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Gary Gallagher: What if Lincoln lost the election?

By Gary Gallagher

Professor of history at the University of Virginia


Given the realities of electoral politics in 1860, it is almost impossible to imagine how Abraham Lincoln could have lost. It is even more difficult to say what the election of Stephen A. Douglas — the only one of the other three candidates who stood even a remote chance of success — would have elicited in the way of responses across the nation.

Rather than try to answer a question that cannot be answered, it is worthwhile to remember that Lincoln’s election did not trigger the war. More than six months elapsed between the casting of ballots in November 1860 and the firing on Fort Sumter in April 1861. Only seven of the 15 slaveholding states deemed Lincoln’s triumph sufficient cause to secede; four others followed suit only after Sumter and, more especially, the new president’s call for 75,000 volunteers to suppress the rebellion. Four slaveholding states remained loyal to the Union, a fact that should remind us why describing the war as North against South is misleading and why we should never use “Confederacy” and “the South” as synonyms.

We always should resist what might be called the Appomattox syndrome, that is, reading back from what we know happened to understand how that end came about. We know that Lincoln won the election and that a war eventually came, so we often assume that a Republican victory inexorably led to military conflict. In fact, only a fascinating and complex series of decisions and events, some centered in Washington but many played out elsewhere, finally brought a war that rapidly escalated to a level of bloodshed far beyond what anyone at the time could imagine.

By Gary Gallagher  | October 31, 2010; 10:31 PM ET
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obama is not President lincoln...
that being said...
obama just talks...
otherwise hollow inside...

Posted by: DwightCollins | November 2, 2010 3:02 PM | Report abuse

Y'all be speaking Redneck.

Posted by: olthadi | November 2, 2010 3:18 PM | Report abuse

Yes, there was going to be a war regardless.
Interestingly, Republicans, including Lincoln, were not in favor of war, Republicans were and are known for their support of more state government and less federal; which fit with what the South wanted, basically for the Federal Government to stay out of their business.

War happened anyway, as there was no compromise to be had, and Lincoln had to uphold the federal government's position against slavery and secession from the Union.

Posted by: hebe1 | November 2, 2010 3:29 PM | Report abuse

So is Prof. Gallagher saying that the war was inevitable no matter who won the Election of 1860? If it were the actions taken by Lincoln (i.e. calling up the troops) that caused the actions, what would have a President Douglas have done in the same sitution?
Although S.C. secceded almost two months after the election, news moved much slower and would have taken time for the S.C. legislature to meet. My understanding was that since Lincoln was elected without any Southern support, S.C. felt the slave states had no voice in the national government. Would Douglas have won without Southern support? If so, was he seen as threat to the existence of slavery that Lincoln was to the slave states? I think not since Douglas was the darling of popular soverienty and his national political ambitions were based upon trying to appease both the North and South.
So to me it was Lincoln's election that led to seceesion and secession led to the Civil War.

And by the way DwightCollins is there anything that goes on in the world today that those on the right don't use as an opportunity to blast Obama. I mean is the man to be blamed for a rainy day?

Posted by: smith6 | November 2, 2010 3:32 PM | Report abuse

We are the only country that had to kill 600,000 people to end slavery. I blame this on Lincoln.

Posted by: hyperiontc | November 2, 2010 4:50 PM | Report abuse

There would have been a war, because the main issue was the status of the western territories. If they were free, and if they eventually became states, the free states could outvote the south, and slavery would have been abolished.

After he was elected, Lincoln had Douglass make a tour of the south, imploring southern leaders not to secede, and promising that Lincoln would not try to abolish slavery.

The south attacked Ft Sumpter, and Lincoln ordered the troops not to fire back, but to stay a while, and then to evacuate, which is what they did.

Posted by: genedoug | November 2, 2010 5:29 PM | Report abuse

really one of the most stupid questions posed by a newspaper in about a day - kind of like "when did you stop beating your wife" when no abuse occured.

Posted by: Lynne51 | November 2, 2010 6:58 PM | Report abuse

"More than six months elapsed between the casting of ballots in November 1860 and the firing on Fort Sumter in April 1861."

Gallagher is being disingenuous. What he writes is true, but there was a longer transition then. The president was not inaugurated until March (as opposed to January now). What is more relevant is that only five weeks elapsed between Lincoln's inauguration and Ft. Sumter.

Posted by: DennisCMyers | November 2, 2010 7:18 PM | Report abuse

We are not an agrarian society so I wish the southern states would leave the Union. They can come over our borders to cut our grass and such. However, please leave.

Posted by: johng1 | November 2, 2010 7:52 PM | Report abuse

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