The election of 1860 would polarize the nation and challenge the durability of the Constitution. In 1787, the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia established a new government for the United States of America. For over seventy years, the country had fought fierce political battles over slavery and federalism. Compromises, pacts, and informal precedents managed to hold the country together. This still-young nation would soon become engulfed in a savage civil war that would eventually complete the work begun in 1787.
As 1860 dawned, old quarrels over slavery put extraordinary pressure on the increasingly shaky union. The Supreme Court’s Dred Scott decision and the Kansas-Nebraska Act destroyed the Missouri Compromise. The Whig Party had collapsed. Democrats had split into two warring factions. The new Republican Party tried to gather the disillusioned from both parties. Eight Presidents in a row had served only a single term—none with note.
Senator Stephen Douglas had championed the Kansas-Nebraska Act to curry favor with the South, but then had straddled the issue to win re-election in Illinois. Douglas’ presumed wavering in support of slavery lost him support in the South and split the Democrat Party. Democrats deadlocked at their Charleston convention, but Lincoln convinced Republicans that Douglas, who was from Illinois, would be their eventual opponent. He further argued that this made Illinois crucial to a Republican win against a divided Democrat Party.
Lincoln had a four step plan to secure the nomination. Step one was to pretend he was disinterested in the nomination while building a stronger national reputation. Step two was to convince his party that the convention needed to be held in Chicago in order to defuse Douglas’s advantage in the state. Step three was to maneuver to be everyone’s second choice. Step four would take advantage of the convention being held in Lincoln’s home state. (For example, he packed the hall with his partisans.)
The chief contenders for the presidential nomination were Seward, Lincoln, Chase, Cameron, and Bates. Seward and Chase did not have the support of the moderates. Bates had offended foreign-born Americans. Cameron was embroiled in political scandals. On the first ballot, Seward led with 173-1/2 votes. Lincoln had 102, Cameron had 50-1/2, Chase had 49, and Bates had 35. On the second ballot, Cameron withdrew, and most of the Pennsylvania delegation switched to Lincoln. Seward now had 184-1/2 votes, Lincoln 181, Chase 42-1/2, and Bates 35. On the third ballot, four Ohio delegates switched their votes to Lincoln. This started a stampede and when his nomination was secure, the convention voted to make Lincoln their unanimous choice for president.
On November 7, 1860, 4.7 million white males went to polls. This represented 80% of eligible voters. Lincoln did not win a majority of the popular vote, but he handily won the electoral vote.
Victory must have felt hollow. Southern militants had threatened to secede from the Union if Lincoln was elected. In December, South Carolina seceded. By February, Mississippi, Florida, Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana, and Texas had followed. President Buchanan did nothing to stop the secessionist movement, and President-elect Lincoln remained silent on the issue, possibly believing that pro-Union sentiment would reassert itself. It did not.
Did states have a right to secede? The South believed they did. They viewed the Constitution as a voluntary confederation, stronger than the Articles of Confederation, but a confederation nonetheless—one that allowed states to join or secede. The South also cited the Declaration of Independence to justify their actions, which stated that, “when a long train of abuses and usurpations, pursuing invariably the same Object evinces a design to reduce them under absolute Despotism, it is their right, it is their duty, to throw off such Government.”
Lincoln had a different perspective. He believed the concept of a confederacy went by the wayside when a full-blown nation came to fruition with ratification of the Constitution. Holding that nation together was his sworn duty. He believed people had a natural right to choose their leaders and those who supported someone else must accede to election results. Letting unhappy states leave would be a horrific precedent and destroy the country. Further, the Constitution was the “supreme law of the land,’ so the states could not be supreme.
From a legal and political perspective, reliance on the Declaration of Independence provided a more solid footing than the Constitution, but the words in the Declaration of Independence did not secure liberation from Great Britain. Independence required seven years of bloody fighting.
Civil wars are brutal. The American civil war was no exception. It tested the strength of government under the Constitution. It also tested men. In the end, President Lincoln kept a nation together while preserving an intact—albeit bruised—Constitution. (Amendments to this same great document provided the mechanism to outlaw slavery.) Neither Seward, Chase, Cameron, nor Bates could have accomplished this Herculean mission.
Lincoln revered the Founding Fathers and earned the right to stand beside them.