Insults, Fiery Speeches, Dire Warnings, Your Typical Presidential Campaign 2


Blurb: One major political party completely ruptured into two, when unable to agree on a platform or nominee for president. Another political party nominated a candidate for president without any governing experience and a brand new party was birthed in the process of all the heated debate. Sound a little familiar?

One of the many pluses in family research is reading about history. A little research on the era of a particular generation is eye-opening. We gather many historical tidbits and nuances our grade school teachers never had time to explain. It’s fascinating to learn the background of the women’s suffrage movement and wonder how these events affected our great grandmothers, or in reading the travail of a wagon train bound for the west, we wonder how our ancestors survived such a trip. These research moments that enable us to fill in the blanks of daily life for our ancestors can be enlightening for the researcher. We learn how our previous generations “lived history” and laid the groundwork for our lives today.

I felt some insight and empathy for our ancestors recently when I was reading about the presidential election of 1860. It was a stormy political time. The rhetoric was fiery. One major political party completely split in two, unable to agree on a platform or nominee for president. Another political party was less than a decade old and nominated a candidate for president without governing experience and a brand new party was birthed in the process of all the heated debate. Sound a little familiar?

This was the political scene our ancestors lived and worked in during the presidential campaign of 1860. Slavery was the issue on the minds of citizens and their elected officials across the country. The issue so intense, the feelings on either side so strong, the continuation of a unified country lay in the balance.

Photo Credit: Stephen A. Douglas Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division Between 1855 and 1861 Image is part of Brady-Handy Photograph Collection. Public Domain, via Wikimedia Commons.

When the Democratic party met for their party’s convention in Charleston, South Carolina in April of 1860 all delegates in attendance knew they were headed for confrontation. The Northern delegates were in opposition to the Southern delegates proposed party platform. Senator Stephen Douglas from Illinois, known nationally for his debates with Abraham Lincoln, was the favorite to be nominated by his party for president. However Douglas could not agree with the Southern delegates who vehemently favored slavery and its extension into U.S. territories. Douglas knew he’d never carry a northern state in the election campaigning with that platform. A fierce debate ensued and the extension of slavery into U.S. territories was narrowly defeated and left off the party platform. The Southern delegates were furious and stormed out of the convention. Even with their absence Stephen Douglas did not win his party’s nomination at this convention. It was only when the Democrats reconvened in Baltimore six weeks later that Douglas was nominated as the Democrat’s candidate for president. Slavery was not mentioned in the party’s platform. The Democrats party platform favored the extension of the transcontinental railroad to the west coast and acquiring Cuba.

Photo Credit:Mathew Brady - Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division. Brady-Handy Photograph Collection. . Call Number: LC-BH832- 1676 Public Domain, via Wikimedia Commons.

Southern Democrats were enraged to have their platform snubbed once again by the party and splintered off to form the Southern Democratic Party. They nominated John C. Breckinridge, the incumbent vice president as their party’s presidential candidate. Their party platform included the continuation of slavery, extension of it into U.S. territories, the acquisition of Cuba and the continuing the rail system out west.

Photo Credit: Carl Schurz, Reminiscences, Volume Two, McClure Publishing Co., 1907, facing p. 220; scanned by Bob Burkhardt. Public Domain, via Wikimedia Commons.

The Republican party was still in its infancy having been founded in 1854. Yet when their political convention was held in May of 1860 in Chicago they had already learned of the fractured Democratic party. They knew the coming election would favor the Republican candidate considering the deep Democratic divide. Senator William H. Seward from New York was the early favorite to gain the Republican nomination. His hatred of slavery was widely known yet there were hints of corruption in his background. Seward’s opponent within the party was widely known for his forthrightness and honesty and on the third ballot Abraham Lincoln was the Republican’s nominee for president. Running on an anti-slavery platform that opposed the spread of slavery into U.S. territories the platform included the continuation of the transcontinental railroad westward, a protective tariff and the Homestead Act which would give free land to settlers.

As if the country hadn’t had enough politics there was yet another party convention held in the spring of 1860. Members of the defunct Whig party gathered to form the Constitutional Union party. Many of these members were not happy with the direction of the Republican party feeling it was too radical. They nominated long time Senator John Bell from Tennessee as their candidate. Personally Bell supported slavery but not its extension into territories. The Constitutional Union party never formulated a platform, they simply ran on the Constitution and the preservation of the Union.

Photo Credit: Mathew Brady, United States Library of Congress's Prints and Photographs division under the digital ID cwpbh.02532., Public Domain, via Wikimedia Commons.

The election of 1860 was a diverse and hotly contested presidential race with four political candidates vying for executive office. What went through the minds of our ancestors as they listened to speeches, read newspapers and conversed with neighbors? They had to wonder what had happened to “their” America?

Reading and researching historical events then realizing our ancestors lived those events is exciting and eye-opening. It makes them alive for us. In fact many of their situations and circumstances are still ours today. So tell me, what do you think? Who did your ancestor vote for in the presidential election of 1860?


Cindy Freed

About Cindy Freed

Cindy Freed is a genealogist, researcher and writer. Her blog Genealogy Circle (www.genealogycircle.com) documents her personal family research as well as her continuing interest in the Civil War. Along with her monthly IDG column, Tracing Blue and Gray, Cindy is a regular contributor to 4th Ohio, First Call quarterly magazine for the 4th Ohio Volunteer Cavalry Descendants Association.


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2 thoughts on “Insults, Fiery Speeches, Dire Warnings, Your Typical Presidential Campaign

  • J. Paul Hawthorne

    Great article! Well, to answer your question “Who did your ancestor vote for in the presidential election of 1860?” – I would imagine John C. Breckinridge of the Democratic party, as they were living in Mobile, Alabama at the time.

  • Terri O'Connell

    I do not have information on the 1860 election, however I do have a copy of the poll from 1856 and have family in WV that voted Republican and other members voted Democratic. So I would assume that in 1860 the family was split as well.