Our Ugliest Election

The election of 1860, filled with pure hatred and partisan fanaticism, was too divisive to allow a peaceful resolution.

Political cartoon depicting the 1860 U.S. presidential election

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Every four years, our national harmony takes a hit as we choose our president. We approach the election with our own strong feelings, which are encouraged or outraged by politicians and pundits. Campaigns quickly get ugly. Mud is slung. Friends part and families divide. At the end, we put away our anger as well as we can and await the next election.

But one election was too divisive to allow a peaceful resolution. Nothing surpasses the election of 1860 for pure hatred and partisan fanaticism.

America had entered a new political landscape. The Whig party had shrunk to insignificance and the powerful Democratic party had split over the issue of slavery. And a new party, the Republicans, had arisen in the western states. Their candidate was Abraham Lincoln, a complete unknown to most Americans when the campaign began.

But southern politicians knew who he was, as did slave owners. Lincoln had been speaking against slavery for years. Southern Democrats threw everything they could of at Lincoln and his party, always referring to them as “Black Republicans” for being advocates for Black Americans.

Abraham Lincoln meets supporters at a rally outside his home in Springfield, Illinois
Abraham Lincoln at his home in Springfield, Illinois, with a crowd following a Republican rally, August 8, 1860 (Library of Congress) (Click to Enlarge)

In cities, Democrats played on racist fears, according to James McPherson in Battle Cry of Freedom. They said that the Republicans would help Blacks take jobs away from white workers, that Republicans were motivated by an infatuation with Black women, and their goal was to bring Black men north to build a mixed-race society with America’s white daughters.

They described Lincoln as “the same type as the traitor, John Brown; an abolitionist of the reddest dye; and a whole disunionist.” The New York Herald quoted a Virginia congressman: “If Lincoln is elected we will go to Washington and assassinate him before his inauguration.”

Southern politicians also stirred fears with stories of abolitionists arming slaves to start a bloody uprising. McPherson writes that Congressman Laurence Keitt of South Carolina expected to see “poison in the wells in Texas — and fire for the houses in Alabama.” According to the Virginia legislature, the Republican party was “an offense to the whole south.” And an editor in New Orleans claimed every vote for Lincoln was “a deliberate, cold-blooded insult and outrage.”

When the mud-slinging didn’t seem to work, the Democrats resorted to physical intimidation. In Washington and Baltimore, according to a recent New York Times article by Ted Widmer, mobs attacked Republican party offices. They fired guns, vandalized images of Lincoln and left the offices strewn with debris.

Many southerners expected Lincoln to win, since the Democrats were divided over the slavery issue. Some wanted him to win because it would provoke other southerners to join their movement for secession. Pro-secession articles began appearing in newspapers. William C. Davis writes in his book Look Away! that one group began printing a series of flyers carrying new from a “high authority,” that described some imminent injustice the North wanted to inflict on the South.

A political cartoon depicting the tension and divisions of 1860 America during the presidential election
Abraham Lincoln at his home in Springfield, Illinois, with a crowd following a Republican rally, August 8, 1860 (Library of Congress) (Click to Enlarge)

South Carolina’s Charleston Mercury told readers “the existence of slavery is at stake,” and called for a prompt secession convention in every southern state should Lincoln win.

While some politicians said little about their desire to secede, others spoke openly of disunion and war. Former U.S. representative William Lowndes Yancey told a crowd in New Orleans the time had come to show their love for the Union by preparing their ballots. “After the Lincoln party is elected, . . . you will be called to show your love by preparing your rifles.”

Election day saw no major outbreaks of violence. The New York Times reported “no disturbance, no discord, no manner of ill feeling beyond the impatience produced by the extreme difficulty” of waiting in line to vote. It was, the paper said, the heaviest voting the city had ever seen.

The turnout was also heavy in Chicago, where voters waited two hours in lines four blocks long.

According to Widmer, Disturbances at polling stations were avoided in ten southern states by the simple measure of keeping the name “Abraham Lincoln” off the ballot.

Lincoln won the election with 180 electoral votes — an electoral college landslide, though he received less than 40 percent of the popular vote. The response in the south was immediate. In A Government of Our Own, author William C. Davis writes that several cities took down the American flag.

Illustration showing an anti-Republican mob raising the Gasden Flag in Savannah Georgia
A crowd in Savannah, Georgia, raising the Gadsden flag on November 8, 1860. (Library of Congress) (Click to Enlarge)

Three days after the election, the editors at the Atlanta Southern Confederacy declared, “Let the consequences be what they may — whether the Potomac is crimsoned in human gore, and Pennsylvania Avenue is paved ten fathoms deep with mangled bodies, or whether the last vestige of liberty is swept from the face of the American continent — the South will never submit to such humiliation and degradation as the inauguration of Abraham Lincoln.”

“In many places in the South,” warned Professor David Boyd of Louisiana State University, “whoever accepts or holds offices under Lincoln will be lynched.”

On Friday, South Carolina legislators passed a resolution stating that the election of Lincoln was a hostile act against their state and asked that the state preserve her sovereign rights by raising supplies and preparing a plan to arm the state. 

Some southerners threatened to turn the Capitol into “a heap of ashes.” They quickly formed armed militias and marched under the Gadsden Flag with its motto, “Don’t Tread on Me.”

Three days later, South Carolina called for a state convention to consider secession, and asked other slave states to follow their example.

Lincoln knew what he was up against. On election night in Springfield, IL, he allowed himself a brief moment of joy before he seemed to sag under the realization of what lay ahead. He left the celebration around 2:00 a.m. as he walked out, a bystander heard him say, “God help me, God help me.”

Featured image: Library of Congress

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  1. I am a subscriber to your magazine and love getting these on my computer also. Many of your articles are so informative, humorous, and bring back loving memories and I thank you so much. Please keep it up!!


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