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. Douglas continued to present popular
sovereignty as the best solution to the slavery question in American
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
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.
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.
When the dust settled,
Lincoln was elected president with a mere thirty-nine percent of the
vote. He carried no state south of the Mason-Dixon line.
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 unprecented 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.
Carwardine, Richard J. Lincoln: A Life of Purpose and Power. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2006.
Donald, David Lincoln. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1995.
Fehrenbacher, Don E. Prelude to Greatness: Lincoln in the 1850s. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1962.
Lincoln, Abraham. The Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln. Edited by Roy P. Basler. 9 vols. New Brunkswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 1953.
Neely, Mark E. Jr. The Abraham Lincoln Encyclopedia. New York: McGraw-Hill, Inc., 1982.