The Year of Decision: 1860

So even if he couldn’t anticipate no war to save him, back in his mind somewhere he was still confident that Providence would furnish something.


In 1860 the United States submitted itself once more to what Nathaniel Hawthorne in his novel The Scarlet Letter called the ‘periodic terrors of a Presidential Election’.2 The intricate process of nominating and electing a presidential candidate was undertaken in the darkening atmosphere of increasingly hysterical threats of southern secession should a Republican candidate win a majority of votes in the electoral college. In previous years presidential elections had served to defer decisions; in 1860 something was actually decided. The electoral process offered up a decision despite itself, and the result was civil war. The campaign witnessed the disintegration of the Democratic Party. No fewer than four candidates energetically sought to gain entrance to the White House. Indeed, it was a measure of the perceived crisis facing the United States that one candidate even dispensed with tradition and energetically campaigned on his own behalf on the campaign trail. The destruction of the second party system, which had been dominated by the Democratic Party, provided the occasion for the process of disunion that followed the Republican victory at the polls in 1860. This is a complex process, and it is not sufficient to say that the disruption of the party mechanism inevitably led to civil war. Nonetheless, in a political structure as rigidly geared to the workings of the calendar as that laid down by the United States Constitution, and whose parts are so intermeshed with one another in a complicated series of continuing elections at various levels, it was very likely that disruption of one part would lead to ructions, violence and even anarchy in all the others.

This chapter offers a case-study of a presidential election. It is essential that the inchoate nature of American politics be understood. It was characterized by ceaseless competition, bargaining, manoeuvring and intriguing, and offered ample scope for the pursuit of ambition. It is pointless to condemn the system because it was the embodiment of an open, democratic society – though it was hardly without its weaknesses and disadvantages. The coming of civil war was a reflection of its flaws. The political system was also so variegated that it made the imposition of any compromise solution almost impossible; any attempt could be effectively opposed by those so minded. This should not be surprising because the American political system is designed to breed tension, competition and conflict. If the South had been protected by the conservatism of American political culture before 1850, then after 1860 it was threatened by a new consensus that was less inclined to settle on southern terms.

Indications were not auspicious. The Republican Party was a sectional party which self-consciously promoted northern interests; the Democratic Party was the only surviving national party but increasingly dominated by southern interests. Could this national complexion survive further scrutiny, and heated debate? Given the fear of a Republican victory prevailing in the South it seemed doubtful. Victory at the polls in 1860 required above all that parties remained unified. The grouping which maintained unified effort would win, although this should not be interpreted as suggesting that if the Democratic Party had not been split it would have won. (On the tally of electoral votes it could not have done.) Thus the object of the Republican Party was two-fold. It had to retain the vote secured in 1856 (some of which may have been shaky because of the personal appeal of Frémont’s dashing and romantic career which would not be transferred to a more mundane candidate). Secondly, the party’s appeal had to be extended and broadened in the North. This in part required allaying fears that Republicanism represented a radical, corroding force that endangered the foundations of a fragile Union. There were some leaders, notably Francis Preston Blair, who believed that ultimately the Republican Party would spread its appeal to the Border states; yet this could be only a long-term goal.3

The first candidate to be nominated was that by the Constitutional Union Party, John Bell, who chose the orator, Edward Everett, as his running mate. Bell was an aloof, fastidious and austere man, with an elevated manner and opinion of himself. He was a traditional Whig in his education and superior attitude and in his faith in the power of negotiation to save the Union. He clearly filled a gap, especially for ex-Whigs in the Upper South where the two-party system survived. All the issues under discussion, in his opinion, were not especially important and all that was needed was a dose of common sense and patriotic virtue to achieve a solution that all right-thinking individuals would applaud. He was the spiritual heir of Henry Clay without his charm and guile. It is a testimony of how much events had moved on since 1850 that his views appeared anachronistic and he resembled a dinosaur; nevertheless he did not lack support and would prove an embarrassment to both Republican and Democratic Parties.4

The Democratic Convention

The choice of Charleston, South Carolina, as the meeting place for the next Democratic Party convention was cruelly ironic. It was chosen originally in 1856 because it was calculated foolishly that it would be conducive to affable feelings and a sense of party unity. It was certainly indicative of the increasing southern domination of the Democratic Party. In the fevered atmosphere following John Brown’s ill-fated expedition to Harper’s Ferry, northern delegates received a hostile reception from the arrogant and provincial citizens of Charleston. This was not an atmosphere in which a harmonious compromise could flourish. The soporific and putrid (the temperature was already approaching 100°F) atmosphere of the city was increased by a lack of hotel accommodation which forced many delegates from the North and West to camp in great dormitories, which promoted neither rest nor hygiene among their inmates. In short a less appropriate place for the convention at this date can hardly be imagined. Certainly the disagreeable conditions seemed to breed bad temper and a disinclination to accept a contrary point of view. What concerned northern delegates more than any other matter was their failure to convince their southern colleagues of the need to unite behind one candidate who could win in the North. This was where the election would be won or lost.

But the Democratic Party seemed unduly preoccupied with southern not northern interests. Some thought the solution to political strains within the Union was the election of a southern president; others looked in vain for the chalice of reconciliation which could be sipped by both North and South, if only both wings of the party would agree to find a compromise candidate in the hostile if graceful portals of Charleston, South Carolina. This city was also favoured by members of the out-going Buchanan Administration because it was the location least likely to smile on a Douglas nomination. The southern ‘ultras’ within the Democratic Party seemed to detest Douglas as much as any Republican nominee. They had had serious differences in the past over Kansas and the Freeport Doctrine.5 Ever combative, the canny Douglas indicated that he would confront their attacks without hesitation. T do not intend to make peace with my enemies’, he declared, ‘nor to make a concession of one iota of principle, believing that I am right in the position I have taken, and that neither can the Union be preserved or [sic] the Democratic Party be maintained upon any other basis’. Throughout the nineteenth century, American politicians were criticized for their readiness to abandon principle and indulge in manoeuvres calculated to advance their own selfish interests and sordid ambitions. It is ironic that when they defended high principle to the uttermost the result was catastrophe, and they were still blamed for their adherence to partisan causes.6

The Democracy could guarantee 120 electoral votes from the southern states plus Oregon and perhaps California; but it needed 303 and the balance could be gained only by fielding a candidate acceptable in the Lower North. If another Democrat could be returned to the White House, then all the southern fears about ‘Black Republicans’ and their pernicious views and dangerous habits could be laid to rest. Northern Democrats had only one candidate in mind who could meet this requirement, and this was Stephen A. Douglas. To their intense frustration, their man was unacceptable to the southern Democracy. This divergence of opinion would result in heated and emotional charges stimulated by the overcharged atmosphere of Charleston. It was this kind of emotionally charged atmosphere that would set the scene for the secession crisis and the outbreak of war. We cannot ignore the contribution of hysteria and casual violence to the outbreak of civil war. This was symbolized by a rather untoward incident that occurred as senior members of the New York Democracy set sail from New York harbour. The New York delegation led by Dean Richmond, and including Peter Cagger and August Belmont, were loyal to Douglas. But they had recently been challenged by the renegade Fernando Wood, who swapped sides, began to favour Buchanan, and put together a rival delegation. Wood’s supporters in boisterous mood threw oranges at the boat carrying Richmond’s delegation to Charleston. August Belmont, portly and prominent, was an inviting target and was struck below the line of his capacious stomach; he was forced to retire below to a cabin in no little pain. This would be the first and most physical manifestation of many charges of hitting below the belt that would be made over the following weeks.7

The most important result of this increasing dominance of the Democracy by southern interests was a passionate advocacy of slavery expressed in dogmatic rhetoric. In part this reflected a sincere worry by slaveholders about the future of slavery; Democrats had acquired a sway over the Whigs by appearing more pro-slavery than the other party, and evidently this advantage would influence the kind of language employed. Nonetheless, the emotional, apocalyptic speeches made at this date denote heightened fears and a readiness to seek extreme solutions. The dominance of Tire-eating’ secessionist spokesmen, like Rhett and Hammond, is indicative of a marked change in political discourse after the John Brown raid. ‘The South must go through a trying ordeal before she will ever achieve her deliverance’, Rhett wrote in 1860, ‘and men having both nerve and self-sacrificing patriotism must head the movement and shape its course, controlling and compelling their inferior contemporaries’. There was no doubt in Rhett’s mind that he should be one such patriotic voice who would be persuaded to wield power in any future, inevitable crisis of relations with the northern states. The Democratic Convention at Charleston would witness a surging climax of millennial denunciations replete with religious imagery that would trigger the sectional schism. As Thomas R. R. Cobb exclaimed with reference to the 46th Psalm over a year later, the South defended the true faith against the ‘hellish schemes of… a set of devils … out of Hell’; God would intervene against their diabolic machinations. ‘God is our refuge a very present help in trouble,’ he assured his wife. ‘He has never yet deserted the righteous cause. He never will … I can go to the cannon’s mouth with that psalm on my lips’.8 It is striking how in the two years following Brown’s raid, increasing numbers of southern moderates became imbued with this kind of imagery and came to accept the secessionist case; but by then it did not appear ‘extreme’.

The Democratic Convention opened on Monday 23 April 1860. The proceedings were dominated, not by hubbub within the hall, but by the noise of traffic thundering over the cobblestones of adjacent streets. The first two days were monopolized by the setting up of procedural committees on which the views of the anti-Douglas forces predominated. Douglas himself, of course, stayed away from the Convention. He relied heavily in the days ahead on the skills of Congressman John A. Logan, John A. McClernand, Senators George Pugh of Ohio, George Sanders of New York, and William A. Richardson of Illinois, an old ally. Douglas was confident, perhaps too confident, and urged as many of his followers as possible to make the journey to Charleston to give him vocal support. He was the only Democrat who could unite the party and bring it victory. He was also buoyant because the two previous Democratic presidents had come from the North and reconciled the South: he could claim that the Democratic Party was best led, and slavery better protected, by northern leaders. He had, moreover, the added bonus of representing the increasingly influential western voice in its counsels. A Douglas candidacy, in short, had much to commend it; but did it have enough?9

An initial blunder was made, and the Douglas forces played into southern hands, by accepting the suggestion that the platform be established first followed by the nomination of the candidate. August Belmont, Douglas’s campaign manager, was impatient with these manoeuvres. He complained that an ‘immense deal of time [was] lost by talking’ in the enervating heat. Of a gathering of Douglas delegates, he complained: ‘It was the most stupid of all stupid gatherings I have ever been at – there were about twelve ugly women with about sixty as ugly men’. This irritable attitude was to cost Douglas dear because it led to a certain carelessness. The Douglas men naturally assumed that they would muster the voting power to ensure that the platform would reflect their views. The South would dominate the platform committee but Belmont relied on Douglas voting power on the floor of the Convention. Douglas supporters troubled themselves no more than the secessionists over the possibility that there might be a split; if the secessionists departed the proportion of votes supporting Douglas would increase. This was to underestimate the secessionist and pro-Buchanan forces aligned to frustrate Douglas.10 He perhaps tried too keenly to browbeat the southern delegates into accepting his candidacy. Douglas did not brush aside the possibility that such tactics might provoke a walk-out, but he persuaded himself that this would be a mere temporary interlude, during which tempers would cool and political antennae would become more acute. The interests of politicians would surely demand a compromise. This was a fatal miscalculation. Douglas could not win the nomination solely with northern backing even if every single northern delegate supported him, which was unlikely. He needed at least nineteen southern votes and these would have to be sedulously wooed.11

The error in permitting the drawing up a platform first lay in the scope it gave the southern, anti-Douglas forces to draw up a statement of policy that would effectively debar Douglas as candidate. The Byzantine manoeuvres that followed prevented the acceptance of a single platform and three alternatives were offered for inspection. All embraced the 1856 Cincinnati platform in some shape or form. This affirmed popular sovereignty, namely the right of people in the territories, when sufficiently numerous, to draw up a constitution and enter the Union whether they preferred slavery or not. The proposal advanced by vocal southerners on the platform committee added a rider which asserted in language that was heavily hedged with legalistic terms but the meaning of which was all too clear.

