The Presidential Election of 1860: The Most Important Election in American History

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Podcast Transcript

In 1860, the United States was as divided as it ever had been. The issue of slavery had been growing more and more contentious over the decades and by 1860, things were nearing a breaking point. 

The presidential election of 1860 literally would determine the future of the country, or if there would continue to even be a country. 

Learn more about the presidential election of 1860, the most important presidential election in American history, on this episode of Everything Everywhere Daily.


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I’ve done several episodes in the past about various presidential elections throughout history. These have usually been elections that were unusual in some respect. They might have been close like in 1876 or 1824; odd, like in 1800; or just had weird accounting, like in 1960. 

While those elections were unique and had interesting stories, they weren’t particularly important elections in the big scheme of things. The presidencies of John Qunicy Adams and Rutherford Hayes haven’t really reverberated through history. 

For almost every presidential election that I can personally remember, there have been people who have said it was the most important election in American history….and they are always wrong. 

Because it is near impossible to have an election that would be more important than the election of 1860. It was the election that ultimately resolved the issue of slavery in the United States and sparked a war that killed hundreds of thousands of people. 

As I mentioned in previous episodes, the first American party system fell apart in 1828 with the collapse of the Federalist party. The second party system saw the Democrats and the Whigs as the two primary parties. 

That system eventually fell apart as the issue of slavery tore apart normal political alliances. 

With the collapse of the Whig Party, a new political party was created in 1854 called the Republican Party. It was created in direct response to the Kansas-Nebraska Act which allowed slavery to expand into newly created western territories. 

The Republicans first nominated a presidential candidate in 1856, John C. Freemont of California, who lost to Democrat James Buchanan. One of the primary issues in the Republic platform in 1856 was stopping the expansion of slavery. 

Coming into 1860, there were many fractured interests and factions. There were groups that were staunchly pro-slavery, some that were strongly abolitionist, and many people who fell somewhere in between. On top of that, many of these groups existed within the same political party.

1860 had four different nominees for president who all won electoral votes representing four different political parties.  At this point in the 19th century, parties usually decided everything at their national conventions. Candidate names might have been floated before the convention, but there were no primaries. Everything was debated and resolved at the convention. 

The first convention was held by the Democrats. They were the largest, oldest, and incumbent party. The first met on April 23 in Charleston, South Carolina. 

The convention rules held that a candidate had to win ? of the ballots to win the nomination. The early favorite was Illinois Senator Stephen A. Douglas. Douglas held a position that was called the Freeport Doctrine. 

The Freeport Doctrine was Douglas’s way to thread the needle between his belief in popular sovereignty and the Supreme Court’s Dread Scott decision. He thought that a territory could just not enforce laws on slavery if they didn’t want to.

It was a position that didn’t satisfy southern Democrats. 

Douglas won a majority on the first ballot, but he didn’t the ? required to win the nomination. There were 57 ballots over 10 days, and on each one Douglas won a majority and didn’t win the nomination. 

They adjourned the convention without a nominee and agreed to reconvene in Baltimore on June 18. 

When the delegates arrived in Baltimore, many of the Southern delegates boycotted the convention and held a convention of their own. They split over the Democrat position that they would honor whatever the Supreme Court said on the issue of slavery. 

With many of the delegates gone, Douglas quickly won the nomination, and Herschel Vespasian Johnson of Georgia was selected as his running mate. 

The Southern Democrats nominated their own pro-slavery candidates at their splinter convention in Baltimore. The incumbent Vice-President John C. Breckinridge of Kentucky was their presidential candidate, and Senator Joseph Lane of Oregon was their vice-presidential candidate. 

On May 9th, the Constitutional Union Party held its convention in Baltimore. The Constitutional Union Party was created by former Whig Party members from the South who opposed secession and couldn’t bring themselves to join either the Republicans or the Democrats. 

They were basically a status quo party that didn’t want the country to break up and to honor what the constitution said about slavery. Their primary appeal was to border states. 

Their nominee for president was former senator John Bell of Tennessee, and for vice-president, Edward Everett of Massachusetts.

This was the only election that the Constitutional Union Party ever fielded a candidate. 

The last party to hold their convention was the Republicans. They convened on May 18th in Chicago. 

Going into the convention the leading candidate was Senator William  Seward of New York. However, there were several other candidates which had significant support amongst the delegates, including Governor Salmon P. Chase of Ohio, former Representative Edward Bates of Missouri, and Senator Simon Cameron of Pennsylvania, and of course former Congressman from Illinois, Abraham Lincoln. 

Going into the convention, Lincoln wasn’t even in the top 4 in consideration for the party nomination.

The Republicans were by far the most abolitionist party, although their party platform did not call for the outright abolition of slavery.

On the first ballot, Seward was not surprisingly the top vote-getter, but he didn’t have enough to get a majority. The man from Illinois was a surprising second. They were followed by Simon Cameron of Pennsylvania, Salmon P. Chase, and Edward Bates.

Seward was considered a radical and he gave speeches that indicated that he thought that war was inevitable. This scared many of the delegates and thought that it would make him toxic to too many voters.

Salmon Chase used to be a Democrat, which turned away many former Whigs.

Bates was a former member of the Know Nothing Party, which alienated many of the ethnic Germans. 

On the second ballot, Seward actually got a few more votes, but Lincoln got dramatically and almost closed the gap.

