With tumult raging in Kansas, and torn between an increasing tide of radicalism in both the pro-slave South and the abolitionist North, the Democrats suffered heavy losses in the midterm elections of 1858. The beneficiaries of this sectional rivalry were the Republicans, who picked up seats across the northern and western states, and firmed up their position as a legitimate opposition party.
In a symbolic act that captured the imagination of some and roused the indignation of others, John Brown struck again in October of 1859, this time at Harpers Ferry, Virginia. Already notorious for his massacre at Pottawatomie Creek and a succeeding slave-liberation raid in Missouri, this time Brown made the attempt to seize a federal arsenal with the intention of instigating a slave revolt.
President Buchanan sent in troops at once, and Brown was seized by a company led by Generals Robert E. Lee and J. E. B. Stuart. Summarily tried and executed, Brown became a hero and martyr to abolitionists nationwide. Meanwhile, more moderate politicians like Seward and Lincoln himself denounced Brown for his lawlessness, which to them eclipsed his righteous cause.
When Lincoln learned that the Republican nominating convention for the 1860 elections would be held in Chicago, he decided to officially announce his candidacy for the presidency. This was in fact a calculated political move, done less in the hopes of actual success than out of a desire to win his home state delegates and improve his chances for the 1864 senatorial campaign. However, once in the presidential ring, the momentum began to gather, and after a rousing speech at New York City's Cooper Institute, Lincoln emerged as a definite contender for the nomination. Finding himself a legitimate candidate, Lincoln admitted to a friend that "the taste is in my mouth a little."
Meanwhile, the strife-ridden Democratic Party met on April 23 in Charleston, South Carolina in hopes of ironing out their differences. Although Douglas was the party favorite, his loyalty to popular sovereignty above and beyond the Dred Scott decision did not sit well with the southern constituency. In an attempt to win back his southern critics, Douglas had pushed a sedition law through Congress, suppressing all declarations against slavery in public or private.
But such measures were a sidestep from the true controversy, which revolved around the place of slavery in the territories. And in this, Douglas and his allies refused to budge. After the northern wing of the party defeated a motion to protect slavery in the territories, the threat of an actual split became a reality. The delegates from Alabama led a dramatic exodus out of the convention, followed by representatives from Mississippi, Louisiana, South Carolina, Florida, Texas and scattered other states.
With the Democratic Party in shambles, the Republican Convention became all the more crucial. If the Democrats could not heal their sectional feud, the vote would be split, and the Republicans would stand an excellent chance of carrying the election in November—all the more reason for the judicious selection of a candidate who would make a strong national impression without offending the sizable block of moderate voters. Seizing his chance to capitalize on the situation, Lincoln made a strong showing at his state nominating convention in Illinois, and locked up the votes of twenty-two delegates. But when the Republicans gathered together in Chicago a week later, Seward and Chase stood above the pack as favorites for the nomination.
There can be no doubt that Lincoln's chances were boosted by the fact that the convention was being held in his backyard. In fact, Chicago had originally been agreed upon as a site on the understanding that it would be neutral, without a favorite son in the running. Now, with Lincoln emerging as the favorite son, he profited from advantages left and right. The newly-built "Wigwam" convention center packed in ten thousand people and more, many of whom gained entry illegally by using tickets forged by Judge David Davis, a fervent Lincoln booster and Eighth Circuit Court Judge in Illinois. These same locals had been able to make it to Chicago thanks to reduced rail rates that had been announced especially for the occasion. With a handful of underhanded campaign promises engineered by Davis in the mix, Lincoln was sure to pick up votes as the balloting proceeded.
As it stood, he did surprisingly well on the first ballot, picking up 102 votes and placing a strong second behind Seward's 173.5. Gradually, he began to creep up toward the necessary number, until he stood only a few votes shy. When a Lincoln supporter promised the Ohio delegation a top post for Chase, four voters swung to Lincoln, and the nomination was official. A unanimous vote of confidence followed, and on May 18, 1860, Lincoln found himself the Republican nominee for president.
To improve their regional chances in a national election, the Republicans named Senator Hannibal Hamlin of Maine as their vice-presidential candidate. Their ambitious platform called for the containment of slavery, the abolishment of popular sovereignty, a free Kansas, high tariffs, railroad expansion and the encouragement of homesteading on the frontier. Already, the party was beginning to mold itself in Lincoln's image.
Wary of the upstart Lincoln and his Republican bandwagon, the remaining Democrats reconvened one month later on June 18 in Baltimore. Many of the southerners who had walked out at the April convention re-applied for admission to the party, in hopes of preventing Douglas's nomination. However, the differences between the two groups were for the most part irreconcilable, and though a few delegates regained their seats, the large majority walked out again. With his fiercest opponents out of the way, Douglas was chosen on the second ballot. But it was a Pyrrhic victory, since party disunity was likely to hurt his chances for election on the national stage.
Convening at Richmond, the Southern Democrats decided to nominate their own candidate, in the person of Vice President John Breckenridge of Kentucky. And to muddle matters more, a fourth party named Constitutional Union appeared, nominating John Bell of Tennessee on the platform of preserving peace between the increasingly hostile North and South.
In keeping with traditions of the day, Lincoln did nothing to campaign on his own behalf. For their part, the Republicans made a fierce push on behalf of Lincoln. Due to the quirks of the electoral college, where the simple majority winner in each state takes all of the votes, the Republicans knew that Lincoln could abandon a southern campaign and still win the national election if he was able to carry enough northern states.
Douglas, losing crucial moderate votes to Bell, was as a result running a clear second to Lincoln in the north and a clear second to Breckenridge in the South. Slowly he began to recognize that he had no chance of winning the national race. Conceding the result to Lincoln a month before Election Day, he began a speaking tour of the south in what amounted to a desperate attempt to preserve the Union.
The results of the election, held on November 6, 1860, are most instructive to a student of American electoral democracy. Lincoln won some 1,866,000 votes out of almost 4.7 million cast. He received the most votes of any candidate, but did not secure a majority by any means. In fact, he won less than forty percent of the popular vote, the lowest take of any victorious president. His three opponents out-polled him in combination by almost a million votes, and Douglas and Bell as a pair had a larger take of the popular vote.
But in the electoral college, Lincoln was king. Because the northern states as a bloc had a significantly larger population, they had a much higher proportion of electoral votes. Therefore, as the clear northern winner, carrying every northern state except New Jersey, which he split, Lincoln tallied 180 votes in the electoral college.
Meanwhile Douglas, although polling second in the popular vote with approximately 1,380,000 votes, was able to win only 12 votes in the electoral college. On the strength of their regional appeal, even Breckenridge and Bell, although enjoying much lower popular results, garnered more support than Douglas from the electoral college, winning 72 and 39 votes, respectively.
Ironically, it was Douglas's defense of states rights—which would become the rallying cry of the Confederacy during the Civil War—that damaged his credibility in the south during the election of 1860. But at the time of the election, a friendly federal policy in the form of the Dred Scott decision protected the right of slavery to exist and expand. Time after time, the Federal government had placated the southerners with legislation to contain slavery without destroying or even vilifying it. But after the divisive election of 1860, with Lincoln about to take the oath of office under a highly regional mandate, the days of appeasement and conciliation were numbered.