Election Day 1860- page 7 | Smithsonian
Current Issue
October 2014 magazine cover
Subscribe

Save 81% off the newsstand price!

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)

Election Day 1860

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

Smithsonian Magazine | Subscribe

(Continued from page 6)

Abraham Lincoln won election as the 16th president of the United States by carrying every Northern state save New Jersey. No candidate had ever before taken the presidency with such an exclusively regional vote. In the end, Lincoln would amass 180 electoral votes in all—comfortably more than the 152 required for an absolute majority. Lincoln could also take comfort from the fact that the rapidly growing nation awarded him more popular votes than any man who had ever run for president—1,866,452 in all, 28,000 more votes than Democrat James Buchanan had earned in winning the presidency four years earlier. But Lincoln's votes amounted to a shade under 40 percent of the total cast, second only to John Quincy Adams as the smallest share ever collected by a victor. And the national tally alone did not tell the full story.

Testifying alarmingly to the deep rift cleaving North from South, and presaging the challenges soon to face his administration, was the anemic support Lincoln garnered in the few Southern states where his name was allowed to appear on the ballot. In Virginia, Lincoln received just 1,929 votes out of 167,223 cast—barely 1 percent. The result was even worse in his native Kentucky: 1,364 out of 146,216 votes cast.

Analyzed geographically, the total result gave Lincoln a decisive 54 percent in the North and West, but only 2 percent in the South—the most lopsided vote in American history. Moreover, most of the 26,000 votes Lincoln earned in all five slaveholding states where he was allowed to compete came from a single state—Missouri, whose biggest city, St. Louis, included many German-born Republicans.

Forced to "the lamentable conclusion that Abraham Lincoln has been elected President," the anti-Republican Washington Constitution forecast "gloom and storm and much to chill the heart of every patriot in the land....We can understand the effect that will be produced in every Southern mind when he reads the news this morning—that he is now called on to decide for himself, his children, and his children's children whether he will submit tamely to the rule of one elected on account of his hostility to him and his, or whether he will make a struggle to defend his rights, his inheritance, and his honor."

According to a visiting journalist, Springfield remained "alive and animated throughout the night." Rallies continued until dawn, growing so "uncontrollable" by 4 a.m. that revelers toted back the cannon with which they had inaugurated Election Day and now made it again "thunder rejoicings for the crowd." John Nicolay tried going to bed at 4:30 but "couldn't sleep for the shouting and firing guns." By most accounts, the celebrations ended only with daybreak.

No one is entirely sure when Lincoln himself finally retired. According to one eyewitness, he left the telegraph office for his house at 1:30 a.m.; according to another, shortly after 2. Not until 4:45 a.m. did the New York Tribune receive a final bulletin from its Springfield correspondent confirming that "Mr. Lincoln has just bid good-night to the telegraph office and gone home."

Moments before his departure, whenever it came, Lincoln at last received the final returns from his hometown—a matter about which he admitted he "did not feel quite easy," national victory notwithstanding. But Lincoln could take heart. Though he lost Sangamon County to Douglas by a whisker—3,556 to 3,598—he won the hotly contested city of Springfield by all of 22 votes. At this latest news, "for the first and only time" that night, Lincoln "departed from his composure, and manifested his pleasure by a sudden exuberant utterance—neither a cheer nor a crow, but something partaking of the nature of each"—after which he "contentedly" laughed out loud.

The president-elect thanked the telegraph operators for their hard work and hospitality, and stuffed the final dispatch from New York into his pocket as a souvenir. It was about time, he announced to one and all, that he "went home and told the news to a tired woman who was sitting up for him."

To several observers, Lincoln suddenly seemed graver—his thoughts far away. Nicolay could see the "pleasure and pride at the completeness of his success" melt into melancholy. The "momentary glow" of triumph yielded to "the appalling shadow of his mighty task and responsibility. It seemed as if he suddenly bore the whole world upon his shoulders, and could not shake it off." Even as the outer man continued absentmindedly studying final election returns, the "inner man took up the crushing burden of his country's troubles, and traced out the laborious path of future duties." Only later did Lincoln tell Gideon Welles of Connecticut that from the moment he allowed himself to believe he had won the election, he indeed felt "oppressed with the overwhelming responsibility that was upon him."

From "boyhood up," Lincoln had confided to his old friend Ward Hill Lamon, "my ambition was to be President." Now reality clouded the fulfillment of that lifelong dream. Amid "10,000 crazy people" outside, the president-elect of the United States slowly descended the stairs of the Illinois & Mississippi telegraphic office and disappeared down the street, "without a sign of anything unusual."

Comment on this Story

comments powered by Disqus