The Election of 1860

Lesson Content

Inquire: Why the Southern States Finally Seceded


Most Americans remember Lincoln as the president to end slavery, but was Lincoln a true abolitionist? In fact, Lincoln was willing to compromise with the slave states in the South. However, as demonstrated in his House-Divided speech, he was unflinching in his conviction about keeping the Union whole — even if it required force.

Lincoln’s conviction, John Brown’s 1859 attack on Harpers Ferry, and the 1860 election were the final straws that led to the Southern states’ secession. While tensions had been brewing for decades, Lincoln’s win in November of 1860 marked the end of compromise and conversation.

The South believed they had no choice but to secede to protect their way of life, their economy, and their “peculiar institution” of slavery. Lincoln and the North were faced with a choice: acquiesce to the South’s decision to leave or do whatever was necessary to preserve the Union. Through this, the North aimed to rid the country of slavery — even if it meant war.


Big Question

Why were John Brown’s attack on Harpers Ferry and Lincoln’s win in the 1860 election the two events that finally led the South to secede?

Watch: John Brown - Hero or Outlaw Vigilante?

Read: The Election of 1860

DecorativeDivide and Conquer

In the words of Julius Caesar, “Divida et Impera,” or divide and conquer. This classic battle strategy is based on the idea that an enemy is weaker when divided than when united. This axiom remains true when an enemy is dysfunctional and divides itself, as demonstrated by the Democratic Party in 1860 and its defeat by the Republicans. The Election of 1860 also stands as a turning point in American history since the elevation of Abraham Lincoln to the presidency inspired Southern secessionists to attempt to leave the Union.

In 1860, the Democrats were a fractured party in complete disarray. In April, the Democrats met in Charleston, South Carolina to select their presidential candidate for the upcoming election, but only turmoil and confusion ensued. Northern Democrats, who made up a majority of the delegates, felt that Illinois’ Stephen Douglas had the best chance to defeat the “black Republicans,” a slur for Republicans at the time based on their anti-slavery platform. Although Douglas was an ardent supporter of slavery, he did support popular sovereignty, allowing territories to choose not to have slavery, as evidenced in his “Freeport Doctrine,” wherein he claimed people living in territories and states could ignore the Supreme Court’s Dred Scott decision and outlaw slavery, if they so choose. His views on popular sovereignty made him a party traitor to the Southern Democrats who vowed to prevent a Northern Democrat, especially Douglas, from becoming their presidential candidate. These pro-slavery zealots insisted on a Southern Democrat.

Division continued as the Northern Democrats rejected motions and efforts by Southern Senator Jefferson Davis to protect slavery in American territories. The Northern Democratic delegates knew that supporting Davis on pro-slavery issues would be unpopular among their state’s constituents, and could easily lead to Republican victories in their states (and their own unemployment).

Southern Democrats were incensed and stormed out of the convention, allowing no candidate to be chosen. Six weeks later, the Northern Democrats chose Douglas, and while at a separate convention, the Southern Democrats nominated then Vice President John C. Breckinridge.

The Democratic Party had fractured into competing sectional factions. The Dred Scott decision and the Freeport Doctrine had left divisions among Democrats, further instigated by John Brown’s raid on Harpers Ferry, which amplified the split between Northern and Southern Democrats. By offering two candidates for president, the Democrats supplied the Republicans with an enormous advantage as a divided enemy is much weaker than a unified enemy, especially when it comes to collecting Electoral College votes.

Hoping to prevent a Republican victory, a pro-Unionist group from the border states organized a third party — the Constitutional Union Party — and put up their own candidate for president, John Bell. Though Bell was a wealthy slaveholder from Tennessee, his new party’s platform was one of moderation. The Constitutional Union Party decided that the best way out of the nation’s present difficulties was to not take a stance on the country’s most divisive issues — those that divided the North and the South. Bell pledged to end slavery agitation and preserve the Union but never fully explained how he’d accomplish this objective.

DecorativeIn contrast, the Republicans met in Chicago that May, and recognizing that the Democratic Party’s turmoil actually gave them a chance to win the election, looked to select a candidate who could carry the North and win a majority of the Electoral College. To do so, the Republicans needed someone who could win New Jersey, Illinois, Indiana, and Pennsylvania — four important states that remained uncertain. There were plenty of potential candidates, but in the end, Abraham Lincoln emerged as the best choice. Lincoln had become a symbol of the frontier, hard work, the self-made man, and the American dream. His debates with Douglas in 1858 made him a national figure and the publication of those debates in early 1860 made him even more known. After the convention’s third ballot, he had the nomination.

