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The Election of 1860


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Abraham Lincoln

The presidential election of 1860 was one of the most pivotal in U.S. history. The nation was in the grips of a national schism over the issue of slavery, and the results of this election accelerated that schism.

The North and South had continued to be at odds for a generation or two about how to cope with the growth of slavery in the South. The agriculture industry in much of the South relied heavily on slave labor, and Southerners didn't want to lose what for them was a relatively cheap source of manpower.

Also at the forefront was the moral debate, about whether it is was right for one person to enslave another. This debate happened more frequently in the North and in Congress than it ever did in the South, but it occurred there as well.

The Missouri Compromise in 1820 had sought to calm the waters, by admitting one "free" state (Maine) and one "slave" state (Missouri). But the Dred Scott decision invalidated the Missouri Compromise and further threw into doubt the idea of popular sovereignty, which had driven both the mechanism of the Kansas-Nebraska Act and the political philosophy of Illinois Sen. Stephen A. Douglas. A further effort, the Compromise of 1850, served to further anger Northerners on the slavery issue (as did the publication of Uncle Tom's Cabin), and the nation stood on the brink of tremendous sectional strife in 1860.

The Democratic Party split in that year, with Douglas championing the Northern half of the nation and John C. Breckinridge carrying the standard for the Southern Democratic Party. John Bell was the nominee of the recently formed Constitutional Union Party. And the also recently formed Republican Party nominated, in a surprise to many political veterans, a Congressman from Illinois, Abraham Lincoln, who had gained fame in his loss in a run for the Senate, for which he had engaged Douglas in a series of debates.

With the Democratic Party split in two, many people thought that a loss for the party was inevitable. Still, the popular votes in many Northern states were closer than they might appear given the eventual electoral outcome, which handed the presidency to Lincoln. The result was a nearly immediate secession by first South Carolina and then a huge handful of other Southern states.

Things would get much worse before they ever got better, but the presidential election of 1860 produced as President the man whom many historians consider the best and most effective chief executive ever.

Graphics courtesy of ClipArt.com

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