Could Lincoln Have Been Defeated in 1860?

This is another in a series of posts marking the sesquicentennial of the Emancipation Proclamation.

No presidential election in American history has been as pivotal as the election of 1860. Had any one of Abraham Lincoln’s three opponents been elected president in November of 1860, South Carolina would clearly not have seceded from the Union on December 20, and it and its six compatriot Deep South states would not have formed the Confederate States of America on February 8, 1861.

(Technically, Texas, one of the seven seceding states, did not join the Confederacy until the first week of March.)

Of course, one of the anomalies of that election was that Abraham Lincoln won a solid majority in the Electoral College, even though he received only 39.7% of the popular vote. The remaining 60+% was divided between the Northern Democrat Stephen Douglas of Illinois (29.5%), the Southern Democrat James Breckenridge of Kentucky (18.2%), and Tennessean John Bell (12.6%), who was the candidate of the Constitutional Union Party, essentially an effort to revive the defunct Whig Party.

While receiving only a plurality of the popular vote, Lincoln nevertheless won a substantial majority in the Electoral College, totaling 180 votes compared to 72 for Breckenridge, 39 for Bell, and only 12 for Douglas.

Although it is often assumed that Lincoln prevailed only because his three opponents split the opposing votes, that was not the case. Because of the way in which Lincoln’s votes were concentrated outside the South, he would have won a majority of votes in the Electoral College even if all of the voters who voted for his three opponents had instead cast their ballots for a single candidate. That candidate would have received 60.3% of the popular vote but would have still lost the Electoral College by a margin of 169 votes to 134.

Given the peculiar distribution of votes, was it possible that Lincoln could have been defeated in 1860?

For that to have happened, there would have had to have been a candidate who could have appealed to both Northern and Southern Democrats and those Whigs and American Party members who did not support the new Republican Party. In other words, such a candidate would first have to hold the votes that went to Douglas, Breckenridge, and Bell.

None of the three actual candidates met this criteria. Douglas’ continued support of popular sovereignty, which would have allowed slavery to be abolished by popular vote in new states carved out of the territories, was perceived by Southerners as inconsistent with the Supreme Court’s pro-slavery Dred Scott decision and thus had alienated many Southern Democrats.

Even though Bell was a Southerner and a slave owner, his opposition to the pro-slavery proposed Lecompton Constitution of Kansas also made him suspect in the Deep South. Breckenridge, the sitting Vice-President of the United States, was solid on slavery, but he was a committed Jacksonian Democrat and his willingness to be part of an effort to divide the Democratic Party alienated many northern Democrats and conservative former Whigs.

There were, however, presidential candidates in the field in 1860 who might have united the three groups. One was Sam Houston, the governor and former president of Texas, but two even better candidates who actually sought the Democratic presidential nomination in the fall of 1860 were United States Senator R. M. T. Hunter of Virginia and James Guthrie, a former Kentucky legislator, United States Treasury Secretary, and railroad president.

Hunter, who was the official presidential candidate of the Virginia Democrats, was a former Whig who had switched to the Democratic Party in 1844, but had retained close relations with his former colleagues. He had even been offered a cabinet post in the Whig Administration of Millard Fillmore in 1850. He was a staunch supporter of slavery, and he had campaigned in the Senate in 1857 to admit Kansas as a slave state under the Lecompton Constitution.

Even so, Hunter could still have appealed to Northern Democrats and conservative Whigs. He was perceived as a strong unionist and his leading role in the drafting and passage of the Tariff of 1857, which had sharply reduced rates and which was popular among Northern Democrats, also gave him appeal north of the Mason-Dixon Line. His previous service to the Whig Party was likely to appeal to Southerner and Border State veterans of the Whig and American parties.

The second alternative candidate at the Democratic convention in Charleston was Kentucky’s candidate, James Guthrie, who was best known for his having reduced the national debt by almost two thirds while Secretary of the Treasury during the Pierce Administration.

Like Hunter, Guthrie had the potential to appeal to both Democrats and conservative former Whigs. Although a pro-slavery Democrat who campaigned for a Kentucky state constitutional clause that prevented the state from abolishing slavery, he had been a strong supporter of internal improvements while in the Kentucky legislature and had frequently been allied with Whigs on such issues. He also had a history of direct involvement with internal improvement companies—another Whig favorite. He had participated in a number of canal and turnpike companies in Kentucky, and in 1860 he was the president of the Louisville & Nashville Railway, a major southern railroad.