In a pro-Lincoln political cartoon of the time, the presidential election is presented as a baseball game. Lincoln stands on home plate as a skunk raises its tail at the other candidates. Holding his nose, Southern Democrat John Breckinridge holds a bat labeled “Slavery Extension” and declares “I guess I’d better leave for Kentucky, for I smell something strong around here, and begin to think, that we are completely skunk’d.”

With four candidates on the ballot in the November election, Lincoln garnered a mere 40 percent of the popular vote, though he won every Northern state except New Jersey. (Lincoln’s name was blocked from even appearing on many Southern states’ ballots by Southern Democrats.) This meant that 60% of American voters selected someone other than Lincoln at the polls.

DecorativeWith “winner takes it all” plurality rules, Lincoln did gain a majority in the Electoral College, with 180 electoral votes. Southerners, however, largely refused to accept the results. A group of Southerners, called Fire-Eaters, led the call for Southern secession. Starting with South Carolina, Fire-Eaters in Southern states began to withdraw formally from the United States in 1860. South Carolinian Mary Boykin Chesnut wrote a reaction to Lincoln’s win in her diary: “Now that the black radical Republicans have the power, I suppose they will Brown us all.” Her statement revealed many Southerners’ fear that with Lincoln as president, the South could expect mayhem and danger, like John Brown’s raid on Harpers Ferry.

Reflect: Electoral College - Good or Bad?


In 1860, candidate Abraham Lincoln was elected president, even though he only received 40% of the popular vote. This was not the first time in history when the Electoral College, America’s system for electing presidents by state representatives, elected a president who had not won over the majority of the country.

In 1824, no candidates received enough electoral votes. The House of Representatives picked a candidate, John Quincy Adams, who actually received fewer popular votes than his opponent, Andrew Jackson. In four other elections, the winner of the Electoral College received fewer popular votes than the person they beat — and yet they became president because of the Electoral College. In 1876, the Democratic candidate Samuel J. Tilden won a majority of the popular votes (not just a plurality) and still lost!

Two of these elections — 2000 and 2016 — remain incredibly relevant in the United States.

So, based on your own experience, knowledge, and the information you have gathered in this course, is the Electoral College good or bad for presidential elections in America?

Expand: The Lincoln Myth

Did Lincoln Want to End Slavery?

Myth: a popular belief or tradition that has grown up around something or someone; especially one embodying the ideals and institutions of a society or segment of society. 1

Are there really giant alligators in the sewer or vampires that roam the night? According to the experts, no. Yet, the truth does not stop stories such as these — myths — from being retold and relearned.

Abraham Lincoln

The persisting Lincoln Myth is that Lincoln went to war to end slavery. Many believe that his adamant, abolitionist attitude was the sole cause of the South’s secession from the Union and that he freed all the slaves with the Emancipation Proclamation.

While there were many issues instrumental in the Southern states’ decision to secede, including states’ rights and tensions that had been building for decades, slavery was the main issue facing the nation. Yet, the Emancipation Proclamation only freed the slaves in rebellious states — not Delaware, Maryland, Missouri, and Kentucky, which had stayed with the Union.

The biggest mythical aspect — that Lincoln took office with the goal of ending slavery in the U.S. — is simply not true. Lincoln’s legacy in America and his greatness as president cannot be overstated, but Lincoln was not advocating complete and sudden, or even gradual, emancipation of the slaves. Lincoln’s dialogue always stated he was open to compromises that would leave slavery in place in the South.

During his 1858 debates with Stephen Douglas, in a speech he gave in Ottawa, Illinois on August 21, Lincoln made a clear and unequivocal statement on slavery and equality of the African Americans when he stated;

“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. I have no purpose to introduce political and social equality between the white and the black races. There is a physical difference between the two, which… will probably forever forbid their living together upon the footing of perfect equality… I… am in favor of the race to which I belong having the superior position.”

DecorativeBetween the election and his inauguration, Lincoln intentionally refused to give quotes or comments to the public. He felt his position had been clearly stated in the campaign and he would not attempt to remove slavery from states where it already existed.

