The election of 1860 was one of the most pivotal presidential elections in American history. It pitted Republican nominee Abraham Lincoln against Democratic Party nominee Senator Stephen Douglas, Southern Democratic Party nominee John Breckinridge and Constitutional Union Party nominee John Bell. The main issue of the election was slavery and states’ rights. Lincoln emerged victorious and became the 16th President of the United States during a national crisis that would tear states and families apart and test Lincoln’s leadership and resolve: The Civil War.

Lincoln’s Political History

Abraham Lincoln’s political ambitions began in 1832 when he was just 23 years old and ran for the Illinois House of Representatives. While he lost that election, two years later, he was elected to the state legislature as a member of the Whig party, where he publicly announced his disdain for slavery.

In 1847, Lincoln was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives where, on January 10, 1849, he introduced a bill to abolish slavery in the District of Columbia. The bill didn’t pass, but it opened the door for later anti-slavery legislation.  

In 1858, Lincoln ran for the Senate, this time as a Republican against Illinois Democrat Stephen A. Douglas. He lost the election but gained prominence for himself and the newly established Republican Party.

1860 Republican National Convention

The Republican Party held its second national convention on May 16, 1860, in Chicago, Illinois. It adopted a moderate stance on slavery and was against its expansion, although some delegates wanted the institution abolished altogether.

The two frontrunners for the Republican presidential nomination were Lincoln and New York Senator William Seward. After three votes, Lincoln was nominated with Hannibal Hamlin as his running mate.

Democrats Split Over Slavery

The Democratic Party was in shambles in 1860. They should have been the party of unity, but instead were divided on the issue of slavery. Southern Democrats thought slavery should be expanded but Northern Democrats opposed the idea.

States’ rights were also hotly debated. Southern Democrats felt states had the right to govern themselves while Northern Democrats supported the Union and a national government.

With such confusion among the ranks, it was unclear how the Democratic Party would ever nominate a candidate for the 1860 election. But on April 23, 1860, they met in Charleston, South Carolina to decide their platform and identify a nominee.

Stephen Douglas was the frontrunner, but Southern Democrats refused to support him because he wouldn’t adopt a pro-slavery platform. Many walked out in protest, leaving the remaining delates without the majority needed to nominate Douglas; the convention ended without a nominee.

The Democrats met again two months later in Baltimore. Once again, many Southern delegates left in disgust, but enough remained to nominate Douglas as their presidential nominee and his running mate, former Georgia governor Herschel Johnson.

Southern Democrats nominated John Breckinridge, a supporter of slavery and states’ rights, to represent them in the election. Oregon senator Joseph Lane was his running mate.

Constitutional Union Party

The Constitutional Union Party was mainly made up of disgruntled Democrats, Unionists and former Whigs. On May 9, 1860, they held their first convention and nominated Tennessee slaveholder John Bell as their presidential nominee and former Harvard University President Edward Everett as his running mate.

The Constitutional Union party claimed to be the party of law. They took no official position on slavery or states’ rights, but promised to defend the Constitution and the Union.

Still, Bell wanted to offer a compromise on the topic of slavery by extending the Missouri Compromise line across the United States and make slavery legal in new states to the south of the line and illegal in new states north of the line. They hoped to sway voters who were upset with the divisiveness of the Democratic Party.

1860 Presidential Campaign

None of the 1860 presidential candidates did anywhere near the level of campaigning seen in modern-day elections. In fact, except for Douglas, they mostly kept to themselves and let well-known party members and citizens campaign for them at rallies and parades. Much of the campaigning, however, was devoted to getting voters to the ballot box on Election Day.

Lincoln’s political experience and speeches spoke for themselves, but one of his main campaign goals was to keep the Republican party unified. He didn’t want his party to reveal any of the discord of the Democrats and hoped to divide the Democratic votes.

Douglas campaigned in the North and South to hopefully make up for the divided voter base in the South, and gave a series of campaign speeches in favor of the Union.

1860 Election Results: The South Reacts

On November 6, 1860, voters went to the ballot box to cast their vote for President of the United States. Lincoln won the election in an electoral college landslide with 180 electoral votes, although he secured less than 40 percent of the popular vote.

The North had many more people than the South and therefore control of the Electoral College. Lincoln dominated the Northern states but didn’t carry a single Southern state.

Douglas received some Northern support—12 electoral votes—but not nearly enough to offer a serious challenge to Lincoln. The Southern vote was split between Breckenridge who won 72 electoral votes and Bell who won 39 electoral votes. The split prevented either candidate from gaining enough votes to win the election.

The election of 1860 firmly established the Democratic and Republican parties as the majority parties in the United States. It also confirmed deep-seated views on slavery and states’ rights between the North and South.

Before Lincoln’s inauguration, seven Southern states had seceded from the Union. Weeks after his swearing-in, the Confederate Army fired on Fort Sumter and started the Civil War.

HISTORY Vault: Abraham Lincoln

A definitive biography of the 16th U.S. president, the man who led the country during its bloodiest war and greatest crisis.


1860 Presidential General Election Results. David Leip’s Atlas of U.S. Presidential Elections.
Abraham Lincoln.
Constitutional Union Party. “No North, No South, No East, No West, Nothing but the Union.” National Park Service. U.S. Department of the Interior.
Constitutional Union Party. Texas State Historical Association.
Pre-Presidential Career 1830-1860. National Park Service. U.S. Department of the Interior.
Southern Democratic Party. Ohio History Central.
United States Presidential Election of 1860. Encyclopedia Virginia.