On the third ballot, Lincoln took the lead, coming within 3 votes of securing the nomination.

Finally, on the fourth ballot, support for everyone else collapsed and Lincoln was the Republican nominee for president.  The Republicans then chose Senator Hannibal Hamlin from Maine as Vice-President. This was the first major party to select a ticket without a southerner in American History. 

With four candidates in the mix, there was a lot of gamesmanship going on. To become President, you have to win a majority of votes in the Electoral College, with each state getting electoral votes equivalent to the number of members they have in congress.

If there isn’t a majority, then the election is sent to the House of Representatives where each state gets one vote. That has only happened once in history, in the election of 1824. 

The worst-case outcome for the southern slave states was a Lincoln victory. 

The majority of the electoral votes were in the northern states, so having the election sent to the house was their best option. 

Campaigning was highly contentious but mostly focused on getting out the vote. The candidates were so geographically split, and many only had hope of getting votes in certain states. 

Threats of secession grew throughout the campaign, although many people assumed that they were just threats and that no one would actually go through with it, regardless of the outcome of the election. 

Presidential campaigns at the time usually did not have candidates speaking on their own behalf. They usually had other party members speak for them, and given the difficulties of transportation back then, a single candidate couldn’t campaign that widely.

Douglas was the only candidate to campaign for himself and he was the only candidate to actively campaign in both the north and the south. 

In 1860, ballots weren’t secret and everyone wasn’t given a fresh ballot at the time of the election. Political parties would provide ballots, usually in newspapers, that people could take to the polling place. 

Getting ballots into the hands of voters was probably the biggest thing a campaign could do. 

The election was held on November 6, 1860, and at 81.2% it was the highest turnout for an election in American history up to that point, and it remains the second-highest turnout in history after the election of 1876. 

Lincoln swept all of the northern free states, save for 3 electoral votes from New Jersey, which split their votes. Lincoln got 4 and Douglas got 3. 

He handly won, ending up with 180 electoral votes, needing only 152 to win. 

Of the 11 states which would go on to leave the union, Lincoln received zero votes in 10 of them. The Republican party never even bothered to hand out ballots.

The one state where he did receive votes was Virginia. In Virginia, he didn’t get a vote in 121 of the state’s 145 counties. All of his votes in Virginia came from the area which would later break off from the state to form West Virginia.

Outside of Douglas’s 3 electoral votes from New Jersey, the only state he won was Missouri. 

Bell, from the Constitutional Union Pary, won Virginia, Tennessee, and Kentucky. 

Everything else, including Delaware and Maryland which stayed in the Union, went for Breckenridge and the Southern Democrats. 

One concern going into the election was that the anti-Republican vote was going to be split amongst three candidates. In the end, it wouldn’t have mattered. Assuming they all had been grouped together, Lincoln would have only lost the then sparsely populated Oregon and California, which had a total of 7 electoral votes. 

Because of the four-way race, Lincoln received only 39.7% of the popular vote, the second-lowest winning amount in history behind only John Quincy Adams. 

The election of Lincoln was the worst-case scenario for the southern states come true. As it turned out, the threats of secession by the southern states weren’t threats.

Just six weeks after the election, on December 20th, South Carolina formally left the union. Over the next six weeks, six more states would leave: Mississippi, Florida, Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana, and Texas.

Four more would leave in the months immediately after Lincoln’s inauguration on March 4, 1861. Just one month after Lincoln took office, The Battle of Fort Sumter took place which formally began the Civil War.

The other candidates were mostly forgotten to history after the election. 

Stephen Douglas died in June 1861. Had he been elected, he would have been president for only 3 months. He remained a supporter of the Union and worked in the Senate to keep it together. 

John Bell supported the preservation of the union up through the attack on Fort Sumter, at which point he changed his alliance to the Confederacy, which shocked and disappointed his supporters, as he ran on an anti-secession platform. After this, he retired from public life and died in 1869.

John C. Breckinridge supported the Confederacy, even though his home state of Kentucky stayed in the Union. He became a major general in the Confederate Army and later was appointed the Secretary of State of the Confederate States of America. 

After the war, he fled to Cuba, and then took a boat to England, and then crossed the Atlantic again to be reunited with his family in Toronto. He eventually took up residence in Niagara, within eyesight of the United States.

He finally returned to the US in 1869 after President Andrew Johnson had issued a general amnesty to all former Confederates. Back in Kentucky, he returned to his law practice and died in 1875.

As for Abraham Lincoln, I’m sure most of you know the story, but I’ll save the events surrounding his assassination for another episode.

The election of 1860 was, at least in my mind, without any doubt and by a wide margin, the most important election in American history. It literally broke the country apart. 

If there is ever an election that is more important than the election of 1860, I don’t want to be around for it.


The associate producers of Everything Everywhere Daily are Thor Thomsen and Peter Bennett. 

Today’s review comes from listener Jeri Westerby on Apple Podcasts. They write:

Bite-sized fact snacks

This is a wonderful free gift! I like learning about things I didn’t even know I was interested in, like Benedict Arnold. The length is right for my attention-challenged brain. I feel smarter after each podcast- I’m not but it’s fun to feel that way. Thank you for making these episodes for curious minds.

Thanks, Jeri. You have discovered the secret about the show. If you don’t know what an episode will be about, those are the ones where you will learn the most. 

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