Electing Lincoln

The Henry Ford

A look at the campaigns of the 16th American president

The emerging Republican Party nominated a charismatic lawyer named Abraham Lincoln as their presidential candidate. Organizers mounted a vigorous campaign, combining traditional and innovative methods to score votes against a divided opposition.
Reputation and Nomination

Former Representative Abraham Lincoln earned a reputation through a series of popular debates with Senator Stephen Douglas in 1858 and other powerful speeches.

This print quotes a famous address Lincoln delivered in February 1860. The speech detailed his moderate views on the question of slavery – something Republican Party leaders would recall at their May nominating convention.

Leaders of the emerging Republican Party favored a moderate, geographically balanced ticket for the 1860 presidential election.

At the Republican National Convention in May 1860, the party nominated Abraham Lincoln of Illinois and Hannibal Hamlin of Maine for president and vice president. The two men had never met, but both were strong orators who opposed extending slavery into western territories.

Gaining Recognition against a Divided Opposition

At the Democratic convention, party leaders could not agree. Northerners turned to Stephen Douglas of Illinois, while southerners selected John C. Breckenridge of Kentucky. There was also a third party choice of John Bell of Tennessee.

Although the Democrats were likely to split votes, Americans were deeply divided over the issues of states' rights and slavery. Lincoln could count on little support in the southern states.

Still, this cartoon considered the prospect of Republicans Abraham Lincoln and Hannibal Hamlin defeating their divided opponents in the 1860 presidential election.

Republican organizers set out to earn national recognition for their candidate. They employed traditional campaigning methods, distributing prints, newspaper articles, and biographies countrywide, organizing speeches by prominent party orators who “stumped” (traveled around speaking) for Lincoln, and hosting mass meetings.

These clever campaigners portrayed Lincoln as a rustic, humble man of the people.

Stories of his frontier upbringing and images of an axe-wielding man in plain clothes reinforced Lincoln’s “Honest Old Abe” reputation.

Campaign Innovations

Organized picnics, barbecues, pole raisings, and parades had been common in previous election years, but structured, military-style campaigning achieved unprecedented popularity during the 1860 presidential campaign.

A group known as the Wide Awakes assembled in huge numbers throughout the northern states. They marched in support of the Republican Party, wearing elaborate uniforms and carrying flaming torches. The Wide Awakes also helped preserve order at political gatherings.

Republican organizers capitalized on this fervor by holding torchlight parades. They raised banners, decorated wagons and sought out bands, uniformed precision marchers and groups of local supporters to take part in these hours-long events. Manufacturers also cashed in, patenting and marketing thousands of campaign torches, lamps, and lanterns.

A new process for reproducing tintypes inexpensively gave Republicans another campaign tool – photographs of the candidates.

Just after Lincoln received the Republican nomination, Party officials sent Chicago photographer Alexander Hesler to make several election campaign photographs, including this one.

Campaign items featuring portraits of Lincoln helped him gain nationwide recognition.

Showing Support

A variety of campaign paraphernalia was produced for the 1860 presidential election. For Republicans, distributing small, symbolic items was key to reinforcing the imagery at the center of their campaign.

These trinkets could be personal reminders of a citizen’s commitment to the Republican candidate.

Or, they could be worn or displayed as a public declaration of support for Lincoln.

Some enthusiastic Americans who felt a special connection to the candidate created their own campaign items.

This flag was handmade by Lucinda McGrath of Fayette County, Indiana. Her husband, John, carried it in parades supporting Lincoln and Hamlin.

Whether they dressed up to march in support of Lincoln or pocketed small tokens bearing his image, many fans of the Republican candidate became personally involved in his campaign.

Election and Aftermath

In 1860, individual political parties printed ballots listing only candidates from that party. The voter obtained a ballot for the party of his choice. Throughout most of the South, Lincoln's name was not even on the ballot -- but with the vote split among so many candidates, he carried all eighteen Free states to win the November 6th election.

Southerners feared Lincoln would end slavery everywhere. Soon after he was elected, southern states seceded from the Union one by one—forming their own government. The first Republican president in U.S. history would face endless crises and constant criticism.

