John Brown and the Election of 1860


The election of 1860 triggered the collapse of American democracy when the elevation of Abraham Lincoln to the presidency inspired secessionists in the South to withdraw their states from the Union.

Lincoln’s election owed much to the disarray in the Democratic Party. The Dred Scott decision and the Freeport Doctrine had opened up huge sectional divisions among Democrats. Though Brown did not intend it, his raid had furthered the split between northern and southern Democrats. Fire-Eaters vowed to prevent a northern Democrat, especially Illinois’s Stephen Douglas, from becoming their presidential candidate. These proslavery zealots insisted on a southern Democrat.

The Democratic nominating convention met in April 1860 in Charleston, South Carolina. However, it broke up after northern Democrats, who made up a majority of delegates, rejected Jefferson Davis’s efforts to protect slavery in the territories. These northern Democratic delegates knew that supporting Davis on this issue would be very unpopular among the people in their states. A second conference, held in Baltimore, further illustrated the divide within the Democratic Party. Northern Democrats nominated Stephen Douglas, while southern Democrats, who met separately, put forward Vice President John Breckinridge from Kentucky. The Democratic Party had fractured into two competing sectional factions.

By offering two candidates for president, the Democrats gave the Republicans an enormous advantage. Also hoping to prevent a Republican victory, pro-Unionists from the border states organized the Constitutional Union Party and put up a fourth candidate, John Bell, for president, who pledged to end slavery agitation and preserve the Union but never fully explained how he’d accomplish this objective. In a pro-Lincoln political cartoon of the time (Figure), the presidential election is presented as a baseball game. Lincoln stands on home plate. A skunk raises its tail at the other candidates. Holding his nose, southern Democrat John Breckinridge holds a bat labeled “Slavery Extension” and declares “I guess I’d better leave for Kentucky, for I smell something strong around here, and begin to think, that we are completely skunk’d.”

A cartoon titled “The national game. Three ‘outs’ and one ‘run’” depicts a baseball game in which Lincoln has defeated John Bell, Stephen A. Douglas, and John C. Breckinridge. Lincoln, with his foot on “Home Base,” says, “Gentlemen, if any of you should ever take a hand in another match at this game, remember that you must have a good bat and strike a fair ball to make a clean score and a home run.’“ Lincoln’s bat is a wooden rail labeled “Equal Rights and Free Territory,” and his belt is labeled “Wide Awake Club.” A skunk raises its tail at the other candidates. Breckinridge holds his nose and declares “I guess I’d better leave for Kentucky, for I smell something strong around here, and begin to think, that we are completely skunk’d.’” Breckinridge’s bat is labeled “Slavery Extension,” and his belt is labeled “Disunion Club.” John Bell says, “It appears to me very singular that we three should strike foul and be put out while old Abe made such a good lick.” Bell’s belt is labeled “Union Club,” and his bat is labeled “Fusion.” Douglas, who holds a bat labeled “Non Intervention,” replies, “That’s because he had that confounded rail, to strike with, I thought our fusion would be a short stop to his career.”
The national game. Three “outs” and one “run” (1860), by Currier and Ives, shows the two Democratic candidates and one Constitutional Union candidate who lost the 1860 election to Republican Lincoln, shown at right.

The Republicans nominated Lincoln, and in the November election, he garnered a mere 40 percent of the popular vote, though he won every northern state except New Jersey. (Lincoln’s name was blocked from even appearing on many southern states’ ballots by southern Democrats.) More importantly, Lincoln did gain a majority in the Electoral College (Figure). The Fire-Eaters, however, refused to accept the results. With South Carolina leading the way, Fire-Eaters in southern states began to withdraw formally from the United States in 1860. South Carolinian Mary Boykin Chesnut wrote in her diary about the reaction to the Lincoln’s election. “Now that the black radical Republicans have the power,” she wrote, “I suppose they will Brown us all.” Her statement revealed many southerners’ fear that with Lincoln as President, the South could expect more mayhem like the John Brown raid.

A map shows the disposition of electoral votes for the election of 1860. Each state is labeled to indicate the number of electoral votes cast and shaded to indicate the candidate to whom that state went. Oregon (3), California (4), Minnesota (4), Iowa (4), Wisconsin (5), Illinois (11), Indiana (13), Michigan (6), Ohio (23), Pennsylvania (27), New York (35), Connecticut (6), Rhode Island (4), Massachusetts (13), Vermont (5), New Hampshire (5), and Maine (8) voted for Lincoln. New Jersey, with seven votes total, voted for Lincoln with a majority of 4 votes and Douglas with 3. Texas (4), Louisiana (6), Arkansas (4), Mississippi (7), Alabama (9), Georgia (10), Florida (3), South Carolina (8), and North Carolina (10) voted for Breckinridge. Tennessee (12), Kentucky (12), and Virginia (15) voted for Bell. Missouri (9) voted for Douglas. The territories, which did not participate in the election, are labeled as well.
This map shows the disposition of electoral votes for the election of 1860. The votes were divided along almost perfect sectional lines.