Understanding the Election of 1860

The election of 1860 was unique in American history because it was the only contest (so far) where one of the losing parties refused to accept the results as legitimate.  There were actually four political parties vying for the 1860 victory.  Students in History 288 should be able to identify all four factions.  One way to do so would be to interpret the political cartoon on the right.  Who are the four candidates dancing to Dred Scott’s “quadrille”?  But students in History 288 also need to understand the issues at stake in 1860.  As the cartoon indicates, the legacy of the Dred Scott Decision still loomed large over the electorate, but another cartoon from the campaign also suggests that a different event was just as salient.

Courtesy of HarpWeek

The image to the left, entitled “Black Republican Argument,” actually appeared in a Pennsylvania newspaper late in the campaign.  The stark image depicts the use of John Brown’s Raid by southern Democrats.  Brown was an abolitionist originally from Connecticut who had become notorious because of his actions in the Kansas Territory.  Brown and his sons had been deeply involved in the battles of “Bleeding Kansas,” and he stood accused of murdering at least five pro-slavery settlers in cold blood.  Brown, however, was a hero to many abolitionists and northern blacks who revered his fierce anti-slavery stance and his remarkably modern form of egalitarianism.  Brown was almost a romantic revolutionary in areas of the North, because of his bold plans of action.  Brown’s plans culminated at the end of the 1850s with a series of raids into southern territory, first in Missouri in 1858 and then at the federal arsenal in Harpers Ferry in what was then western Virginia (and what is now West Virginia).   Brown was captured during his October 1859 raid at Harpers Ferry, put on trial by the state of Virginia and then executed in December.  His execution for treason in 1859 marked an important bookend with the Christiana treason trial of 1851 and helps explain why the nation appeared closer to disunion at the end of the decade than at the beginning.



Grace Bedell

For most of the 1860 campaign, Abraham Lincoln himself was absent.  Like most (but not all) presidential candidates of that era, Lincoln did not campaign openly for the office.  According to his law partner, Lincoln was left feeling “bored –bored badly” by this tradition.  His boredom, however, might help explain a fascinating exchange candidate Lincoln conducted with an eleven-year-old girl from New York in October 1860.  Young Grace Bedell wrote Lincoln urging him to grow a beard because his face was “so thin.”  Lincoln responded asking whether or not such a move might appear as an “affectation,” but within days after his November victory, Lincoln began growing the beard.  Later, President-Elect Lincoln met the young girl and the two of them had an ongoing correspondence during the Civil War  –although this fact was not known to scholars until very recently.  The full story of the relationship is detailed here at the Blog Divided.  Students in History 288 should read the exchange of letters between the two figures in 1860 and be prepared to discuss what they might illustrate about the larger claims historians such as James McPherson have made about the political culture of the mid-nineteenth-century American electorate.

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5 Responses to Understanding the Election of 1860

  1. Rachel Weber says:

    I think the cartoon depicting the election of 1860 is very comical yet at the same time is very interesting and telling about how the candidates were perceived by their competition. Firstly, it is immediately noticed that Dred Scott is in the center. The reason for this is because the Dred Scott verdict was very much felt throughout the country. While many in the North supported his actions or at least what he was trying to achieve to South went into a frenzy, fearing the rebellion of their slaves and future attacks by Northerners on their “property”. The more people in the North extolled Brown the larger the rift grew between Southerners and Northerners. Also the presence of Scott references the decision made by Taney about the Federal Government not prohibiting slavery in the territories. With all of this happening in the years leading up to the election, a position on race was, needless to say, a top priority for the candidates to address. After Dred Scott the next most recognizable sketch is Abraham Lincoln dancing with a black woman. This was shown most likely because not only was Lincoln for stopping the spread of slavery, but throughout his campaign he was pushed to answer the questions: when slavery is defeated what would happen next? would blacks be considered equal to whites? how long before intermarriage would take place between the two races? It was questions such as these and Abe’s defense of African American that earned him as well as his party the derogatory name Black Republicans. On the left of Lincoln is the democrat John C. Beckenridge who is paired with his number one supporter and financial backer James Buchanan. Buchanan let it be known that his allegiance was with Beckenridge because he was very much against Douglas winning the Presidency after their dispute over the future of slavery in the new territories. Douglas was for popular sovereignty and made a special trip to the White House to urge/threaten Buchanan. After this dispute Buchanan not only strongly disliked Douglas but wanted to make sure that he would never be President. To prevent this from occurring without outright destroying Douglas’s reputation, Buchanan decided to back another candidate as well as replace Douglas Democrats in positions of power within the government. Even though Buchanan knew that this meant most that Democrats would not win the presidential election due to the disconnect within their party he also knew that if a Republicans were to win the south would secede anyway. The lower right shows the Constitutional Union parties candidate John Bell dancing with a Native American. The Constitutional Union Party was created from the ashes of the Whig Party and their goal was to keep the Union from splitting apart, by not taking positions on key matters. This party knew that winning was not a possibility, but hoped that at the very least they could win several upper- South states and weaken Lincoln’s electoral majority. The mistake of this party however was when the Constitutional Unionist decided to support the federal slave codes, therefore alienating the “on the fence” Northern voters who voted Lincoln. Finally as previously mentioned, the final candidate in the bottom left corner is Douglas who is paired with an Irishman. This might be referencing the fact that he received support from Irish immigrants.
    Overall, while this cartoon seems rather simple and comical it is actually very telling about how each candidates opponents tried to negatively portray them to gain voters. The idea that the future of the country could possibly lead to intermarriage between Blacks and Whites scared some voters so much that they were willing to vote for any other candidate. Also by associating Beckenridge with Buchanan many voters were deterred due to the abuses/corruption of the Buchanan administration. There was a lot at stake in the 1860′s elections and parties were willing to play dirty to win votes and assert their party’s platforms on the country.

