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Election of 1860
The History Cat Classroom
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Thinking Questions

King Lincoln: The Unpopular

Quick! Create a mental checklist of the greatest presidents in U.S. History and we guarantee that Abraham Lincoln is on it. Recorded into historical memory as “Honest Abe”; his face is on the currency, several cities named in his honor, he’s one of only four presidents to have his visage carved into the side of a freakin’ mountain, not to mention that his mascot is busy racing other presidents at Nationals’ home baseball games. If you were to look at public opinion polls taken since 1948 of popular U.S. presidents, Lincoln beats out even George Washington himself as our nation’s most beloved leader. And how could he not? The guy single-handedly united a war-torn nation and ended slavery! Except... this version of the ‘Great Emancipator’ has been completely whitewashed thanks to the passage of 130 years and humanity’s general inability to accurately remember what it had for lunch yesterday.


The real Abraham Lincoln had the bad luck of commanding a nation in its darkest hour and got unrelenting flack for doing so. Before he even had a chance to be sworn in as president, one newspaper was already slamming Lincoln’s ability to lead during a crisis this way: “His weak, wishy-washy, namby-pamby efforts, imbecile in matter, disgusting in manner, have made us the laughing stock of the whole world. The European powers will despise us because we have no better material out of which to make a President.” And the jibes just kept on coming. Southern secessionists called him a devil and took potshots at his awkward appearance by referring to him as “the baboon.” His opponents complained that he was out to destroy the Constitution while his “friends” called him weak and slow to act. In fact, Lincoln might have lost the 1864 election to one of the most incompetent generals in U.S. history---we’ll talk more about George McClellan later-- had it not been for the capture of Atlanta, giving Honest Abe a last-minute popularity boost.


The Presidential Election of 1860 was unlike any in the history of American politics, and that made southern slave owners nervous. For starters, no U.S. president had ever been elected without the support of the slave states- until now. Stephen Douglas, the candidate of the more conservative Democratic Party, was all for popular sovereignty, a policy that said 'let the states and territories decide if slavery would be allowed'. Southern plantation owners thought putting slavery to a democratic vote was too risky and called Douglas a traitor (even though he wasn’t a southerner or a slaveholder for that matter).


The brand new Republican Party was definitely much more pro-northern. The Republicans favored the abolition of slavery, the expansion of industry and railroads, and tariffs to protect northern manufactured goods- basically everything the South hated. Their man for president was an unknown backwoods lawyer from Illinois named Abraham Lincoln. Douglas and Lincoln squared off in a series of seven debates that pushed Lincoln into the White House and the nation into civil war.



The Lincoln-Douglas debates brought “the negro issue” front and center on the political stage. Lincoln stood firm in his position that slavery was immoral and that the United States could not exist half free and half slave. Ultimately the entire country would have to become all free or all slave because “a house divided against itself cannot stand.” Lincoln’s words fired up the hot-headed radicals in the South who feared that the Republicans were secretly (and some not so secretly) plotting to end slavery.


Douglas tried to discredit Lincoln by playing up white fears and racial prejudices. He gave speeches claiming that Republicans were going to stop at nothing less than full equality for blacks. In a nation where the majority believed in racial supremacy this really freaked people out. “Are you in favor of conferring upon the Negro the rights and privileges of citizenship?” Douglas painted a picture where black men would out-compete with whites for their jobs by working for lower wages. Then he sealed the deal by telling the  crowd “If you think that the Negro ought to be on a social equality with your wives and daughters, you have a perfect right to do so…”



Douglas knew well that most whites, even if they were against slavery, did not at all like the idea of racial equality. Even Lincoln- the future “Great Emancipator”- told his supporters that he did not favor giving blacks equal rights. His goal was to abolish slavery, but slowly, and in a way that wouldn’t upset the South.



Southerners were so upset by Lincoln that they didn’t believe a word “the baboon” said. In fact, ten southern states left Lincoln’s name off of the ballot entirely. However, the most staunchly conservative southerners didn’t like that 'Yankee' Stephen Douglas any better. When Douglas was named the Democratic nominee they stormed out in protest and chose their own man- Vice President John Breckenridge.


The Democrats now had two presidential candidates. The race for the Presidency has already split three ways when John Bell, a Tennessee slave-owner, threw his hat in the ring as the candidate for the brand new Constitution Party. With the Democrats divided three ways, Lincoln easily won the 1860 election with 180 Electoral College votes (out of 312).


The South Secedes

December 1860- February 1861


For the first time in U.S. history, a president had been elected without carrying a single southern state. Southerners, who were outraged and completely convinced that Lincoln planned to end slavery as soon as possible, started talking about secession from the Union. When South Carolina held a special convention a few days after the election, few people believed the measure would actually pass. Southerners had been crying ‘secession’ for the last thirty years, and no one ever cried louder than South Carolina. It must have come as a real shocker when on December 12, 1860, the votes came back unanimously in favor of breaking all ties with the rest of the country.


Most southerners saw the United States (aka the Union) was a voluntary agreement. Each state had to agree to join, so secessionists believed, why couldn’t each state leave when it wanted to? This idea of state’s rights was one of the big issues that northerners and southerners couldn't seem to agree upon either.



On January 9, 1861, Mississippi became the second state to leave the Union followed by Florida, Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana, and Texas. On February 8, 1861, delegates from each of the six seceded states met in Montgomery, Alabama and set up a new government called the Confederate States of America with a new constitution that was pretty much ditto the old one, except that the right to own slaves was now guaranteed in writing. The capital of the new CSA was established in Montgomery, Alabama and the newly ex-Mississippi Senator Jefferson Davis was selected to be the Confederacy's first Commander-in-Chief.


The secessionist hot heads might have gotten their way but not everybody was so convinced that the South would be allowed to leave without a fight. Sam Houston- the hero of the Texas Rebellion, and now its governor- had these words to say about secession. “Let me tell you what is coming. After the sacrifice of countless millions of treasure and hundreds of thousands of lives, you may win Southern independence, but I doubt it. The North is determined to preserve this union. They are not as fiery and impulsive as you are…”   Houston was forced out of his position a shortly after.

secession celebration charleston, SC
Lincoln Elected
Abraham Lincoln

Two Newspapers: Two Viewpoints

The Headline on the left is from the New York based

Harper's Weekly

The Headline below is from the Charleston Mercury.

Lincoln Tyrant
"While many Northerners supported the war against the Confederacy and opposed the enslavement of African Americans, there was a vocal minority, primarily within the Democratic Party, popularly known as “Copperheads,” who opposed the war and, especially, the suspension of habeas corpus and the Emancipation Proclamation. Copperheads believed that Lincoln was acting like a dictator by ignoring the Constitution when he issued these edicts. Abraham Africanus I depicts Lincoln making a pact with the devil to become the monarchical ruler of the United States."

And you thought modern politicians played dirty.
South Carolina Secession
A crowd in Charleston, SC celebrates when they hear the news that their state had become the first to withdraw from the Union.

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