Abraham Lincoln's Election at 150

By Brown, John S. | Army, November 2010 | Go to article overview

Abraham Lincoln's Election at 150


Brown, John S., Army


This month's "Historically Speaking" is the first of about a dozen "Historically Speaking" articles in the next six years recognizing the 150th anniversary of the Civil War.

November 6 marks the 150th anniversary of the election of Abraham Lincoln to be the 16th President of the United States of America. Sectional rivalries that had been brewing for generations quickly boiled over, accelerating the drift towards civil war. Although not himself a military man, President Lincoln would soon preside over the bloodiest war in American history.

American constitutional processes depend upon the give and take of political compromise to effectively govern. Political leaders have long given ground on some issues to gain ground on others - "horse trading across the aisle," as the expression goes. By 1860, political debate had collapsed into the singular issue of slavery, however, attended by the "states' rights" issue of whether or not a state could embrace slavery if it so chose. Polarization was so advanced at the time that neither faction was inclined to give the slightest ground to the other, and mutual trust had evaporated. Southern leaders were particularly keen on seeing slavery extend into nascent American territories before these were organized as states. They believed the Constitution gave - and the recent Dred Scott Supreme Court decision affirmed - this right to "property." They also feared that the Western territories, not much suited to plantation agriculture as it was practiced in the South, would opt against slavery if merely allowed to go their own way. The delicate political balance between the number of "slave" states and the number of "free" states was in peril.

The election of 1860, which attracted the highest voter turnout to that time and the second highest ever, presented stark choices. The Democratic Party split in two. Northern Democrats led by Stephen A. Douglas argued for "popular sovereignty," the right of the population of a territory to choose whether to be "slave" or "free" while becoming a state. Southern Democrats led by John C. Breckinridge insisted that slavery be allowed into territories and new states unconditionally. The Democrats' traditional opponents, the Whig Party, had already imploded over slavery and presented no candidates. The newly emerging Republican Party, led by Abraham Lincoln, stood staunchly against any extension of slavery into the territories. Only the tiny and newly formed Constitutional Union Party led by John Bell consciously sought further compromise and the middle ground. When the popular vote came in, Lincoln had 40 percent, Douglas 29 percent, Breckinridge 18 percent and Bell 13 percent. This translated into 180 electoral votes for Lincoln, 72 for Breckinridge, 39 for Bell and 12 for Douglas. The vote was almost entirely sectional, with Lincoln taking the Northern states, Breckinridge the Southern, Bell a few states in between, and Douglas Missouri and half of New Jersey. Southern leaders were shocked by the statistics of their defeat and fearful of its consequences for their way of life.

Northerners and Southerners miscalculated each other in the aftermath of the election. Relatively few Northerners thought the South would actually secede. Talk of secession had bubbled off and on for generations, and some mixture of threat and compromise had always headed it off. Indeed, Lincoln made it clear he was not threatening slavery in states where it already existed, and a proposed constitutional amendment soon circulated, guaranteeing slavery's survival in those states. Southern leaders were too suspicious of abolitionists to give this initiative much credence, however. In their view, excluding slavery from the territories was but the first step in exterminating it altogether. Northern leaders knew that most Southern whites did not own slaves and that only a privileged few truly profited from the system. Many hoped that Unionist sentiments among Southern yeoman farmers and city workers would tilt the scales against secession. …

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