The Democratic Party began its convention
in Charleston, South Carolina, on April 23, 1860. The incumbent president, James
Buchanan, was a Democrat from Pennsylvania who had Southern sympathies but opposed
secession. Due to a largely disastrous administration, he had no interest in
reelection; still, the Democrats, and Stephen A. Douglas in particular, were
favored to win the election. Douglas was a moderate who advocated "popular
sovereignty," or the right of territories and newly admitted states to decide for
themselves the question of slavery. His challenge at the convention was to placate
the so-called fire-eaters of the party's Deep South wing—who pressed for a strong
proslavery platform and threatened secession if they did not get it—while avoiding
the appearance that these radicals held him hostage, which would have hurt his
support among Northerners. Despite fractious debate, Douglas's supporters had
nearly passed their platform by the third day.
But events turned sharply. William Lowndes Yancey, a staunch secessionist from
Alabama, addressed the convention and invoked the specter of John Brown in a
passionate rejection of "Northern violence." Yancey, along with Edmund Ruffin of Virginia and
Robert Barnwell Rhett of South Carolina, forcefully argued that John Brown's Raid
in October 1859 had revealed the North's true intention to dominate the South and
forcibly emancipate enslaved African Americans. Southern radicals called for a
federal slave code that would guarantee slaveholders' rights, and for protections
for slavery in western territories. The Douglas wing of the party realized that
such provocative tactics would alienate moderate Northern voters and drive them to
the Republicans. Douglas's supporters rejected the proposal. Fifty Southern
delegates left the convention in protest.
Virginia's Democratic delegation, while
sympathizing with the fire-eaters, still largely opposed the secessionists'
tactics. The exception was former governor Henry A. Wise, who vehemently pushed for a more
radical stance while jockeying with his rival, state senator
[Robert M. T. Hunter], for a
shot at the nomination. With Virginians edging toward more strident ground,
members of the Deep South wing of the party undoubtedly felt more comfortable
walking out of the convention, and indeed, most of the Virginia delegation
followed them. The remaining Virginians hoped for compromise; however, the damage
was done. After fifty-seven ballots, Douglas remained fifty votes short of the
two-thirds majority needed for nomination, and on May 3 the convention
"Perhaps even now, the pen of the historian is nibbed to write the story of a new
revolution," Yancey told a crowd of his supporters during a nighttime rally in
Charleston's courthouse square.
The Democrats reconvened in Baltimore, Maryland, on June 18, 1860, and again the
fire-eaters—this time numbering 110 delegates—walked out, allowing the convention
eventually to nominate Douglas. The radicals, bolstered by a cohort of Upper South
delegates, formed their own convention, also in Baltimore. This so-called
Seceder's Convention nominated the U.S. vice president, John C. Breckinridge of
Kentucky. The Virginia delegation, like the party itself, split between the
Northern and Southern factions.
The Republican Party entered its Chicago,
Illinois, convention as a decided underdog. Having fielded only one previous
presidential candidate, John C. Frémont in 1856, the party sought to corral an
unwieldy collection of former Whigs, Free Soilers—those who accepted slavery where
it already existed while opposing its expansion—and outright abolitionists. Most
Republicans were resigned to the reality of the South's "peculiar institution";
nevertheless, they faced a barrage of accusations from Democrats that their
antislavery views fomented violence. Douglas blamed Republicans for incidents like
John Brown's raid on Harpers Ferry. Fire-eaters like Ruffin called for retaliation
against abolitionists before they attacked the South again, and the magazine
editor James D. B. DeBow wrote that the North "has sanctioned and applauded theft,
murder, treason, and at the hands of our Northern Brethren, has shed Southern
Blood on Southern soil! There is—there can be no peace!"
Under the circumstances, it hardly
mattered that the Republicans and their early front-runner, U.S. senator William
H. Seward of New York, had repudiated Brown and Harpers Ferry. In the lead-up to
the convention, Seward found himself weakened by corruption scandals and a
reputation for being too radical on the question of slavery. (The radicals,
meanwhile, were unimpressed by his move to the center.) In an October 1858 speech
in Rochester, New York, he had famously called this political battle "an
irrepressible conflict between opposing and enduring forces, and it means that the
United States must and will sooner or later become either entirely a slave-holding
nation or entirely a free-labor nation." Lower North moderates heard talk of war
in those words and looked for an alternative. They found it in Abraham Lincoln of
Illinois, an articulate moderate who might also bring the West with him in an
election. On May 16, 1860, he was nominated on the third ballot.
