The Rail Splitter Candidate

The Railsplitter, 1860

As a result of his performance in the Great Debates, Lincoln emerged as a potential candidate for the presidency. On May 9 and 10, 1860, a week before the Republican Party convened in Chicago, Illinois Republicans met in Decatur and chose Lincoln as their favorite son candidate. They dubbed him “the Rail Splitter,” a name that recalled his youth. By now Lincoln was a prosperous urban lawyer, not a frontiersman, but he approved, knowing the familiar image would connect with northern voters (all male) who shared similar backgrounds and cultural values.

At the convention, Lincoln’s moderate views helped gain him the nomination over better-known rivals, Senators William H. Seward of New York and Salmon P. Chase of Ohio who held stronger antislavery views. A few weeks later, the Democratic Party split over the slavery issue, resulting in a northern wing that nominated Stephen A. Douglas for president, and a southern wing that nominated John C. Breckinridge. A third Constitutional Union Party emerged with John Bell as its nominee. In the November election, Lincoln won 39 percent of the popular vote and 180 electoral votes, all from the North. Douglas won 29 percent of the popular vote but only 12 electoral votes. Breckinridge won most of the South and 72 electoral votes, while Bell won Virginia, Kentucky, and Tennessee and 39 electoral votes but finished last in the popular voting. Clearly, America was a house divided.