What Caused the Split Between the Northern & Southern Democrats in 1860?

The Lincoln-Douglas Senate debates in Illinois set the stage for the 1860 presidential race.
... Hulton Archive/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

In 1860, the United States was expanding into the West. As the presidential election approached, differences of opinion on whether slavery should be allowed in the territories reached a fevered pitch, threatening to tear the country apart. Reflecting the nation's division, Northern and Southern Democratic Party delegates found it impossible to agree on a single candidate or party platform.

1 Setting the Stage

An estimated four million people were slaves when the 1860 presidential race began. The Southern economy, and to some extent the economy of the entire United States, depended on slave-grown cotton. The major question of the election was whether slavery would be permitted in the Western territories. Both Republican candidates -- Abraham Lincoln, who won the party's nomination, and William H. Seward -- took staunch antislavery positions. Democratic candidate John Breckinridge advocated a federal law protecting slave owners' rights in the territories. When the territory became a state, its residents could vote to decide whether slavery would be allowed. His opponent, Stephen Douglas, also believed the question should be decided by a state's residents, but didn't approve of a federal law protecting slavery in territories that weren't yet states.

2 Chaos in Charleston

The rift between Northern and Southern delegates grew when the Democratic party held its convention in Charleston, S.C. in the spring of 1860. Outgoing president James Buchanan endorsed Breckinridge, who was serving as vice president. Hailing from the slave state of Kentucky, Breckinridge wanted the party platform to include a plank supporting congressional protection of slaves as property. Douglas believed the federal government had no power either to allow or forbid slavery, a position he had articulated in Senate campaign debates with Lincoln. Neither Breckinridge nor Douglas could gain a majority, and as tensions mounted, the delegates from Southern states walked out of the convention. The remaining delegates were forced to adjourn without nominating a candidate for president.

3 A House Divided

The Democratic Party reconvened in Baltimore, but six weeks had done nothing to ease the divide in the party over the slavery issue. The delegations of 10 southern states left the Baltimore convention and held their own, for the Constitutional Democrats, where they nominated Breckinridge for president -- evidently with President Buchanan's seal of approval. The remaining delegations nominated Douglas as the Democratic candidate. The Democrats became all the more fragmented when a group calling themselves the Constitutional Union party convened and nominated John Bell, a moderate from Tennessee. Bell believed slavery should be federally protected where it existed but prevented from spreading.

4 On the Brink

The 1860 election marked the first time a candidate was elected president with less than 50 percent of the vote. Lincoln's name didn't appear on the ballot in Southern states, and Douglas was equally hated in the South after his Senate debates with Lincoln two years prior. In a sense, there were two presidential elections in 1860: Lincoln and Douglas battled it out in the North, while Breckinridge and Bell competed in the South. When Lincoln's victory was announced, the South Carolina state legislature voted unanimously to secede from the union. Lincoln wasn't inaugurated until March. By that time six other states -- Mississippi, Florida, Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana and Texas -- had joined South Carolina in seceding, and civil war was imminent.

Jennifer Mueller began writing and editing professionally in 1995, when she became sports editor of her university's newspaper while also writing a bi-monthly general interest column for an independent tourist publication. Mueller holds a Bachelor of Arts in political science from the University of North Carolina at Asheville and a Juris Doctor from Indiana University Maurer School of Law.