  2. Ari B says:

    The election of 1860 acutely represented the extreme polarization, and the emergence of different political viewpoints, that had occurred since the Mexican war. The election featured four different parties with candidates competing for the presidency. The Republican Party nominated Abraham Lincoln as his candidate. Since Lincoln had little experience in government, he didn’t come with the baggage of his main rival for the nomination, William Seward. Also, his history as a former free soil Whig put him right in the middle the Republican Party. Lincoln also gave the Republicans an advantage in the old Midwestern states, and had achieved national acclaim for his debating and oratory skill. The Democratic Party, after a failed convention in Charleston, nominated Steven Douglas in Baltimore. However, southern Democrats nominated a more radical pro slavery candidate as well, John Breckinridge of Kentucky. The newly formed constitutional union party nominated the last candidate, John Bell. He garnered support from former Whigs and Know Nothings who were less concerned about the slavery issue that with preserving the union at all costs. This mentality reflected their slogan, “ The Union as it is, and the Constitution as it is”. The electorate divided itself in voting by extremely sectional lines. Lincoln barely appeared on the ballot in the south, and Breckinridge had very little support in the north. The divided Democratic party and the appearance of the Constitutional allowed Lincoln to win the election by a relatively wide margin.

    The correspondence between Lincoln and Grace Bedell is certainly an interesting anecdote of the political situation of the time. One aspect of this is the importance of appearance of presidential candidates. Despite the lack of many of modern media institutions during the 1860’s candidates appeal was determined in many of the same ways it is today. Clearly the letter and Lincoln’s response shows the importance of appearance in maintaining the aura of presidency. Another aspect to which the letters points to is the level of patronage in politics at the time. Grace attempts to use her connections with Lincoln to obtain a job. While in her case the appeal seems humorous rather than harmless, corruption in the future Grant administration does serve to limit the effect of the victory of the union in Lincoln’s war.

  3. Rachel Weber says:

    Just found this article and thought it was interesting and related to the material we have been studying:

  4. Molly Orell says:

    In relation to the cartoon called “The Political Quadrille”, I find it extremely interesting that under the title it says, “Music by Dred Scott”. This title only further affirms the idea that Dred Scott can be deemed ass the catalyst to the start of tensions that would ultimately lead to the start of the Civil War.

    In May of 1857, Henry Taylor granted the Scotts emancipation. The opinion of the Court was and remains to be an extremely controversial one. This decision was the first decision since Marbury vs. Madison that was looked at as an act of Congress that was unconstitutional. This was determined to be unconstitutional because the court lacked jurisdiction in the matter at all because Scott, during this time, did not even have a standing to sue. Also, there was an issue of comity. Scott’s decision was also opposite to what had been followed in numerous states at this time and if he was free in one state, did that apply in a state that was pro-slavery? This was also wrong because Congress had no right to prohibit slavery in federal territories and because slaves were not citizens, they were not able to sue.

    This decision prompted the Lincoln-Douglas debates that fiercely argued this decision and the topic of slavery all throughout the country. Dred Scott made the political world dance. This decision would fuel the inevitable debate about the fate of slavery. And, these debates and the presidential election that would follow would result in the Civil War.

  5. Kinzea says:

    During Lincoln’s race for President against Stephan Douglas, he worked very hard to appear that he was doing nothing. During this time candidates should appear that they aren’t working for themselves to get elected because the public could see that as selfish. Instead, he wanted it to appear that he was very flattered by this extreme respect coming from those who requested his nomination. It emphasizes the depth of the confidence others had in his potential because he is just sitting back and watching while everything else is done for him. Douglas has a much harder road ahead of himself. He is the man who led the division in the Democratic Party and now the entire party of Southern Democrats felt their sole goal in life was to destroy Douglas, so he went out and he fought. He campaigned in a new, modern way that hadn’t really been done before. Lincoln in his debates against Douglas possibly felt that he had already pushed his limit as far as it could because no campaign had every been as publicized. So he set back, comfortably watching to possibly provide some comfort to those who are being made uncomfortable by Douglas’s approach.
    When Lincoln responds to Grace Bedells letter, it illustrates how much free time he actually has. It is not just about him attempting to relate to the masses, he had time to write back to this girl and he wrote back immediately. The fact that he was the one to respond to her is one of the hints to this. Now, if you were lucky to receive a response from Obama, it would be from a member of his staff in all likelihood. The other important piece that this story illustrates is how quickly mail is able to be transported. This has a huge importance because it shows that news is able to travel fast along roads and rail lines in America

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