That the Territorial Legislature has no power to abolish slavery in any Territory nor to prohibit the introduction of slaves therein, nor any power to exclude slavery therefrom, nor any power to destroy or impair the right of property in slaves by any legislation whatever… That it is the duty of the Federal Government to protect when necessary, the rights of persons and property on the high seas, in the Territories, or wherever else its Constitutional authority extends.

Such a commitment to a slave code would be intolerable to Douglas and alienate voters in the North. The second alternative catered to Douglas’s concerns and stressed that all questions pertaining to property in states or territories were a judicial matter. The ‘Democratic party is pledged to abide by and faithfully carry out’ Supreme Court decisions. Congressman Benjamin F. Butler drew up his own version which endorsed the Cincinnati platform. A New York delegate suggested a third alternative ‘that any attempt by Congress or the Territorial Legislature to annul, abridge or discriminate against any equality of rights’ among the states ‘would be unwise in policy and repugnant to the Constitution’ and that it was the ‘duty of the Federal Government’ to take steps to prevent any violations. Yet the southern ‘ultras’ refused to accept any platform which did not carry a ringing endorsement of slavery and the constitutional mechanisms required to protect its spread throughout the Union beyond its existing confines.12

The effect of words in politics is often an ephemeral one. Politicians may deliver sparkling, eloquent or exciting orations; they may inspire or even stir a desire to act. But frequently words have little effect once delivered – they are just sentiments drifting on the ether; an arresting memory but nothing more. However, the United States in the nineteenth century was an oral culture – though also a highly literate one. The spoken word enjoyed a commanding sway in political life. Washington Irving went so far as to suggest that America was governed by words; ‘the simple truth of the matter’, he wrote, ‘is that their government is a pure unadulterated logocracy or government of words’. This is the characteristic overstatement of an artist. One may have leave to doubt the capacity of American government to match sentiment to aspiration. Nonetheless in the highly unstable and emotional atmosphere of Charleston, circumstances promoted an orgy of rhetoric and, for once, this led to a chain of action and reaction sparked by men who held no responsibility for their behaviour. Referring to ‘a great heaving volcano of passion and crime’, Yancey, in the most influential address, implored the southern delegates to stand fast and not surrender their constitutional prerogatives. Significantly, he intoned that a defeat on principle was preferable to victory hedged with ambiguity. A leading Douglasite, George E. Pugh, rejected the call that northern Democrats legitimize slavery and accept that it was right. ‘Gendemen of the South you mistake us – you mistake us! We will not do it!’ To have acceded to this demand would have been suicidal for northern Democrats – it would have destroyed their political base in the North West. By the following Monday, in a deteriorating atmosphere not aided by the refusal of President Buchanan to intervene (because it might help Douglas’s nomination), rumours of schism grew louder.13

The southern delegates were in many ways the best organized and led at Charleston but they turned their talents towards disruption rather than finding a candidate who could carry both sections. They were dedicated to exposing and clarifying all the vagueness that had previously shrouded references to slavery in Democratic circles and in northern political speech-making generally. Their expostulations were increasingly imbued with a moral righteousness previously associated with the abolitionists. This reduced significantly any scope for manoeuvre or compromise with their northern colleagues who preferred to play down the race issue rather than lavish so much extreme rhetoric on it. Secessionist leaders, such as Yancey, were pre-eminently concerned with maintaining southern dominance of the political institutions of the United States; or, should this be lost, with setting up a new party that would protect southern institutions from outside attack. The census of 1860 indicated a change in the balance of population growth that might warrant the loss of some seven southern seats in the House of Representatives. There was something in the loud and swaggering manner of many southerners which was excited by the possibility that a minority could continue to dominate the Union, or if this was impossible, that they could with impunity set up their own government. They presumed that the North would have neither the gumption nor courage to resist them. Their arrogant and turbulent behaviour was purely destructive; perhaps there was something in the abolitionist stereotype of the blustering slavemaster, so used to unconditional dominance, that when defied he would turn to violence to ensure that nothing would oppose his will. Although the ‘ultras’ by no means represented all southerners at Charleston or elsewhere, the very belligerence of their stance swept all who doubted along with them. ‘They had nothing positive to offer at Charleston,’ writes Damon Wells. ‘They were united in their determination to block Douglas, but had no alternative candidate of their own, unless it was Lincoln or Seward, whose election would provide them with a convenient excuse for secession’.14

The weakening influence of southern moderation was represented by the waning fortunes of John C. Breckinridge at the Convention. In December 1859 Breckinridge had delivered an address at Frankfort, Kentucky, in which he had called for the congressional protection of slave property in the territories (involving a federal slave code); if this request was ignored, he warned of the incinerating effects of the flames of a border war. Only eight years before he had sympathized with those who had called for the eventual abolition of slavery. Although the possibility exists that he might have been tricked into making this speech by the Douglas camp (who tempted him by suggesting that they would support calls for such guarantees, and then once they were made, claimed that only their candidate was the true voice of moderation on the slavery extension issue) there can be little doubt of the change of emphasis on the slavery issue. This was given sharper point by Breckinridge’s translation from Buchanan’s vice president to the junior senator from Kentucky that month. But Breckinridge’s chances for the nomination were reduced by a combination of his own tactics and the atmosphere of the convention itself. Breckinridge was an appealing candidate because he believed that congressional guarantees were the prime buffer against disunion. But he lacked organization and a strong factional base. ‘I do not think I will be nominated’, he wrote, ‘for … I know of no organisation for me anywhere, and many of the friends of other gentlemen are actively whistling me down the wind’. Deprecating fanaticism in the North, he considered the plight of the American polity a ‘mess’. But he could not maximize his appeal to reason and (as he saw it) sense, especially in the lower northern states like Pennsylvania and New Jersey. Breckinridge refused to place his name on the ballot. This reduced his flexibility of manoeuvre and reinforced doubts cast by the refusal of Buchanan to support him (seeming to prefer Howell Cobb).15

On the floor of the Convention, the Douglas forces initially carried all before them: they appeared well organized and drilled. But the numbers of Douglas supporters who provided valuable vocal support began to dwindle, worn down by the discomforts of Charleston and depressed by the endless wrangling. The Cincinnati platform of 1856 was reaffirmed, and so was the resolution that the Democratic Party would abide by the decisions of the Supreme Court pertaining to the territories. At this, southern delegates warned that if a slave code was not included in the platform, they would remove themselves forthwith from the Convention. Some Douglas managers began to worry that they had over-reached themselves (especially as seven southern delegations refused to vote on the platform). Douglas again exaggerated the degree of pro-Union feeling among the delegations representing the slave states at Charleston in 1860. In February he had written, ‘There will be no serious difficulty in the South. The last few weeks has [sic] worked a perfect revolution in that section’. Even southerners, like Andrew Johnson (who periodically contemplated joining the Douglas ticket as vice presidential nominee), whose loyalty was not in doubt, were inclined to distrust Douglas’s consistency and reliability.16 Instead of a resort to the time-honoured practice of politicians of glossing over their differences by some judiciously worded formula, southerners allowed their emotions to reach such a pitch that conciliation was impossible. Some southerners welcomed this contingency. Here the failure of Breckinridge to confront Douglas may have had some significance. He could never have seized the nomination but it is possible to speculate that he might have acted as a focal point for the anti-Douglas forces and demonstrated that Douglas could never unite the Democratic Party. Thus a repeat performance of 1856 might have been possible in which both Douglas and Breckinridge withdrew in favour of a compromise (possibly Border state) candidate with strong Union credentials. This might not have prevented ultimate disunion, though it might have postponed it; at any rate, the disastrous split in the Democratic Party might have been covered over by the thinnest wafer.

The dogmatism of the southern side was countered by increasing northern obduracy. Douglas could not risk alienating any of his northern allies, especially in the North West. Buchanan forces were not inactive here, and an attempt to insert a sympathetic pro-Buchanan delegation from Illinois was rebuffed. These manoeuvres merely served to provoke strong feelings among the loyal Douglas forces in the North West. They insisted on the condition that Douglas would not enter into any deals or agreements with the South that endangered the doctrine laid down in the Dorr Letter of 22 June 1859. During its composition Douglas had disclosed his adamant opposition to any revival of the African slave trade, the imposition of a congressional slave code, or the notion that the Constitution may establish or prohibit slavery regardless of the views of the voters. Should this stipulation be in any way threatened, the delegations of the North West made it clear that they would not remain loyal to Douglas; on this issue the New England delegations and those of the Middle Atlantic seaboard were much less dogmatic. But here was a warning that Douglas could not ignore; here was a cleavage that would spread from within political parties to the body politic as a whole during the final crisis of 1861.17

In the absence of any such compromise, an unwonted determination took charge of the proceedings. L. P. Walker, chairman of the Alabama delegation, announced to the Convention that he was now obeying the instructions of the Alabama convention that if the Democratic Party failed to provide a slave code resolution, he should withdraw its delegation. The Alabamians were followed by all other cotton state delegations, except (temporarily), Georgia. The following day the rump of the Convention met in a depressed mood to nominate a presidential candidate. It was under these circumstances that the slavery moderates were inclined to sell the pass. Although Douglas had always been very popular along the Border states (indeed the only state he would win outright in 1860 was Missouri), during these anxious hours when it was vital for the Democratic Party to nominate a candidate of stature and avoid the fatal wrangling which had split the party, a delegate from Tennessee introduced an amendment which required the winning nominee to gain two-thirds of all the votes at the Convention – a massive task. This proposal was supported by the New York delegation, who hoped that a ‘compromise’ candidate would emerge around whom all the factions could unite, but this was a chimera. All of these moves, again, were to foreshadow similar designs in the secession crisis itself. Electoral politics were to form a microcosm of the moves which led to that catastrophe.

