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A Nation Divided.  The Civil War in contemporary prints
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1860: on the threshold of war

[ Political parties | Election | Aftermath ]


Political Parties

A the time of Andrew Jackson's presidency, American politics had evolved essentially into a two party system, with Jackson's Democrats opposed by the Whigs, among whose leaders were Henry Clay and Daniel Webster. The Democrats had dominated American politics for most of the century and the Whigs achieved their greatest success with the 1848 election of Zachary Taylor as President. The Whig party was not, however, stable for it contained both strongly pro-slavery and anti-slavery members whose views could not be reconciled.

The Compromise of 1850, with its the Fugitive Slave Act, and the Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854 caused the Whig party to split apart, with the "Conscience" Whigs (anti-slavery) becoming the core of a new party, the Republican party. This party, though its members held a wide range of views on slavery, definitely stood against the expansion of slavery into the new territories of the West. The Republicans ran their first candidate for President, John Frémont, in the 1856 election. In 1860, they nominated Abraham Lincoln.

The Democratic Party did lose some of its more anti-slavery members to this new party, but they remained united enough to elect James Buchanan as President in 1856. Still, the slavery issue was wearing away at the bonds that held this party together. The majority of Democrats lived in the South and most of those were pro-slavery. There was a smaller contingent of northern Democrats who had mixed feelings on how to handle the issue of slavery.

The Democratic party had managed to stay together partly by adopting the policy of "popular sovereignty," which allowed those in the new territories to decide the issue of slavery for themselves. This, however, only papered over a split which continued to widen as passions around the issue continued to rise in the 1850s. When the Democratic Party met in April 1860 to nominate their candidate for President, the southern Democrats insisted on including a plank supporting a Federal Slavery Code, which would give slave holders rights in the new territories. The convention voted down this plank, which resulted in many of the southern delegates walking out, thus ringing the death knell for the national Democratic party.

The two factions of the Democratic Party met late in separate conventions. The Northern Democrats nominated Stephen A. Douglas, the prime mover of the Kansas-Nebraska Act and supporter of popular sovereignty. The Southern Democrats nominated John C. Breckinridge and strongly affirmed slaveholder rights in the new territories.

This three-way race for President turned into a four-way race when some ex-Whigs, and others who did not care for any of these candidates, formed a fourth party, the Constitutional Union party. This party, which nominated John Bell for President, denounced the factionalism of the other parties and tried to rally the people of both North and South around the cause of the Union ("the Union as it is, and the Constitution as it is.")

The election of 1860

Though there were four candidates for President in 1860, this was not really a four-way race, but instead two separate contests, one in the North and one in the South. In the North, Lincoln and Douglas faced off, whereas in the South, the only viable candidates were Breckinridge and Bell (Lincoln did not even appear on the ballot in most southern states). Neither section listened to the other, with those in the North not taking Southern talk of secession seriously and those in the South not hearing Lincoln's assurances that he was not going to act against slavery in those states in which it already existed.

After votes were counted, Bell had won three border states, while Breckinridge took all of the other Southern states. Neither gained any electoral votes north of the Mason-Dixon Line. In the North, Douglas took only three of New Jersey's seven electoral votes, though he did win the border slave state of Missouri. The rest of northern states went solidly for Lincoln, giving him 180 of the 303 total electoral votes. Thus it was that on November 6, 1860, Abraham Lincoln was elected as the 16th President of the United States.

Aftermath of the election

Lincoln never wavered from his position that slavery should not be allowed into the new territories, but he did try to reassure those in the South that he was not going to act to end slavery there. Southerners did not, however, hear this and with all the anger and conflict which had been bubbling up since the 1820s (cf. page on causes of the Civil War), many in the South saw Lincoln's election as the last straw.

There had been talk of secession in the South during the years leading up to 1860 (something which their state's right position allowed for), but Lincoln's election caused the Southerners to act. On December 20th, 1860, a South Carolina convention voted to secede from the Union.

Fort Sumter
Governor Pickens of South Carolina immediately demanded that the U.S. relinquish control of Forts Sumter and Moultrie in Charleston Harbor. The U.S. government refused and instructed the commander there, Major Robert Anderson, to maintain his position. On December 26th, in order to better secure his defenses, Anderson abandoned Fort Moultrie and moved his troops to Fort Sumter. The stage was then finally set for raising the curtain on the tragedy that would begin in the new year.

Anderson at Sumter The dramatic events between South Carolina's secession and the firing on Fort Sumter a few months later were of great interest to Americans around the country, so it is not surprising that Harper's Weekly included a series of images showing the forts, troops and events in Charleston. The print on the left shows Anderson and his men moving into Sumter from Moultrie, as well as an image of the Charleston militia occupying the smaller Castle Pinckney, which was abandoned by the federal troops at the same time. This print was issued in Harper's just a couple of weeks after the event. [Click here to see other prints on this topic from Harper's Weekly.]

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