OTD in History… November 6, 1860, Republican Abraham Lincoln elected president in a divided nation on verge of Civil War

By Bonnie K. Goodman, BA, MLIS

On this day in history November 6, 1860, Abraham Lincoln is elected the 16th president of the United States and the first from the recently formed Republican Party. Lincoln’s victory against Democratic nominee Stephen Douglas and former rival for the 1858 Senate seat from Illinois came as the country was splintered over the expansion of slavery in new territories and the country was on the brink of a civil war. Lincoln’s victory came only from Electoral College votes from Northern states, and only 40 percent of the popular vote. Paul F. Boller in his book Presidential Campaigns: From George Washington to George W. Bush called the 1860 presidential election, “the most momentous election in American history and a turning point in American history.” (Boller, 100, 102)

The Democratic Party divided into three over the slavery issue with U.S. senator for Illinois Stephen Douglas the nominee in the North while Southern Democrat John C. Breckinridge, Constitutional Union candidate John Bell battled it out for the Southern vote. The Southern states promised with Lincoln’s election they would secede from the Union and they started soon after his victory. By the time of his inauguration on March 4, seven southern states seceded from the Union. They would form the Confederates States of America and one year later on November 6, 1861, would elect Jefferson Davis as their first and only president.

Source: Wikipedia Commons

The top issue in the 1860 election was the expansion of slavery in the new territories and states enter the Union. The 1854 Kansas-Nebraska Act allowing the territories to decide for themselves had caused an uproar after the previous compromises that kept the issue at bay. The 1854 Act and the Supreme Court’s decision in the Dred Scott Case, which declared slavery legal in the whole country and the Congress, nor the territories, could not make decisions about it. The Supreme Court’s decision had slavery encroach on the North which mostly opposed it and did not want it expanded or allowed in their midst. The decision fired up the Republican Party and destroyed the Democrats reliance on popular sovereignty.

The Republican Party emerged in 1854 out of the sectional conflicts of the 1850s and became the main opposition to the Democratic Party whose president Franklin Pierce and James Buchanan tolerated the expansion of slavery. The Republican Party opposed any expansion of slavery to the territories but did not insist on their platform that they would hinder it in the South. In October 1859, abolition John Brown led his raid on Harpers Ferry, Virginia, was an attempt at a slave upraising that only deepened the divide between the North and South on the issue.

The Republicans created a platform that opposed the expansion of slavery, Harper’s raid, “upholding the Union.” The party held their convention in May 1860 at the Wigwam in Chicago where William H. Seward of New York was the favorite but Lincoln, an outsider to elected politics had built political ties with the founding of the party and had no political enemies was favored more. The Republicans nominated Lincoln of Illinois and Hannibal Hamlin of Maine as their ticket at the party.

The Democratic Party splintered over slavery and sectionalism, which resulted in different regional factions nominating their own candidates. The party was unable to agree on a nominee at their first convention held on April 23-May 3, 1860 in South Carolina. The party argued over the wording of the slavery plank demanding federal protection of slavery, and 50 Southern delegates walked out of the first Democratic convention, and more bolted from the second. The frontrunner was Senator Stephen A. Douglas of Illinois, who supported the 1857 Dred Scott case, nullifying the Missouri Compromise and advocated popular sovereignty allowing new states to choose whether they would be slave or free. The convention adjourned on May 3 without any decisions on the nominee. At their second convention on June 18–23, in Baltimore, Maryland, two-thirds of the delegates convened and nominated Senator Douglas for president and Herschel V. Johnson, the former governor of Georgia, for vice president.

The party platform under Douglas stated that slavery would not be allowed to spread any further, abide by the Supreme Court’s decision on the Congress and authority over expansion of slavery; promised that tariffs protecting industry would be imposed, a Homestead Act granting free farmland in the West to settlers, and the funding of a transcontinental railroad. All of these provisions were unpopular in the South.

In June, the Southern delegates convened for a convention in Richmond, Virginia, where they nominated Vice President John C. Breckenridge for President and Senator Joseph Lane of Oregon for Vice President. Their major party platform supported the expansion of slavery in the territories. Former Whigs and Know-Nothings created the Constitutional Union Party nominating former Senator John Bell of Tennessee. The party wanted to compromise to save the Union by opposing the Kansas-Nebraska Act and the Lecompton Constitution. The Constitutional Union Party mostly competed for the Southern vote against the Southern Democrats.

Douglas was the first Presidential candidate to go on the stump; at the start of his month-long tour he gave speeches and interviews they were non-partisan, but increasingly he discussed the issues. Douglas at first denied stumping, claiming he merely traveling around to visit his mother in upstate New York, attend his brother-in-law’s graduation from Harvard, and visit his father’s grave in Vermont. In October, after state elections indicated a Republican victory, Douglas decided to tour the Southern states and convince them not to secede should and when Lincoln would be elected President, saying, “Mr. Lincoln is the next President. We must try to save the Union. I will go South.” The first time a Presidential candidate’s wife accompanied her husband on the stump. Adele Douglas traveled with husband Stephen Douglas and sat on the train platform while he gave his speeches.

