Election of 1860: Lincoln Became President at Time of Crisis

Through Shrewd Strategy, Lincoln Overcame Obscurity to Win Presidency

Portrait of Abraham Lincoln in summer of 1860
Abraham Lincoln, photographed in the summer of 1860 by Alexander Hesler. Library of Congress

The election of Abraham Lincoln in November 1860 was perhaps the most significant election in American history. It brought Lincoln to power at a time of great national crisis, as the country was coming apart over the issue of enslavement. 

The electoral win by Lincoln, the candidate of the anti-enslavement Republican Party, prompted the states of the American South to begin serious discussions about secession. In the months between Lincoln's election and his inauguration in March 1861 these states began seceding. Lincoln thus took power in a country which had already fractured.

Key Takeaways: The Election of 1860

  • The United States was in crisis, and it was inevitable that the election of 1860 would be focused on the issue of enslavement.
  • Abraham Lincoln began the year in relative obscurity, but a speech in New York City in February helped make him a credible candidate.
  • Lincoln's greatest rival for the Republican Party's nomination, William Seward, was out-maneuvered at the party's nominating convention.
  • Lincoln won the election by running against three opponents, and his victory in November prompted southern states to begin leaving the Union.

Only a year earlier Lincoln had been an obscure figure outside his own state. But he was a very capable politician, and shrewd strategy and deft moves at critical times moved him into being a leading candidate for the Republican nomination. And the remarkable circumstance of a four-way general election helped make his November victory possible.

Background to the Election of 1860

The central issue of the presidential election of 1860 was destined to be enslavement. Battles over the spread of enslavement to new territories and states had gripped the United States since the late 1840s, when the United States obtained vast tracts of land following the Mexican War.

In the 1850s the enslavement issue became extremely heated. The passage of the Fugitive Slave act as part of the Compromise of 1850 inflamed northerners. And the 1852 publication of an extraordinarily popular novel, Uncle Tom's Cabin, brought the political debates over enslavement into American living rooms.

And the passage of the of the Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854 became a turning point in Lincoln's life.

Following the passage of the controversial legislation, Abraham Lincoln, who had essentially given up on politics after one unhappy term in Congress in the late 1840s, felt compelled to return to the political arena. In his home state of Illinois, Lincoln began speaking out against the Kansas-Nebraska Act and particularly its author, Senator Stephen A. Douglas of Illinois.

When Douglas ran for reelection in 1858, Lincoln opposed him in Illinois. Douglas won that election. But the seven Lincoln-Douglas Debates they held across Illinois were mentioned in newspapers around the country, raising Lincoln’s political profile.

In late 1859, Lincoln was invited to give a speech in New York City. He crafted an address denouncing enslavement and its spread, which he delivered at the Cooper Union in Manhattan. The speech was a triumph and made Lincoln an overnight political star in New York City.

Lincoln Sought the Republican Nomination in 1860

Lincoln’s ambition to become undisputed leader of the Republicans in Illinois began to evolve into a desire to run for the Republican nomination for president. The first step was to gain the support of the Illinois delegation at the state Republican convention in Decatur in early May 1860.

Lincoln supporters, after talking to some of his relatives, located a fence Lincoln had helped build 30 years earlier. Two rails from the fence were painted with pro-Lincoln slogans and were dramatically carried into the Republican state convention. Lincoln, who was already known by the nickname “Honest Abe,” was now called the “rail candidate."

Lincoln grudgingly accepted the new nickname of "The Rail Splitter." He actually did not like being reminded of the manual labor he had performed in his youth, but at the state convention he managed to joke about splitting fence rails. And Lincoln did get the support of the Illinois delegation to the Republican National Convention.

Lincoln's Strategy Succeeded at the 1860 Republican Convention in Chicago

The Republican Party held its 1860 convention later that May in Chicago, in Lincoln’s home state. Lincoln himself did not attend. At that time it was thought unseemly for candidates to chase after political office, and so he stayed at home in Springfield, Illinois.

At the convention, the favorite for the nomination was William Seward, a senator from New York. Seward was ardently anti-enslavement, and his speeches against the institution on the floor of the U.S. Senate were widely known. At the beginning of 1860, Seward had a much higher national profile than Lincoln.

The political supporters Lincoln dispatched to the Chicago convention in May had a strategy: they assumed that if Seward could not win the nomination on the first ballot, Lincoln might gain votes on later ballots. The strategy was based on the notion that Lincoln had not offended any particular faction of the party, as some other candidates had, therefore people could come together around his candidacy.

The Lincoln plan worked. On the first ballot Seward did not have enough votes for a majority, and on the second ballot Lincoln gained a number of votes but there was still no winner. On the third ballot of the convention, Lincoln won the nomination.

Back home in Springfield, Lincoln visited the office of a local newspaper on May 18, 1860, and received the news by telegraph. He walked home to tell his wife Mary that he would be the Republican nominee for president.

The 1860 Presidential Campaign

Between the time Lincoln was nominated and the election in November, he had little to do. Members of political parties held rallies and torchlight parades, but such public displays were considered beneath the dignity of the candidates. Lincoln did appear at one rally in Springfield, Illinois in August. He was mobbed by an enthusiastic crowd and was lucky not to have been injured.

A number of other prominent Republicans traveled the country campaigning for the ticket of Lincoln and his running mate, Hannibal Hamlin, a Republican senator from Maine. William Seward, who had lost the nomination to Lincoln, embarked on a western swing of campaigning and paid a brief visit to Lincoln in Springfield.

Engraved portrait of Senator Stephen Douglas
Senator Stephen Douglas. Stock Montage/Getty Images

The Rival Candidates in 1860

In the 1860 election, the Democratic Party split into two factions. The northern Democrats nominated Lincoln’s perennial rival, Senator Stephen A. Douglas. The southern Democrats nominated John C. Breckenridge, the incumbent vice president, a pro-enslavement man from Kentucky.

Those who felt they could support neither party, mainly disaffected former Whigs and members of the Know-Nothing Party, formed the Constitutional Union Party and nominated John Bell of Tennessee.

The Election of 1860

The presidential election was held on November 6, 1860. Lincoln did very well in the northern states, and though he garnered less than 40 percent of the popular vote nationwide, he won a landslide victory in the electoral college. Even if the Democratic Party had not fractured, it is likely Lincoln still would have won due to his strength in states heavy with electoral votes.

Ominously, Lincoln did not carry any southern states.

Importance of the Election of 1860

The 1860 election proved to be one of the most momentous in American history as it came at a time of national crisis, and brought Abraham Lincoln, with his known anti-enslavement views, to the White House. Indeed, Lincoln’s trip to Washington was literally fraught with trouble, as rumors of assassination plots swirled and he had to be heavily guarded during his train trip from Illinois to Washington.

The issue of secession was being talked about even before the 1860 election, and Lincoln's election intensified the move in the South to split with the Union. And when Lincoln was inaugurated on March 4, 1861, it seemed obvious that the nation was on an inescapable path toward war. Indeed, the Civil War began the next month with the attack on Fort Sumter.

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McNamara, Robert. "Election of 1860: Lincoln Became President at Time of Crisis." ThoughtCo, Apr. 5, 2023, thoughtco.com/election-of-1860-abraham-lincoln-1773934. McNamara, Robert. (2023, April 5). Election of 1860: Lincoln Became President at Time of Crisis. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/election-of-1860-abraham-lincoln-1773934 McNamara, Robert. "Election of 1860: Lincoln Became President at Time of Crisis." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/election-of-1860-abraham-lincoln-1773934 (accessed June 10, 2023).