Useful insight from our U.S. expert Dr Adam Smith
Originally posted on Adam I. P. Smith: Historian:
The 1860 Presidential Election was one of the most consequential elections in world history, since it directly triggered the American Civil War. (Others on the shortlist include the series of three Reichstag elections in 1932-3). It was in response to the election of Abraham Lincoln that the first tranche of slave states seceded, and Lincoln – with the overwhelming support of public opinion in the North – responded to secession with war. Lincoln didn’t need to do anything to prompt secession; it was enough that a Republican, elected entirely on the basis of the votes of the free states, had come to power. Although you’ll read otherwise on neo-Confederate blogs, Southerners at the time were not shy about telling the world that their motives were to protect slavery. One prominent Southerner, William Lowndes Yancey boldly (bravely? provocatively?) campaigned in the North during the 1860 election campaign, warning an audience in Boston (the home of antislavery politics) that while the South could concede on minor issues like tariffs, they would never yield over slavey, “the tool of our industry, the source of our prosperity”.
Lincoln faced a battle in the free states against fellow Illinoisan Stephen Douglas (“the little Giant” on account of his height and girth, as well as his political prominence) who ran well against him in the Midwest, but in the end won only one state (Missouri) outright. Meanwhile, in the slave states, there was an almost entirely separate election fought between another Democrat, John C. Breckinridge (whose supporters had “bolted” from the Democratic convention in protest at the nomination of Douglas) and an elderly Whig, John Bell, running under the banner of the Constitutional Union party. The latter’s solution to the crisis over slavery was to promise to say nothing and do nothing. This was a surprisingly strong pitch in some parts of the country: Bell won Virginia and a number of other upper South and Border states.
Lincoln won every free state apart from New Jersey (and since they split their electoral votes in New Jersey, a practice more common in the nineteenth century than it is now, Lincoln still got something). Even though Lincoln was not a contender in the South and polled less than 40% of the popular vote nationwide (the second lowest vote share of any victorious presidential candidate), he won because the North, by this stage, had more people, more states and therefore more votes in the Electoral College. If a Republican won this time, reasoned pro-secessionist Southerners, they could win again and again. Having basically controlled the Federal government since 1787, Southerners now felt, for the first time, as if they might be shut out forever, with people in charge who might as well be thieves since they didn’t accept the legitimacy of human property. As the New England “man of letters” James Russell Lowell put it, “The fault of the Free States in the eyes of the South is … the census of 1860.”