The growing political, economic, and social differences in America were epitomized by the presidential election, which was basically divided into two separate contests: Republican Abraham Lincoln faced Northern Democrat Stephen A. Douglas in the North, and Constitutional Unionist John Bell faced Southern Democrat John C. Breckinridge in the South. None of the four tickets appeared on the ballots in all 33 states. There was an 81.2 percent voter turnout, the largest for a presidential election up to that time. The results:
- Lincoln of Illinois and Hannibal Hamlin of Maine – 180 electoral votes and 1,866,452 popular votes
- Breckinridge of Kentucky and Joseph Lane of Oregon – 72 electoral votes and 849,781 popular votes
- Bell of Tennessee and Edward Everett of Massachusetts – 39 electoral votes and 588,879 popular votes
- Douglas of Illinois and Herschel V. Johnson of Georgia – 12 electoral votes and 1,376,957 popular votes
The surge in northern population over the past decade ensured that a purely northern presidential ticket could win a national election without any southern support. Lincoln received no votes in the Deep South, and his 4 percent of the vote in the Upper South came mostly from the large German immigrant contingent around St. Louis, Missouri. Lincoln won more electoral votes than the other three candidates combined, but he won only 40 percent of the popular vote, with almost a million more people voting against him than for him.
Lincoln benefited from the Electoral College’s “winner-take-all” system by winning slim popular majorities in many states that enabled him to collect all those states’ electoral votes. Even so, Lincoln had to travel a narrow path to victory without southern support. Had he lost any one of the major northern states (like Pennsylvania, which had 27 electoral votes), he would not have won the electoral majority needed to be elected. And if no candidate had won a majority, the election would have been decided by the U.S. House of Representatives, where Lincoln had very little support.
The North’s population dominance was reflected by the northern candidates (Lincoln and Douglas) winning 69 percent of the popular vote. Douglas finished second in popular votes but could only carry Missouri and part of New Jersey because he was mainly running against Lincoln. In the West, Breckinridge siphoned enough votes from Douglas to give California and Oregon to Lincoln. In the South, Breckinridge carried 11 of the 15 slave states, and Bell won the border states of Virginia, Kentucky, and Tennessee.
In the congressional elections, non-Republicans held a slight majority by winning 129 seats in the House of Representatives. Republicans won 108 seats, all in the northern states. Voters elected state legislators who eventually put 29 Republicans into the U.S. Senate versus 37 Democrats and other non-Republicans.
Only the strong southern Democratic bloc prevented Republicans from enjoying large majorities in both chambers of Congress. If the southern states were to make good on their threat to secede, Republicans would dominate Washington just as they did the North. Republicans won the governorships of every northern state, so they would command all northern state militias. They also won control of most state legislatures.
Lincoln spent most of Election Day in his office at the Illinois State House in Springfield, reading telegraphic updates as they came in. He voted a Republican ticket for all offices except president, declining to vote for himself. Early returns showed that he won his adopted home state of Illinois, but interestingly did not win his own county. Douglas, Lincoln’s longtime Illinois political rival, continued to dominate central Illinois.
By 9 p.m., returns showed strong Republican victories in New England, Pennsylvania, Indiana, and the northwestern states. But there was no news yet from New York, a state that Lincoln needed to win. Finally around midnight, news came that despite Democratic dominance of New York City and Brooklyn, the Republicans carried the state and thus the election.
Lincoln left the telegraph office to join friends and political allies at a midnight supper that the Republican ladies of Springfield had put together. Tables were lined with sandwiches, oysters, cakes, coffee, and other such items. At the Watson Saloon, 100 women sang, “Ain’t you glad you joined the Republicans? Joined the Republicans, ain’t you glad you joined the Republicans, down in Illinois?”
Douglas was far from his Chicago home on Election Day; he had been campaigning in Alabama and got the returns in the office of his friend John Forsyth, editor of the Mobile Register. When news came that the Democrats had lost Pennsylvania and New York, he conceded defeat.
Most pundits expected Lincoln to win, despite the fact that a southerner had been president for 49 of the country’s 73 years of existence; 24 of 36 House speakers and 25 of 36 Senate president pro temps had been southerners; and 20 of 35 Supreme Court justices had been southerners, giving them a majority on the bench since the nation’s founding. Now, for the first-time, a president-vice president team would be exclusively northern. And northerners who opposed the southern way of life would now be prime candidates for the cabinet, judiciary, and diplomatic corps.
Douglas was far from his Chicago home on Election Day; he had been campaigning in Alabama and got the returns in the office of his friend John Forsyth, editor of the Mobile Register. When news came that the Democrats had lost Pennsylvania and New York, Douglas conceded defeat. He tried to talk Forsyth out of printing an article urging Alabamans to form a secession convention, but Forsyth stood firm. According to Douglas’s secretary, Douglas left the office looking “more hopeless than I had ever seen him before.”
In addition to Forsyth’s early bulletin, an early editorial in the Atlanta Confederacy warned that the election results would cause the Potomac River to be “crimsoned in human gore,” sweeping “the last vestige of liberty” from America. Before the sun would rise on the 7th of November, disunion was already sweeping the South.
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