Election Day 1860

As soon as the returns were in, the burdens of the presidency weighed upon Abraham Lincoln

During the campaign, Lincoln confided he would have preferred a full term in the Senate "where there was more chance to make a reputation and less danger of losing it." (Bettmann / Corbis)
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The cannon salvo that thundered over Springfield, Illinois, at sunrise on November 6, 1860, signaled not the start of a battle, but the end of the bitter, raucous six-month-long campaign for president of the United States. Election Day was finally dawning. Lincoln probably awoke, like his neighbors, at the first cannon blast, if, that is, he had slept at all. Just a few days before, warning that "the existence of slavery is at stake," South Carolina's Charleston Mercury had called for a prompt secession convention in "each and all of the Southern states" should the "Abolitionist white man" capture the White House. That same day, a prominent New York Democrat prophesied that if Lincoln were elected, "at least Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia, Florida, and South Carolina would secede."

Yet the danger that a Lincoln victory could prove cataclysmic did little to deflate the city's celebratory mood. By the time the polls opened at 8 a.m., a journalist reported, "tranquility forsook Springfield" altogether, and "the out-door tumult" awoke "whatever sluggish spirits there might be among the populace."

Less than three weeks earlier, Lincoln had confided to a caller that he would have preferred a full term in the Senate, "where there was more chance to make reputation and less danger of losing it—than four years in the presidency." It was a startling admission. But having lost two senatorial races over the past five years, most recently to Stephen A. Douglas—one of the two Democrats he now opposed in his run for the White House—Lincoln's conflicted thoughts were understandable.

Looking at his electoral prospects coolly he had reason to expect he would prevail. In a pivotal state election two months earlier, widely seen as a harbinger of the presidential contest, Maine had elected a Republican governor with a healthy majority. Republicans had earned similarly impressive majorities in Pennsylvania, Ohio and Indiana. Lincoln finally allowed himself to believe that the "splendid victories... seem to fore-shadow the certain success of the Republican cause in November."

Complicating matters was the fact that four candidates were competing for the presidency. Earlier in the year, the sectionally riven Democratic Party had split into Northern and Southern factions, promising a dilution of its usual strength, and a new Constitutional Union Party had nominated Tennessee politician John Bell for president. Though Lincoln remained convinced that no "ticket can be elected by the People, unless it be ours," no one could be absolutely certain that any candidate would amass enough electoral votes to win the presidency outright. If none secured an absolute majority of electors, the contest would go to the House of Representatives. Anything might yet happen.

Stephen A. Douglas, the presidential standard-bearer of Northern Democrats, took care to deny that he harbored hopes for such an outcome, but privately dreamed of it. Outgoing President James Buchanan's endorsed choice, Vice President John C. Breckinridge of Kentucky, had improbably emerged as the Democratic favorite in the president's home state of Pennsylvania, where "Old Buck" still enjoyed popularity. In New York, opposition to Lincoln coalesced around Douglas. Horace Greeley, editor of the pro-Lincoln New York Tribune, exhorted the Republican faithful to allow no "call of business or pleasure, any visitation of calamity, bereavement, or moderate illness, to keep you from the polls."

Despite the lingering uncertainty, Lincoln had done next to nothing publicly, and precious little privately, to advance his own cause. Prevailing political tradition called for silence from presidential candidates. In earlier elections, nominees who had defied custom appeared desperate and invariably lost. Besides, when it came to the smoldering issue of slavery, the choice seemed clear enough. Douglas championed the idea that settlers in new Western territories were entitled to vote slavery up or down for themselves, while Breckinridge argued that slave owners could take their human property anywhere they chose. Against both stood Lincoln.

Such profound disagreement might have provided fodder for serious debate. But no such opportunities existed within the reigning political culture of mid-19th-century America, not even when the canvass involved proven debaters like Lincoln and Douglas, who had famously battled each other face to face in seven senatorial debates two years earlier. Worried that Lincoln might be tempted to resume politicking, William Cullen Bryant, editor of the pro-Republican New York Evening Post, bluntly reminded him that "the vast majority of your friends...want you to make no speeches, write no letters as a candidate, enter into no pledges, make no promises, nor even give any of those kind words which men are apt to interpret into promises." Lincoln had obliged.

He was already on record as viewing slavery as "a moral, political and social wrong" that "ought to be treated as a wrong...with the fixed idea that it must and will come to the end." These sentiments alone had proven enough to alarm Southerners. But Lincoln had never embraced immediate abolition, knowing that such a position would have isolated him from mainstream American voters and rendered him unelectable. Unalterably opposed to the extension of slavery, Lincoln remained willing to "tolerate" its survival where it already existed, believing that containment would place it "in the course of ultimate extinction." That much voters already knew.

When a worried visitor from New England nonetheless urged him, the day before the election, to "reassure the men honestly alarmed" over the prospect of his victory, Lincoln flew into a rare fury, and, as his personal secretary John George Nicolay observed, branded such men "liars and knaves." As Lincoln hotly explained: "This is the same old trick by which the South breaks down every Northern victory. Even if I were personally willing to barter away the moral principle involved in this contest, for the commercial gain of a new submission to the South, I would go to Washington without the countenance of the men who supported me and were my friends before the election; I would be as powerless as a block of buckeye wood."

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