A dozen ballots followed and 45 more on the following day but all to no avail. To secure victory, 202 were needed but Douglas could not increase his tally beyond 152½ votes. He failed to persuade any of his rivals, not least James Guthrie of Kentucky, to follow his own noble example in 1856 of withdrawing once a rival had secured a majority, so that he could secure an outright victory. The Convention then adjourned. It was a rare example of politicians permitting their feelings and sense of principle to overcome their penchant for compromise. The dissolution of the Democratic Party foreshadowed the rupture of the Union. The pattern was all the more alarming in that its members shared an illusion that was widespread after secession, that unity could still be repaired long after the machinery needed to restore it was shattered.18

It was decided that the Convention would be suspended for six weeks. Efforts would be made to appeal to latent Unionism within the South and publicize fears about possibly disunion and secession. There was also justified comment on the ‘suicidal’ southern behaviour. ‘What had happened’, writes Allan Nevins, ‘was that a minority of the gathering, who spoke for a minority of the party, had undertaken to dictate to the majority what they should put into the platform’. They sought increasingly to force the pace of national life. Would these tendencies cool after an interlude of a month and half? Not on the evidence of some testy exchanges in the Senate. But to the surprise of the Douglas faction, all but two of the bolting southern delegations agreed to assemble at Baltimore for the second stage of the proceedings on 18 June. By that date the Republican Party would already have chosen its nominee.19

The Republican Convention

The choice of Chicago as the venue for the Republican Convention in 1860 reflected the increased importance of the state of Illinois. The rise of Abraham Lincoln and the growth of the wealth and influence of Illinois coincided. Its population doubled in the decade 1850–60 from 851,470 to 1,711,951; most of this was concentrated in the northern counties which were less in thrall to pro-slavery arguments and which had backed Lincoln in the 1858 senatorial contest with Douglas. Illinois was a major producer of cereals. Corn growth had doubled and wheat trebled in the ten years before 1860; the Illinois Central Railroad bound the state together with a communications system which generated further economic and agricultural expansion. If the Republican Party was to win the presidential election in 1860 it had to win states like Illinois. Lincoln, who had not held any elected office since 1848, but had made a career out of opposing Senator Douglas at every turn, had secured the support of the Illinois Republican delegation at a state convention at Decatur in early May 1860. He had asked Norman B. Judd for the support of the Chicago Tribune in his ambitions to secure either the presidential or vice presidential nomination at Chicago. ‘I am not in a position where it would hurt much for me to not be nominated on the national ticket,’ he concluded realistically, ‘but I am where it would hurt some for me to not get the Illinois delegates’. Lincoln was successful in steering a course through the various factions of the Illinois Republican Party, a skill that he would be required to exercise on the national stage. As evidence of his own rise and the prominence of Illinois in Republican calculations, he received discreet enquiries from the managers of Senator Simon Cameron of Pennsylvania as to his readiness to run as Cameron’s vice presidential running mate. Lincoln’s position was therefore strong, but not invulnerable within the state of Illinois, and he had to watch his flank against incursions from the camp of Lyman Trumbull who had denied Lincoln a senatorial seat in 1854. Lincoln obliquely warned Trumbull against issuing missives or statements that might be construed as critical of Lincoln or his nomination. ‘The taste is in my mouth a little. There are men on the watch for such things [hints of disaffection] out of which to prejudice my peculiar friends against you’. Unity was the key to successful political action.20

Lincoln benefited not only from the location of the Convention in his home state but also from the very careful preparation that was undertaken by his campaign manager, Judge David Davis. All of Lincoln’s close allies were closely organized and controlled from a headquarters. Davis placed himself behind a large table covered with paper, interrogated Lincoln’s allies, issued his orders, and importuned delegates, urging them to vote for Lincoln. David Davis was a large, corpulent, prosperous-looking man, determined, forceful and equipped with a strong temper. In his indefatigable efforts, shrewd appraisals and powerful advocacy, he was the ideal complement to the languid, relaxed and somewhat detached Lincoln. Lincoln owed his nomination to Davis’s hard work and explosive outbursts. ‘Judge Davis is furious,’ wrote a mutual friend of a not infrequent state of affairs. ‘Never saw him work so hard and so quiet in all my life’. Before the Convention, ‘Long John’ Wentworth, Mayor of Chicago, former Democrat and engaged in a bitter feud with Norman Judd, advised Lincoln, ‘Do like Seward does, get some one to run you’. Lincoln was reluctant to acquire an alter ego like Seward’s Thurlow Weed, preferring instead to wait on capricious fate and the hard reckoning of events; but in so far as Lincoln could be organized, he was ‘run’ by Judge Davis.21

The Convention was due to begin on 16 May. It was held in a new wooden building called the ‘Wigwam’. A reporter, Murat Halstead of the Cincinnati Commercial, who was to make his reputation with graphic accounts of the Convention proceedings, described its improvised excellence for the occasion.

The city of Chicago is attending to this convention in magnificent style. It is a great place for large hotels, and all have their capacity for accommodation tested. The great feature is the Wigwam erected within the past month expressly, for the use of the Convention, by the Republicans of Chicago, at a cost of seven thousand dollars. It is a small edition of the New York Crystal Palace, built of boards, and will hold ten thousand persons comfortably – and is admirable for its acoustic excellence. An ordinary voice can be heard through the whole structure with ease.

The Republicans at least escaped some of the discomforts inflicted on the Democrats at Charleston. The language, style and deportment of nominating conventions was already highly developed and is immediately recognizable to the modern reader. Cries taken up by journalists were ceaselessly discussed, debated, extended; their reiteration often led to as much misunderstanding as understanding. ‘The favourite word of the convention is “solemn”’, wrote Halstead. ‘In Charleston, the favourite was “crisis”. Here there is something every ten minutes found to be solemn’. But there is one major difference between the nineteenth-century Convention and its twentieth-century counterpart; it actually chose nominees, it did not merely confirm their right to carry the nomination. Consequently, enormous effort was invested in exhorting the delegates to choose this or that candidate. Their ears were assaulted by a stream of loud, passionate advocacy. Their eyes were charmed by fancy decoration, portraits of revered political heroes and the unusual or just plain bizarre. ‘The curiosity of the town’, wrote Halstead, ‘ – next to the Wigwam – is a bowie knife seven feet long, weighing over forty pounds’. On one blade was inscribed ‘Will always keep a “Pryor” engagement – a reference to Roger Pryor, a Virginia secessionist. The Convention was just as much theatre as political forum. Groups of men were enjoined to shout chants for their candidate; here Lincoln, a local figure, enjoyed an enormous advantage. Bargains were struck on the convention floor, gossip, the lifeblood of politics and the addiction of professional politicians, was exchanged, and agreement was reached. As Halstead made clear, ‘the amount of idle talking that is done is amazing’.

Men gather in little groups, and with their arms about each other, and chatter and whisper as if the fate of the country depended upon their immediate delivery of the mighty political secrets with which their imaginations are big. There are a thousand rumours afloat, and things of incalculable moment are communicated to you confidentially, at intervals of five minutes.

… The current of the universal twaddle this morning is that ‘Old Abe’ will be the nominee.

Allan Nevins rightly described this gathering as ‘bedlamite confusion’. Experts at political gatherings are often proved wrong in their predictions, and the most striking feature of conventions in the nineteenth century was their propensity for throwing aside famous and accomplished candidates in favour of the comparatively untried and inexperienced man. In 1852 the Democrats had chosen Franklin Pierce, a man overwhelmed by his responsibilities and unequal to the demands of his high office; in 1860 the Republican Party was rather more fortunate.22

The confusion and loquacity of the proceedings at Chicago at first sight appeared to be an obstacle to reaching a wise decision as to who should lead the party into the most important race since the unopposed election of George Washington in the first presidential election of 1792. On 16 May David Wilmot, now past his best, was appointed chairman. ‘He is a dull, chuckel headed booby looking man’, Browning thundered in his diary, ‘and makes a very poor presiding officer’.23

At the beginning of the Convention a member of the Rhode Island delegation reminded the hall portentously that ‘we are here on important business’. But despite the encomiums praising the ‘Wigwam’ there was so much bustle, confusion and noise that his voice could not be heard. The first two days were spent hammering out the party’s platform, not an easy business at any time, but particularly muddled on this occasion. The platform was drawn up by a committee drawn largely from the West, though its chairman, Wilmot, came from Pennsylvania. One of its first actions was to remove a reference to ‘those twin relics of barbarism, polygamy and slavery’ which had adorned the 1856 platform. John Brown’s raid was condemned as ‘among the gravest of crimes’, and the Republican Party pledged itself to introducing legislation to abolish slavery in the territories when it was ‘necessary’. The 1856 platform had called for ‘positive legislation’. The slight change of emphasis was more apparent than it was real. Although it seemed to hint at favouring Douglas’s notion of popular sovereignty, actually the platform stated categorically that territorial legislatures had no power to ‘give legal existence to slavery’; popular sovereignty itself was dismissed as ‘a deception and fraud’. The implication of the document was that territories were offered by the Republicans the choice of either ridding themselves of slavery or having it done for them by congressional action. The illegal slave trade was denounced, calls were made to admit Kansas as a free state, and the Dred Scott decision was condemned though it was not directly referred to. The rising tide of southern secessionist rhetoric was denounced as ‘an avowal of contemplated treason’; this could not be tolerated and it was ‘the imperative duty of an indignant people sternly to rebuke and forever silence’ murmurs of secession. Although there was much talk of moderating the Republican stance during the 1860 campaign by comparison with Frémont’s campaign four years previously, the platform remained consistent with the main themes of Republicanism, simply expressing them in more guarded and less inflammatory language. It pledged to maintain ‘the right of each state to order and control its own domestic institutions’ and concluded with a flourish with a general reference to the Declaration of Independence, excoriating the ‘new dogma’ that the Constitution allowed the carrying of slavery into the territories, and instead declared it ‘our duty’ to uphold the constitutional guarantee against the deprivation of life, liberty and property.24

Of course, politicians were not transfixed with sectional issues and the platform concerned itself with measures other than those dealing with congressional action and slavery. In 1856 more than half of the resolutions adopted by the Republican Party had been associated with the slavery problem; the only other matter it had addressed was government assistance to the construction of a Pacific railroad. An exclusive focus on this would have bored and dissatisfied the voters. A firm though not vituperative reference was made criticizing Nativism. Republicanism, as in 1856, would not side with those who demanded changes in the naturalization laws and the reduction in citizen rights and civil liberties ‘hitherto accorded to immigrants from foreign lands’. This was an allusion to the Two Year Amendment introduced in Massachusetts which had laid down a two year period of residence before naturalized citizens were allowed to vote or hold office. Other planks concentrated on economic issues. River and harbour improvements, and a Pacific railroad were called for, as were a homestead law and a measure of tariff protection. The increased emphasis on economic issues is an important stage in the evolution of Republican identity, representing both its ideological and pragmatic facets. The homestead proposal may be interpreted as the northern vision for the territories and a counterweight to the extension of slavery. The stress on tariffs was mild and no doubt was focused on anxiety over this issue expressed by the delegations representing New Jersey and Pennsylvania, especially the latter, a key state in the election. The platform’s authors did not trouble themselves with the likelihood that the leaders of the Republican Party would be required to cope with organized violence within the next six months; here was politics ‘as usual’; peace would continue as it always had; war, for all the chilling rhetoric, was not only out of sight but also out of mind.

