Anxiety in Delaware preceding the 1860 elections

As the presidential primary season runs its course throughout the U.S. in 2016, partisan politics and personal invective grow increasingly strident. Two candidates compete for the Democratic Party nomination, while three candidates contend for the Republican ticket. Contention among the Republicans, however, poses a threat of a third party emerging.

The presidential election campaign in 1860 that led to the Civil War in America was even more raucous than what we are witnessing today. The Democratic Party split into Northern and Southern wings over the slavery issue, and disillusionment gave rise to the Constitutional Union Party. Along with the Republican Party, the vote would be split four ways.

The sundering of the Democratic Party nationally reverberated in Delaware as local Democrats had to choose between Northern Democratic candidate Stephen Douglas, a U. S. Senator from Illinois, and Southern Democratic candidate John Breckinridge from Kentucky, the sitting vice-president of the United States. As Harold Bell Hancock points out in a political history of Delaware, the backbone of the Democrats were the farmers of Kent and Sussex counties whose problems and interests were similar to the southern Democrats.

While most farmers from the two lower counties did not own slaves, they were adamant about limiting rights and opportunities for black people in these communities. They looked to political leadership from U.S. Sen. Willard Saulsbury who was from Sussex County and was able to influence elections through patronage, lottery money, and alleged corruption.

Conventions held in the three counties selected delegates to the Democratic national convention in Charleston, SC. Senator Saulsbury and former Governor William Ross represented Sussex County. John Barr Pennington and John H. Bewley stood for Kent County, and U.S. Senator James A. Bayard and Representative William G. Whiteley carried the banner for New Castle County.

In the fanatically pro-slavery city of Charleston in April 1860, the Democratic Party split over the issue of adoption of slavery in territories that had yet to become states. Sen. Bayard walked out of the convention along with the hardliners, while Sen. Saulsbury remained with the more moderate wing of the party. Because slavery was the driving force behind the split, Bayard and Saulsbury were competing for the minds and hearts of passionate slavery adherents in southern Delaware, especially Sussex County.

In June, the Democratic Party convened again in Baltimore and nominated Douglas as their candidate for president. The Southern hardliners bolted once more, and met elsewhere in Baltimore to choose Breckinridge to run on their behalf in the presidential election.

Meanwhile, the Republican Party in Delaware based primarily in the more business-oriented New Castle County held a convention in Dover on May 1. It chose Nathaniel B. Smithers to head a delegation to the national convention in Chicago. The Delaware convention passed resolutions opposing the extension of slavery into the territories. The Republicans, however, had virtually no support in the two lower counties.

The Constitutional Union Party was not well-organized in Delaware. Yet, it was polling well because citizens feared the election of either Breckinridge or Lincoln would bring about disunion.

The Democratic Gazette predicted a victory for Breckinridge in Delaware. The Bayard faction campaigned hard for this outcome, and found strong support in New Castle and Sussex for their candidate. The Gazette complained that newspapers supporting Lincoln were leaning toward Black Republicanism — meaning abolition of slavery.

In Delaware’s local elections in October, Breckinridge adherents won victories in Sussex and Kent Counties, while the Republicans did well in New Castle. The Democrats were running hard on race issues, and pinning a “pro-Negro” label on Republicans.

The Democrats’ invited William Lowndes Yancey, a “fire-eater” on the slavery issue from Alabama, to meet with them in Delaware. Yancey was an outspoken advocate of disunion. His presence energized the Breckinridge faction, and instilled confidence in victory for their candidate.

The United States was on the brink of splitting apart, and the political scene in Delaware reflected this potential calamity. The forthcoming election in November would determine whether some states would decide to go their separate ways.

The four parties chose their candidates: Northern Democrat, Douglas; Southern Democrat, Breckinridge; Republican, Lincoln; and Constitutional Union, John Bell, a former U.S. senator from Tennessee. A number of the more fanatical southern slave states chose not to include Lincoln’s name on the ballot.

Not unlike the anxiety over selection of party candidates that permeates the political atmosphere today, citizens anticipated calamity depending who would be victorious in the 1860 presidential elections. The question in everyone’s mind was “What does the future hold for America?”

Bethany Beach resident Thomas J. Ryan is the author of “Spies, Scouts, and Secrets in the Gettysburg Campaign” and “Essays on Delaware during the Civil War” (signed copies available at Bethany Beach Books). Contact him at, or visit his website