The Campaign of the Century, 1859-1861
by R.D. Monroe
In 1859 Abraham Lincoln reluctantly returned to the practice of law, which quickly proved far less exciting than rhetorical combat with Stephen A. Douglas. Despite his electoral setback, Lincoln remained a leading Republican spokesman, and he continued to maintain "that slavery is wrong and ought to be dealt with as wrong" as a bedrock Republican principle. For his part, the victorious Stephen A. Douglass continued to present popular sovereignty as the best solution to the slavery question in American politics.
Both men agreed to campaign for their respective parties in Ohio prior to the 1859 elections, and while they did not make joint appearances as they had in 1858, they in essence continued their debates. Speaking in Columbus, Dayton, Hamilton and Cincinnati, Lincoln ridiculed popular sovereignty, which he characterized "as a principle,... if one man chooses to make a slave of another man, neither that other man nor anybody else has a right to object." Lincoln declared that Douglas's professed indifference to slavery would lead inexorably to its nationalization, and that Douglas' anti-black rhetoric was preparing the public mind for such an outcome by dehumanizing the slaves. Further, Lincoln worried that as slavery spread, thanks to Douglas, free labor would find itself at a competitive disadvantage.
Lincoln's dramatic performance in 1858, and the positive reaction to his 1859 efforts, sparked speculation on his prospects as a presidential nominee in 1860. Lincoln was well aware of his limitations and initially was inclined to dismiss talk of his candidacy. His qualifications seemed dubious - he had failed to be elected senator twice of late, had never held a significant government administrative post, had served only a single term in the House of Representatives, had scant formal education and no web of national political contacts.
Nonetheless, other candidates had their own problems, and Lincoln decided to take some measures to move the possibility of his candidacy forward. He had the 1858 debates collected and published, prepared a campaign autobiography, and accepted an invitation to speak in New York City. The latter effort, at the Cooper Union in Manhattan on February 27, 1860, was a personal and political triumph that prompted many in the East to begin thinking seriously of Lincoln as a potential president. The speech covered familiar ground, condemning popular sovereignty and urging Republicans not to compromise on their opposition to the extension of slavery. After the Cooper Union success, Lincoln toured New England, giving speeches to some acclaim.
On May 10, 1860, a united Illinois Republican Party chose Lincoln as its presidential candidate, dubbing him the "Rail Splitter," a nickname that harkened to Lincoln's humble frontier origins. The Republican National Convention subsequently turned to Lincoln after the supporters of William H. Seward of New York, Simon Cameron of Pennsylvania and Edward Bates of Missouri failed to resolve their differences.
The Democratic Party split into northern and southern wings, and each faction chose its own presidential candidate, Stephen A. Douglas for the northerners and John C. Breckinridge of Kentucky for the Southrons. A third party candidate, John Bell, emerged to represent conservatives, mostly former Whigs, who were dissatisfied with the other parties.
The campaign of 1860 proved to be the most spectacular of the century. The deepening sectional crisis dominated public debate. Four candidates brought their diverse appeals to the voting public, yet none managed to forge a broad coalition from a badly fractured electorate.
Lincoln focused his campaign on the northern and western states, and rightly considered himself persona non grata in the slaveholding South. Breckinridge similarly built upon a strong base in the southern states, but was widely reviled in the North. Bell spoke for his core constituency of aging Whigs and other conservatives who believed the sectional crisis would go away if they merely ignored it. Douglas meanwhile exhausted himself by taking the unprecedented step of delivering campaign addresses on his own behalf. In this era candidates themselves maintained a dignified silence while party stump speakers delivered their message to the voters on the local level.
Douglas toured both the North (where he was a popular candidate) and the South (where fevered southern-rights advocates increasingly viewed his doctrine of popular sovereignty as a betrayal of their demands). Vainly Douglas argued that he was the only national candidate and the candidate able to avoid disunion.