When submitted for the approval of the Convention, the platform raised the temperature a few degrees because the veteran anti-slavery campaigner, Joshua Giddings, attempted to restore the direct quotation from the Declaration that ‘all men are created equal’. At first he was voted down. What ensued was not a profound clash between the radical anti-slavery group and those of a more conservative disposition, but as Fehrenbacher suggests, ‘a debate over how much rhetorical padding should be included in a statement of party principles’. Freed momentarily from the need for judicious weighing of words and expediency, members of the Convention indulged themselves in soaring sentiments and elevated aspirations, and the quotation was restored. The platform then received a vote of unanimous approval and a cheer. In the early evening, at about 6 p.m., of this the second day of the Convention, the delegates decided to adjourn and reserve the selection of a presidential candidate to the following day’s proceedings. This proved to be a crucial decision because it gave the various rivals of the front runner, William H. Seward, more time in which to prepare and complete their various bargains with one another.25

The candidates vying for the Republican nomination were a distinguished and ambitious group, perhaps as a group among the most able that ever presented itself for a presidential nomination in the history of the United States. Seward was former Governor of New York, Zachary Taylor’s eminence grise in his short-lived Administration, the hammer of the Know Nothings, and senior Senator of New York. Seward believed that he had a just claim to the nomination, not only because of his distinguished record but also because he was widely viewed as the leader of the Republican Party and one of its most eloquent spokesmen. He was not frightened of using high-flown (if somewhat stilted) language. Seward began the convention with a formidable lead and a great measure of respect from the assembled delegates. Yet the question that they kept asking was quite simple, could Seward win? Winning the future contest was what counted – not displaying a distinguished past record. The Republicans were after all an opposition party and reassuring the electorate was an important objective. Here Seward’s past expostulations concerning ‘irrepressible conflict’ seemed rather more radical than they actually were. He had also offended too many people. His enemy in the New York Republican Party, Horace Greeley, the editor of the New York Tribune, hypocritically posed as a Seward supporter while actually pointing out his weaknesses. Seward’s alter ego, Thurlow Weed, dispensed from his broad coat a faint odour of corruption. The drunken and rowdy behaviour of the Seward supporters, moreover, did not win over any waverers, who were affronted rather than impressed with their beery denunciations of other candidates, braying voices delivering their verdicts in clouds of alcoholic fumes. But the central argument against Seward was that he could not carry the crucial states in the Lower North – Illinois, Pennsylvania, Indiana. So important was it for the Republicans to carry the major northern states that Governor John A. Andrew decreed that the Massachusetts delegation would be guided in its choice of candidate by whatever consensus these states arrived at. Being a front runner, the ‘leader’, as many candidates have found, is an unenviable place in American politics; possession of this tide has often extracted a high price from the man widely expected to win. Henry S. Lane, the Republican candidate for Governor in Indiana claimed, so it was said, ‘hundreds of times’ that Seward could not take Indiana. Repeated a sufficient number of times, such warnings began to take their toll on the confidence of delegates committed to Seward. Yet with all his advantages, he was overconfident. Seward did not fail to gain the nomination, he succeeded in losing it.26

The other candidate with a real claim to the nomination in terms of past contributions and achievement was former Senator and now Governor Salmon P. Chase of Ohio (who was elected for a second term in 1857). Chase was a man of principle, a sincere champion of legal and voting rights for Negroes; his career had shown courage and real intellectual ability. Yet he had a chilling and elusive personality inclined to tiresome pomposity, and Chase did not trouble to hide his own high opinion of his inestimable worth. Because of his advanced views on granting Negroes the franchise, he was deemed unelectable, and in any case, whatever his other merits, here was not a man to charm the voters. Conceited to a fault, Chase lacked the political horse sense to organize his campaign, believing that the delegates would acknowledge the extent of his abilities as readily as he did himself. Chase was very quickly sidelined by those who took pains to organize themselves. On the conservative side, Edward Bates, from the important Border state of Missouri, was a strong candidate. He was deemed ‘sound’ on slavery, dour and rather dull, certainly not prone to outlandish statements, and had little to explain away. Bates initially enjoyed the support of Lincoln for these reasons. He would reassure the South. But Bates, although he found some favour in states, like Indiana, who had pro-southern counties, was tainted by cooperation with the Know Nothings in 1856. He would antagonize German voters in the old North West and cancel out his advantages. Moreover, Bates lacked a solid base, unlike Chase or Lincoln, and there were even doubts as to whether he could carry his own state. But he enjoyed the support of powerful and vocal friends, like Horace Greeley (who saw him as a powerful weapon with which to hit Seward), and the Blair dynasty. Simon Cameron had a strong base in Pennsylvania but no constituency outside it. His wealth and influence were feared. (It was common knowledge but not proven that he had a corrupting effect.) Cameron was one of the most formidable political figures of his time and had to be treated with caution; he could not be written off.

Finally, there was Lincoln. Lincoln’s greatest asset was that he was not a front runner and nobody expected him to win. Lincoln was hardly an unknown figure on the American political circuit. The Lincoln-Douglas debates had received much attention, his address to the Cooper Union in New York and a number of speeches in New England had been well received, and had brought him into the front rank of Republican figures. But his record of office-holding was limited (even Franklin Pierce had sat in the Senate). Consequently, he was the kind of politician who was respected by his peers and those who were politically active, but comparatively unknown to the general public. The gathering hordes of commentators had not bothered to include him on a list of twenty-one prominent candidates; when his name was included in their reports it was confused with Abram. Yet coming from behind and out of a shroud of obscurity was Lincoln’s greatest strength. A Lincoln candidacy seemed to act as a lowest common denominator of support. Men who were not passionately for Lincoln, like Orville Hickman Browning, found him not sufficiently objectionable as an alternative when other candidates failed to attain the target of 233 votes necessary to gain the nomination.27

The Convention which chose the greatest of American presidents began its deliberations on the third day, 18 May. As this act culminated in the crisis which resulted in Civil War, it was appropriate (as in much American democratic display) that the day should begin with strong military overtones. The convulsions of noise and turbulent confusion continued unabated. The Seward forces then committed a blunder. Halstead reported that

The Sewardites marched as usual from their headquarters at the Richmond House after their magnificent band, which was brilliantly uniformed, epaulets shining on their shoulders, and white and scarlet feathers waving from their caps… . They were about a thousand strong, and, protracting their march a little too far, were not all able to get into the Wigwam…. They were not where they could scream with the best effect in responding to the mention of the name of William H. Seward.28

Judge Davis would not have committed this kind of foolish error: it reflected Seward’s smug, overconfident approach. Davis and Lincoln’s friends had spent the first two days of the Convention working painstakingly (often all through the night) on Lincoln’s behalf. Davis was determined not to make unnecessary enemies. His strategy was guided by a shrewd piece of advice given by Wentworth to Lincoln. ‘Look out for prominence. When it is ascertained that no one of the prominent candidates can be nominated then ought to be your time’. But Lincoln revealed an unexpected strength on the floor of the Convention, and as it moved forward the Lincoln dark horse revealed a lighter hue; keeping control of his forces was Davis’s major problem, so that the horse was not blown before it reached the winning post. Davis had received a note from Lincoln, ‘Make no contracts that will bind me’. Davis was reported to have exclaimed ‘Lincoln ain’t here and don’t know what we have to meet!’ Lincoln evidently did not wish to lose any freedom of manoeuvre. As the complexion of his cabinet would have a direct influence on the course of the secession crisis, the debate over the kind of commitments entered into by Davis at Chicago is an important question, and requires scrutiny. It has been mixed up by post-war mythology. There was a view that Lincoln ‘emerged’ at Chicago almost indicated by the hand of God. Alternatively, another view was propounded, the antithesis of this legend, that Lincoln’s nomination was the product of a ‘dirty’ deal put together by corrupt politicians, though the Great Martyr himself rose above the sordid undergrowth. Both these versions reflect the moralizing that politicians themselves felt constrained to make about the practice of politics under the spoils system. As Davis telegraphed Lincoln on 15 May, ‘Nothing will beat us but old fogy politicians. The hearts of the delegates are with us’. The importance of this attitude in developing political action and the secession drama cannot be underrated.29

Davis’s first step was to secure the allegiance of the Indiana delegation. A controversy has developed over whether this was achieved by the inducement of a cabinet place for Caleb B. Smith, the most prominent member of the delegation. Historians have been engaged by a desire either to extricate the great men of American politics from the sordid undergrowth of the political system, or to denigrate them by involving those of unsullied reputation in its mire. Much of this comment seems superfluous. Davis was not the candidate and therefore could hardly give cast iron commitments of cabinet places to ambitious men; Lincoln was not present at Chicago and, therefore, could justly claim later to Indiana politicians (including Schuyler Colfax, Smith’s main Indiana rival for preferment), that he had made no such commitments; as indeed he had not. What Davis did do, and he was hardly alone in this, as Fehrenbacher points out (for the Seward forces not only had cabinet places to trade but also financial backing dispensed by Weed for a number of state elections), was to give understandings, the detail of which could be worked out at a later date. A former Whig, Smith had worked closely with Lincoln during Zachary Taylor’s election campaign; he was not a stranger foisted on the unsuspecting Lincoln. Indeed he did render sterling service for the Lincoln campaign. T think him the finest speaker in the Union’, Davis remarked. But though much of this debate revolves around a terminological quibble coated with moralizing, what really mattered was choosing a candidate who would win. All professional politicians are dedicated to winning elections; promises of any kind are superfluous unless the votes are piled up in their favour. The debate over promises to Smith is significant only because Lincoln did win. Therefore, what really counted with the Indiana delegation was the view that Seward could not take the western states, as a clean sweep of the North was vital if they were to win the presidency. Their switch to Lincoln began the process that transferred confidence from Seward to Lincoln. It was important for this change first and foremost; an offer of place, however informally proffered, was a bonus.30

David Potter has some wise words on this whole process. Do offers of office change votes? We cannot be sure of the mental gymnastics through which professional politicians exercise their minds, nor the exact order of their thoughts; ‘shrewd politicians routinely try to get as much advantage as possible from agreeing to do what they already decided that they are going to do in any case. The fact that promises were demanded and given does not prove that votes were changed’. The Lincoln team’s strategy was repeated with the Pennsylvania and New Jersey delegations. Of the former, Davis exclaimed to Joseph Medill, ‘Damned if we haven’t got them!’ Cameron certainly formed the impression that he had been offered a cabinet place whatever the vague circumlocutions employed by Davis. On the afternoon of the first day of the Convention the four delegations moving towards Lincoln – Illinois, Indiana, New Jersey and Pennsylvania – all to some extent Border states, either with large pro-southern minorities among their voters or contiguous to slave states – met in David Wilmot’s rooms in sub-convention. Davis chaired this meeting assisted by Caleb Smith. Greeley interrupted the meeting. He asked whether they had agreed on a candidate; when informed in the negative, Greeley at once reported to the New York Tribune that Seward would be nominated the following morning; this was not a contingency that Greeley viewed with much pleasure. But discretion at this stage was vital. If Davis had disclosed that this important group of delegations was coalescing around Lincoln then vital momentum would have been lost by attracting immense pro-Seward pressure on what was only a loose coalition. That it was beginning to form around Lincoln, and not the champion of the Border states, meant that in the forthcoming contest, Bates had no hope.31

But this meeting revealed unexpected Lincoln voting strength. This was reflected in the enormous din of well-orchestrated applause which greeted the announcement of Lincoln’s name being set down for nomination; his supporters, well drilled by Davis, had been better organized than those of Seward, many of whom waited impatiently outside the Wigwam. The balloting began at noon. Lincoln himself was sure that he would not win. Seward gained 175½, Lincoln 102, Cameron 50½, Chase 49, Bates 48. Lincoln had unexpectedly gained votes in New England states – New Hampshire, Maine, Connecticut and Massachusetts. He also had a majority in two slave states, Virginia and Kentucky. He had acquired this total without the Pennsylvania delegation who had voted for their ‘favourite son’, Cameron. Seward needed another 60 to win. His managers were not downcast, and felt that the prestige of their candidate would draw additional votes. ‘Call the roll! Call the roll!’ were the cries in a hot and excited atmosphere. On the second ballot, 48 of the Pennsylvania delegation’s votes were switched, not to Seward, but to Lincoln along with the 10 votes of Vermont. More votes were gained by Lincoln in New England, and also in Delaware, Ohio (Chase’s home state) and Iowa. A movement towards the dark horse was discernible. Lincoln now had 181 votes, Seward 184½, Chase 42½, Bates 35, with 42 committed to an odd assortment of candidates. It was the third ballot which proved to be the decisive turning point. There was a mathematical possibility that at this point the Seward column would turn to Chase, not to Lincoln. But to have done so would have replaced a candidate who it was felt would just fail to win with one who would definitely lose – hardly an inviting prospect. The excitement and cheering for Lincoln reached a climax.

