1860 Federal Election

Date: From 1859-12-01 to 1861-10-24

The Federal election of 1860 was extremely controversial and proved to be the direct catalyst for the secession crisis of the same year. With the Democratic Party having split into two factions during its 1860 national convention, two candidates ran under its banner: moderate Illinoisan Stephen A. Douglas and pro-slavery Kentuckian John C. Breckinridge. The Republicans again ran on a platform explicitly opposing slavery's expansion westward with Abraham Lincoln as their candidate. Fearing that the election of any of these three candidates would lead to secession, a third "Union Party" was created with the sole goal of drafting a compromise between free and slave states with John Bell as its nominee. Although Lincoln did not appear on many ballots in the South, he nevertheless received the most Electoral College votes by carrying every free state. Breckinridge carried all of the Deep South while Bell carried three border states and Douglas only carried Missouri. Southern secessionists viewed Lincoln's election as a direct threat to the institution of slavery and the secession crisis was fully underway by December 20, when South Carolina officially left the Union.

The secession crisis naturally complicated the 1860 congressional elections as some states had not voted by the time they left the Union and others withdrew their representatives and senators when they seceded. Unionists in Virginia and Tennessee both held congressional elections after secession, further complicating the matter. Nevertheless, the secession of so many Democratic-leaning states gave the Republicans a strong majority in House of Representatives and a numerical majority in the Senate. Democrats constituted the opposition in both houses, although a significant number of Constitutional Unionists also occupied congressional seats.

Michael S. Green, Lincoln and the Election of 1860 (Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 2011); Douglas R. Egerton, Year of Meteors: Stephen Douglas, Abraham Lincoln, and the Election that Brought on the Civil War (New York: Bloomsbury, 2010); David M. Potter and Don E. Fehrenbacher, The Impending Crisis, 1848-1861 (New York: Harper & Row, 1976), 405-47; Kenneth C. Martis, The Historical Atlas of Political Parties in the United States Congress, 1789-1989 (New York: MacMillan, 1989), 114-15; William Starr Myers, "Campaign of 1860," Dictionary of American History , rev. ed. (New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1976), 1:421.