Many Americans know that there were four candidates in the presidential election of 1860, but most are not aware that a Republican victory was a foregone conclusion well before November 6, and even May 16, when the party’s convention met in Chicago. The Democrats chose the ground zero of secession, Charleston, South Carolina, as the site for their convention, thus displaying the great common sense for which the party has long been known. Shortly after the convention opened on April 23, delegations from the deep south bolted when northern Democrats refused to give pro-slavery extremists what they demanded. The supporters of the “Little Giant,” Stephen A. Douglas of Illinois, felt that their man had put party unity ahead of personal ambition in 1852 and again in 1856, making way first for Franklin Pierce of New Hampshire, and then for James Buchanan of Pennsylvania. Though they were in a hostile setting, the Douglas men were not to be denied, and won control of the convention. The Alabama delegation was the first to walk out, led by Leroy Pope Walker, a fire-eater and lawyer of little reputation who would soon become the first Confederate Secretary of War. Seven other southern delegations followed the Alabamians. The convention’s rump held fifty-seven ballots, but could not agree on a nominee. It adjourned May 3, after deciding to meet again in Baltimore.
On May 9 the Constitutional Union party, composed of refugees from the now disintegrated Whigs, and the defunct American (Know-Nothing) party, met in Baltimore. They nominated John Bell of Tennessee for president, and Edward Everett of Massachusetts for vice-president. The Republicans nominated Abraham Lincoln on May 18.
The second Democratic convention opened June 18. After another secession of southern delegates, it nominated Douglas for president, and Herschel V. Johnson of Georgia for vice-president. At that point Lincoln’s election could be predicted, not just by professional politicians, the party managers and other insiders, but by the millions of Americans who passionately followed politics. The winner would be decided in the electoral college. Anyone who knew the number of states carried by the first Republican presidential nominee, John C. Fremont in 1856, could see that Lincoln needed only to hold what Fremont won, plus a big state like New York or Pennsylvania, to claim the prize.
The Charleston seceders, after meeting in Richmond on June 11, convened in Baltimore on June 28, and nominated the incumbent vice-president, Democrat John C. Breckinridge of Kentucky for president, and Joseph Lane of Oregon for vice-president. The Democratic party was now officially split. Douglas realized that Lincoln would win the election. He gave up his own race and became the only one of the four candidates to campaign north and south, warning Americans that secession, and probably war, was imminent. The late David M. Potter, in his brilliant The Impending Crisis, 1848-1861 (1976), wrote that Douglas was the Cassandra of the campaign. Most northerners felt he was trying to keep them from voting for Lincoln; southerners feared the same for Breckinridge. After ramming through the Compromise of 1850, which did little to resolve the growing tension between north and south, Douglas’s Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854 set a runaway train in motion. He spent the last year of his life trying to stop the process that he as much as any man had started, but would die June 3. Early skirmishes were already being fought in Virginia.
The growing belief that Lincoln would carry the northern states, while the three other candidates split the slave states, became even stronger in October when Republican gubernatorial candidates won in Indiana and Pennsylvania. On November 6 Lincoln got 180 electoral votes, a clear majority of the electoral college, carrying every northern state except for three of New Jersey’s seven votes. Breckinridge carried eleven slave states, winning 72 electoral votes. Bell got 39 votes having won three border slave states; and Douglas but 12 votes, carrying only Missouri and three of New Jersey’s. Knowing that Lincoln would be elected, the South Carolina legislature had remained in session. On November 10, it voted unanimously to call a secession convention, which took the Palmetto State out of the Union on December 20.
The secessionists triumphed with a strategy based first on splitting the Democratic party to elect Lincoln, believing that his victory would be enough to drive the slave states out of the Union. They were only partly correct. Lincoln’s triumph took seven slave states from South Carolina to Texas down the road to secession, but their neighbors in the upper south and on the border hesitated. Not until the firing on Fort Sumter, and Lincoln’s call for 75,000 volunteers to put down the rebellion did four more slave states secede, starting with Virginia. Tennessee, Arkansas, and North Carolina were reluctant to go, but all made the fateful decision. It was the death knell of the Union.