In a moment of high drama as the balloting began, Massachusetts suddenly transferred 4 votes from Seward to Lincoln, and as in 1852, an avalanche of votes fell into Lincoln’s column. The Blairs switched Maryland votes from Seward to Lincoln, he received 52 votes from Pennsylvania, and more votes from New Jersey, Ohio gave him 29 votes and only 19 to Chase (Chase was gravely affronted by this splitting of the Ohio delegation). The total indicated a triumphant victory was in the offing, 231½ for Lincoln, 180 for Seward. Lincoln needed only another 1½ votes for nomination. ‘A profound stillness fell upon the Wigwam; the men ceased to talk and the ladies to flutter their fans; one could distinctly hear the scratching of pencils and the ticking of telegraph instruments on the reporters’ tables’. The newspapers were unclear exactly as to the source of the handful of votes required for victory, but it appears that an Ohio delegate suddenly changed 4 votes from Chase to Lincoln. This was more than enough: cheers erupted from Lincoln’s supporters, tears filled the eyes of Seward’s men. Later in the afternoon Hannibal Hamlin of Maine (a former Democrat who would balance Lincoln the former Whig) was selected as his vice presidential running mate. This cemented the alliance already hinted at by Governor Andrew between the prairie states and New England. Davis telegraphed Lincoln, ‘Don’t come here for God’s sake. You will be telegraphed by others to come. It is the united advice of your friends not to come. This is important’.32

Davis was wary of precipitating an unpleasant scene, with Seward’s supporters perhaps jeering Lincoln if he appeared at the Wigwam. This would hardly help the Republican Party at the beginning of the campaign. At any rate, it was not unusual for nominees to stay away from the Convention, a tradition which even Douglas had not broken at Charleston. Thus was nominated another in the long line of ‘available’ rather than qualified presidential candidates. Would Lincoln be another Franklin Pierce, who ended up being more despised by members of his own party than he was by his opponents? Lincoln had twice failed to gain entrance to the Senate; he had served only one term in the House; he had never sponsored any important legislation; never ran a state government or a department of the Federal government. Why should this man carry his party’s banner in such an important election? The answer is simple. He was the best candidate, and could carry areas that would not have voted for Seward. His allies in Indiana and Pennsylvania were proved right. Time would reveal his staggering potential and elevation of spirit. He was inexperienced but sagacious. Experience does not always confer wise judgement, as the career of Buchanan – who was perhaps too experienced in the wrong things – or indeed Seward’s behaviour in the secession crisis demonstrates. Immense strains would be imposed on the candidate, not least an exposure to which he was unaccustomed and not well suited to endure. But he was tougher than Pierce (though both suffered a tragic loss in the death of a son after their election as president), more determined and resilient. He was not only the available man, but the only man. At this date, such potential was not revealed to members of his party; certainly not to Seward, who felt slighted by a nonentity; perhaps it was concealed even from Lincoln himself.

In the event, the Convention committee made the short journey to Springfield and visited the nominee in his modest though comfortable house. Carl Schurz wrote that ‘Most of the Committee had never seen him before, and gaped at him with surprised curiosity. He … did not present the appearance of a statesman… . Then followed some informal talk … in which the hearty simplicity of his nature shone out, and … the Committee took its leave’. Neither Lincoln’s appearance, which was more imposing and comely than many contemporaries would admit, nor his gait, which was unimpressive, nor his style and speech, fitted mid-nineteenth-century stereotypes of ‘statesmanship’. Lincoln, a sensitive, brooding man, aware of the insoluble difficulties he would inherit should he be elected, ‘looked much moved, and rather sad, … feeling the heavy responsibility thrown upon him’. His confidence could not have been boosted by the knowledge that so many were already concluding that he was unequal to these challenges. Those who met him that afternoon were not unimpressed. Judge W. D. Kelley of Pennsylvania said to Schurz on leaving, ‘Well we might have done a more brilliant thing, but we could certainly not have done a better thing’. He was wrong on the first count, but as time would prove, absolutely right on the second.33

The presidential campaign

The campaign began with some unfinished Democratic business. In June the Democrats reassembled in the no less sweltering city of Baltimore, Maryland. Once more the choice of venue appeared calculated to increase the temperature of a highly agitated and febrile body politic. Moves were still afoot to replace Douglas with a compromise candidate; these failed utterly because of the determination of the north western bloc of delegates who refused to shift from the standpoint of the Dorr Letter. They were doubtless fortified in their resolve by knowledge of Lincoln’s appeal in their section. Douglas himself moved decisively to ensure that he controlled the Convention and that the complacency of Charleston was swept away (he had boosted his chances by inserting his own supporters in the places vacated by ‘ultras’ who had resigned from the party). At last the majority report on the platform was accepted; the southern response was again to stage a walk-out; the convention adjourned. The following day balloting of the remaining 192½ votes of the original 303 began, and on the second ballot Douglas gained 181½; it was deemed that he had secured a two-thirds majority, and at last, after a struggle lasting more than ten years, Douglas was nominated for the presidency. The essence of his platform was that contentious issues, such as the relative power of the Congress to impose its views on ‘domestic relations’ in the territories, should be decided by the Supreme Court. It was an irony that at the moment of his triumph, Douglas should turn to the expedient adopted by his greatest enemy, President Buchanan, to solve the intractable problems facing him.34

In a short acceptance speech, Douglas warned of future hazards. He would fight on popular sovereignty and a need to avoid extremes of arguments. ‘Secession is disunion. Secession from the Democratic Party means secession from the federal Union’. Several days later in a letter formally accepting the Democratic nomination, Douglas wrote, ‘The Federal union must be preserved… [ and] the constitution must be maintained inviolate in all its parts’ – a theme which would be reiterated frequently in the early months of 1861. If the United States faced revolutionary ructions, he asked ‘where shall we look for another Clay, another Webster, or another Cass to pilot the ship of State over the breakers into the haven of peace and safety’. But the time for pilots had passed; Douglas now embarked on a bout of frantic activity in which he would climb the mast of the ship of state and gaze over storm whipped seas and shout cries of warning. But could dramatic action now replace an earlier generation’s skill at reconciliation? Douglas would soon be put to the test.35

It simply remained for the rupture of the Democratic Party into sectional groupings to be confirmed. Southern delegates trooped into the Maryland Institute of Baltimore and adopted the Charleston platform favouring explicit protection of slave property: ‘it is the duty of the Federal Government in all its departments to protect, when necessary, the rights of persons and property in the Territories, and wherever else its constitutional authority extends’. The favoured candidate of the pro-slave rump of the Democratic Party, John C. Breckinridge, began to reveal that marked ambivalence towards secession so characteristic of southern moderates. Formerly Buchanan’s vice president, Breckinridge was by his lights an honourable and decent, though ambitious man. He had originally indicated his loyalty to the Union and to an indivisible Democratic Party; he had given a pledge that in his view the election of Lincoln could not justify secession. At first he was inclined to reject the nomination proffered by the seceders. Then he was persuaded to accept it on the grounds that his strength (especially in the South) would be such that he would force Douglas to withdraw from the election and the Democratic Party would be reunited around a new candidate, either James Guthrie of Kentucky or Robert Hunter of Virginia. This was a nonsensical plan, which indicated just what miscalculations the southern slave moderates were capable of, and their dreadful judgement of character. Douglas would not be intimidated in this way. He retorted that if he stood down, his supporters would vote for Lincoln. But whatever its practicality, the main significance of Breckinridge’s timorous and reluctant candidacy was that it continued to play into the hands of the secessionists. It confirmed the split in the Democratic ranks; it made the election of Lincoln more likely; and, finally, should a Republican occupy the White House, the secessionists would again force the moderates’ hands by demanding that they take a position on secession; at every turn they lost the initiative.36 At any rate, Breckinridge accepted (and chose as his vice presidential nominee, Joseph Lane), and his ambivalence was reflected in the anxiety that many delegates felt at Yancey’s closing address which wreaked of ‘the ultraism of Alabama’ and might frighten voters. Yet such men as Rhett and Yancey forced the pace of the controversy whatever the fears of others, who eventually caught up with them, and then made more demands in the secessionist direction. Yancey, Rhett and Hammond truly began to exercise power without responsibility. The southern delegates ‘sick of the very sound of the human voice’ adjourned with relief and hurried off to the campaign.37

The significance of the campaign of 1860 is self-evident. In the words of one American historian, ‘Certainly no election in our history precipitated such a serious national crisis or had such profound consequences’.38 But despite the dangers that many agreed the United States was facing, what is striking about the election is a determination to continue with politics ‘as usual’. Even the most rabid secessionists awaited the verdict of the election and took no action until after its verdict was delivered. All agreed that whatever happened afterwards, the election itself was one of the most orderly and least frenetic in recent years. This state of mind had one pernicious consequence. It contributed to a somewhat smug view that no matter how grave the crisis, the system would somehow cope with it and that actual violence could be avoided. Although there was much loose talk of war, men had grave difficulty actually visualizing organized violence on a grand scale. Perhaps this serious state of affairs was somehow the fault of the selfish and wicked manoeuvrings of the ‘politicians’. Many politicians themselves accepted this view. The solution to the difficulty in their opinion lay in the replacement of the current group of blundering politicians with themselves, as they were not ‘politicians’ in a pejorative sense but men of principle. As for the South, this talk of secession had been heard so many times before and it had come to nothing. The secessionist threats were not believed, or if they were taken seriously, it was expected that some concessions would soon persuade southerners to embrace once more the bosom of the Union. The election of 1860 contributed to a dangerous complacency that aggravated the gathering sectional crisis. The usual alarm signals which prompted special care in deterring war were not sounded in politicians’ minds with the urgency that was needed.

The irony of this development was that the 1860 presidential election cannot be described as a national election. Parties serving sectional interests operated within those sections and secured convincing victories within their boundaries. The Republican Party did not operate effectively within the slave states; the Deep South had for some years been a one party region. In the North, the voters were confined to a choice between Lincoln and Douglas; in the South, Breckinridge vied with Bell. Only in Missouri and on the Pacific coast was there anything remotely resembling a four-cornered race.39 The most significant fact was the splitting of the Democratic Party, the last national party. Douglas calculated that, given his local strength in the free states, if he could hold on to the Democratic gains of 1856, he could still win. But this proved an illusion (probably not shared by the local bosses whose prime concern was preserving intact their local satrapies in order to be prepared to retake lost ground two years later and in the 1864 presidential election). Losing the entire South was a tremendous blow to Douglas from which he could not recover. To increase his appeal in the South, he wanted as his running mate Alexander H. Stephens, a former Whig. Douglas himself was not in the best of health, and as Stephens did not enjoy robust health either, Douglas was persuaded to pick former Governor Herschel V. Johnson, a Georgia Democrat.

