Exhibits Mission in Action The Impending Crisis

The Election of 1860 | The Impending Crisis

November 6th, 1860

In 1860, the United States stood at a crossroads. As citizens cast their votes, they decided the fate of a nation torn apart by slavery and established the foundation for modern democracy.

Deep divisions over slavery threatened the country with impending crisis in 1860. Let’s examine the key factors and stakes that influenced voters’ decisions during the election.

Key issues that drove ballot decisions in 1860:

Parties and candidates offered different stances on slavery’s future from national protections and expansion, to restriction to the point of abolition.
States Rights
Pro-slavery voters were outraged that free states had permitted their citizens to violate federal law; specifically, the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850.
Economic Policies
One of seventeen planks in the Republican party’s platform advocated protected tariffs. Economic policies largely remained secondary in debates.
The Future
Would the nation be devoted to a healthy democratic culture, or would the federal government promise security to slaveholders, no matter what?

What key factors influenced voter decisions in the 1860 election?

John Brown’s Raid (1859) – White Southerners recoiled at John Brown’s Raid, to them it was a preview of the violent abolitionism Republicans intended to unleash.

Slave States

• Secession Threats From Southern States – Slave states had long threatened to secede if the nation turned against them, which seemed possible in 1860. This created a sense of urgency around the election.

• Democratic Party Split – The split in the Democratic Party between Northern and Southern Democrats led to the election of two Democratic candidates, which complicated the political landscape.

• Economic Interests – Southern Nationalists emphasized the significance of the cotton trade’s role in the global industrial economy and regarded Republican plans to restrict slavery as threatening that position.

• Fears of Abolition – Both slaveholders and non-slaveholders believed that Black people were incapable of self-government. The Republicans feared that if they forced the end of slavery, Black people would retaliate with violence.

Free States

• Lincoln Becomes the Republican Candidate – The nomination of Abraham Lincoln, a moderate Republican, gained support from Northern voters who wanted to prevent the expansion of slavery into new territories but were hesitant to back the vocally anti-slavery party leader William Seward.

• Campaign Activism – The supporters of the candidate organized various ‘get-out-the-vote’ campaigns, attended speeches containing provocative content, and read highly inflammatory editorials.

• Economic Interests – Republicans promised to cultivate both small farmers and large industries, necessary elements of a healthy democracy.

• Moral Conviction – Some citizens opposed slavery. Even more opposed slaveholder’s constant threats to ‘dissolve the nation’ if federal power did not support maximum protections for slavery.

The American Civil War Museum will launch a major exhibition at its Tredegar location in Richmond, Virginia in 2024. Titled The Impending Crisis, this exhibit will delve into the events, individuals, and topics that led to the division of the United States on the verge of civil war.
“In my opinion, the slavery’s agitation will not cease until a crisis shall have been reached and passed. A house divided against itself cannot stand. I believe this government cannot endure half slave and half free.”
– Abraham Lincoln

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