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Coming of the Civil War, The Election of 1860

Southern wings, Southern Democrats, Senator Stephen, slave state, Whigs

The breakup of the party system produced four presidential candidates in the election of 1860. The Democratic Party split angrily into Northern and Southern wings. Southern Democrats nominated Buchanan’s vice president, John C. Breckinridge of Kentucky, while Northern Democrats chose Senator Stephen A. Douglas of Illinois. What remained of the Whigs renamed themselves Constitutional Unionists and nominated Senator John Bell of Tennessee. Republicans passed over better–known candidates and nominated Abraham Lincoln of Illinois.

Lincoln had become known nationally when he staked out the Republican position on slavery in the territories and held his own in a series of public debates in a Senate race with Douglas in 1858. He was also known for a speech in which he stated that the United States could not long endure as a “house divided” between Northern free–labor capitalism and Southern slavery. On the crucial question of slavery in the territories, Lincoln assured the South that no president could constitutionally dismantle the institution in the states. But he would preserve the territories for free labor, thus putting slavery “in the course of ultimate extinction.”

The election results were starkly sectional. Breckinridge carried 11 states in the Deep South. Bell carried a few Upper South states. Douglas, while coming in second in the popular vote, won only in Missouri and a part of New Jersey. Lincoln carried every Northern state and thus won an overwhelming victory in the Electoral College—and he did so without a single electoral vote from a slave state. The Republican Party, with an antislavery platform and an entirely Northern constituency, had elected a president of the United States. No possible new coalition would enable the South to keep that from happening repeatedly.

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