Prior to the 1860 presidential election in the United States, the political parties held conventions to choose candidates.
When the Democrats met in Charleston, and later in Baltimore, they were unable to agree on a policy regarding expansion of slavery into the territories. As a result, the Democrats split into Northern and Southern factions. Stephen Douglas of Illinois became the candidate for the Northern Democrats and John Breckinridge of Kentucky for the Southerners.
When the Republican Party met in Chicago, they chose a compromise candidate by the name of Abraham Lincoln, from Illinois.
Those voters who could not support the Democratic or Republican candidates formed the Constitutional Union Party, and, at their convention in Baltimore, selected John Bell of Tennessee to carry their banner.
The political scene in the state of Delaware was just as muddled as that on the national level. There were three Democratic factions, under the leadership of Sen. James Bayard, Sen. Willard Saulsbury and Samuel Townsend.
Bayard and Saulsbury were in a power struggle for control of the state party. Bayard supported Breckinridge, the pro-slavery national candidate, while Saulsbury, being somewhat more moderate on the issue of secession from the Union, backed R.M. Hunter from Virginia. Townsend was a New Castle County businessman who supported Douglas.
The Constitutional Union Party in the state was weak and disorganized. It chose to support national candidate John Bell for president.
The People’s Party of Delaware did not support a national ticket. Instead, they focused on local elections.
The Delaware Republican Party initially backed Edward Bates of Missouri, then switched allegiance to Lincoln for president.
When Bayard served as a New Castle County delegate to the Democratic Party Convention in Charleston, he joined a large number of delegates who walked out over the slavery issue. In contrast, Saulsbury, who was a delegate from Sussex, stayed and supported the party platform.
In the meantime, back home in Delaware, Samuel Townsend was working hard to get Douglas elected. Townsend supported Douglas’ plan to employ the concept of “popular sovereignty” to settle the slavery issue in the territories. That would allow the citizens of each territory to choose whether to make slavery legal.
Former Sen. Joseph P. Comegys, from Kent County, led the Constitutional Union Party in Delaware. The party’s primary objective was to preserve the Union, and its members were dismayed over all the agitation surrounding the issue of slavery.
The People’s Party in Delaware worked hard and was successful in helping their nominee for the state congressional seat, George P. Fisher, get elected. This party was based primarily in New Castle and cooperated on the national level with the Republicans.
Nathaniel B. Smithers led the state Republicans to Chicago, where they supported Lincoln on the third ballot. The Republicans were the only party that opposed expansion of slavery into the territories.
After the election, the results showed Lincoln the victor, with 180 electoral votes (152 needed to win). Breckinridge was a distant second, with 72 votes, and Bell came in third, with 39, while Douglas only received 12 – even though he had almost twice the popular vote count of Breckinridge.
The difference was that Douglas was competing with Lincoln for the Northern states, while Breckinridge only had Bell to contend with for the Southern vote.
Lincoln only received 39.9 percent of the popular vote count – the lowest in presidential election history. Lincoln’s strength was centered in the North, and Breckinridge won most of the South. However, Bell won three of the Southern states (Virginia, Kentucky and Tennessee), but Douglas only won Missouri outright, along with some delegates in New Jersey.
Breckinridge, despite winning a plurality in Delaware for president, only received 46 percent of the vote, and the three Unionist candidates (Douglas, Bell and Lincoln) combined totaled 54 percent.
This higher vote count was one of the factors that helped keep Delaware in the Union, along with the changing economy and the near extinction of slavery in the state by 1860.
It is worth noting that the vote count in Kent and Sussex counties was almost equally split among the secessionist, Breckinridge, and the three Unionist candidates.
Considering that slavery was still alive, especially in Sussex County, a higher count of secessionist votes should have been anticipated. Yet, Unionist strength was surprisingly high in both counties.
A shift of just 700 votes would have changed the political landscape to a secessionist majority in the state and might have influenced Delaware to follow a different path during the Civil War.
Thomas J. Ryan lives in Bethany Beach and is the former president of the Central Delaware Civil War Round Table. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.