At the Democratic Party’s initial nominating convention in April of 1860, Stephen Douglas was the choice of a majority of the convention’s delegates, even counting the substantial number of pro-slavery delegates who walked out of the convention in protest of Douglas’ policies. However, even though the Convention went through 57 separate ballots in its effort to nominate a candidate, it was clear at the outset that Douglas was not going to receive the 2/3 majority then required for the nomination.

In fact, it was clear as early as the third or fourth ballot that Douglas was not going to receive the necessary number of votes. Had Douglas withdrawn, which he refused to do, the convention would likely have turned to either Hunter or Guthrie, depending on when the withdrawal occurred. Hunter finished second to Douglas on seven of the first eight 8 ballots, but by the tenth ballot, his supporters appear to have begun to move to Guthrie, who was the runner up to Douglas on ballots 10 through 57.

Had the Democrats nominated either Hunter or Guthrie in April of 1860, instead of reconvening in Baltimore two months later and nominating Douglas, it is unlikely that the Southern wing of the party would have broken away and nominated its own candidate. Moreover, it is also likely that the Constitutional Union Party would have supported the Whig-friendly Hunter or Guthrie rather than risk dividing the vote and electing an anti-slavery Republican. A number of members of the party, including Sam Houston, had called for such a strategy but neither Douglas nor Breckenridge were acceptable candidates for many of the party’s supporters.

Of course, if Hunter or Guthrie had been nominated, to have prevailed as a fusion candidate, the candidate would have had to have done better than just capture all of the Douglas, Breckenridge, and Bell votes (since Lincoln would still have won under that scenario.). What else would have had to have happened to prevent a Lincoln victory?

Had there been a single opponent representing the anti-Republican forces, that candidate would clearly have carried the lightly populated western states of Oregon and California, which Lincoln won with pluralities in the 30% range. The fusion candidate would also have received all seven of New Jersey’s electoral votes.

(In actuality, the three non-Republican parties formed a fusion ticket in New Jersey in 1860, as they also did in New York and Pennsylvania, but in New Jersey, electors for all three opposition candidates remained on the ballot, allowing the Republicans to capture 4 of 7 electors, even while taking less than half of the popular vote.)

Even with those three states added to the states carried by the three actual opposition candidates in 1860, Hunter or Guthrie would still have needed to capture 18 additional electoral votes in order to win.

In what states was Lincoln’s majority the slimmest, since those would have been the states most easily moved into the opposition column?

As it turns out, the two states in which Lincoln received the smallest majorities were his home state of Illinois (50.1%) and his former home state of Indiana (51.1%). A shift of only 2,356 votes in Illinois would have transferred its 11 electoral votes to the opposition candidate, while a total of 2,962 shifted votes would have won over the Hoosier state’s 13 votes. Such a shift would have made Hunter or Guthrie the winner by an Electoral College majority of 158 to 145.

Of course, there is no way to know if an R. M. T. Hunter or James Guthrie candidacy would have produced that result. Given the importance of carrying Indiana and Illinois, the Kentuckian Guthrie might have been the stronger candidate. Because of the well-documented affinities between the southernmost portions of Illinois and Indiana and the Blue Grass state (especially in the mid-19th century) a larger number of voters might have turned out for, or switched their votes to, a Kentucky presidential candidate committed to keeping slavery as an American institution south, but not north, of the Ohio River.

Of course, if Hunter or Guthrie had been elected president in 1860, there would have been no Civil War in 1861. At the same time, there presumably would have been no Emancipation Proclamation in 1863, and no end to slavery in 1865.

As it turned out, Hunter and Guthrie pursued sharply different paths after the 1860 election. Hunter ultimately supported Virginia’s decision to secede after the firing on Fort Sumter and the calling up of the troops by President Lincoln. In fact, he served as the first Confederate Secretary of State and from 1862 to 1865 as President Pro Tempore of the Confederate Senate where he represented Virginia.

Guthrie, on the other hand, remained loyal to the Union throughout the Civil War, although he never abandoned his support of slavery. Representing Kentucky in the United States Senate during Reconstruction, he opposed both the 13th and 14th Amendments and was a vocal supporter of President Andrew Johnson and an opponent of Radical Reconstruction.




This Post Has 12 Comments

  1. Brent DeBord

    Two other alternate-history possibilities to consider.

    One, what if William Seward had won the Republican nomination? As a former Know-Nothing, would he have been able to carry the German-populated States of the Midwest or the Catholic heavy areas of the North (despite Northern Catholics generally being anti-slavery following Pope Gregory XVI’s Bull of 1839)?

    Two, what if the Republican Party had split into a Moderate Republican Party (perhaps with Lincoln as the nominee) and a Radical Republican Party (perhaps with Seward or Hannibal Hamlin as the nominee)?

