break-up of the so-called second party system of American politics. Prior to this the two big parties were loose alliances within the Democrats and the Whigs, however, neither were able to modernise and meet the challenges of the 1850s. New movements rose, in response to the westwards expansion and the influx of immigrants from the Old World. So, we have the Free Soil Party who wanted the west to be free of slavery (or another colour than white), the American Party (more commonly known as the ‘Know Nothings’) who were anti-immigrant, anti-Catholic, and generally xenophobic, as well as the newly founded Republican Party.
It was the last of these that were able to survive and thrive: the Republicans fielded a candidate in the 1856 presidential election and looked to the 1860 election as one of great promise. Their philosophy – of free soil and against the expansion of slavery – brought in many supporters from other movements (old Whigs, Free Soilers, abolitionists, and other modernisers). Their chief enemy was that of the Democrat Party which held the White House at the start of 1860, and which was attached to defending slavery. Republicans hailed the South’s position of power on the Union a slaveocracy, and they wanted to seize the White House in order to modernise American society and limit the South’s power. Their candidate was Abraham Lincoln, a vocal Free Soiler who had a national reputation thanks to his debates with Stephen Douglas whilst contesting the Illinois Senate seat (a contest in which Lincoln lost). He was seen as a moderate, and his own legacy – as the Great Emancipator – was a position that he gradually moved to during the Civil War itself, rather than before it.
The stage, then, was set for a bitter contest in 1860. However, as noted, the contest was not a straight-forward two horse race. The Democrats became split on nominating their own candidate: the Northern Democrats vouched for Stephen Douglas, whilst Southern Democrats backed John C. Breckinridge of Kentucky. The split was due to Douglas’ stance on slavery: he favoured popular sovereignty regarding the expansion of slavery westwards (in effect, each state would decide for themselves). This was clearly too risky an option for many Southern Democrats: they needed to preserve a balance of state equality in the Senate in order to maintain slavery. Both Douglas and Breckinridge went forward into the contest, thereby splitting the Democrats and weakening them. Furthermore, to complicate the contest even further came the rise of a fourth candidate; the short-lived Constitutional Union Party promoted John Bell as a moderate in order to heal the dividing Union.
The results of the contest are interesting to view: Lincoln didn’t win a single state in the South, but trumped the North to become President (he wasn’t even on the ticket in several Deep South states, due to its unpopularity). Therefore it was more of two contests within the wider contest: Lincoln v Douglas in the North, and Bell v Breckinridge in the South. Lincoln won less than 40% of the popular vote, and the split reveals the divisions within American society and politics at this time. The outcome of the election was Civil War. Southern states feared being ruled by the Republicans, who were viewed with suspicion as a party that wanted to abolish slavery. Despite Lincoln’s attempts to portray himself as a moderate, Southern states seceded from the Union in the early months of 1861. It set the seen for the American Civil War.
For all of this, 1860 remains the most important election in American history. There are other contenders, such as the 1800 Jefferson win, and other bitterly fought ones (such as the Bush v Gore election of 2000, or even the more recent Trump win in 2016), but none were as serious as the situation faced in the months leading up to Civil War. Lincoln was elected, the Confederacy was born, Civil War was fought, and slavery was abolished.