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Presentation Elections

Slavery, Secession, and States’ Rights

The 1860 presidential election turned on a number of issues including secession; the relationship between the federal government, states, and territories; and slavery and abolition. Candidates had to consider how to hold the nation together when its states were divided about slavery and states' rights; how to resolve questions about federal vs. state power; how to govern the Western territories; and how to respond to extremist abolitionists like John Brown. Lincoln's careful stance on a variety of issues guided him to a meager victory in a year when the country, and its political parties, were ravaged by a maelstrom of complicated and volatile issues.

Left: Lincoln Campaign Poster; right: The dangers of extending slavery; and, The contest and the crisis: two speeches of William H. Seward. 1856

Two opponents of slavery, Abraham Lincoln and William Seward, fought for the Republican nomination in 1860. Lincoln advocated a more moderate party plank designed to preserve the Union. Though we remember Lincoln as the president who ended slavery, at the time of his campaign, he vowed not to restrict slavery in states where it was already present, but promised to prohibit expansion in the Western territories. Lincoln also disavowed John Brown. This more moderate position earned Lincoln the Republican nomination.

Left: Stephen Arnold Douglas; right: John Bell

Like the Republican party, the Democratic party also cracked beneath the weight of the issues at hand. States that favored slavery in the territories walked out of the Democratic convention at Charleston, preventing nominee Stephen Douglas from winning the party endorsement. A reconvened convention eventually nominated Douglas, but kept territory slavery out of the platform altogether.

As a result of disagreements over the issue of slavery, splinter parties formed. The Southern Democratic Party spun off from traditional Democrats to nominate John Breckenridge, an advocate of slavery in the West. Republican breakaways formed the Constitutional Union Party. They nominated John Bell who would not address the issue of slavery at all, but rather spoke of upholding the Constitution.

With four candidates in the race, Lincoln won the 1860 election.

Remarkably, the election of 1864 was not suspended during the bloody Civil War. Union soldiers were given absentee ballots or furloughed to permit them to vote. With mounting Union victories, the votes of soldiers and the campaign slogan, "Don't switch horses in mid-stream," Lincoln won the election.

Consider these questions about Lincoln's presidency:

  • Why did he change his position on the issue of abolition?
  • How might these changes affect the way we view his original platform?
  • What were Lincoln's priorities when he created his original platform? How did the advent and progress of the war affect these priorities?
  • To what extent did Lincoln's original platform represent his personal views? To what extent did it reflect a desire and strategy to win the presidency?