Douglas was determined to make no concessions to those who favoured secession. In his abrasive way he attacked them head-on. On 6 September 1860, in a speech at Baltimore, Douglas suggested that secessionists wanted Lincoln’s election because it would justify secession. T do not believe that every Breckinridge man is a disunionist’, he declared, ‘but I do believe that every disunionist in America is a Breckinridge man’. He believed, quite rightly, that he was the only Democrat who could carry the free states, and if he could persuade southerners that he posed no threat to slavery, they would turn to him. He made the fatal calculation that once they realized they faced the alternative of voting for him and assuring the safety of the Union, or Lincoln and secession, the voters would turn in overwhelming numbers to him. What Douglas overlooked was the sectional factor. The Republican strength undercut his regional base. Actually the polarization of voters around sectional issues resulted in Douglas falling through the middle. He could pile up popular votes in both sections without decisively winning votes in the electoral college in either. True, the opposition to the Democrats was also split, but it proved to be more powerful within individual sections. A candidate occupying the middle ground sometimes fails to persuade voters to support him in overwhelming numbers.40 At any rate, Douglas decided that such a strategy demanded his personal advocacy, and for the second time in American history a presidential candidate decided to abandon the pose of remaining above the sordid contest for votes. Douglas actively campaigned on his own behalf (General Scott having set the precedent in 1852). As for Stephens, he gloomily contemplated the worst. When asked after the Baltimore Convention what he thought of affairs, he replied. ‘Why that men will be cutting one another’s throats in a little while. In less than twelve months we shall be in a war, and that the bloodiest in history’. Here was striking evidence that whatever claims would be made later, and not least by Stephens himself in A Constitutional View of the Late War Between the States (1868), the argument that in 1860–61 secession could be viewed with equanimity as merely a constitutional expedient was not convincing. The act of secession by an individual state, or collection of states, could never be regarded as simply an exercise in constitutional rights – a legalistic, clinical execution of a constitutional mechanism divorced from the political and social environment. The decision to secede from the Union was a political decision pregnant with disruption and civil war from the outset.41

The hideous potential consequences of this election were belied by Lincoln’s serene behaviour during the election campaign itself. He had a well-filled campaign treasury and could afford to put on a colourful display of marches and displays. Much attention was devoted to Lincoln’s humble origins and his career as a ‘rail splitter’. In this the campaign of 1860 resembled Harrison’s twenty years earlier, except that claims that Lincoln was born in a log cabin were not bogus. There were stalls selling fence nails; Springfield resembled, it was said, ‘a Hindoo bazaar’. The Illinois State Journal reported the existence of ‘A Political Earthquake! THE PRAIRIES ON FIRE FOR LINCOLN’. In Springfield an elephant was observed with its trunk wrapped around a banner declaring, ‘We are Coming!’ – the first recorded use of the symbol of the Republican Party. A somewhat monotonous campaign jingle caught the ear:

Ain’t I glad I joined the Republicans

Joined the Republicans, joined the Republicans

Ain’t I glad I joined the Republicans

Down in Illinois

The substance of the Republican campaign did not match the colour of its style. Lincoln made no speeches at all. He made no effort to reassure the South. He was determined not to become embroiled in local party feuds. His views, he averred, could easily be located in his many earlier speeches; ‘ bad men … North and South’ would only distort any further utterances for their own nefarious purposes. Thus the unfortunate, mythical figure which was painted in the South, reaching diabolic proportions, was not corrected. Lincoln was allegedly illegitimate, of Negro extraction, a cheap party hack with a traitorous Mexican War record, thrown up by the ‘Black Republican, free love, free Nigger Party’. It was put about in the South that if Lincoln was elected, Negroes would be granted the federal patronage. An Atlanta newspaper referred in colourful terms, in language that was becoming increasingly common by the late 1850s, to ‘drenching’ the Union in blood. Such phrases were all too easy to coin, rather more difficult to imagine in hard reality: ‘the South, the loyal South, the constitution South, would never submit to such humiliation and degradation as the inauguration of Abraham Lincoln’. Some historians have suggested that it was a pity that Lincoln made no statement of policy to reduce the impact of such hysteria. It was very doubtful whether Lincoln could have disposed of these falsehoods, for he could provide no reassurances without offending his core political support. He should have done more than make simple, pleasant effusions to parades and well wishers. He relied, too complacently, on the sentiment that ‘The good people of the South have too much good sense and good temper to attempt the ruin of the government’ – a somewhat exaggerated estimate of southern rationality when racial fears have been invoked. Secession he believed to be a hollow threat. Douglas refused to be intimidated and went South; he refused to be browbeaten and spelt out future prospects with a clarity and common sense which had deserted his Democratic rivals; he refused to indulge himself in hysterical fancies. Douglas ridiculed southern fears of the result of a Republican victory. ‘The President’, he proclaimed, ‘can do nothing except what the law authorises… . Four years will soon pass away, when the ballot box will furnish a peaceful, legal and constitutional remedy for all the evils and grievances with which the country may be afflicted’. Douglas probably neglected his north western heartland by his wanderings. Ridiculed and abused, crafty and facile, in the presidential election of 1860 Douglas dedicated himself to principle and did not profit by it. ‘I did not come here to ask your vote, nor your suffrages for office. I am not here on an electioneering tour. I am here to make a plea, an appeal for the invincibility of the Union’. Douglas was the moral victor of this campaign.42

Lincoln was already feeling the strength of pressure to make concessions to the South, notably from business interests from New England. Lincoln replied sternly in private that he would not bargain Republican principle for commercial prosperity. The twin pattern of the secession crisis – an unmollified and hysterical South raging at a somewhat complacent political class, combined with a strong urge to appease this section from the North East, pleas which fell on the deaf ears of a president whose firm resolve was underestimated by all – had fallen into place during the presidential election.43

The main themes of the Republican campaign were laid down by other speakers, often by men whom Lincoln had beaten for the nomination. This may have contributed to the later erroneous assumption that Lincoln’s administration would not be his own. For example, Salmon P. Chase, having offered ‘hearty and cordial support’, spoke on Lincoln’s behalf not only in Ohio but also in Kentucky and New York. His attacks on Douglas were stinging, but he made it abundantly clear in Kentucky that the election of a Lincoln Administration would not result in federal interference with slavery in the southern states but only in its restriction to the existing slave states and eviction from the territories. Even if Lincoln can be accused of ambiguity, his position was being defined for him. Chase affirmed that the Republican Party was antagonistic to ‘hostile aggression upon the constitutional rights of any State’. This could be read two ways, of course. The Republicans opposed the constitutional infringements of the slave power on the rights of northern states. Southerners viewed this constitutional ‘danger’ exclusively in terms of the potential danger that Republicanism posed for slavery in the southern states. ‘The object of my wishes and labors for nineteen years’, Chase wrote, ‘is accomplished in the overthrow of the Slave Power’ – by which he meant power over the northern states. An important thrust of the Republican campaign was a scathing attack on the corruption which had characterized the Buchanan Administration. Senator James W. Grimes of Iowa went so far as to conclude that ‘our triumph was achieved more because of Lincoln’s . .. honesty and the known corruption of the Democrats, than because of the negro question’. Lincoln’s image as ‘Honest Abe’ was very persuasive. Speakers tried to associate the Douglas Democrats with the Administration; every session of Congress, they declared, between December 1857 and June 1860 had discovered (mainly through the agencies of the Covode Committee and Congressman John Sherman’s investigation of the navy yards and Navy Department contracts) overwhelming evidence of Democratic corruption. The Republicans also suggested that the Constitutional Union Party had prostituted itself by forming an alliance with the anti-Lincoln forces. The Breckinridge Democrats were most sensitive to these allegations, and published a pamphlet detailing Republican abuses, for in truth, their record was hardly unblemished. Breckinridge’s declaration of love for the Union also provoked scorn. Yet this evidence of sensitivity to charges of corruption is important in indicating that the presidential election of 1860, contrary to some accounts, lacked an exclusive, obsessive focus on slavery and secession.44

Buoyed up by the state election results in mid-October in Pennsylvania, Ohio and Indiana which saw the election of Republican state tickets, Lincoln was optimistic as to his chances. The anti-Republican opposition mounted a fearsome campaign as a result to try and hold New York, but on the whole attempts at ‘fusion’ only confused the voters. At 9 p.m. on the evening of 6 November, Lincoln and his friend (and co-manager) Jesse K. Dubois wandered over to the Springfield telegraph office to hear the early returns. They were joined by Senator Lyman Trumbull. It was soon clear that Lincoln had carried New England and the Old North West. Cameron wired to say that a Republican victory in Pennsylvania was a certainty. ‘If we get New York that settles it’, Trumbull observed. As always, Lincoln remained calm and unagitated, as he had throughout the campaign. When news arrived that New York had indeed fallen into the Republican column, Dubois ran outside to inform the growing crowds, and the news was greeted with rumbustious enthusiasm: supporters went ‘perfectly wild; the Republicans were … singing, yelling. shouting!! Old men, young, middle aged, clergymen and all!’ The settlers of the Old North West have never been celebrated for understatement. As the telegraph then began to record the southern results, Lincoln said, ‘Now we shall get a few licks back’, for he did not gain a single southern electoral vote. His victory was indeed a sectional triumph.45

In the South the mood had swung from noisy swagger to grim foreboding. Miss Hopley, walking the streets of Richmond, ‘encountered crowds repeatedly’.

Long and continued shouts and huzzahs assailed one’s ears from time to time till towards midday. Success seemed to gleam around. By-and-by the shouts became less frequent. News from more distant regions must have changed the aspect of affairs and chilled their hopes.… By dusk a funeral cloud seemed to hang over the city … the silence of solitude had been sought by all.46

This gloomy foreboding was the prelude to drastic action in all the slave states, though the pace at which it progressed varied in individual states.

Who did Lincoln represent? Lincoln received less than 40 per cent of the total votes cast in the 1860 presidential election. The final tallies were: Lincoln 1,865,593, Douglas 1,382,713, Breckinridge 848,356, Bell 592,906; the scores in the electoral college were: Lincoln 180, Douglas 12, Breckinridge 72, Bell 39. It would appear at first sight that Lincoln was a minority president and that his victory had been distorted by the votes in the electoral college which did not represent opinion in the country. It was a commonplace on the Democratic side that they would have won without the party split at Charleston. ‘Our break up there’, a New York Democrat observed, ‘elected Mr Lincoln’. Certainly individual elections within states accentuated the divisions within Lincoln’s rivals; as under the British electoral system, the winner in each state won the total electoral vote however small the majority. Lincoln had few wasted votes – all were made to count in his favour. Presented at its worst, he obtained hardly a vote in ten states; in three others, Kentucky, Virginia and Maryland, his poll was minute; in Missouri his wasted votes numbered 17,028 and in Delaware 3,815; in New Jersey he got a slight majority in the electoral college on a minority of the popular vote. Compare this with Douglas. His wasted vote was enormous: 1,255,000 did not secure a single presidential elector. J. G. Randall refers to a ‘structural absurdity’ in the American electoral system which granted Lincoln victory even though his opponents secured over 900,000 votes more than him. Passing over the objection that such an absurdity is not unique to the United States, it seems to overlook the reality that the Republicans were a sectional party. One reason why the Republican appeal remained sectional was that the party was denied opportunities to organize in the South – often by force and intimidation. Yet whatever the hard, political realities, the democratic argument is not irrelevant to the outbreak of the Civil War because an important issue was the refusal of the South to acknowledge the verdict of the electorate and to accept a continuance of the normal workings of constitutional machinery, irrespective of the southern opinion of the personality of the victorious candidate. Disputation arising from Lincoln’s failure to win a majority of the popular vote seems academic. ‘This issue embraces more than the fate of these United States,’ Lincoln wrote later. ‘It presents to the whole family of man, the question, whether a constitutional republic, or a democracy… can, or cannot, maintain its territorial integrity’. But the issue was not a clear-cut one because Lincoln’s endorsement was sectional.47