Both Breckinridge and Douglas Democrats mounted a withering attack on the Republican Party's perceived advocacy of African-American social and political equality. One Democratic newspaper argued that if Lincoln was elected "hundreds of thousands" of fugitive slaves would immediately "emigrate to their friends - the Republicans - (in the) North, and be placed by them side by side in competition with white men." Other attacks employed graphic racial slurs to cow northern voters. Many Republicans found these sorts of attacks compelling, and local Republican organizations across the North often downplayed slavery as a moral issue and returned to attacks upon the familiar "slave power."
The antebellum political system's participatory pageantry reached its apex with the campaign of 1860. Close electoral competition obliged the parties to rely upon high voter turnout to secure elections. In an era before mass media politics, the parties relied upon stump speakers and mass publications like campaign song books to inspire partisan picnics, parades and rallies. These events often provided the faithful with free food and drink, served to whip up party fervor, and encouraged voter turnout.
Republicans marshaled their armies of electoral activists, many of them young men organized into groups known as "Wide Awakes." Clad in oilcloths and caps, the Wide Awakes mounted a succession of torchlight parades which took Lincoln's message to the streets. Here they often met up with Democratic flying squadrons and other rivals.
After his victory Lincoln refrained from commenting on the secession crisis. But southern leaders interpreted Lincoln's victory as the final repudiation of their rights, and organized a secession movement. As southern states left the Union one by one, the president-elect remained mute. Privately he resisted compromise efforts that would have permitted any extension of slavery. Reinstating the Missouri Compromise line, for example, and extending it to the Pacific Ocean, would necessarily have given over some territory to slavery. That Lincoln would not countenance.
Lincoln remained hopeful that southern Unionists, i.e., those in the South devoted to Union, would reassert themselves as they had done in earlier sectional crises and restore their states to the Union. But this faith was misplaced. With a few notable exceptions, southerners united behind secession.
Lincoln departed his beloved Springfield on February 11, 1861, pausing in the railroad depot to deliver a short farewell address. Conscious of the unprecedented situation, he said, "I go to assume a task more difficult than that which has devolved upon General Washington." He felt great sadness at leaving the town that had been home for more than twenty-five years. "Here I have lived from my youth until now I am an old man. Here the most sacred ties of earth were assumed; here all my children were born; and here one of them lies buried. To you, dear friends, I owe all that I have, all that I am."
Lincoln boarded the inaugural train and embarked upon a nearly two week journey that amounted to a whistle stop tour, as he ended his silence with speeches in towns large and small, before state legislatures and from hotel balconies. He stressed his fealty to the Union, and he urged Americans to remain calm. He characterized the secession crisis as an artificial dilemma created by "designing politicians." He also made clear his firmness of purpose, solemnly vowing "There is nothing that can ever bring me willingly to consent to the destruction of this Union."
Lincoln's first inaugural address, delivered on March 4, 1861, was criticized at the time in the North for being too conciliatory and in the South for being a call to war. He assured the Southern states they had nothing to fear from a Republican president. He disavowed any intention to meddle with slavery in the South, tepidly endorsed a constitutional amendment to that effect, and pledged to enforce the fugitive slave act.
Lincoln recognized no right to secession. The Union was "perpetual;" it predated the Constitution and could not be sundered. While he affirmed his intention to execute federal laws and hold federal property as his oath of office required, Lincoln pledged not to be the first to break the peace. "In your hands, my dissatisfied fellow countrymen, and not mine, is the momentous issue of civil war. The government will not assail you. You can have no conflict, without being yourselves the aggressors."
Perhaps the country was too polarized to hear it, but Lincoln closed his inaugural with an eloquent plea for a renewal of sectional harmony. "We are not enemies, but friends. We must not be enemies. Though passion may have strained, it must not break our bonds of affection. The mystic chords of memory, stretching from every battle-field, and patriot grave, to every living heart and hearthstone, all over this broad land, will yet swell the chorus of the Union, when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature."
A little more than a month later, cannon fire in Charleston harbor heralded the opening of the Civil War, a conflict that would end with Lincoln's martyrdom and apotheosis.