Is this election the most important one in our lifetime? We have been told it is, but when you have lived as long as me, you have heard that phrase many times. In fact, if you did a study of presidential elections in American history you would hear this same phrase repeated in almost every election.
That is why I have rephrased the question to ask what was the most pivotal election in US history? You can do your own study and arrive at your own conclusion, but for me, I believe that the most pivotal and divisive presidential election in American history took place in 1860. John Brown’s raid on Harpers Ferry a year earlier had brought the great American debate over slavery to a breaking point.
Four candidates were nominated. The Republican Party, which fielded its first candidate in 1856, was opposed to the expansion of slavery. Abraham Lincoln, the party’s nominee in 1860, was seen as a moderate on slavery, but Southerners feared that his election would lead to its demise, and vowed to leave the Union if he was elected. The Democratic Party split during their April convention, and the Southern delegation walked out in protest against the party’s failure to endorse a federal slave code for western territories. Northern Democrats reconvened in Baltimore, where they nominated Stephen Douglas, while the Southern faction of the party held their own convention in Richmond and nominated Vice President John Breckinridge for president. The Constitutional Union Party, a moderate party composed of former Whigs and remnants of the Know-Nothings and other groups in the South, organized just before the election of 1860 and nominated John Bell.
Bell carried Virginia and Breckinridge had the most votes in western Virginia. Lincoln won the election without carrying a single Southern state, the limited support he received in Virginia coming almost exclusively in the Northern panhandle. Almost immediately following his election, Southern states began withdrawing from the Union, setting the stage for a civil war and the creation of a new state.
Notice the above map – with four candidates in the field, Lincoln received only 40% of the popular vote but a significant 180 electoral votes (59%). This meant that 60% of the voters selected someone other than Lincoln. The next time you complain about the electoral college just think of this election as an example of its wisdom. With the results tallied, the question was, would the South accept the outcome? A few weeks after the election, South Carolina seceded from the Union. Since the North had a larger population than the South, it therefore had control of the Electoral College. Lincoln dominated the Northern states but didn’t carry a single Southern state.
Douglas received some Northern support—12 electoral votes—but not nearly enough to offer a serious challenge to Lincoln. The Southern vote was split between Breckenridge who won 72 electoral votes and Bell who won 39 electoral votes. The split prevented either candidate from gaining enough votes to win the election. The election of 1860 also firmly established the Democratic and Republican parties as the majority parties in the United States. It also confirmed deep-seated views on slavery and states’ rights between the North and South.
The night after all the results came in and it was clear that Lincoln had won, he went home only to find his wife, Mary, already asleep. He gently touched her shoulder and whispered her name, to which she made no answer. Then, as Lincoln recounted: “I spoke again, a little louder, saying ‘Mary, Mary! we are elected!‘ ” Minutes before, the final words his friends heard him utter that night were: “God help me, God help me.” (The Smithsonian Magazine)
Before Lincoln’s inauguration, eleven Southern states had seceded from the Union. Weeks after his swearing-in, the Confederate Army fired on Fort Sumter and started the Civil War. I would say the election of 1860 was the most pivotal in US history.