Civil War Profiles – Presidential election turmoil


Hostility was at a fever pitch as the presidential election drew near. Irreparable disagreement among candidates in one of the principal political parties tore it asunder. As a result, four candidates running under separate banners contended for the presidency in the November election.


While this description may have a contemporary ring to it, the year these events were taking place was 1860. At that time, the Democratic Party split in two along North/South lines over the slavery issue, and competed against a unified Republican Party — while the rump Constitutional Union party also placed a candidate in contention.

Delaware in 1860 had a population of 112,000, with about half, or 55,000, residing in New Castle County. Kent and Sussex had 28,000 and 29,000, respectively.

The Democratic Party controlled the important political offices in the state, including the governorship, the general assembly and the state senate. At the national level, the one congressman and two senators were also Democrats.

The Republican Party in Delaware was unpopular; therefore, potential voters of that stripe formed the non-descript “People’s Party” to contest the Democrats and other upstart political movements. Not unlike its modern counterpart, its conservative platform addressed the need for a protective tariff and immigration restrictions.

One wing of the Democratic Party accused their opponents of influencing the election with patronage, lottery money and corruption, while appealing for votes based on racial issues. In Delaware, three Democratic factions were vying for supremacy.

When the national Democratic Party met in convention at Charleston, S.C., to choose a presidential candidate, the delegates could not reach consensus and split into two opposition groups. Later, separate conventions in Charleston and Baltimore chose John Breckinridge and Stephen Douglas to represent the Southern and Northern Democratic wings, respectively — with the Delaware factions apportioning accordingly.

Back home, Delawareans reflected the turmoil in the nation and divided politically along North vs. South lines. Harold Bell Hancock in “Delaware during the Civil War” records the primary objective of the People’s (Republican) Party “was to defeat the Democrats.” The difficulty was devising a method to accomplish this goal.

In Delaware, a slave state, opponents pinned the “abolitionist” label on Republicans, and that had a debilitating effect at the polls. Recent support for Kansas to enter the Union as a state after a territorial vote for slave or non-slave status did not endear Republicans to the influential slaveholders in Delaware who were committed to Kansas entering as a slave state.

Standing on principle, the state People’s Party supported national Republican Party platform planks for the protection of American industry and against the expansion of slavery in the territories. At the Republican presidential convention in Chicago, the Delaware contingent voted initially for Edward Bates from Missouri, before switching to Abraham Lincoln from Illinois on the second and third ballots.

Hancock described the Republican Peninsular News and Advertiser, the Delaware Journal and the Republican newspapers in the state as praising the choice of Lincoln for president and the Delaware representatives for supporting his candidacy.

In the national election, the divisive nature of the contest ensured no candidate would gain a majority vote. Rather, the victor, Lincoln, garnered the lowest percentage in U.S. presidential history (39.8 percent).

That total still far outdistanced his closest rival Douglas, the Northern Democrat, who received 29.5 percent of the vote. Delaware’s favorite, the Southern Democrat Breckinridge, claimed a mere 18.1 percent of the vote nationally, with John Bell lagging behind with 12.6 percent as the Constitutional Union candidate.

In this election, Delawareans had given secessionist presidential candidate, John Breckenridge from Kentucky, a resounding plurality victory. His total was 7,323, while Douglas, the Northern Democratic contender, received a mere 1,001. The Constitutional Union flagbearer, John Bell, garnered 3,833, and the eventual winner on the national level, Abraham Lincoln, came in third, with 3,811 votes.

With political schizophrenia in full bloom, Delaware chose to remain in the Union when 11 other Southern states seceded in late 1860 and early 1861. Politically, it favored the South, yet, with pride as the First State, could not be a part of dismembering the Union.

Present-day party affiliation in Delaware has redistributed geographically to a certain extent, in comparison to 1860. While the Democratic Party still controls the majority of state and national elective offices, Republican strength has shifted from the northern part of the state to the south, particularly in Sussex County.

Tom Ryan is the author of the award-winning “Spies, Scouts & Secrets in the Gettysburg Campaign” — available at Bethany Beach Books and Browseabout Books in Rehoboth. Contact him at pennmardel@mchsi.com, or visit his website at www.tomryan-civilwar.com.