Abraham Lincoln’s Path to Victory in 1860

From the lecture series: The American Civil War

By Gary Gallagher, Ph.D., University of Virginia

The campaign of 1860 was an interesting spectacle. Four men with different platforms and constituencies offered their arguments for leading the United States. Learn how the campaign—and the 1860 election results—illustrated the degree to which the North and South were divided on the nation’s future.

Abraham Lincoln's Presidency Campaign Banner
(Image: H. C. Howard/Public domain)

The election largely came down to Abraham Lincoln versus Stephen A. Douglas in the North, and John Bell versus John C. Breckinridge in the South. Lincoln and Douglas had no chance for electoral votes in the slave states; Bell and Breckinridge had no chance for electoral votes in the free states.

This is a transcript from the video series The American Civil War. Watch it now, on The Great Courses Plus.

Early on, it became clear that Lincoln could lose only if the other three candidates somehow managed to fuse their tickets and pool their support. Of course, that was impossible. The notion that defeat was almost certain brought great gloom to the Democratic efforts.

Talk of Southern Secession

The South worked itself into another state of hysteria during the campaign as rumors of slave insurrections swept across many of the Southern states.

During the campaign, nearly every leader from the Lower South said that secession might well follow a Republican win. As one person put it, “This government and Republicanism cannot live together.”

1860 Northern Democratic Party Poster.
1860 Northern Democratic Party Poster featuring Douglas and Johnson. (Image: Heritage Auctions / Currier & Ives (New York)/Public domain)

Republicans tended to discount the talk of secession because they had heard it before from South Carolina in the early 1830s, and again in the early 1850s. Many Republicans simply didn’t believe the South would do anything.

Douglas took threats of secession seriously, and he was the only candidate who campaigned throughout the United States. Douglas’ appearance, however, had little effect in the South, and when he stopped in Mobile, Alabama, the day before the election, his secretary noted, “The Senator is more hopeless than I have ever seen him before.”

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Douglas gave it his best effort but it was to no avail.

Issues of Slavery and Economics

Democratic campaigners in the South, the Breckinridge people, stressed the slavery issue to the exclusion of all others. Democrats in the North concentrated on race, outlining a range of awful things they said would happen if the Republicans won: racial amalgamation, tremendous competition for white labor by black labor. They published cartoons of black people and white people kissing each other while Lincoln and Greeley looked on, smiling. It was the most virulent, base kind of racial appeal by the Democratic Party across much of the North.

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Republicans in the upper, more abolitionist parts of the North, stressed the issue of slavery. In the lower North, they tended to focus on economic issues: the tariff in Pennsylvania, internal improvements in the Homestead Bill in the West and California.

The Democrats, the Republicans were quick to point out, had opposed these economic measures, and if the Republicans won the election, they could finally begin to enact their program, they said.

Lincoln: Labor’s Poster Child

Most abolitionists in the North, black and white, were not thrilled with the Republican platform. It didn’t go far enough to suit them. Still, the vast majority of abolitionists supported the Republican Party because, among the four choices, the Republican party was the most attuned to what the abolitionists hoped to achieve.

By the end of the campaign, there was a good deal of genuine enthusiasm across the North for Lincoln, his candidacy, and the Republican Party. Massive marches and rallies recalled to many the great “log cabin and hard cider” campaign of William Henry Harrison in 1840, where many of the trappings of modern campaigning first made their appearance on the American stage.

Abraham Lincoln (1809-1865) depicted as a frontier rail splitter in 1909 commemorative portrait
Lincoln the rail splitter. (Image: Everett Historical/Shutterstock)

The image of Lincoln the rail-splitter was perfect for those who subscribed to the free labor ideology, the notion that citizens owned their labor, and could use that labor to move up into the property-owning class. Lincoln was a poster child for free labor.

Learn more about the shifting unity among Northerners

Meanwhile, a fearful South, expecting the worst, watched the canvas unfold. A confident Republican Party in the North eagerly anticipated the day when the ballots would be cast.

The Results of the 1860 Election

The results of the 1860 election were nothing unanticipated. Abraham Lincoln won 180 electoral votes and nearly 1.9 million popular votes.

1860 Electoral College Results
(Image: AndyHogan14/Public domain)

He carried every free state except New Jersey, which he split with Stephen Douglas. Lincoln got four of the electoral votes; Douglas got three in New Jersey. In every Northern state, except California, Oregon, and New Jersey, Lincoln outpolled all of his opponents put together. His 180 electoral votes were an absolute majority. Even if all of his opponents had pooled their electoral votes, Lincoln still would have won the election of 1860 by a fairly comfortable margin.

The other three candidates won a much larger popular vote, about 2.8 million. Nearly a million more votes were cast for the other three candidates than were cast for Abraham Lincoln. Lincoln’s percentage was just under 40 percent of the popular vote, but their electoral votes only amounted to 123.

Lincoln’s greatest strength came from the upper sections of the North, the most staunchly antislavery sections of the North and in the Yankee counties of Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, and Iowa. In those parts of the North, New England, and the upper North, he polled about 60 percent of the vote. In the other parts of the free states, he barely managed a majority of the popular vote. Thus, the strongly antislavery portion of the North was the key to his victory. This meant influence for that segment of Northern society in the next Congress and within the Lincoln administration.

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Although many abolitionists had been cool toward the Republican Party during the election and before the campaign began, most of them rejoiced at the Republican victory. Charles Francis Adams, the son and grandson of United States presidents, an abolitionist himself, and a founder of the Free Soil and Republican Parties in Massachusetts, sat back and assessed the results of the campaign. He spoke for many other abolitionists when he noted that, with Lincoln’s election, the great revolution had taken place and the country had thrown off the domination of the slaveholders.

The Republicans astonishingly won. They’d only been a party for a few years, and here, in their second contest, they had elected a man president.

The great question left hanging after the votes were counted was: What next?

Common Questions About Abraham Lincoln’s Victory

Q: How was Abraham Lincoln involved in politics?

In addition to being a lawyer, Abraham Lincoln also served in the House of Representatives before becoming President.

Q: Who won the popular vote in the election of 1860?

In the election of 1860, Abraham Lincoln won 1,865,908 popular votes while John C. Breckenridge won 848,019 popular votes.

Q: Was Lincoln a member of the Democrats?

No. Lincoln was a Republican and the first Republican president. The South refused to cast a ballot for him, and so he won largely from support in the North and the West.

Q: Why was Lincoln assassinated?

John Wilkes Booth killed Lincoln as part of a conspiracy to take out the topmost officials of the U.S. Government and revive the Confederacy.

This article was updated on October 21, 2019

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