In Virginia, Republicans enjoyed only miniscule support, largely in the western
portion of the state; indeed, Virginia's "Black Republicans" found themselves
ostracized and relentlessly attacked. The lonely but outspoken cadre held its
convention at Wheeling, Virginia (now West Virginia), in the far northwestern corner of
the state, early in May. Delegates railed against the political domination by the
"slave capitalists" of the Tidewater region. They also pointed to the disparity
wrought by tax laws that favored wealthy, slave-owning planters over middling
farmers, artisans, and urban laborers, but nonetheless stopped short of advocating
abolition. The party's devotion to unionism, however, was resolute.
Constitutional Union Party
With the Democrats deeply divided, and the
Republicans struggling to shore up their credentials as a responsible choice in
difficult times, a third party joined the fray. The Constitutional Unionists'
primary concern, as their name suggests, was the preservation of the Union. This
new, conservative party counted several prominent Virginians among its ranks,
[Alexander H. H.
Stuart], [John Minor
Botts], and [William C.
Rives]. Constitutional Unionists convened at Baltimore, on May 9, 1860,
and wrote a platform only two paragraphs long. Ignoring the slavery question
altogether, it instead emphasized "the Constitution, the Union, and the Laws." The
convention nominated John Bell, the well-respected former U.S. senator from
Tennessee who benefited from significant support in the Border States. Still, the
Constitutional Unionists faced little chance of success.
Campaign and Election
As the four candidates vied for votes, the
campaign became a bitter one. Throughout the year, tensions rose as many observers
increasingly recognized the potential for civil war should the Republicans
prevail. Lincoln, for his part, attempted to assure voters that he had no
intention of interfering with Southern slavery, even embracing colonization for
freed blacks. The Republican platform explicitly rejected "any lawless invasion …
of any state or territory." Despite Lincoln's arguments, however, the Democratic
press successfully painted him as a wild-eyed fanatic bent on Southern domination,
calling to mind the potent image of John Brown. The charges stuck; Lincoln did not
carry a single Southern state. He was not even on the ballot in Alabama, Arkansas,
Florida, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, North Carolina, Tennessee, and
In Virginia, a majority of voters supported solidly Unionist candidates, despite
the best efforts of Edmund Ruffin and Henry Wise. These two men lobbied hard for
the stridently proslavery Breckinridge, and severely attacked each of the other
candidates. Democratic governor John
Letcher, meanwhile, remained a Douglas supporter. Letcher, who took
office in January 1860, believed both that the senator was the legitimate
Democratic candidate and that he held the party's only chance for success. The
secessionists realized that the Democrats' split doomed them to failure. In fact,
many in their ranks hoped that the subsequent Republican victory would force the
slave states to move toward secession. Especially in the Border States of
Maryland, Virginia, and Kentucky, where geography and large populations made them
critical players in the politics of disunion, the 1860 election heightened
tensions. As fears continued to rise that a Lincoln victory would indeed bring
about a civil war, even Letcher followed the example of his predecessor, Henry
Wise, in stockpiling weapons and matériel for the Virginia militia.
Against this tense backdrop, Virginians
narrowly supported Constitutional Unionist John Bell with forty-four percent of
the vote. Bell received 74,481 votes, in comparison to 74,325 for Breckinridge and
16,198 for Douglas. Lincoln won fewer than 2,000 votes. Lincoln's national victory
provoked the secession crisis, just as many radical Southerners had hoped, and
moderate Virginians feared. Breckinridge's close second proved to be a harbinger
of future events. Virginia seceded a few days after
Confederate forces fired on Fort Sumter in Charleston Harbor, South Carolina, and
after Lincoln called for 75,000 volunteers.
Dew, Charles B. Apostles of Disunion: Southern Secession
Commissioners and the Causes of the Civil War. Charlottesville: University
Press of Virginia, 2001.
Finkelman, Paul, ed. His Soul Goes Marching On: Responses to
John Brown and the Harper's Ferry Raid. Charlottesville: University Press
of Virginia, 1995.
Freehling, William W. The Road to Disunion. 2 vols. New
York: Oxford University Press, 1990–2007.
Heinemann, Ronald L., John G. Kolp, Anthony S. Parent, Jr., and William G.
Shade. Old Dominion, New Commonwealth: A History of Virginia,
1607–2007. Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2007.
Lankford, Nelson. Cry Havoc! The Crooked Road to Civil War,
1861. New York: Viking, 2007.
Lowe, Richard. Republicans and Reconstruction in Virginia,
1856–70. Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1991.
Cite This EntryAPA Citation:
McClure, J. M. United States Presidential Election of 1860. (2011, April 5). In Encyclopedia Virginia. Retrieved from http://www.EncyclopediaVirginia.org/United_States_Presidential_Election_of_1860.
McClure, J. M. "United States Presidential Election of 1860." Encyclopedia Virginia. Virginia Foundation for the Humanities,
5 Apr. 2011. Web. READ_DATE.
First published: May 28, 2009 | Last modified: April 5, 2011
Contributed by John M. McClure, a graduate student in the History Department at the College of William and