The Most Consequential Elections in History: Abraham Lincoln and the Election of 1860

Abraham Lincoln's victory in 1860 was probably the most consequential election in American history.

19th November 1863: Abraham Lincoln, the 16th President of the United States of America, making his famous 'Gettysburg Address' speech at the dedication of the Gettysburg National Cemetery during the American Civil War. Original Artwork: Painting by Fletcher C Ransom

Abraham Lincoln making his famous 'Gettysburg Address' speech.


The stakes in this year's presidential campaign are high. But that's nothing new. There have been many other pivotal presidential elections in our history—some that set an entirely new course for the United States, and a few that were crucial to the very survival of the Republic. To put the current campaign in perspective, U.S. News White House correspondent Kenneth T. Walsh, author of four books on the presidency, examines the 10 most consequential elections in American history—the races that produced the biggest change and had the most lasting impact. An installment of this 10-part series will run on the U.S. News web site each Wednesday through September. This is the first in the series.  

Abraham Lincoln is commonly listed by historians as one of America's greatest presidents—often as the greatest of all. Part of the reason is that he provided strong leadership, set a clear course, and articulated a moral vision to guide the nation through very difficult times. Franklin Roosevelt, also recognized as one of America's best chief executives, once said that, "All our great presidents were leaders of thought at times when certain ideas in the life of the nation had to be clarified." And it was Lincoln's singular accomplishment that he clarified the goals of "union and freedom" for his time and for the ages, according to historian Arthur Schlesinger Jr.

Lincoln had risen to national attention because of his widely reported debates with Stephen Douglas in the Illinois Senate campaign of 1858. During that race, Lincoln also gave a powerful and eloquent speech in Springfield in which he declared, "I believe this government cannot endure permanently half slave and half free." In another memorable passage, he said, "A house divided against itself cannot stand." These arguments were considered moderate among the antislavery forces at the time, and they established him as a leader of what might be considered a "centrist" faction of the Republican Party in the North.

But the tone of the 1860 presidential campaign was anything but moderate. Slavery was the central issue and Lincoln, while he wanted to eventually end the "peculiar institution," favored as an interim step the exclusion of slavery from the new American territories. This infuriated leaders in the slave states, who were in no mood to compromise. Stephen Douglas, who had defeated Lincoln in that Senate campaign two years earlier, was his main competitor again in the presidential contest. Douglas had a more nuanced view of slavery—favoring its continuation in the states where it already existed. Douglas, in fact, envisioned a nation "forever divided into free and slave states, as our fathers made it as the people of each state have decided."

Lincoln won with 1,866,452 votes without carrying a single Southern state. Douglas, the candidate of some Northern and Western factions of the Democratic party who was more tolerant of slavery, had 1,376,957 votes. John Breckinridge, candidate of the Democrats' proslavery, prosecession Southern wing, and John Bell, a pro-Union candidate, split the remaining 1,438,660 votes cast. With the nation so divided and with so many embittered factions unwilling to give ground, the stage was set for the Civil War. In fact, many Southern leaders had warned that if Lincoln won, they would push for secession.

Lincoln immediately was thrown into the cauldron of crisis. Following the advice of bodyguards who were worried about assassination attempts en route to his inauguration in Washington, the president-elect changed trains in Baltimore to confuse his enemies and disguised himself in a soft hat and overcoat. His train moved through Baltimore before dawn without incident and arrived in Washington in secret. On March 4, 1861, he rode in a heavily guarded open carriage to the Capitol, and gave his inaugural address. He spoke directly to the South: "In your hands, my dissatisfied fellow countrymen, and not in mine, is the momentous issue of civil war," the new commander in chief declared. "The government will not assail you. You can have no conflict without being yourselves the aggressors. You have no oath registered in heaven to destroy the government, while I shall have the most solemn one to 'preserve, protect, and defend' it." He added: "We are not enemies, but friends. We must not be enemies. Though passion may have strained, it must not break, our bonds of affection. The mystic chords of memory, stretching from every battlefield and patriot grave to every living heart and hearthstone all over this broad land, will yet swell the chorus of the Union when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature."