The Foes Go Toe-to-Toe (Again): Lincoln, Douglas and the Election of 1860

Editor’s Note: Nearly all of the artifacts on display at Ford’s Theatre came from Osborn H. Oldroyd’s expansive collection of Lincolniana. Oldroyd began collecting during the 1860 election, and some of the first artifacts he collected were campaign memorabilia from the second round of fighting between Abraham Lincoln and Stephen Douglas. Read on for a behind-the-scenes look at some of these artifacts, which are not often seen at Ford’s Theatre and have never been put on exhibit. 

“If I can’t be the President, at least I can hold his hat.”

It is reported that Stephen Douglas muttered these words to a friend during Abraham Lincoln’s first inauguration after offering to take the president’s hat as he rose to give his inaugural address. If he truly did speak these words, it would indicate that Douglas had accepted his defeat during the presidential election of 1860 and, even for a moment, relinquished his steadfast resolve to best Lincoln in a political fight.

Lincoln and Douglas were opposites. Lincoln stood 6-feet 4-inches tall with a slightly shrill, resonant voice. Douglas was a projecting, powerful baritone who measured a mere 5-feet 4-inches. Douglas initially bested Lincoln on a local level, but Lincoln showed that his image could transcend Illinois and resonate with a nation.

Lincoln and Douglas’s first battleground was the 1858 race to represent Illinois in the U.S. Senate. Douglas was the incumbent, having served as a democratic senator since 1847. The Republican Party chose a relative newcomer in Abraham Lincoln, although he was no stranger to the senate election process: in 1854, Lincoln ran as a whig but eventually withdrew in support of democrat Lyman Trumball.

The Lincoln-Douglas Debates

In the beginning of their campaigns, Douglas wished to avoid Lincoln and traveled around Illinois to give speeches. Lincoln remained on his heels, though, giving speeches in the same areas within a few days of Douglas’s appearances. Douglas soon relented and accepted Lincoln’s invitation to square off on the same stage. There were seven Lincoln-Douglas debates in all, and the events drew crowds from miles around. These debates were like moments of political theater with candidates gesturing and proclaiming with flair. In the end, Douglas was reelected to the Senate and Lincoln was thrust into the circle of republican electoral politics as the party looked ahead to the 1860 presidential election.

Convention Season

The Democratic Party was the first to hold its convention in 1860 but failed to get the two-thirds majority needed to nominate a candidate, with Douglas as front-runner. When they reconvened a month later, after relocating from Charleston, South Carolina, to Baltimore, some members of the party had split off to form their own consortium (the Southern Democratic Party). This left the remaining Democrats with enough votes to secure Douglas’s nomination

The Republican Party met at its national convention in Chicago, primed to nominate front-runner William Henry Seward of New York. Seward, like Douglas, failed to garner a majority of votes. Between the first and third ballots, interest shifted from Seward to Lincoln. Just as in the Senate race, Lincoln was not a stranger to the presidential convention process: he was considered to be vice-president during the 1856 election but came in second behind William Lewis Dayton. Four years later, Lincoln was up for the top honor, and secured the required votes after the third ballot round.

A Crowded Field

Along with Douglas and Lincoln, there were two other men vying for the presidency: John Breckinridge, a Southern democrat, and John Bell, a member of the Constitutional Union Party. All four had just six months to campaign. While many made buttons and flags, all but one (Douglas) followed the customary non-public campaign. Douglas behaved more like today’s politicians, traveling around the country shaking hands and kissing babies.

The other candidates stayed out of the limelight and only seldom gave public speeches. In contrast to Douglas, Lincoln rarely made a public speech or appearance during the months of campaigning. He instead chose to stay at his home in Springfield, Illinois, and receive delegates.

Impressive Voter Turnout

On November 6, 1860, ballots were cast by over 4.5 million people. The voter turnout rate was the highest up until that time and still stands as the second-highest to this day. Lincoln and Douglas were both the closest and furthest from each other. In terms of popular vote, Lincoln received 1,865,908 votes to Douglas’ 1,380,202 votes. Neither of the other candidates came close to those numbers.

But while the popular vote shows the fruit of Douglas’ labor campaigning far and wide, the electoral vote tells another story. Douglas managed to carry only one state, Missouri, and ended up with just 12 electoral votes, after splitting New Jersey with Lincoln. Lincoln, however, carried 18 states and won 180 electoral votes.

The Gesture of Lincoln passing Douglas his now iconic top hat during his own presidenial inaguration showed that he, too, must have put the past behind him and was ready to lead a country.

For further reading, check out our post about the 1864 election. Visitors can also learn about the beginning of Lincoln’s presidency in the basement museum at Ford’s Theatre.

Additional reading:

Courtney Kuzemchak is a Ford’s Theatre Exhibitions Intern. She is currently pursuing undergraduate degrees in Historic Preservation and Art History from the University of Mary Washington, in Fredericksburg, Virginia. A native of Pennsylvania, her love of the 19th century started with trips to battlefields and brass band concerts.