The Election of 1860: Definition, Summary, Candidates & Significance

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  • 0:07 The Candidates and the Issues
  • 1:44 The Campaign
  • 3:37 The Results
  • 4:49 The Impact
  • 5:31 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Amy Troolin

Amy has MA degrees in History, English, and Theology. She has taught college English and religious education classes and currently works as a freelance writer.

In this lesson, we will examine the election of 1860. We will meet the candidates, discover their primary concerns and campaign techniques, and explore the results and impact of this critical election.

The Candidates and the Issues

The election of 1860 was rocky right from the very beginning as four major candidates accepted nominations for the presidency. The Democratic Party had great difficulty selecting a candidate because party members could not agree on the major issue of the day: the expansion of slavery in the Western territories. After Southern Democrats walked out of two of the party's national conventions, Northern Democrats nominated Stephen Douglas of Illinois to represent them in the presidential election. Douglas ran on a platform of popular sovereignty; he wanted the people of each territory to vote on whether or not to accept slavery in their region.

The Southern Democrats decided to hold their own national convention and to nominate their own candidate. They chose John C. Breckenridge of Kentucky, who was currently the Vice President of the United States. The Southern Democrats adopted a platform that advocated the unhindered expansion of slavery in the West and the annexation of Cuba, which would increase the political power of slaveholders. Some Democrats didn't like either candidate, Douglas or Breckenridge, so they broke away and formed the Constitutional Union Party. Nominating John Bell of Tennessee for president, the new party focused on preserving the Union as its primary issue.

Finally, the six-year-old Republican Party nominated a candidate who may have seemed like a long shot for the presidency, at least to some people. Abraham Lincoln, however, was the symbolic self-made man, a hard worker who presented a living example of frontier life and the American dream. The Republicans ran on a platform that called for the prohibition of slavery in the territories and the preservation of the Union.

The Campaign

The campaign of 1860 was actually almost two separate campaigns, pitting Douglas against Lincoln in the North and Breckenridge against Bell in the South. Only Douglas campaigned on his own behalf, and he was doing something new, for it was almost unheard of for a candidate to personally hit the campaign trail in the mid-1800s. Douglas, however, traveled throughout the country on a month-long tour, making speeches, shaking hands, and trying to score some votes. Douglas' supporters hollered such slogans as 'Let the People of Each Rule!', 'Popular Sovereignty!', and 'No Rail-Splitter Can Split This Union!'; this was a direct shot at Lincoln, who had been a rail-splitter in his younger days.

Breckenridge gave only one speech during the 1860 campaign. His supporters campaigned for him with such slogans as 'Our Rights, the Constitution, and the Union!' Many Breckenridge supporters, however, were Southern 'fire-eaters' who adamantly advocated slavery and states' rights and threatened Southern secession if Lincoln was elected. John Bell never even gave one speech during his campaign. His supporters held rallies, ringing bells and shouting 'The Union as It Is!', 'Now and Forever One and Inseparable!,' and 'No North, No South, No East, No West, Nothing but Union!'

Although Lincoln also stayed home during the campaign season, his supporters were probably some of the election's most active campaigners. Nearly 400,000 young Republican men, calling themselves the 'Wide-Awakes,' donned cloaks and carried torches in dramatic nighttime parades to show their support for their candidate. Other Republicans took part in picnics and barbecues and loudly championed Lincoln with slogans like 'Honest Old Abe - the People's Choice!', 'The Rail-Splitter of 1830/The President of United States in 1861!', and 'Free Soil, Free Speech, Free Home.'

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