The 1860 Election – Deja Vu

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In 1860, the United States was a deeply divided country, and the divide was most evident in the split in the Democratic party. The issues were both economic and race-related, much as it is today. Southern Democrats wanted to defend and expand slavery (as did some in the North – see previous article on the proposed secession of New York City), while most northern Democrats were having none of it.

The party was so divided, it couldn’t even agree on a nominee at the first convention in Charleston. Meeting again a month later, they managed enough delegates to nominate Stephen Douglas. Douglas would not endorse slavery, but took the easy out saying the party would abide by the Supreme Court’s decision on the authority of state legislatures to decide the slavery issue.

Splintering off from the main Democratic party, the Southern Democrats nominated former Vice President John Breckinridge on a slavery platform. Still other Democrats and Whigs unhappy with Lincoln formed the Constitutional Union Party, which nominated John Bell, and promoted a law and order platform, but with maintaining the Missouri Compromise on slavery.

The race had four major candidates. The new Republican Party took a decided anti-slavery stance, stating that “the new dogma that the Constitution, of its own force, carries slavery into any or all of the territories of the United States, is a dangerous political heresy,” and

That the normal condition of all the territory of the United States is that of freedom: That, as our Republican fathers, when they had abolished slavery in all our national territory, ordained that “no persons should be deprived of life, liberty or property without due process of law,” it becomes our duty, by legislation, whenever such legislation is necessary, to maintain this provision of the Constitution against all attempts to violate it; and we deny the authority of Congress, of a territorial legislature, or of any individuals, to give legal existence to slavery in any territory of the United States.

Republican Party platform of 1860

Lincoln’s name did not even appear on the ballot in many of the Southern states, so intense was the opposition against him. He won less than forty percent of the popular vote, but took the Electoral College in a landslide, receiving 180 electoral votes, but not a single Southern state. Breckinridge garnered 72 electoral votes, followed by Bell with 39. Douglas only carried one state, Missouri, and got three additional votes from New Jersey.

In the ultimate non-acceptance of an election result, eleven southern states seceded before Lincoln’s March inauguration. In his inaugural address, he sought to soothe Southern concerns by stating:

“I have no purpose, directly or indirectly, to interfere with the institution of slavery in the States where it exists. I believe I have no lawful right to do so, and I have no inclination to do so.” – Abraham Lincoln

“I deny the right of Congress to force a slaveholding State upon an unwilling people. I deny their right to force a free State upon an unwilling people. I deny their right to force a good thing upon a people who are unwilling to receive it. The great principle is the right of every community to judge and decide for itself, whether a thing is right or wrong, whether it would be good or evil for them to adopt it; and the right of free action, the right of free thought, the right of free judgment upon the question is dearer to every true American than any other under a free government.”

Stephen Douglas

“The South considers that the Constitution gives them the right of carrying their slaves anywhere in the territories. If they are right, judges can give no power to the territorial legislature to interfere with them. The major part of the North believes that the Constitution secures no such right to the South.”

John Breckinridge

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