The 1860 campaign for the presidency of the United States was waged under a dark cloud of anxiety and fear. Some Southern politicians and newspaper editors warned that the region was prepared to secede from the Union if an antislavery politician was elected president.
^¿J The Electoral College
The United States elects its president and vice president through an institution known as the electoral college. The electoral college consists of a small group of representatives from each state legislature, called "electors," who gather in their respective states to cast ballots in elections for the presidency and vice presidency of the United States. These elections take place every four years. Historically, the electoral college meets one month after the public vote for the president and the vice president. When the electoral college meets, each state elector casts his or her ballot for the candidate who received the most popular votes in that state. Electors are not legally required to vote for the candidate who received the most popular votes in the state, but they are honor bound to do so. After the electoral college results are tallied, the person who receives a majority of available electoral votes around the country is declared president, and his or her running mate assumes the position of vice president. The offices of the president and the vice president are the only elective federal positions that are not filled by a direct vote of the American people.
The rules of the electoral college call for each state to be represented by a number of electors that is equal to the total of its U.S. senators and representatives in Congress. All states are represented by two senators, but states with large populations are given greater representation in the U.S. House of Representatives than are states with smaller populations. As a result, they also receive a greater number of electoral votes in presidential elections.
As of 1999, there are a total of 538 members in the electoral college. This means that presidential and vice presidential candidates can only be elected if they win a majority (270 or more) of those 538 votes. In modern elections, heavily popu-
Northern reaction to this threat was mixed. Some people thought that threats of secession were just words designed to scare Northern leaders into abandoning abolitionist positions. Others recognized that the South's threats needed to be taken seriously, but continued to maintain their belief that slavery had to be stopped. It was in this environment that America's major political parties selected their candidates for the 1860 election.
The Republican Party knew that it would not get any votes in the South because of its reputation as a party devoted to a strong central government and antislavery positions. But the Republican leaders believed that their candidate might still win the election if he could make a good lated states like California, New York, Florida, and Texas have had a far greater number of votes in the electoral college than sparsely populated states like Wyoming, North Dakota, and Delaware. The only other territory held by the United States that has any electoral votes is the District of Columbia, which was given three electoral votes by a 1964 law.
The electoral college system has been in place in America ever since it became a country, but many people have criticized it over the years. The primary complaint that has been raised about the system is that it makes it possible for a candidate to become president without winning a majority of popular votes. In fact, on three different occasions in American histo-ry—1824, 1876, and 1888—the electoral college has selected a candidate who received fewer popular votes than another candidate. In other words, the candidate that was supported by the most voters did not win the election.
In 1876, Rutherford B. Hayes (1822-1893) received fewer popular votes than Samuel J. Tilden (1814-1886), but won the election by an electoral vote of 185 to 184. In 1888, Benjamin Harrison (1833-1901) defeated incumbent president Grover Cleveland (1837-1908) in electoral votes, 233-168, even though Cleveland had received more popular votes. And in 1824, although Andrew Jackson (1767-1845) received more popular and electoral votes than John Quincy Adams (1767-1848), he had not earned a majority of electoral votes, as two other candidates won a total of 78 votes. In a special vote in the U.S. House of Representatives, Adams eventually gained enough support to defeat Jackson. Despite such results, however, periodic attempts to change or abolish the electoral college have always failed.
showing in the more populous North. (Since more people lived in the North than in the South, the Northern states also had more votes in the electoral college, the institution that determines who the nation's next president will be). With these factors in mind, the Republicans chose Abraham Lincoln as their candidate. They believed that Lincoln's moderate reputation and the party's pro-business and anti-
slavery positions would attract a wide range of voters in the North.
The Democratic Party, meanwhile, had a terrible time deciding who its nominee would be. In April 1860, when the party's leaders gathered to reach agreement on its presidential candidate and its major campaign issues, the Democrats stood as the only political party in America with a na-
John Breckinridge. (Courtesy of the National Archives and Records Administration.)
tional base of support. It remained powerful in the North—although the Republicans were gaining in popularity—and it dominated politics in the South because of the proslavery positions of Southern Democrats.
But as the Democratic convention got underway, it became clear that the divide between the party's Northern and Southern wings had become a serious one. As soon as the convention opened, a radical faction of proslavery Southerners insisted that the party support the passage of a "slave code" that would legally protect slavery in all the western territories.
When Northern Democrats refused to go along with this demand because of its certain unpopularity in their home states, a large group of radical proslavery Southerners—sometimes known as "Fire-Eaters"—walked out of the convention in protest. Two months later, a second Democratic convention was held, but it, too, ended in failure, as the two sides bickered over the slave code idea.
In the end, the Northern and Southern wings of the Democratic Party could not agree on the slavery issue, and they ended up nominating two different candidates for president. The Northern wing nominated Stephen Douglas, the Illinois senator who had defeated Lincoln in the 1858 Senate elections. Douglas was a strong candidate in the North, but he was no longer popular in the South because of his opposition to the Lecompton Constitution and his support of popular sovereignty, which Southern leaders now opposed. Dissatisfied with Douglas, the Southern wing of the Democratic Party decided to nominate Vice President John C. Breckinridge (1821-1875), a proslavery Kentuckian. This decision to nominate a second candidate shattered the party in two and dramatically increased Lincoln's chances of victory.
Finally, a fourth candidate for the office of the presidency emerged in May 1860, when a group of politicians from the former Whig Party formed the Constitutional Union Party. This group said that it was dedicated to upholding the U.S. Constitu tion. But the party refused to take a clear stand on slavery and other issues, and its presidential candidate, John Bell (1797-1869) of Tennessee, looked unlikely to gather much support in the North or the Deep South.
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