    I wonder that if the Republicans had lost the 1860 election, whether Lysander Spooner view that the free States ought to secede from the Union might have gained more traction. Especially if a Supreme Court of this alternate-history had continued down the logic path of the Dred Scott decision and declared that slavery could not be banned anywhere in the Union.

    Fun things to think about.

    Also, I wonder how many people know about Wisconsin’s nullification law declaring that the Fugitive Slave Act was null and void within the State?

    1. Jeffrey Pandin

      Seward was never a Know Nothing. Quite the opposite. All the way back to his term as NY governor he was an outspoken advocate of Catholic and Immigrant rights. In fact, the entire Know Nothing movement was largely created as a vehicle to split Seward’s vote.

      Seward’s problem was Know Nothing strongholds like Pennsylvania and New Jersey, not Germans and Irish.

  2. sean samis

    I don’t know whether you have covered this elsewhere, but if the South had not seceded and had sent its members to Congress in 1860, would Lincoln not have been a minority President and in a weak position to accomplish much?

    sean s.

  3. Gordon Hylton

    You are absolutely correct. The Republicans would have controlled neither House of Congress.

    During the 37th Congress (1861-1863), there were only 108 Republican members in the House of Representatives, plus three Northern Unionists who could probably have been counted on to support Republican measures. Had the South sent its full complement of Representatives, there would have been a total of 128 Democrats and Southerners.

    The Republican Party would have been even weaker in the Senate, where only 30 of 70 slots were filled by Republicans. Only the absence of 21 Southern senators allowed Linocln’s party to control the upper chamber.

    Secession was clearly a miscalculation by those who sought to preserve the institution of slavery.

    In support of my claim that Lincoln could easily have lost Illinois, the Land of Lincoln sent five Democrats and only four Republicans to the House of Representatives in 1861.

  4. Gordon Hylton

    For some reason, I did not see the first comment above until after I had responded to the second.

    I am skeptical regarding William Seward’s chances of winning the presidential election of 1860. In the previous election, the Republican candidate, John Fremont, won only 33.1% of the popular vote and only carried states located in what might be called “Greater New England” (New England, and those areas settled by New Englanders migrating westward, i.e., upstate New York and the upper Midwest.)

    Although Fremont was himself a product of the plantation South (eastern Virginia and coastal South Carolina), he was a career military man and by 1856, was no longer identified with the South in any meaningful way.

    Seward grew up in the upstate New York village of Florida, which was near Poughkeepsie, and he was thus a product of the one region that was already solidly Republican.

    Lincoln, however, was a more threatening Republican candidate because he was not a product of Greater New England, but of the Ohio Valley Region, the great inland land mass that was drained by the Ohio River and which included states and parts of states in free and slave areas.

    Lincoln was born in Kentucky, and had lived in southern Indiana and central Illinois.

    The keys to Lincoln’s victory in 1860 were his victories in Pennsylvania, Indiana, and Illinois, all part of the Ohio Valley region. All three states had been carried by Buchanan in 1856.

    In 1856, Fremont received 32% of the vote in Pennsylvania, 40% in Illinois, and 40% in Indiana. Four years later, Lincoln carried the three states with 56%, 51%, and 51% of the popular vote, respectively. It was this appeal to voters in the middle of the country that made the representatives of the Plantation South so afraid of a Lincoln candidacy.

    And, of course, they were right. Lincoln did win the election, and the country was drawn asunder.

  5. Gordon Hylton

    It is also interesting that all four presidential candidates in 1860 (Bell, Breckinridge, Douglas, Lincoln) were strongly identified with the Ohio Valley region.

  6. Brent DeBord

    Absolutely right that Seward most likely could not have carried the 1860 election. And absolutely right that the South need not have seceded. The South controlled Congress. Plus, while the Supreme Court in 1860-1861 was split 4 Northern and 3 Southern, Dred Scott created a precedent that looked to be pushing the nation toward allowing slavery everywhere.

    Imagine a Douglas presidency of 1861-1865 and how it might have affected the Supreme Court.

    That’s what makes speculative fiction both interesting and important. By considering what-might-have-been, one gets a better understanding of why knowing what-actually-was is so important.

  7. Gordon Hylton

    This can go on and on, but the point about how a Douglas presidency would have affected the Supreme Court is a fascinating question.

    First, had any Democrat been elected president in the fall of 1860, Buchanan’s nomination of Jeremiah Black (his former AG) to fill the seat created by the death of Peter Daniel would almost certainly have been approved, rather than be defeated by a single vote (as happened in Feb. 1861).