Lincoln did not campaign he made no speeches and the party managed the campaign. There were Republican speakers, campaign posters, leaflets, thousands of newspaper editorials from Republican papers. Watching it all from Springfield, Illinois, Lincoln’s law partner William H. Herndon reported that Lincoln was “bored — bored badly.” Lincoln, however, was involved behind the scenes as Herndon noted, “Lincoln was as vigilant as he was ambitious. There is no denying the fact that he understood the situation perfectly from the start.” (Chadwick, 18)

Bruce Chadwick in his book Lincoln for President, An Unlikely Candidate, An Audacious Strategy, and the Victory No One Saw Coming argued that Lincoln was more involved in the campaign is given credit, “Most important, though, Abraham Lincoln was a masterful politician who had spent nearly three decades building alliances with other politicians throughout his home and neighboring states. He had traded favors with dozens of party leaders. He rode his horse over the chilly back roads of many regions in the North, even strife-torn Kansas, in sunshine, rain, and snow, delivering speeches on behalf of candidates running for office. He was a superb strategist who knew how to target swing counties and towns, conduct efficient public opinion polls, and tailor campaigns in specific areas.” (Chadwick, 11)

President Buchanan and former President Pierce decided to support Southern Democratic Party nominee John Breckinridge rather than Stephen Douglas The 1860 campaign featured two main contests, in the North and South. In the North, the campaign was between Lincoln and Douglas, in the South it was between John C. Breckinridge and John Bell. Douglas, however, had a presence in Southern cities, while Breckinridge made some headway in the North, particularly Pennsylvania. Fusion tickets of non-Republicans in the North nearly cost Lincoln New York’s electoral votes and the election.

Lincoln managed to win the election without support in the South winning the popular vote and Electoral College. Douglas was Lincoln’s main competition in the North, but he only won 12 Electoral College votes Missouri and partial votes from New Jersey but came in second with nearly 30 percent of the popular vote. Coming in second after Lincoln was Breckinridge won 11 Southern states, 72 Electoral College votes, but just over 18 percent of the popular vote, while Bell garnered three states and 39 Electoral College votes.

Historian Douglas R. Egerton in his book Year of Meteors, Stephen Douglas, Abraham Lincoln, and the Election That Brought on the Civil War argued, “One of the most critical years in American history, 1860 truly was a “year of meteors.” Like the poet Walt Whitman, many Americans fearfully thought it a “year of forebodings” and potential civil war.” (Egerton, 26) Chadwick observed, “The 1860 presidential election, one of the most critical in United States history.” (11)

Even more significant than Lincoln’s election was the fourth month transition period that followed, where seven southern states seceded and formed their own government, and Lincoln was uncertain the Electoral College would even be able to vote and certify his election. According to historian Harold Holzer in his book, Lincoln President-Elect, Abraham Lincoln and the Great Secession Winter 1860–1861 “Abraham Lincoln faced obstacles, challenges, citizen apprehension, disloyalty, even threats greater than that which confronted any president-elect before or since. He said so himself rather immodestly at the time, and history has generated no convincing rebuttal since. He would somehow survive all of them and go on to preserve the country and substantially remake it by validating majority rule and eradicating the stain of human slavery.” To Holzer “Lincoln later told Congress that it — and he — could not ‘escape history.’ But every monument needs a pedestal. And Lincoln’s monumental place in American history could not have been secured without the pedestal he built as president-elect.” (Holzer, 20–21)


Boller, Paul F. Presidential Campaigns: From George Washington to George W. Bush. New York: Oxford University Press, 2004.

Ecelbarger, Gary L. The Great Comeback: How Abraham Lincoln Beat the Odds to Win the 1860 Republican Nomination. New York: Thomas Dunne Books, 2008.

Holzer, Harold. Lincoln President-Elect: Abraham Lincoln and the Great Secession Winter 1860–1861. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2008.

Troy, Gil, Arthur M. Schlesinger, and Fred L. Israel. History of American Presidential Elections, 1789–2008. New York: Facts On File, 2012.

Bonnie K. Goodman has a BA and MLIS from McGill University and has done graduate work in religion at Concordia University. She is a journalist, librarian, historian & editor, and a former Features Editor at the History News Network & reporter at Examiner.com where she covered politics, universities, religion, and news. She has a dozen years of experience in education & political journalism.

Bonnie K. Goodman BA, MLIS (McGill University) is a Professional Librarian (CBPQ) & historian. Former editor @ History News Network & reporter @ Examiner.com.