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The election of 1860, probably the most momentous in the nation's history, laid bare the bitter division between North and South that had been festering for more than a decade. In a four-way contest, Abraham Lincoln, the Republican candidate, who opposed the expansion of slavery into new territories, won less than a majority of the popular vote but 59 percent of the electoral college, thus becoming the nation's sixteenth president. The North-South split was so decisive that Lincoln did not receive a single electoral vote from the South, which lined up solidly behind proslavery candidate John C. Breckinridge of Kentucky, James Buchanan's vice president and a leader of the Southern wing of the Democratic party. (Illinois senator Stephen A. Douglas ran as the candidate of the Northern Democrats, following a sectional split at the party's national convention.) Lincoln's election pleased most Northerners, but not radical abolitionists, who criticized him for being a fence-sitter on the issue of slavery, and not Democrats, who thought him too radical. Meanwhile, in the South, whites vilified Lincoln and saw his election as nothing less than the Republic's death knell. These accounts -- from abolitionist Wendell Phillips; from Horace Greeley, the Republican editor of the New York Tribune; and from the Atlanta Confederacy -- give an indication of the enormous breadth of opinion.
If the telegraph speaks the truth, for the first time in our history the slave has chosen a president of the United States . . . . Not an abolitionist, hardly an antislavery man, Mr. Lincoln consents to represent an antislavery idea. Apawn on the political chessboard, his value is his position; with fair effort, we may soon charge him for knight, bishop, or queen.
Abraham Lincoln illustrates [the Republican party's] position and enforces our argument. His career proves our doctrine sound. He is Republicanism embodied and exemplified. Born in the very humblest Whig stratum of society, reared in poverty, earning his own livelihood from a tender age by the rudest and least recompensed labor . . . picking up his education as he might by the evening firelight of rude log cabins . . . and so gradually working his way upward to knowledge, capacity, esteem, influence, competence . . . his life is an invincible attestation of the superiority of Free Society, as his election will be its crowning triumph.
Let the consequences be what they may -- whether the Potomac is crimsoned in human gore, and Pennsylvania Avenue is paved ten fathoms deep with mangled bodies, or whether the last vestige of liberty is swept from the face of the American continent, the South will never submit to such humiliation and degradation as the inauguration of Abraham Lincoln.
In this speech to the Georgia legislature delivered immediately after Lincoln's election, Robert Toombs, a future Confederate cabinet member and general at Antietam, encapsulated the South's perception of Lincoln and the Republican party.
The instant the government was organized, at the very first Congress, the Northern States evinced a general desire and purpose to use it for their own benefit, and to pervert its powers for sectional advantage, and they have steadily pursued that policy to this day . . .
Our property has been stolen, our people murdered; felons and assassins have found sanctuary in the arms of the party which elected Mr. Lincoln. The Executive power, the last bulwark of the Constitution to defend us against these enemies of the Constitution, has been swept away, and we now stand without a shield, with bare bosoms presented to our enemies, and we demand at your hands the sword for our defense, and if you will not give it to us, we will take it -- take it by the divine right of self-defense, which governments neither give nor can take away. Therefore, redress for past and present wrongs demands resistance to the rule of Lincoln and his Abolition horde over us; he comes at their head to shield and protect them in the perpetration of these outrages upon us, and, what is more, he comes at their head to aid them in consummating their avowed purposes by the power of the Federal Government. Their main purpose, as indicated by all their acts of hostility to slavery, is its final and total abolition. His party declare it; their acts prove it.