Analysis & Comment

Opinion | How Lincoln Survived the Worst Election Ever

Long before Covid-19, Alexis de Tocqueville described a presidential election as a form of sickness in which the body politic became dangerously “feverish” before returning to normal. Emotions ran too hot, and the fragile forms of consensus that were essential for democracy — what Tocqueville called our “habits of the heart” — evaporated, as party hacks exhausted themselves in vitriolic attacks on one another and the system.

That was true in 1860, as the most toxic campaign in American history delivered Abraham Lincoln — by most accounts, our greatest president. But before he could save the Union, Lincoln had to survive his election and a difficult transition, bitterly resisted by an entrenched political establishment that had no intention of giving up power.

Throughout Lincoln’s rise in 1860, the South watched in horror as this unlikely candidate grew in stature. He gave no serious speeches after his nomination, but he did not need to, as the Buchanan administration began to collapse under the weight of its incompetence and greed. It was not simply that a rising number of Americans were tired of propping up slavery, as the Democratic Party had been doing for decades. Throughout the year, they were shocked by revelations that Southern cabinet members had embezzled huge sums (the secretary of war, John Floyd, was nicknamed “the $6,000,000 man”) and sent guns from Northern armories into the South, arming themselves for a war that did not yet have a name.

Lincoln rejected that pay-to-play culture. He lived abstemiously and spoke modestly, rarely using the first person. He opposed the expansion of slavery and disapproved of plans to seize Cuba and Northern Mexico to groom pro-Southern states. He was sympathetic to immigrants and to the idea that America should stand for a set of principles, as a kind of beacon in an amoral world. He admired the Declaration of Independence, with its promise of equal rights for all.

For all of these reasons, Lincoln posed a lethal threat to the status quo. Since 1800, the capital of the United States had been located in a very Southern place, well below the Mason-Dixon line. The three-fifths clause of the Constitution overrepresented the South, but there was more to it than that. Southerners were especially good at dominating the federal government, despite their rhetoric about states’ rights. In the first 61 years of the government, the South held the presidency for 50 years, the speakership for 41 years, and the chairmanship of the House Ways and Means Committee for 52 years. Eighteen of 31 Supreme Court justices had been Southerners, even though four-fifths of the court’s business came from the North. Washington was not simply a capital; this was a citadel for slavery.

That all would change if Lincoln were elected, as Southern leaders understood. Accordingly, they devoted their considerable resources to gaming the system, through a campaign of false personal attacks, physical intimidation and ballot manipulation. Political insults were not new, but the fury unleashed against Lincoln raised the invective to a new level, as Southern newspapers (and many Northern ones) attacked the Republican candidate for everything from his tyrannical impulses (an “abolitionist of the reddest dye”) to his weakness (“the plaything of his party”). Republicans were accused of “socialism,” already a loaded term, and it was whispered that they would “redistribute” wealth, property and even wives, since “Free Love” would presumably follow “Free Soil” if they were allowed to take the White House.

Racial innuendo was a constant in these ugly attacks. Readers were breathlessly informed that Lincoln and his running mate, Hannibal Hamlin, were secretly mulatto, and The New York Herald promised that if Lincoln won, “hundreds of thousands” of slaves would invade the North, to consummate “African amalgamation with the fair daughters of the Anglo-Saxon, Celtic and Teutonic races.”

Long before QAnon, lurid tales were spun on Southern plantations, where slaves were told that Lincoln was a cannibal, “with tails and horns,” who would “devour every one of the African race.” That ruse failed; Booker T. Washington was only 4 years old then, but he later recalled that “the slaves on our far-off plantation, miles from any railroad or large city or daily newspapers, knew what the issues involved were.”

As the campaign wore on, the South realized that other means of persuasion were required. In Baltimore and Washington, mobs broke up Republican offices, shot off guns and desecrated images of Lincoln. His name was not even permitted on the ballot in 10 Southern states — a fact that was held against him, as if he were a “sectional” candidate. In border states, as well, voters were intimidated: In the state of his birth, Kentucky, Lincoln received only 1,364 votes.

Still, America was getting to know this political newcomer. After receiving 52 applications to write his campaign biography, Lincoln joked that he was worried about all of these “attempts on my life.” But violence was no laughing matter, and Lincoln’s life was in danger from the moment he was nominated. A Virginia congressman, Roger Pryor, was quoted in The New York Herald as saying that “if Lincoln is elected we will go to Washington and assassinate him before his inauguration.” An Atlanta newspaper promised that it would pave Pennsylvania Avenue “ten fathoms deep with mangled bodies” rather than submit to Lincoln’s presidency. A visitor to Lincoln’s home commented that “letters threatening his life are daily received from the South.”

Tocqueville would have been the first to argue that violence, whether implied or real, was fatal to the social trust necessary for democracy. But Southerners grew unhinged as they contemplated the end of their easy access to power. In Charlottesville, Va., one newspaper tried to blame Lincoln voters for “numerical tyranny,” as if Northerners were corrupting democracy simply by existing in such large numbers. Many were beginning to understand that the South’s ideas about democracy were as peculiar as its institutions. South Carolina still did not allow its citizens to vote for president, and in 1864 Jefferson Davis confirmed in an interview in this newspaper, “We seceded to rid ourselves of the rule of the majority.”

On Nov. 6, Lincoln was duly elected. But his percentage of the popular vote was very small (39.8 percent) — below even Herbert Hoover’s in 1932, when Hoover lost in a landslide to Franklin Roosevelt. That led to a new kind of challenge, to build legitimacy, as Washington seethed over the result and pro-slavery thugs promised to prevent Lincoln’s arrival. Some threatened to turn the Capitol into “a heap of ashes.” In Southern cities, gun-toting militias quickly formed, some parading under the Gadsden Flag and its motto, “Don’t Tread on Me.”

Many feared that the District of Columbia would be overrun by private armies, as a former Virginia governor, Henry Wise, threatened. It was whispered that James Buchanan might be kidnapped, so that his vice president, John C. Breckinridge of Kentucky, could be installed — a clean way to reverse the election result. Breckinridge had run as the South’s candidate, coming in second, with 72 electoral votes to Lincoln’s 180. (Two other candidates, Stephen Douglas and John Bell, had divided the vote further.)

Another plot feared by Lincoln supporters was a disruption of the electoral vote count, in Congress, on Feb. 13, 1861. Remarkably, the electoral certificates were delivered to Breckinridge, as the president of the Senate. He might easily have “lost” them, but to his eternal credit, this future Confederate presided over an honest count. Another brave Southerner, Winfield Scott, organized the military defense of the capital, just so Lincoln could have a chance.

It still took some doing to launch the Lincoln administration, and the president-elect had to survive a serious assassination conspiracy on his way to Washington. Even on the day of his inauguration, there were government sharpshooters positioned on top of buildings near the Capitol, with rumors sweeping the crowd that a last attempt would be made to nip his presidency in the bud. But he stood up to his full height as he took the oath of office, and a fever seemed to pass.

Lincoln will remain our greatest president, for his own reasons — the bold actions and the calming words. But he also sits atop our pantheon because this champion of democracy came along at the exact moment when it was most endangered and reminded Americans that a higher standard was possible. That survival, in a moment even more fraught than our own, helped democracy spread far and wide in the 20th century, as Lincoln hoped it would.

It all began with the simplest of democratic ideas: a legitimate election and a fair count.

Ted Widmer (@ted_widmer) is a professor at the Macaulay Honors College of the City University of New York and the author, most recently, of “Lincoln on the Verge: Thirteen Days to Washington.”

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