America's Oddest Election

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Lincoln could also take comfort from winning 1,866,452 votes, more popular votes than anyone who had run for president. Yet in the few Southern states where his name appeared on ballots, his support was anemic: Virginia gave the Lincoln ticket barely 1 percent of its 167,223 votes. And in his birth state of Kentucky, Lincoln won only 1,364 out of 146,216 votes, less than 1 percent. While he did win a decisive 54 percent in the North and West, he earned only 2 percent in the entire South (mostly from German Americans in St. Louis). It would prove the most lopsided vote in American history.

Had a few thousand Americans voted differently in Indiana, California, and New York, the outcome may well have changed. If the vote had gone to the House would Lincoln have won? Possibly not. Although he took 17 states (compared to the 16 for all three of his opponents combined), lame duck House delegations would have felt no obligation to respect their states’ Election Day outcomes. Deals and compromises would have remained on the table—especially if Congress concluded (as many Republicans and Democrats soon did) that denying Lincoln the White House might preserve the Union. Within weeks influential Northerners such as James Alexander Hamilton, son of the founding father, began suggesting that Lincoln electors throw their votes to others so that the House would get the final decision. Lincoln’s fragile victory ultimately held. But would the Union? 

Even on election night, Lincoln seemed to sense the grim future. One friend noticed that the “pleasure and pride at the completeness of his success” quickly evaporated. “It seemed as if he suddenly bore the whole world upon his shoulders, and could not shake it off.”

As Lincoln left for home that historic night to tell his wife of the victory that more Americans lamented than celebrated, he was heard to mutter: “God help me, God help me.”