    Second, had Douglas been elected and had he died on June 3, 1861, as he did in the real timeline, the president from 1861 to 1865 (at least) would have been VP Herschel Johnson of Georgia, who is today completely forgotten but was a capable political figure in his time (who ended up supporting the Confederacy).

    Johnson would have then have likely appointed the replacement for the anti-slavery John McLean, who died in April 1861. Who would he have appointed? Howell Cobb, perhaps? Cobb was Buchanan’s Secretary of the Treasury and Johnson’s predecessor as Governor of Georgia as well as a distinguished lawyer.

    Had Douglas had time to make the appointment before his death, it almost surely would have been to a midwestern Democrat of a pursuasive similar to Douglas, perhaps someone like Missouri Sen. Trustan Polk of St. Louis.

    When C.J. Taney died in 1864, his likely replacement would have been Justice Caleb Cushing of Massachusetts, who in the late 1850s was clearly the Democrats choice to succeed the supposedly ailing Taney. (Ironically, Cushing would later be nominated to the Supreme Court in 1874 by Pres. Grant, but he was not confirmed, apparently because of his antiwar sentiments in the early 1860s.)

    Moreover, without a Lincoln victory, Justice John Campbell of Alabama would not have resigned from the Court, and no 10th seat on the Court would have been created, so no Stephen Field.

    So, with a Democratic victory in 1860, the Supreme Court would have remained a bastian of Jacksonian Democratic principles, pro-slavery and inclined toward states rights.

    Moreover, the Court’s ranks would likely have never known the names of Swayne, Miller, Strong, Chase, and Field, the actual appointments of President Lincoln.

  8. Brent DeBord

    Fascinating. Absolutely fascinating. Again, one wonders how the increasingly radicalized North would have reacted to a Supreme Court that found Freeman laws to be unconstitutional? After all, Wisconsin had passed a nullification law regarding the Fugitive Slave Act. Plus, Garrison and Spooner’s influences were growing before the Civil War producing pressure for the North to secede.

    As I said, alt-history is speculation, but by considering what might have been one gains an understanding of how important the course of true history was.

    [Side note. This thread led me to do some exploring which led me down some interesting rabbit trails one of which took me back to a figure from my home county of Hawkins County, Tennessee. John Netherland was the Opposition Party candidate for Governor in 1859 and supported the Union and East Tennessee statehood after Tennessee seceded.]

  9. Brent DeBord

    BTW, Thanks for the interesting thread.

  10. Patrick B Kelly

    Dear Mr. Hylton :

    What a marvelous work of laudable scholarship. I commend you. And so timely right now. Once again a member of Congress wants to due away with the electoral college. I will send this to him.

    If this does not get rid of that fatuous notion I don’t see how anything could. He’d have to be a cretin.

    Once again, thank you for such an in depth study of our history.

  11. Michael Hartman

    As Brent said, this is an absolutely fascinating thread. It should be noted, however, that William Strong was not one of Lincoln’s actual appointments, although he was briefly considered for the vacancy that went to Salmon Chase. Strong was eventually appointed by President Ulysses Grant. You probably got Strong mixed up with David Davis, who was one of Lincoln’s appointments, and a close friend of Lincoln’s to boot. Also, it was Davis who replaced John Campbell on the Supreme Court, not Stephen Field. It would be fascinating to speculate by what margin Jeremiah Black would have been confirmed by the Senate had most of the Southern Democrats from the Deep South not left the Senate by the time that Black was rejected by a one-vote margin in February, 1861 (the vote was 25-26). I would speculate that the margin had those Southern Senators not left would have been something like 32-26 or 31-26, with such Senators as Judah Benjamin and John Slidell of Louisiana surely voting for Black’s confirmation. Also, I may one day do a What If book concentrating on how various figures who were unsuccessfully nominated for the Supreme Court, as well as maybe one or two figures (John W Davis among them) who were considered for the Court but declined before they could be nominated, speculating on what kind of Supreme Court Justices they might’ve turned out to be. The chapter on Black would be titled: Jeremiah Black and the Supreme Court 1861-1883. (The chapter on Davis would be titled: John W Davis and the Supreme Court 1923-1955.) Others that I would include in the book would be, among others: John Quincy Adams and George Edmund Badger. As for who would make a better President between Robert Hunter and James Guthrie, I can’t be sure, but I’ve long considered Guthrie to be a more fascinating figure than Hunter, since he had been an excellent Secretary of the Treasury under President Pierce from 1853-57 (also, all seven figures in the Pierce Cabinet served for the entire Presidential term).

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