The Election of President Lincoln (and a Backlash that Led to War)

Why did the Republican Party choose Abraham Lincoln as a presidential candidate? What backlash did his election receive?

Just as Abraham Lincoln was losing a Senate race, he was winning the confidence of his fellow Republicans. Biographer Jon Meacham discusses the election of President Lincoln and how it stirred up a hornet’s nest that put the nation on the path to war.

Read more to learn about the election of President Lincoln and the stunning aftermath.

The Election of President Lincoln

The election of President Lincoln was notable for a couple of reasons. Meacham explains how it came about in the first place and what happened as a result.

Lincoln joined the newly formed Republican Party in 1856. He ran for an Illinois Senate seat in 1858, but he lost narrowly to Democratic Party candidate Stephen Douglas. 

(Shortform note: To highlight how remarkable it was that Lincoln lost so narrowly to Douglas, it’s worth noting that Douglas seemingly had every advantage over Lincoln. At the time, Stephen Douglas was one of the most popular and influential politicians in the country, while Lincoln only had a single term in Congress to his name and was running as a member of a brand new political party (the Republican Party). That near-loss to a relatively unknown opponent spoke to Lincoln’s charisma and his debate skills.)

Despite his loss, the political world took note of Lincoln’s debate skills; he quickly became popular among his colleagues not just in Illinois but across the entire country. As a result of his newfound fame, the Republicans chose Lincoln as their presidential candidate in 1860, and he won the election. 

In 1861, at the age of 52, Abraham Lincoln took office as the 16th president of the United States. 

The Republican and Democratic Parties, Then and Now

The Republican Party of Lincoln’s day was very different from the present-day Republican Party. In fact, at its founding, the Republican Party was considered the liberal party, while the Democratic Party was conservative; this is the opposite of the two parties’ respective platforms today. Therefore, Stephen Douglas—who believed the federal government had no place interfering with slavery at all—exemplified the beliefs of the early Democratic Party. By contrast, Lincoln’s centrist approach, such as his failed bill to abolish slavery in Washington, D.C., was in line with the more progressive Republican party of the day.

While today’s Democratic and Republican parties look very different from those of Lincoln’s day, the rivalry between these parties has endured. According to some experts, the 1860 election marked the start of the country’s two-party rivalry that we still see today.

The Backlash to Lincoln’s Election Victory

Lincoln, as well as the Republican Party as a whole, strongly opposed slavery. Therefore, Lincoln’s win pleased abolitionists, but he and his colleagues feared retribution from slavery advocates. In fact, Meacham notes, there were rumors that former Virginia Governor Henry Wise was raising an army of 25,000 men, with a plan to march on Washington, D.C., and stop Lincoln from taking office.  

(Shortform note: Lincoln won the presidency partly due to a split in the Democratic Party that led to them nominating two candidates for the 1860 election (Douglas and John C. Breckinridge). During this schism, Henry Wise—who had previously opposed his party on several key issues—suggested himself as a compromise between the Northern and Deep South factions of the Democrats, but he didn’t receive a nomination. After Lincoln’s victory, Wise didn’t personally lead an army to Washington, D.C. as the rumors suggested he would. However, he was the driving force behind Virginia’s secession and served as a brigadier general in the Army of Northern Virginia.) 

The Confederacy Secedes

The rumors of an attack on Washington, D.C. proved false; instead, the pro-slavery South decided to leave the Union entirely. 

On February 8, 1861, seven states—South Carolina, Mississippi, Florida, Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana, and Texas—declared they were seceding from the United States, and they came together to found the Confederate States of America. Four more states joined the Confederacy in April of that same year: Virginia, Arkansas, Tennessee, and North Carolina.

Why the Confederate States Seceded

Lincoln’s election wasn’t the only factor in the states’ decision to secede; in fact, South Carolina and Mississippi had been calling for secession for over a decade by the time Lincoln took office.

As Meacham says, the divide between North and South was largely driven by the issue of slavery. Many people in Northern states opposed slavery, but the South (which relied on enslaved people as a cheap source of plantation labor) feared that freeing them would harm the Southern states’ economy.

In that tense atmosphere, Lincoln’s election was merely the inciting incident. Southern politicians began claiming that Lincoln intended to free enslaved people by force, and that secession was the only way to save their states and their way of life. There was little truth to the politicians’ claims—in fact, Lincoln only favored a “free-soil” policy stating that slavery should not expand into any new US territories. Nonetheless, many southern states decided to secede, thereby sparking the American Civil War.
The Election of President Lincoln (and a Backlash that Led to War)

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Like what you just read? Read the rest of the world's best book summary and analysis of Jon Meacham's "And There Was Light" at Shortform.

Here's what you'll find in our full And There Was Light summary:

  • The myths and legends that surrounded Abraham Lincoln
  • Abraham Lincoln's life in chronological order, from his birth to his assassination
  • What the Republican Party looked like in the 19th century

Elizabeth Whitworth

Elizabeth has a lifelong love of books. She devours nonfiction, especially in the areas of history, theology, and philosophy. A switch to audiobooks has kindled her enjoyment of well-narrated fiction, particularly Victorian and early 20th-century works. She appreciates idea-driven books—and a classic murder mystery now and then. Elizabeth has a blog and is writing a book about the beginning and the end of suffering.

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