Primary Source: 'Democrats, Are You Ready?'

Instructor: David Wilson

David has taught college history and holds an MA in history.

The Raleigh Weekly Standard published the article 'Democrats, Are You Ready?' on October 31, 1860, just days before the presidential election. This was by far the most divisive election in American history, directly leading to the Civil War.

1860 Presidential Election

No election in American political history divided the nation to the degree of the 1860 election, which effectively functioned as a referendum on slavery. The Republican Party, led by Abraham Lincoln, opposed expansion of slavery, while the Democratic Party was broadly pro-slavery, reflecting the geographical divide between northern and southern Americans, respectively.

The Democratic Party itself was split on the issue: during the National Convention, the nomination of the relatively moderate politician Stephen Douglas caused outrage among the ardent pro-slavery Democrats. These Democrats instead formed their own splinter party, the Southern Democrats, and nominated vice president John Breckinridge, who was a far more vocal supporter of slavery and the rights of states to practice it. Breckinridge carried almost the entire south, while Douglas won just one state, Missouri.

The Constitutional Union Party was the fourth major party in the election, advocating that the issue of slavery be set aside altogether to preserve the national unity, nominating John Bell as president. This party carried three states: Kentucky, Tennessee, and Virginia, all border states who had the most to lose from a national split.

Lincoln and the Republicans won the election. While the Democratic Party's schism hurt it, Lincoln won more votes than Northern and Southern Democrats combined anyway, reflecting the greater percentage of Americans who disliked slavery. Nevertheless, his election led directly to the secession of southern states and the start of the Civil War.

The editorial 'Democrats, Are You Ready?' was published on October 31, 1860, in the Raleigh Weekly Standard, one of the largest newspapers in North Carolina. It argued for the Democratic candidacy of Breckinridge.

John Breckinridge, Southern Democrat candidate for president in 1860

If you'd like more practice in how to analyze and interpret articles as primary sources, please check out our lesson Practice Analyzing and Interpreting an Article.

Text of 'Democrats, Are You Ready?'

On Tuesday next the American people will be called upon to discharge an important duty in the midst of the greatest crisis which has ever existed in their history. We do not overstate the fact when we say that the existence of the Constitution and the Union is directly at stake, for if Lincoln shall be elected the spirit of the Constitution will have been violated by the triumph of a geographical party, while the action of certain Southern States will be directed towards a dissolution of the Union itself. Under these circumstances it is the high duty of every citizen to turn out and vote. Let each one do so in his own way, responsible as he is to God and his country for the vote he may cast.

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