#NeverLincoln: Abolitionists and the 1860 Election

by Curtis Harris

Never Lincoln Photo

The 2016 presidential campaign has been fraught with intra-party rancor. On the Democratic side, #NeverHillary and #BernieOrBust took off when some supporters of Senator Bernie Sanders vowed to never support former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton as their party’s nominee. Preceding the #NeverHillary movement was the #NeverTrump groundswell within the Republican Party to curtail the eventual nomination of businessman Donald Trump. Of course, these disputes have their own particulars, but feuds and bitter disagreements within political parties and movements is nothing new or unique to this election cycle.

During the 1860 presidential election, abolitionists were faced with questions that nagged at their conscience and pulled upon their practical instincts: should they support Abraham Lincoln as the Republican Party’s nominee for president? Or should they refrain from party politics until a pure abolition ticket appeared?

In retrospect, it might seem peculiar that people dedicated to the physical and political freedom of African Americans would hesitate in supporting Lincoln. But a look back at their own words and goals juxtaposed with the political stand made by Lincoln in 1860 reveals why many of the abolitionists, if given social media in 1860, might have emphatically tweeted #NeverLincoln.


In The Struggle for Equality, historian James McPherson summed up the abolitionists’ dilemma with Abraham Lincoln after the Illinois politician had surprisingly secured the Republican nomination for president in 1860:

“Abolitionists were understandably perplexed about this man Lincoln. He was plainly against slavery, but he was just as plainly not for its immediate and total abolition. The Annual Report of the American Anti-Slavery Society [AASS] considered Lincoln ‘a good enough Republican for the party’s purposes, but far from being the man for the country’s need.’ He was ‘a sort of bland, respectable middle-man, between a very modest Right and the most arrogant and exacting Wrong; a convenient hook whereon to hang appeals at once to a moderate anti-slavery feeling and to a timid conservatism.'”

In his famous and widely hailed Cooper Union Address in New York City, Lincoln in a single sentence provided the rhetorical ammunition that fueled the AASS’s critique of his politics: “Wrong as we think slavery is, we can yet afford to let it alone where it is, because that much is due to the necessity arising from its actual presence in the nation; but can we, while our votes will prevent it, allow it to spread into the National Territories, and to overrun us here in these Free States?”

Preventing slavery’s spread into the “National Territories” wasn’t the unvarnished spirit of abolitionism, which demanded an immediate end to slavery and also equal rights for African Americans. However, the non-extension doctrine was the glue that held together the unwieldy, newly-formed Republican coalition composed of defunct Whigs, disgruntled Democrats, erstwhile Know-Nothings, and Free Soilers. Abolitionists were merely a small, albeit vocal, component of the Republican coalition. And they indeed made their voices heard on Lincoln’s immediate opposition to expanding – not eradicating – slavery.

Edmund Quincy, in June 1860, observed Lincoln’s non-extension policy and concluded the November election would bring “a new administration pledged to the support of slavery in our Southern States, and this equally, whether success be to the Democrats or the Republicans.”

Josephine Griffing, in August 1860, griped that the Republicans were playing a two-faced political game since their “great effort is to convince the public mind that they are not Abolitionists,” while also convincing “the Abolitionists, that they hate slavery as much as they do.”

William Lloyd Garrison

A month before Griffing’s letter, William Lloyd Garrison fumed at the Republican Party’s attempts to distance itself from the abolitionist movement: “The Republican party means to do nothing, can do nothing, for the abolition of slavery in the slave states. The Republican party stands on a level with the Fugitive Slave Law.”

W.A. Hunter of Ohio railed against other abolitionists who would contemplate voting for Lincoln, a man who “ignores all the principles of humanity in the colored race, both free and slave; and as abolitionists claim the right to freedom of the one class, and political equality to the other, how can they be consistent, to say nothing of honest, in supporting such a man?”

Perhaps most searing was the angry retort to Lincoln made by black Illinoisan, Hezekiah Ford Douglass, who chastised Lincoln not only for the perceived timidness of his slavery policies, but also his views on civil rights:

“I do not believe in the anti-slavery of Abraham Lincoln. He is on the side of this Slave Power of which I am speaking, that has possession of the Federal Government…. I went through the State of Illinois for the purpose of getting signers to a petition, asking the Legislature to repeal the Testimony Law, so as to permit colored men to testify against white men. I went to prominent Republicans, and among others to Abraham Lincoln and Lyman Trumbull, and neither of them dared to sign that petition to give me the right to testify in a court of justice! If we sent our children to school, Abraham Lincoln would kick them out, in the name of Republicanism and anti-slavery!… I care nothing about that anti-slavery which wants to make the Territories free, while it is unwilling to extend to me, as a man, in the free States, all the rights of a man.”

As incendiary, ridiculing, and disgruntled as these abolitionists were in their condemnation of the Republican Party’s nominee, it appears that most abolitionists who voted in the 1860 election did so en masse for Lincoln after surveying the political landscape.


If Lincoln was a flawed choice, the alternatives in the 1860 election were downright appalling for the abolitionist: Northern Democrat Stephen Douglas, Southern Democrat John Breckinridge, and John Bell of the Constitutional Union Party.