This ballot was used during the convention that voted to secede the state of Georgia from the Union in 1861.

Lincoln's re-election hopes in the midst of a gloomy civil war seemed slim, but he was determined to remain President for another term and his supporters campaigned fervently to keep him in the White House. 

Despite the raging Civil War, no question of postponing the presidential election was seriously considered. Americans respected the democratic process and paid eager attention to the 1864 nominating conventions.

Republican leaders adopted a temporary name – the National Union Party – to gain the support of unionists and Democratic dissidents who would not vote for a Republican ticket.

Incumbent President Lincoln won his party’s 1864 nomination fairly easily. To attract wider support, the convention nominated former Democrat Andrew Johnson as his running mate.

A Familiar Opponent

In 1860, the Democratic Party had been split, unable to compromise. In 1864, Democrats were united – at least in their opposition to President Lincoln, his Emancipation Proclamation, and Union wartime policies.

At the Democratic National Convention, Major General George B. McClellan was nominated to run against his commander-in-chief.

McClellan had served as general-in-chief of the Union Army, but President Lincoln grew frustrated by what he considered to be slow and ineffective leadership. In November 1862, shortly after the meeting pictured here, Lincoln removed McClellan as general-in-chief.

Democratic campaign organizers targeted Lincoln, portraying him as a radicalized dictator. Referring to Lincoln as the “Old Joker,” McClellan’s supporters called the trustworthiness of “Honest Old Abe” into question.

The Democrats denounced the Civil War as a failure and claimed that Lincoln’s administration was purposely prolonging the conflict to force emancipation.

This cartoon predicted Democratic victory over the incumbent President, who dreams of being kicked out of the White House as McClellan enters.

Campaign Tactics

The National Union Party stressed that abolition was key to victory in the war – and that victory was key to national stability after the war.

The campaign raised provocative questions about what would happen if the Democrats won – would old laws be reenacted? Would slavery continue?

Though Americans were increasingly becoming aware of abolitionist arguments, campaign organizers often focused on black Union soldiers rather than addressing broad racial concerns.

This striking cartoon predicts the results of each candidates’ election.

As in 1860, the party relied heavily on Lincoln’s image and distributed trinkets bearing the candidate’s portrait.

Many supporters carried campaign tokens in purses or pockets. This one could also be attached to a ribbon or pin, transforming it into an outward show of support.

Campaigners distributed favorable speeches, articles, and biographies across the nation to rally support for Lincoln.

They also organized barbecues, athletic events, fireworks, speeches, and – of course – torchlight parades.

Despite campaign efforts, President Lincoln's re-election hopes seemed slim after a gloomy summer of Union defeats and casualty lists. But, finally, news of several Union victories boosted public support.

This cartoon compares McClellan’s past military failings with the successes of Lincoln’s new general Ulysses S. Grant – depicted as a bull dog cornering the leaders of the Confederacy.

Election Day

Campaign organizers recognized the importance of the military vote and leveraged Lincoln’s presidential powers. Certain units were granted temporary leaves of absence so that soldiers could return home to vote.

Campaigners had appealed to patriotic sentiment throughout the campaign. This timely call for support went out on Election Day – November 8, 1964.

When the votes were tallied, McClellan carried 3 states and secured 21 electoral votes.

Lincoln claimed 55% of the popular vote and earned 212 electoral votes to win by a landslide.

In his Second Inaugural Address, President Lincoln spoke of peace and encouraged people to approach their fellow countrymen "with malice toward none; with charity for all." Unfortunately, the first Republican President would not live to see the end of the Civil War. Just three days after the Confederate Army surrendered, Lincoln was assassinated.

Lincoln’s political supporters now mourned the president’s death. John McGrath, who’d waved this handmade flag during the 1860 campaign, carried it as he led a group of mourners to meet Lincoln's funeral train in 1865.

Credits: Story

From The Henry Ford Archive of American Innovation™.

To learn more about The Henry Ford's Lincoln-related collections, please visit our blog.


Keith Melder, “Hail to the Candidate: Presidential Campaigns from Banners to Broadcasts”

Schlesinger, Israel, and Frent, “Running for President: The Candidates and their Images (1789-1896)”

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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