Therefore what was significant was that Lincoln carried all the northern states except one; his victory in the popular vote here was overwhelming; the Democratic Party had lost its northern constituency. August Belmont reckoned that a switch of 28,000 votes in the New York state election out of a total of 700,000 would have kept it in the Democrat column. Belmont blamed this on Buchanan’s corruption, as change was ‘ardently desired by thousands of conservative men out of politics’. Haif a million votes had been added to the Republican total gained in 1856. But what is really significant was that Lincoln would have won even if the opposition vote had been combined against him. If examined critically, Lincoln’s tally reveals that only in three states did he win because the opposition was split, in New Jersey (where he did not win all the electoral votes), Oregon and California. These provided him with only 18 electoral votes; if these had been lost, Lincoln still had a cushion of 9 electoral votes to guarantee his election. The main sources of his support were not the Germans, as stressed by earlier historians, but disillusioned previous supporters of the American Party, who feared their vote would be wasted. Only in Massachusetts and Maine did Bell secure a larger share of former Fillmore voters than Lincoln; Lincoln himself was an old Whig; his criticisms of Know Nothingism had been made in private correspondence. It is very unlikely that Seward, had he been the Republican nominee, would have scored so heavily among Know Nothing voters, especially in Illinois and Indiana, where Lincoln’s margin of victory was not great. Lincoln’s strength appeared to be concentrated in the countryside rather than in the towns. The strength of the Democratic Party outside the South was essentially urban. ‘The strength of our opponents lies mainly in the populous cities’, Carl Schurz explained, ‘and consists largely of the Irish and uneducated mass of German immigrants’. The German vote remained divided, and was not noticeably pro-Republican in mid-western states (it tended to divide on religious lines with Roman Catholics remaining loyal to the Democrats, while Protestants turned to the anti-Catholic Republicans). It is also important to recall that sectional issues that concerned the politicians did not always agitate voters. Douglas complained at one point that ‘the Republicans in their speeches, say nothing of the nigger question, but all is made to turn on the Tariff. In the South, moreover, as the combined anti-Breckinridge vote amounted to 55 per cent of the votes cast, this contributed to the widespread feeling that southern unionism remained a thriving political force that would subdue secessionist feeling.48

It was reported that Lincoln said to a group of newsmen the day after the results had been declared that their problems were over, his about to begin. One initial problem that would haunt him for the next five months was the attention which he received from shameless office-seekers. Herndon wrote in disgust that ‘men and women rushed around [ Lincoln] – kissed his feet – rolled in the dust begging notice … begged for a hair from the tail of his old horse’. He was so importuned that Herndon found him refuge on the second floor of a warehouse where he could concentrate on making some initial drafts of his inaugural address. Herndon was dispatched to find reference works for the president-elect’s use. Lincoln would not make concessions to the South, he predicted. Rather than compromise, Lincoln would choose that ‘his soul might go back to God from the wings of the Capitol’. Herndon was not inaccurate in marking out Lincoln’s course, although the latter would have preferred less high-flown language.49 It was to the problem of naming a cabinet and actually putting together an administration under the extraordinary circumstances of the secession of southern states that now began to receive Lincoln’s close attention.

The aftermath

The results of the presidential election were felt mainly in the South. In the North a tense calm and nervous expectation fell over the section. In the South the white population fell into a hysterical state. The problem with a press which conducts its daily business in vituperative language is that no scope is left for increasing the temperature in times of strife. All sense of proportion was lost. As before, the opinions of ‘the South’ were really expressed by the Lower or Deep South; in the Upper South Unionism still prevailed because, among other reasons, some semblance of the two-party system survived. In the Deep South politicians, like Joseph E. Brown of Georgia, were well aware that Lincoln would not carry any slave states. T am strongly influenced by the belief… that Lincoln will carry the Democratic free states’, he wrote, ‘under the plurality rule of voting and will be elected by the popular vote’. Therefore the South was confronted by a cohesive northern bloc and no accumulation of southern votes could possibly force the election into the House of Representatives. In this calculation, of course, Brown was absolutely right. He greatly regretted the splitting of the Democratic Party and, on the whole, had favoured the Breckinridge-Lane ticket: ‘as a southern man, I think it best to vote for him, while I condemn the action of the wire workers who produced the split more for the gratification of selfish motives and vindictive feelings than for patriotic emotions’. This judgement was typical of the condemnations of the manoeuvres accompanying the conventions, though it was inaccurate; politicians had become a universal scapegoat.

It was significant, however, that though Brown objected both to the disruption of the Democratic Party and to the behaviour of some secessionists, that he was prepared to follow their lead, rather than reject their shrill and discordant cries. Little room for manoeuvre or thought had been granted by the southern defence of slavery. The ultimate logic of its defence demanded secession, no matter how many doubts might be harboured about the wisdom of seceding or departing from beloved institutions and the protection these had afforded slavery in the recent past. That these doubts were expressed by experienced and respected politicians seemed to carry no weight. The doubters seem to have been swept along by the torrent of denunciation, from belligerent even hysterical speeches, to hurried and careless action, to secession, to war. Thomas R. R. Cobb wrote to his wife in October 1860, on hearing of the Republican success in Pennsylvania, T can see no earthly hope of defeating [ the Republicans] in November, and success then, whether we will it or not, is inevitable disunion… . Separation is desirable, peaceable if we can, forcibly if we must’. He continued, expressing a measure of lamentation for the chosen course, the ‘Union or the South one or the other is irretrievably gone, if Lincoln is elected. I confess I feel very sad. The forebodings of my mind are of the most depressing character’.50

But men like Brown would not give a positive lead in expressing their doubts and overcome the gloomy forebodings of those who thought like Cobb. They became hedged in by the ultimate logic of the defence of slavery, secession, and the passion with which it was enunciated. To doubt a little seemed to suggest a disloyal or supine thought. The secessionists therefore gained the moral initiative and made a heartfelt appeal; the doubters had little to offer and nothing exciting to say. Often in a crisis a small number of people can be persuaded to support an audacious act, a novel programme, a step into the unknown, and this small number grants the necessary power to act. Such were the conditions in 1860. Douglas had exaggerated: although all secessionists – especially in the Upper South – voted for Breckinridge, by no means all his voters were secessionists. Indeed the Georgia picture highlights the small margin of secessionist support and the local pigment colours the broader, southern background. Breckinridge received 51,893, Bell 42,855 and Douglas 11,580 votes. The anti-Breckinridge vote was therefore greater than his tally. True, Breckinridge had won 72 out of the 120 electoral college votes of the slave states, but the combined popular vote for Douglas and Bell in these states exceeded that of Breckinridge by 100,000. Indeed Douglas had failed to carry the city of Richmond, later the Confederate capital, by a mere 400 votes. Yet the drama and fervour of the secessionist case prevailed despite the small margin of support. That it did so had more to do with fear and anxiety than with popularity.51

What responsibility did Lincoln bear for this mental state in the South? He may be criticized for not giving the impression that he was in charge, but it must be agreed that his task of reassurance – except in his own party – was a most difficult one. Apart from virtually dissolving the Republican Party and declaring slavery a benefit for the Union – an inconceivable eventuality – how else could exaggerated southern fears have been set to rest? This is perhaps reflective of the general southern mood, which sought to win what modern commentators would describe as a ‘zero-sum game’: they demanded all for no concession, and simultaneously risked all by demanding it. Lincoln stood on much stronger ground when he enquired during the campaign, ‘What is it I could say which would quiet alarm? Is it that no interference by the government, with slaves or slavery within the states is intended? I have said this so often already, that a repetition of it is but mockery, bearing an appearance of weakness’. This latter phrase was a clue to Lincoln’s future policy, should matters be put to the proof. Any comment would lead only to further hysteria, which would not redound to the credit of the Republican candidate. Further repetition might be possible ‘if there were no danger of encouraging bold bad men … who are eager for something new upon which to base new misrepresentations – men who would like to frighten me, or at least, to fix upon me the character of timidity and cowardice. They would seize upon almost any letter I could write, as being an “awful coming down” ‘. Whatever Lincoln’s stance would be, it would be resolute.52

But resolution would confront hysteria – always a combustible mixture. Lincoln was stigmatized, on the evidence of his ‘House Divided’ speech, as an abolitionist: ‘a fanatic of the John Brown type; the slave to one idea, who, in order to carry that out to its legitimate results, would override laws, constitutions, and compromises of every kind’, and as such, would weaken the institution of slavery in the states. Though there were conservative northerners who sympathized with slavery, chatter and fanaticism would ‘render slave property so precarious as regards its tenure, that it would become valueless to its owners’. That the time factor in this regard was ignored is a measure of how infrequently cool, sober calculations entered southern heads, even if Lincoln was the kind of politician they conjured up, which he was not. Nonetheless, there can be no doubt that the policy of hemming in slavery within its exiting boundaries would have profound implications for its enduring vitality. But whether this warranted the kind of action that the South was now contemplating was quite a different matter.53

Before the election results were known, doubters like Brown were already preparing their ground. He wrote a message to the Georgia legislature recommending that retaliation be invoked against those states whose ‘personal liberty laws’ had cancelled out the workings of the Fugitive Slave Act. When asked by the Governor of South Carolina what action he would take if Lincoln was elected, Brown replied that a convention of all the slave states would be required so that they could ‘take common action for the protection of the rights of all’. Lincoln’s defeat, he predicted correctly, was unlikely.

Should the question be submitted to the people of Georgia whether they would go out of the Union on Lincoln’s election without regard to the action of other states my opinion is they would determine to wait for an overt act.

Stressing the limits of action, and the limits of the possible, he pointed out that unless the South made a ‘respectable show’ of resistance’ it might not be possible to mobilize support for it again in the future. ‘Already the people of the North taunt us with inability and cowardice’. A concern with such moral imperatives drew politicians to act even though they had not thought out the object and compass of their acts or their consequences very systematically. But even sceptics were anxious to show that they were prepared for action of some kind and agreed that whatever was undertaken should be consonant with the action of other southern states and coordinated jointly with them.54 But the policy of waiting on events surrendered more of the initiative to the ‘ultras’, offered even less space for manoeuvre, and rendered the final act, when it came, a colossal gamble.

The presidential election of 1860 is also significant because of the splintering of the Democratic Party, the sole remaining political grouping which straddled the two sections. The Democratic Party was not only a national institution, but also a political force that was allied with, and drew much of its strength from, the South. The issues of the election did not revolve around the continuance of slavery in the states, only its restriction there. By refusing to accept the protection of northern Democrats, the southern pro-slavery party unwittingly (and in some cases wittingly) shattered that political grouping best able to defend their peculiar institution. They sought to replace it with a purely southern political structure which, if it sought to safeguard slavery outside the Union, would have to rely on force. This was a huge risk, for it staked the survival of slavery in the southern states on the southern ability to defend it. This had not been an issue in the election itself. By their precipitate and rash conduct, the secessionists dramatically increased the stakes of the contest and risked all that they held dear.

The election confirmed the political authority and electoral support of the Republican Party in the North. It confirmed in the most hard and fast manner possible that the two sections voted predominantly for different candidates on different issues. One of those sections now refused to accept that the majority vote as represented in the electoral college and the election of a Republican president was binding on the South because its message and candidate had been so thoroughly and wholeheartedly rejected there. Such an attitude not only challenged the continuance of the democratic process in the United States – which was central to the health of American nationalism and was the very essence of an evolving concept of American national identity and uniqueness – but also would represent a flagrant challenge to the authority of the central government. Could such a challenge be ignored? And if it could not, could the crisis be resolved without resort to force? Abraham Lincoln did not exaggerate when, on leaving Springfield, Illinois, to travel to Washington DC to take up his presidential burdens, he admitted that he faced a ‘task before me greater than that which rested upon Washington’.55

1. William Faulkner, The Mansion (London: Chatto … Windus, 1961) p. 126.

2. Nathaniel Hawthorne, The Scarlet Letter and Selected Tales (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1970), p. 44.

3. William E. Gienapp, ‘Who Voted for Lincoln?’, in Abraham Lincoln and the American Political Tradition (Amherst, MA: University of Massachusetts Press, 1986), p. 53.

4. David Potter, The Impending Crisis, 1848–1861 completed and ed. by Don E. Fehrenbacher (New York: Harper, 1976), pp. 415–17.

5. On the other hand, some of Douglas’s more fervent supporters were vociferous in announcing that they would prefer to vote for a Republican candidate than any other Democrat save Douglas. See Robert W. Johannsen, Stephen A. Douglas (New York: Oxford UP, 1973), p. 746.