In his March 4, 1861 inaugural address, Lincoln presented a clear picture of his agenda and his beliefs. He promised to protect slavery where it already existed, while being fully committed to stopping its expansion. At the very beginning of the speech, Lincoln stated:

“Apprehension seems to exist among the people of the Southern States that by the accession of a Republican Administration their property and their peace and personal security are to be endangered… I do but quote from one of those speeches when I declare that–

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.” (Emphasis added.) *

He then continued to make a statement that supported a slave-owner’s right to his property, even if the slave were to escape:

The clause I now read is as plainly written in the Constitution as any other of its provisions:

No person held to service or labor in one State, under the laws thereof, escaping into another, shall in consequence of any law or regulation therein be discharged from such service or labor, but shall be delivered up on claim of the party to whom such service or labor may be due.

It is scarcely questioned that this provision was intended by those who made it for the reclaiming of what we call fugitive slaves… *

However, Lincoln was equally clear on his main platform — the Union was perpetual, the secession by the Southern states was illegal, and if military force was necessary to preserve the Union, Lincoln was prepared to fight. The message was clear to the South: return or go to war.

Lincoln believed in America, and he believed in the sanctity of the Union. While he would grow to believe slavery must be abolished, as Lincoln took the oath of office of president in March 1861, he was willing to accept the status quo to preserve the Union.

1“Myth.” Merriam-Webster, n.d. Web. 11 Mar. 2018.

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Lesson Resources

Lesson Toolbox

Additional Resources and Readings

The Election of 1860 & the Road to Disunion: Crash Course US History #18

A Crash Course video discussing the rising tensions leading to secession and the 1860 election, which was the final straw

Lincoln’s First Inaugural Address

An audio clip, by LearnOutLoud, providing a summary of the main points made in Lincoln’s First Inaugural Address

The Raid on Harpers Ferry

A video, by the Smithsonian Magazine and narrated by historians, going into greater detail on John Brown’s attack on Harpers Ferry

Tracing President Lincoln’s Thoughts On Slavery

A Fresh Air radio broadcast and accompanying article on NPR discussing Lincoln’s thoughts on slavery and dissecting the myth that Lincoln was a great abolitionist

Lesson Glossary


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  • black Republicans
    a slur for 19th-century Republicans based on their anti-slavery platform, used by Democrats
  • Constitutional Union Party
    a pro-Unionist political party, established in 1860, whose main stance was keeping the Union together by not taking a stance on issues dividing the North and South, like slavery
  • Electoral College
    America’s system for electing presidents through bodies of state representatives
  • Emancipation Proclamation
    an executive order issued by President Lincoln that freed slaves in the states that were seceding
  • Fire-Eaters
    a group of Southerners that led the call for Southern secession
  • Harpers Ferry
    a town in West Virginia and location of John Brown’s attempted major slave rebellion
  • popular sovereignty
    the principle that the authority of a state and its government is created and sustained by the consent of its people, through their elected representatives (Rule by the People), who are the source of all political power.  For example, allowing territories to choose to have or not have slavery.

License and Citations

Content License

Lesson Content:

Authored and curated by Jay Reynolds for The TEL Library.  CC BY NC SA 4.0

Video and Activity authored by the TEL Library. CC BY SA 4.0

Adapted Content:

Title: U.S. History: Rice University, OpenStax CNX. License: CC BY 4.0

Title: The Pottawatomie Creek Massacre: U.S. History Online Textbook, DOA. License: CC BY 4.0

Title: John Brown’s Raid: U.S. History Online Textbook, DOA. License: CC BY 4.0

Title: The Election of 1860: U.S. History Online Textbook, DOA. License: CC BY 4.0

Title: The Emancipation Proclamation: U.S. History Online Textbook, DOA. License: CC BY 4.0

Media Sources

DecorativeCharleston Mercury Secession Broadside, 1860Charleston MercuryWikimedia Commons Public Domain
DecorativeThe Democratic convention at Charleston, South CarolinaUnknown Wikimedia Commons Public Domain
DecorativeMaurer-1860-presidential-electionLouis Maurer Wikimedia Commons Public Domain
DecorativeLincoln InaugurationAssociated PressWikimedia Commons Public Domain
DecorativeAbraham Lincoln, 1858 T.P. Pearson, Macomb, ILWikimedia Commons Public Domain
Decorative1860 Electoral MapUnknown Wikimedia Commons Public Domain