America's Oddest Election

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Just six months before the presidential election of November 1860 and only days after winning his party’s nomination, Abraham Lincoln received some stunning advice from one of his chief supporters, William Cullen Bryant. The influential editor of the pro-Republican New York Evening Post beseeched him to “make no speeches, write no letters as a candidate, enter into no pledges, make no promises.” Only three months earlier, Bryant had urged a large audience at New York City’s Cooper Union to pay heed to Lincoln’s every word. Now, warned Bryant, silence was the only way of “preventing any mistake on your part.”

The irony of this strategy was not lost on Lincoln: just two years earlier he had vaulted to national prominence largely on the oratorical skills he had exhibited during seven wildly successful public debates with Stephen A. Douglas in a race for an Illinois seat in the U.S. Senate. Although Lincoln lost the contest, the lengthy debates were printed in newspapers across the nation and appeared in book form, setting the stage for his bid for the presidency.

Ever the astute politician, Lincoln followed Bryant’s recommendation to the letter. For the next six months, Lincoln said precious little in person or in print to advance his cause, limiting his public appearances to posing for painters and photographers, and watching mutely as one giant campaign parade lumbered past his Springfield, Illinois home in August. Two of his three opponents in the unparalleled four-way race remained similarly invisible: Tennessee’s John Bell, running on the Constitutional Union ticket, who pledged to preventing secession; and Kentucky’s John C. Breckinridge, the choice of Southern Democrats, who was committed to saving slavery. The fourth candidate, his longtime rival, Stephen Douglas, running on the Northern Democratic Party, chose not to keep quiet, a decision that would have ramifications.

Although the clear favorite at the Democratic National Convention in Charleston, South Carolina, Douglas had irritated Southern delegates by his long-held beliefs that new territories could, if their voters wished, reject slavery. Southerners had stormed out of the convention and nominated Breckinridge, while Northern Democrats had reassembled to anoint Douglas. While many historians have insisted that Lincoln’s victory became a foregone conclusion with the split opposition, the final outcome remained very much in doubt—up to and even beyond Election Day.

The rupture in the Democratic Party certainly left Lincoln convinced by October that no “ticket can be elected by the People, unless it be ours.” But would any candidate amass enough electoral votes to win the presidency outright? If none could, the election would shift to the House of Representatives, the field narrowed to the top three vote getters. Each state would cast a single vote. Anything might happen in such a scenario, because the slaveholding Southern states, which were overwhelmingly Democratic, would exercise more power than they did in the electoral college.

Sensing—and privately encouraging—an opening that would send the election to the House, Douglas defied presidential campaigning tradition and decided to travel east to visit his ailing mother in New England. He chose an indirect and southerly route that would give him ample opportunities for speeches whenever his train stopped for fuel. His less-than-subtle campaign swing inspired one cartoonist to depict him as “Little Stephen in Search of His Mother.” Worse still, Douglas’s trip did little to overcome opposition to his signature “popular sovereignty” policy, which the Republicans opposed because it would give voters the right to expand slavery into the West. Southern Democrats didn’t like it because it gave voters the option to restrict the peculiar institution.

The low profile of the other candidates did not dampen public enthusiasm for the campaign. Americans thronged to rallies, marched in parades, distributed handbills, and turned campaign biographies into best sellers. Partisans ignited enough cannon to suggest that war had already begun. A record-breaking 82 percent turned out to vote on November 6, 1860.

Election Day dawned sunny but cold in Lincoln’s hometown of Springfield, Illinois. At approximately 3:30 p.m., the nominee slipped out of his hideaway office inside the state capitol building and “walked leisurely” to a nearby courthouse to vote. As supporters greeted him with “wild abandon,” Lincoln calmly “deposited the straight Republican ticket” after first modestly cutting off his own name from the ballot.

That night Lincoln coolly awaited returns at the city’s telegraph office. Early reports favored the Republicans, but scant news emerged from New York State, whose mother lode of 35 electoral votes might determine whether the election was decided that very night or later by Congress.

Lincoln eventually took a break, strolling to a nearby “ice cream saloon” where a ladies’ group had set up midnight refreshments. Here the long-anticipated dispatch from the Empire State finally arrived, confirming that Lincoln had won the day’s biggest prize—and with it, the presidency. At this news, Lincoln supporters “fell into each other’s arms shouting and crying, yelling like mad, jumping up and down,” remembered neighbor William H. Bailhache. All the seemingly impassive victor said to his supporters was: “Well, the agony is almost over and you will soon be able to go to bed.” Lincoln carried every Northern state but New Jersey, earning 180 electoral votes in all—comfortably more than the 152 required for a majority. But not until he was en route to Washington in February would he learn with certainty that the electoral votes had been safely counted without the violent interruption threatened by secessionists.