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The Election of 1860
The Candidates, Parties, and Platforms
The Democratic Party Splits
The issue of slavery in the western territories had ended the Whig Party and given rise to the free-soil Republican Party, but it also created a bitter internal division within the Democratic Party.
On April 23, 1860, the Democratic National Convention convened in Charleston, South Carolina. The Southern Democratic delegates had arrived determined to have their party endorse in its platform a federal slave code for the territories. They believed that if Congress did not pass a federal slave code, then most territories would enter the Union as free states. They feared that the new free-state majorities in Congress would then ratify a constitutional amendment abolishing slavery in the entire country. Northern Democrats, led by Senator Stephen Douglas of Illinois, opposed endorsing a federal slave code. They wanted the territories themselves to decide the fate of slavery without federal interference. Douglas’ stance on slavery in the territories—advocacy of popular sovereignty and opposition to a federal slave code—had undermined much of his support in the South leading to well-organized opposition to Douglas among the Southern delegates to the convention.
When Douglas was named as the Presidential candidate of the Democratic Party (and Senator Herschel Johnson of Georgia as the Vice Presidential nominee) many of the southern Democratic delegates and a few northern delegates decided to hold their own nominating convention. They convened at Maryland Institute Hall in Baltimore, where they nominated the sitting Vice President of the United States, John C. Breckinridge, a Kentuckian, for president and Senator Joseph Lane, an Oregonian, for vice president. Both sides claimed they were the true representatives of the national party.
A Third (Fourth?) Party Emerges
On May 9, 1860 a group consisting mainly of former Whigs and a few former American Party members (“Know Nothings”) met, calling themselves the Constitutional Union Party. Their national convention took place in Baltimore and on the second ballot, delegates chose former Tennessee Senator John Bell as their presidential nominee, along with famed orator Edward Everett of Massachusetts as their vice-presidential candidate. The Constitutional Unionists believed that the slavery issue was needlessly tearing the nation apart. They tried to appeal to moderates in all parties and in all sections, believing they could promote compromise and peace. Ignoring specific policy proposals, the new party’s brief platform emphasized “the Constitution of the country, the union of the states, and the enforcement of the laws.”
The Republican Party Decides
Also in May of 1860, the Republicans gathered in Chicago for only their second national convention and nominated Abraham Lincoln as their candidate for President. They also chose Senator Hannibal Hamlin of Maine for vice president.
The key to the Republican Party's success was its position on slavery. It opposed the expansion of slavery and called upon Congress to take measures, whenever necessary, to prevent its extension. It condemned slavery as an immoral institution and most Republicans thought that by confining slavery within its present boundaries, the institution would be placed on the road to eventual elimination. The party was, therefore, a genuine anti-slavery party. Most Republicans, though, rejected a more radical stand that would associate them with abolitionism. They often cited slavery’s importance to the southern economy and sometimes admitted a reluctance to see society integrated. For the most part, though, Republicans expressed the belief that slavery had been a states’ rights issue and that it was not within their powers to change the institutions of particular states.
Most Republicans accepted the principles of the Declaration of Independence as assuring black people certain rights now and, perhaps also, as ultimate goals to be fully realized sometime in the future. In addition, the Republican mainstream associated a free labor society with economic opportunity, hard work, upward mobility, liberty, morality, and other essential elements of a true republic. Slavery, on the other hand, was associated with economic backwardness, aristocracy, violence, illiteracy, and immorality.
The Republican platform opposed the expansion of slavery into the western territories without condemning it in the South, criticized the judicial activism of the Dred Scott decision, denounced John Brown’s raid at Harper’s Ferry, endorsed a federal homestead law and a transcontinental railroad, and opposed stricter immigration laws.