Free Soil and Free Men: Abraham Lincoln's 1860 campaign

Lincoln Home National Historic Site, National Park Service

The 1860 presidential election was one of the most contested in history.  Four candidates battled it out for the highest office in the land.  Abraham Lincoln ran his campaign hoping that he could stop the spread of slavery and keep the United States united.

In 1858, Abraham Lincoln ran for U.S. Senator from Illinois. He ran against a long-time political rival, Stephen Douglas. They engaged in a series of debates around the state that reflected the country's division over slavery. The debates were covered in national newspapers and made Lincoln and Douglas famous. As a result, Douglas' cousin, sculptor Leonard Volk, made life-size busts of both Lincoln and Douglas. Volk presented a smaller sculpture of Lincoln's head to Mary Lincoln which she displayed proudly in the front parlor.

Office seekers did not go out on the campaign trail, even when running for president. Abraham Lincoln stayed in Springfield, Illinois and met with supporters, politicians, and reporters either at an office in the state Capitol building or at his home. This meant that his wife, Mary, had many, many parties to host. She frequently used this cake plate at those parties, most likely holding her favorite cake, a white almond pound cake.

Although he was born in Vermont, Stephen Douglas spent most of his adult life in central Illinois and Chicago. He and Abraham Lincoln met frequently as state legislators, lawyers, and rivals for the affections of Miss Mary Todd, who chose Lincoln. Later they ran for U.S. Senator against each other in a contest that was known nation-wide for the issues they debated. Douglas won the senate seat but in 1860, Douglas was the Democratic Party’s nominee for President and he and Lincoln faced each other again. This time Lincoln won.

The 1860 presidential campaign saw hundreds of items produced to show support for the candidates including this flag. It was found in a hayloft of a barn in St. Charles, Missouri in the 1950s.

The Stuff Campaigns are Made Of
Campaign materials have been used throughout U.S. history, including the 1860 Presidential election. This election had four candidates running for the office! Abraham Lincoln of Illinois and Hannibal Hamlin of Maine were the Republican nominees. Stephen Douglas of Illinois and Herschel V. Johnson of Georgia were the Democratic nominees. Southern Democrats who didn't like Douglas nominated Kentuckian and sitting U.S. Vice President John Breckenridge and Joseph Lane from Oregon, and a small party of people trying to ignore the divisiveness of the slavery issue created the Constitutional Union party and nominated John Bell of Tennessee and Edward Everett of Massachusetts.

Young Republican men called themselves the "Wide-Awakes" during the 1860 campaign. They organized nighttime parades and marched through the streets of major cities wearing capes and carrying lanterns on tall poles. They often acted as police protection for speakers at campaign rallies. Their support for the end of slavery is seen on this lantern marked "Free Soil/Free Men".

Although there were front runners for each party, neither the Republicans nor the Democrats had a final candidate before their conventions. To help the general public keep track of who was in contention for the nominations, Harper's Weekly Illustrated Newspaper published decorative prints of the most likely players. On the Republican side, William Seward is the obvious front runner, and Lincoln is regulated to a side position. After Lincoln was elected, many of the men in this print were asked to serve in his cabinet. Front runner William Seward became his Secretary of State.

On the Democratic side, John Breckinridge and Stephen Douglas were both nominated by different versions of the party. Former President Franklin Pierce was even in the running.

With the Democratic party split between three candidates, the Republican candidate was essentially guaranteed to win. Abraham Lincoln received less than 40% of the popular vote, and didn't win in a single state south of the Ohio River, but he had the key electoral votes and won the presidency. Lincoln's political rival, Stephen Douglas finished second in the popular vote.

Credits: Story

Susan Haake, Curator
Lincoln Home National Historic Site

Credits: All media
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