6. Quoted in Damon Wells, Stephen Douglas: The Last Years, 1857–1861 (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1971, 1990), pp. 203, 211–12. President James Buchanan may have hoped that if the nomination became hopelessly deadlocked his name would be advanced as a compromise candidate around whom the party could rally. But Dr Wells exaggerates Buchanan’s desire for a second term, and if he was so keen on it, why should he have announced in his inaugural that he would not be a candidate for one?

7. Roy F. Nichols, The Disruption of American Democracy (New York: Macmillan, 1948), pp. 288–92, gives a brilliant, atmospheric account of the background to the convention; also see Nevins, Emergence of Lincoln (New York: Scribner’s, 1950), II, pp. 203–4.

8. Michael F. Holt, The Political Crisis of the 1850s (New York: Norton, 1983), pp. 245–6; quotation taken from Avery Craven, The Coming of the Civil War, 2nd edn (Chicago UP, 1966), p. 414; William B. McCash, Thomas R. R. Cobb: The Making of a Southern Nationalist (Macon, GA: Mercer UP, 1983), p. 96.

9. Wells, Douglas: The Last Years, pp. 204–5; Johannsen, Douglas, pp. 746–51.

10. Irving Katz, August Belmont: A Political Biography (New York: Columbia UP, 1968) p. 69; Johannsen, Douglas, pp. 751–3.

11. Wells, Douglas: The Last Years, pp. 204, 206.

12. Nichols, Disruption of American Democracy, pp. 296–9; Johannsen, Douglas, pp. 754–6.

13. Quoted in Anne Norton, Alternative Americas: A Reading of Antebellum Political Culture (Chicago UP, 1986), p. 19; Nevins, The Emergence of Lincoln, II, pp. 216–19; Johannsen, Douglas, p. 754; William E. Gienapp, ‘Politics Seem to Enter Everything: Political Culture in the North, 1840–1860’, Stephen E. Maizlish, Essays on American Antebellum Politics, 1840–1860 (College Station: Texas A…M UP, 1982), p. 51.

14. Craven, Coming of the Civil War, p. 425; Nevins, The Emergence of Lincoln, II, pp. 222–3; Wells, Douglas: The Last Years, pp. 208–10; but note Nichols’s view (The Disruption of American Democracy, p. 308) that the bulk of the ‘ultras’ calculated that belligerent behaviour would make a compromise more likely. See Kenneth Greenberg, Masters and Statesmen: The Political Culture of American Slavery (Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins UP, 1988), pp. vii-ix, 3–22.

15. William C. Davis, Breckinridge: Statesman, Soldier, Symbol (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State UP, 1974), pp. 204–5, 206–9, 211–18; Breckinridge shared the commonplace disgust for ‘politicians’ and their works, see especially ibid., p. 210; Holt, The Political Crisis of the 1850s, pp. 245–8.

16. Wells, Douglas: The Last Years, p. 207; Hans L. Trefousse, Andrew Johnson: A Biography (New York: Norton, 1989), pp. 123–4.

17. Johannsen, Douglas, pp. 704–5. The rush to put matters of principle ‘on the record’ alarmed some Douglas supporters. ‘Your prospects for the Presidency brighten every day,’ wrote one. ‘But you must quit writing letters’. See also Wells, Douglas: The Last Years, pp. 176, 213.

18. Davis, Breckinridge, pp. 217–20; Nichols, Disruption of American Democracy, pp. 300–5, 307–8; Nevins, Emergence of Lincoln, II, pp. 220–4.

19. Nichols, Disruption of American Democracy, pp. 310–14; Nevins, Emergence of Lincoln, II, pp. 223–4, 262–8.

20. Don E. Fehrenbacher, Prelude to Greatness: Lincoln in the 1850s (Stanford UP, 1962), pp. 5–8; Willard L. King, Lincoln’s Manager: David Davis (Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP, 1960), pp. 125–31, 133.

21. King, Davis, pp. 135–6; Don E. Fehrenbacher, ‘Lincoln and the Mayor of Chicago’, in Lincoln in Text and Context: Collected Essays (Stanford UP, 1987), p. 41.

22. Quoted in The Lincoln Reader, ed. Paul M. Angle (New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers UP, 1947), pp. 265–6; Nevins, Emergence of Lincoln, II, pp. 247–9; Fehrenbacher, Prelude to Greatness, pp. 154–6; Potter, Impending Crisis, p. 422.

23. The Diary of Orville Hickman Browning, 2 vols, ed. Theodore C. Pease and J. G. Randall (Springfield, IL: Illinois State Historical Library, 1925), I, p. 407 (entry for 16 May 1860).

24. Earlier historians, David Potter, Lincoln and his Party in the Secession Crisis (New Haven, CT: Yale UP, 1942, 2nd edn, 1962; New York: AMS reprint, 1979), pp. 30–2; J. G. Randall, Lincoln the President: From Springfield to Gettysburg, I (London: Eyre … Spottiswoode, 1947), p. 172, rather exaggerate the extent to which the platform of 1860 was watered down by comparison with 1856.

25. Randall, Lincoln the President, I, pp. 155–8, 172–3; on the platform Fehrenbacher, ‘The Republican Decision at Chicago’, in Lincoln in Text and Context, pp. 56–8, Potter, Impending Crisis, p. 423; Gienapp, ‘Who Voted for Lincoln?’, pp. 55–7; Nevins, Emergence of Lincoln, II, pp. 252–3; Fehrenbacher, Prelude to Greatness, p. 157.

26. Potter, Impending Crisis, pp. 424–6; Glyndon G. Van Deusen, William Henry Seward (New York: Oxford UP, 1969), pp. 221–7; Nevins, Emergence of Lincoln, II, p. 252.

27. Randall, Lincoln the President, I, pp. 161, 169, 171; Frederick J. Blue, Salmon P. Chase: A Life in Politics (Kent, OH: Kent State UP, 1987), pp. 126–32; Potter, Impending Crisis, pp. 426–8; Browning, Diary, I, pp. 395, 396 (entries for 8, 22 Feb. 1860); Kenneth M. Stampp, Indiana Politics during the Civil War, 2nd edn (Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1949, 1978), pp. 28–9, 36–8; James M. McPherson, Battle Cry of Freedom (New York: Oxford UP, 1988), pp. 218–19.

28. Quoted in Lincoln Reader, p. 268.

29. King, Davis, pp. 134–8; Nevins, Emergence of Lincoln, II, p. 256; Potter, Impending Crisis, p. 428.

30. On the ‘promises’, see Nevins, Emergence of Lincoln, II, pp. 256–7; on the view that no such promises were made, King, Davis, pp. 136–8. The nature of these ‘promises’ is all-important in this discussion. King is persuasive that nothing of a binding nature was offered; but none of his commentary seems inconsistent with my interpretation. Fehrenbacher, Prelude to Greatness, p. 159, is cogent and convincing. A short fair summary is McPherson, Battle Cry of Freedom, p. 219n35.

31. Potter, Impending Crisis, p. 428; Fehrenbacher, ‘The Republican Decision at Chicago’, p. 59; King, Davis, pp. 139–40; Nevins, Emergence of Lincoln, II, pp. 257–8.

32. I have based my account on the brilliant evocation in Nevins, Emergence of Lincoln, II, pp. 257–60; and the detailed discussion in King, Davis, pp. 140–1. Also see Benjamin P. Thomas, Abraham Lincoln (London: Eyre 8c Spottiswoode, 1953), p. 138; Stephen B. Oates, With Malice Toward None: The Life of Abraham Lincoln (New York: Harper & Row, 1977), p. 178.

33. Randall, Lincoln the President, I, p. 174; Fehrenbacher, ‘The Republican Decision at Chicago’, p. 61; Thomas, Lincoln, p. 139; Potter, Impending Crisis, pp. 429–30, concludes: ‘there seems good reason to believe that the Chicago strategies were realistic in thinking that Lincoln was the only genuine Republican who could be elected’.

34. Nichols, Disruption of American Democracy, pp. 314–19; Nevins, Emergence of Lincoln, II, pp. 268–72; Johannsen, Douglas, pp. 767–72; Davis, Breckinridge, p. 222.

35. Quoted in Johannsen, Douglas, pp. 772–3.

36. Wells, Douglas: The Last Years, pp. 245–6 casts doubt on the plan to force Douglas to withdraw in a ‘fusion’ scheme; Davis, Breckinridge, pp. 223–5, makes out a persuasive case for it.

37. Nichols, Disruption, pp. 319–20; Johannsen, Douglas, p. 772; Nevins, Emergence of Lincoln, II, pp. 268–72.

38. Randall, Lincoln the President, I, p. 174; Gienapp, ‘Who Voted for Lincoln?’, p. 51.

39. William R. Brock, Conflict and Transformation: The United States, 1844–1877 (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1973), p. 185.

40. But note Fehrenbacher’s persuasive argument (Prelude to Greatness, p. 160), that Douglas, leading a Democratic splinter group, was a more formidable opponent for Lincoln, especially in the North West, shorn of his pro-slavery allies.

41. Nichols, The Disruption of American Democracy, pp. 335–40; J. G. Randall and David Donald, The Civil War and Reconstruction, 2nd edn (Lexington, MA: D. C. Heath, 1969), p. 132; Nevins, Emergence of Lincoln, II, p. 262.

42. Wells, Douglas: The Last Years, pp. 253–8: Douglas was ‘a different man’ in October 1860 from his first foray in August; Johannsen, Douglas, pp. 789–92.

43. Thomas, Lincoln, p. 142; Oates, With Malice Toward None, pp. 185–9.

44. Blue, Chase, pp. 127–8; David E. Meerse, ‘Buchanan, Corruption and the Election of 1860’, Civil War History 12 (1966), pp. 116–31, esp. pp. 118–19, 121–4, 127, 131.

45. Gienapp, ‘Who Voted for Lincoln?’, p. 62; Johannsen, Douglas, pp. 792, 803–4.

46. Catherine C. Hopley, Life in the South (New York: Augustus M. Kelley, 1971 reprint), vol. I, pp. 134–5.

47. Fehrenbacher, Prelude to Greatness, pp. 159–60; Gienapp, ‘Who Voted for Lincoln?’, pp. 63–4; Potter, Impending Crisis, p. 442; James M. McPherson, Abraham Lincoln and the Second American Revolution (New York: Oxford UP, 1990), p. 29.

48. Gienapp, ‘Who Voted for Lincoln?’, pp. 63, 65–7, 68–9, 71–3; Potter, Impending Crisis, p. 442; Meerse, ‘Buchanan, Corruption and the Election of 1860’, p. 131.

49. David Donald, Lincoln’s Herndon (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1948), pp. 143, 145; Thomas, Lincoln, p. 143; Oates, With Malice Toward None, p. 189.

50. Joseph H. Parks, Joseph E. Brown of Georgia (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State UP, 1977), pp. 107–8; McCash, Cobb, p. 184.

51. Wells, Douglas: The Last Years, p. 256; Parks, Brown, p. 109.

52. Quoted in McPherson, Battle Cry of Freedom, p. 231.

53. Arthur C. Cole and J. G. de Roulhac Hamilton, ‘Lincoln’s Election an Immediate Menace to Slavery in the States?’, in Sidney Fine and Gerald S. Brown (eds) The American Past: Conflicting Interpretations of the Great Issues (New York: Macmillan, 1961), I, pp. 531–66. See also Michael Davis, The Image of Lincoln in the South (Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 1971), Ch. 1.

54. Parks, Brown, p. 108.

55. The Lincoln Reader, p. 309.

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