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1854 Federal Election

Date: From 1854-08-04 to 1855-11-06

The Congressional Election of 1854 occurred during a transitional period in American party politics. Passage of the Kansas-Nebraska Act shattered the fragile unity of the Northern and Southern wings of the Whig Party, leading to the party’s demise on the national political scene. The Kansas-Nebraska Act appalled many anti-slavery Democrats, diminishing the power and support of the Democratic Party in the Northern states. Some opponents of the Kansas-Nebraska Act in the North coalesced to form new Republican parties. The rising tide of nativism lifted the American Party from obscurity, allowing it to position itself to fill the anti-Democratic gap left by the Whigs. Fusion tickets became common, as disaffected Whigs and Democrats banded together with Free Soilers, Nativists, and temperance advocates to run slates of candidates. The Democrats added to their majority in the U.S. Senate, but lost their majority in the House of Representatives, losing every Northern state except New Hampshire and California. The new House of Representatives had an anti-Nebraska majority, including former Whigs, Nativists, Free Soilers, former Northern Democrats, and nascent Republicans.

Illinois voters sent an anti-Nebraska majority to the U.S. House of Representatives and to the Illinois General Assembly. The anti-Nebraska majority in the General Assembly gave opponents of Stephen A. Douglas and the Democrats leverage in the imminent election for U.S. senator. James Shields, a supporter of the Kansas-Nebraska Act, was up for reelection, and the anti-Nebraska forces relished the opportunity to replace him with one of their own. Many anti-Nebraska politicians supported Abraham Lincoln for U.S. Senator. Opposition to the Kansas-Nebraska Act and its implications for the territories brought Lincoln back onto the political stage after a brief hiatus to concentrate on his law practice.

Lincoln, Shields, Lyman Trumbull, and Joel A. Matteson were the main contenders when the General Assembly met in joint session on February 8, 1855 to elect Illinois’ next U.S. Senator. Lincoln received a plurality in the first two ballots, but five anti-Nebraska Democrats refused to vote for him or a Douglas Democrat, throwing their support to Trumbull. Shields tied Lincoln on the third ballot, and received a plurality on the fourth, fifth, and sixth ballots. On the seventh ballot, the pro-Nebraska Democrats abandoned Shields for Matteson, who led on the eighth and ninth ballots. With his share of the vote declining and Matteson seemingly poised to win, Lincoln urged his remaining staunch supporters to vote for Trumbull to ensure that an anti-Nebraska candidate won the seat. In the tenth round of voting Trumbull achieved a majority and was declared the winner. Stung and disappointed by his loss, Lincoln made no political speeches or public statements for an entire year after his defeat and reinvested his energies in his law practice.

Michael F. Holt, The Rise and Fall of the American Whig Party: Jacksonian Politics and the Onset of the Civil War (New York: Oxford University Press, 1999), 836-908; David Herbert Donald, Lincoln (New York: Touchstone, 1995), 171-72, 179-85; Michael Burlingame, Abraham Lincoln: A Life (Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 2008), 1:363-64, 392, 402-3; Kenneth C. Martis, The Historical Atlas of Political Parties in the United States Congress, 1789-1989 (New York: MacMillan, 1989), 32-33, 108-9; Victor B. Howard, “The Illinois Republican Party Part I: A Party Organizer for the Republicans in 1854,” Journal of the Illinois State Historical Society 64 (Summer 1971), 153-54; Illinois Senate Journal. 1855. 19th G. A., 1st sess., 242-55.