Lincoln’s perennial nemesis, Douglas habitually tossed about “Black Republicans” as a verbal insult taunting white Republicans sympathizing (no matter how slightly) with black Americans. Unsurprisingly, in the 1858 Ottawa debate, Douglas appealed to white supremacy in his successful attempt to defeat Lincoln in the Illinois senate race. Douglass’s extended taunt of emancipation and political rights for blacks linked Lincoln and Republicans to such dangerous schemes, as Douglass perceived them:

“Do you desire to strike out of our State Constitution that clause which keeps slaves and free negroes out of the State, and allow the free negroes to flow in, and cover your prairies with black settlements? Do you desire to turn this beautiful State into a free negro colony, in order that when Missouri abolishes slavery she can send one hundred thousand emancipated slaves into Illinois, to become citizens and voters, on an equality with yourselves? If you desire negro citizenship, if you desire to allow them to come into the State and settle with the white man, if you desire them to vote on an equality with yourselves, and to make them eligible to office, to serve on juries, and to adjudge your rights, then support Mr. Lincoln and the Black Republican party, who are in favor of the citizenship of the negro.

“For one, I am opposed to negro citizenship in any and every form. I believe this Government was made on the white basis. I believe it was made by white men for the benefit of white men and their posterity for ever, and I am in favor of confining citizenship to white men, men of European birth and descent, instead of conferring it upon negroes, Indians, and other inferior races.”

Southern Democrat John Breckinridge in September 1860 attacked the notion that the federal government could interfere with slavery in the territories. Breckinridge buttressed his claim with the logic that white slaveholders’ taxes supported the federal territories’ governments, therefore the government was obligated to protect their property right in slaves in all the territories. Meanwhile, John Bell’s campaign put out a book chronicling his moderate but decidedly pro-slavery credentials dating back to the 1830s.

With those options, it’s no wonder that abolitionists like Oliver Johnson, who edited the Anti-Slavery Standard, steeled themselves to vote Lincoln. Johnson in the fall of 1860 wrote that the Republican Party’s imperfections on the slavery question still presented “the beginning of a new and better era…. it seems utterly preposterous to deny that Lincoln’s election will indicate growth in the right direction.”

Perhaps another positive sign from the abolitionists’ perspective on Lincoln’s potential was the sheer dread his anti-slavery policies inspired in Southern “fire eaters” who would soon lead the Confederacy.

Mississippi Governor John Pettus addressed his state’s legislature on November 30, 1860, as they began deliberating seceding from the United States. Although his words came after the election results, they illustrated the fear Lincoln and “Black Republicans” instilled in the white planter class. “It would be as reasonable to expect the steamship to make a successful voyage across the Atlantic with crazy men  for engineers,” Pettus reasoned “as to hope for a prosperous future for the South under Black Republican rule.” Pettus continued that the Lincoln administration and “Black Republican politics and free negro morals” would turn the state into “a cess pool of vice, crime and infamy.”

On the opposite side of the political spectrum, Frederick Douglass positively assessed Lincoln’s winning presidential bid. He directly addressed the idea of anti-slavery Lincoln paving the road to a true abolition policy down the line: “Lincoln’s election has vitiated [the slave power’s] authority, and broken their power…. More important still, it has demonstrated the possibility of electing, if not an Abolitionist, at least an anti-slavery reputation to the Presidency.”

John Rock

John Rock, attorney, in 1865

Whether hypercritical, lukewarm, or supportive of Lincoln, abolitionists of all stripes could look out with a certain bewilderment that just five years after Lincoln’s first election in 1860 an amendment abolishing slavery would indeed be added to the Constitution; that the Supreme Court would be led by radical Republican Salmon Chase replacing the staunchly pro-slavery Roger Taney; that the Supreme Court would also admit John Rock as the first black lawyer to practice before that bench; and that the House of Representatives were led in prayer by a black minister, Henry Garnet, for the first time.

Although Lincoln could hardly be considered their first or preferred choice, it would be hard to imagine that a President Breckinridge, Douglas or Bell would have provided the abolitionists with a national, supportive platform to propel the essence, if not the complete substance, of their policies.

Lydia Maria Child, a week after Lincoln’s assassination in April 1865, perhaps summed up best the reconciled abolitionists who had first looked on with dismay at Lincoln’s nomination, then begrudgingly acquiesced given their practical options, and finally appreciated his positive contributions to their movement:

“I think we have reason to thank God for Abraham Lincoln. With all his deficiencies, it must be admitted that he has grown continuously; and considering how slavery had weakened and perverted the moral sense of the whole country, it was great good luck to have the people elect a man who was willing to grow.”


Apostles of Disunion by Charles B. Drew
Lincoln President-Elect by Harold Holzer
The Fiery Trial by Eric Foner
The Struggle for Equality by James McPherson

All images courtesy of the Library of Congress


Curtis Harris is a doctoral history student at American University. He has worked at President Lincoln’s Cottage for over five years, currently as a Museum Program Associate and formerly as Marketing & Membership Coordinator.

Share this: