The Election of 1860

By the election of 1860 profound divisions existed among Americans over the future course of their country, and especially over the South’s “peculiar institution,” slavery.

During the presidency of James K. Polk (1841-1849), the United States had confirmed the annexation of Texas to the Union, negotiated a treaty with Great Britain for the Oregon territory up to the 49th parallel, and, as a result of the Mexican War, added California and New Mexico as well. The American eagle now pned the entire continent, a source of nationalistic pride to those who thought expansion was the fulfillment of both God’s will and America’s mission to spread its republican institutions.

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But national exuberance turned sour when Americans confronted the issue of whether slavery should follow the flag into the new territories. During the 1850s, different views about slavery’s expansion and its place in America’s future fueled suspicion and bitterness between northerners and southerners. In Kansas, the question of whether the territory would be opened or closed to slavery erupted in violence and political unrest.
“Bleeding Kansas,” the treatment of fugitive slaves, and other issues involving slavery strained and then shattered the nation’s two-party system which had served for a generation to weld sections and interests into two powerful national institutions. Of the two major parties, the Whig organization totally succumbed in the mid-1850s to the sectionalizing effects of the slavery issue and ceased to operate as a national party.
Like the country, the Whig party could not exist half slave and half free. Meanwhile, the Democratic party managed to remain intact throughout that decade, but slavery acted like a solvent to weaken its bonds. Increasingly, its powerful, predominantly southern wing was at odds with a smaller, northern contingent.
The campaign of 1860 accurately registered the country’s precarious condition after a decade of sectional turmoil. The leading political organization in the North was the Republican party. It was composed of former Whigs, a smaller number of ex-Democrats, as well as members of other parties, including some who had previously supported antislavery parties, such as the Liberty party, which had sought to end slavery by political means.
Like any party, the Republican party contained a broad spectrum of opinions on many issues, including slavery. But most Republicans were, like Lincoln, moderates who were positioned between the more radical and conservative elements of their party.
The key to the Republican party’s success was its position on slavery. It opposed the expansion of slavery and called upon Congress to take measures, whenever necessary, to prevent its extension. It condemned slavery as an immoral institution, a relic of “barbarism,” and most Republicans thought that by confining slavery within its present boundaries, the institution would be placed on the road to eventual extinction.
The party was, therefore, a genuine anti-slavery party, but most Republicans rejected a more radical stand that would associate them with abolitionism.
The party, for example, upheld the constitutional sanctity of slavery within the South, and a significant minority (including Lincoln) were willing to support a constitutional amendment forever guaranteeing against congressional interference with slavery in the states.
Republicans also acknowledged the legitimacy of the fugitive slave clause of the Constitution and accepted its enforcement by proper laws. Republicans, therefore, separated themselves from abolitionists who agitated for a quicker, immediate, end to slavery, and the adoption of measures, such as the emancipation of slaves in the nation’s capital, which would render slavery insecure in its present boundaries.
At the same time, moderate Republicans also distinguished themselves from the more egalitarian racial program of abolitionism. Most Republicans accepted the principles of the Declaration of Independence as assuring black people certain rights now and, perhaps also, as ultimate goals to be fully realized sometime in the future.
But they disavowed measures that would immediately bring about true equality between the races. Lincoln, who may have been somewhat more conservative than the core of his party, declared himself against equal rights in voting and officeholding, and he advocated the colonization of blacks to lands outside the United States, an idea that was anathema to abolitionists. Southerners, however, hardly distinguished between the different antislavery and racial views of the Republicans and abolitionists.
The Republican party’s opposition to the expansion of slavery, therefore, encompassed a distinctive moral protest against slavery itself, but also contained, at least for many Republicans, a racial concern that the territories be reserved primarily for free white people. In addition, the Republican mainstream associated a free labor society with economic opportunity, hard work, upward mobility, liberty, morality, and other essential elements of a true republic.
Slavery, on the other hand, was associated with economic backwardness, aristocracy, violence, illiteracy, intemperance, and immorality. Worse yet, Republicans viewed slavery as an aggressive institution, whose leaders, in alliance with sympathetic northerners, were conspiring to spread this cancer throughout the nation.
This idea of a “Slave Power Conspiracy,” which Lincoln boldly proclaimed in his “House Divided” speech to the Illinois Republican convention in June 1858, identified the party with democratic ideals and provided a shorthand expression of northern resentment against the South’s political clout. Although a minority section, the South had disproportionate influence in national politics, and frequently scuttled measures desired by many northerners, such as higher tariffs to protect manufacturing, or homestead legislation to provide free land for western settlers.
VIDEO: A House Divided (1.9 MB)
In May 1860, the Republicans gathered in Chicago for only their second national convention and nominated Lincoln as their candidate. The platform held that the “normal condition” of all territory was “freedom.” The platform also endorsed measures to encourage industry, a homestead act, and a transcontinental railroad.
VIDEO: Lincoln’s Nomination (2.1 MB)
As for the Democratic party, the corrosive effect of slavery finally made itself felt on this national institution. For years, Democrats had united behind the doctrine of popular sovereignty. Popularized by such prominent party leaders as Lewis Cass, its nominee in 1848, and Stephen A. Douglas, Illinois’s eminent and ambitious United States senator, popular sovereignty left the question– whether slavery should be permitted to expand into a territory– up to the people in the territory.
Popular sovereignty promised to keep the subject of slavery out of the hands of politicians in Washington, and to give it, instead, to the people, the territorial citizens, most directly involved. The doctrine sounded democratic, fair, and practical.
But popular sovereignty proved a hollow idea. Most northern Democrats assumed that, under this doctrine, slavery would never actually expand into territories. Climate, terrain, the swift movement of free state settlers into the West, and other considerations would discourage slaveholders from entering the territories.
Thus, the initial settlers in a territory would favor free labor and would take measures to keep slavery out. Fairly applied, popular sovereignty would hold the territories (or virtually all of them) for the North without insulting the South by explicitly excluding slavery under federal authority.
Republicans, however, denounced popular sovereignty as inadequate to prevent the spread of slavery, and morally bankrupt because it implied that a decision for slavery was morally equivalent to one against. Equally problematic was the view of most southern Democrats, who interpreted popular sovereignty to permit and even protect slavery in the territories throughout the entire territorial stage.
Southerners insisted that slaveholders had the same constitutional right as nonslaveholders to bring their property, including slaves, into the territories. Moreover, since the territories were the common property of all the states, slaveholders must have equal access. For the South, the question of whether slavery would actually go into a territory was of less moment than establishing the principle that slavery must have equal standing to free labor.
Honor and security demanded that slavery be treated as no less sacrosanct than freedom. Southerners, therefore, interpreted popular sovereignty to mean that only at the very end of the territorial stage, after slavery had been permitted to take root, could the citizens of the territory declare against the institution. There could be free states in the United States, but no free territories.
These different definitions of popular sovereignty, which actually expressed variant attitudes towards slavery itself, came to a head when the Democratic party assembled in Charleston, South Carolina, in April 1860. Southern Democrats insisted that the party endorse the idea of a federal slave code for the territories.
This would secure the rights of slaveholders to enter the territories throughout the territorial period. When the majority of delegates refused to accept the southern position, delegates from the deep South states, plus a few from the upper South, marched out of the convention. The remaining delegates, after failing to nominate a candidate, adjourned to meet again in Baltimore in June. The only political party with a truly national constituency was now split asunder.
The following June 1860, efforts to reunite the Democratic party failed, and Democrats met in two separate conventions in Baltimore. The predominantly northern wing nominated Douglas, and adopted a platform upholding popular sovereignty without mentioning a federal slave code, and leaving it to the Supreme Court to determine the specific powers of a territorial legislature. Herschel V. Johnson of Georgia was selected as Douglas’s running mate.
The southern Democratic wing nominated the present vice president of the United States, John C. Breckinridge of Kentucky, as its presidential candidate, and Joseph Lane of Oregon as his running mate. The southern Democratic platform affirmed the right of the federal government to protect the slaveholder’s equal right to settle in a territory.
Further complicating the election was the formation of a fourth political party, the Constitutional Union party. Composed of conservative members of the moribund Whig and Know Nothing parties, the Constitutional Union party denounced the major parties for inciting sectional divisions, and appealed for a popular, patriotic rallying to the cause of the Union.
Its convention, which met in May 1860, also in Baltimore, nominated John Bell, a Tennessee Whig, for President, and Edward Everett of Massachusetts for vice president. The party’s conservative appeal attracted a following, especially in the border states; throughout the South, it constituted the main opposition to the Breckinridge ticket.
The campaign of 1860 demonstrated that a national political system was no longer operating. The contest was actually two elections, one in the North and one in the South. In the North, the Lincoln and Douglas forces vied for victory; in the South the contest was between Breckinridge and Bell. The sections were insulated from each other.
Lincoln did not even appear on the ballot in most southern states, and only in a few northern states did Breckinridge muster any discernible support. In the end, Lincoln won the election by carrying seventeen free states, while Breckinridge triumphed in eleven slave states. Neither candidate captured a single state in the opposite section. Bell and Douglas trailed far behind.
The highly sectionalized nature of the campaign meant that northerners and southerners waged battle against a shadow opponent. Lincoln refused to issue public assurances to the South that he would uphold slavery in its present confines. Nor did southerners have to pay heed to the Republican party’s official denunciation of John Brown’s raid on Harper’s Ferry, Virginia.
This attack on a federal arsenal in the fall of 1859, by the Ohio abolitionist did not provoke the intended insurrection of slaves, and ended in Brown’s capture and hanging.
The raid sent shock waves through the South. Despite Republican disclaimers, southerners readily linked the party to abolitionism and the violent overthrow of slavery. Similarly, northerners, swept up in the renewed Lincoln-Douglas contest, paid insufficient heed to the intensity of anti-Union feelings in the South.
Although neither Breckinridge nor Bell threatened secession, they often challenged each other in the South as to who was the more loyal to southern rights and interests. The air was filled with frequent warnings that Lincoln’s election would justify secession.

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