The Point of No Return

The Election of 1860


The era between 1840 and the start of the Civil War in 1861 was characterized by increasing animosity between the North and South. Tensions escalated as the North and the South took different steps to advance their views; however, until the election of 1860, civil war was avoidable.

Counter-Argument (Bleeding Kansas)

Bleeding Kansas contributed to the beginnings of the Civil War; however, the violent conflict between Pro and Anti slavery supporters did not signify a point of no return.
Letter from Edward Brigman, depicting the circumstances surrounding Kansas during 1856.

“I have learned that those men who committed those murders were a party of Browns. one of them was formerly in the wool business in Springfield, John Brown[.] his son, (Jn) has been taken today, tho he had no hand in the act, but was knowing to it, but when I write to Maria I will give further particulars[.] Osawatomie is in much fear and excitement[.] News came tonight that a co. of Georgains and Alibamians were coming to make this their headquarters. All work is nearly suspended, the women are in constant fear[.]”

“On our way back we heard that 5 men had been killed by Free State men. the men were butchered -- ears cut off and the bodies thrown into the river[.] the murdered men (Proslavery) had thrown out threats and insults, yet the act was barbarous and inhuman whoever committed by[.]”

Reason #1: Violent rebellions between differing factions have occurred consistently throughout American history, yet national unity and wholesale warfare was always prevented. (Ex: Whiskey Rebellion, Nat Turner's Revolt, Pennsylvania Mutiny of 1783). All rebellions were alleviated and/or suppressed through changes in federal policy or through governmental suppression.
Reason #2: Bleeding Kansas was merely a regional issue; it did not possess the scope of the Election of 1860

The Election of 1860 signified the Point of No Return to Armed Conflict

Reason #1: The Election of 1860 had the greatest voter turnout to date. Mass citizen participation suggests that the majority of Northerners and Southerners viewed this election as more crucial to the future of the nation compared to prior elections.
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Reason #2: The results of the election were highly divided between the North and the South. Lincoln almost unanimously won the North, whereas Breckinridge nearly unanimously won the South. Such an obvious north-south divide had never occurred in prior presidential elections.
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Reason #3: Secession was not yet considered a legitimate possibility until Lincoln was elected as president. Ultimately, secession was necessary for the declaration of war to occur.
Edmund Ruffin, "fire eater" (extremist proslavery advocate), argues for secession (1859)

“The great mass merely follow the directions given by their leaders through the newspapers—and as the cue is now to laud the union, it is vain to say anything againts it. Nothing can be done until after the nomination & election of 1860. Then these southern leaders, blinded now by their ambition, will all be disappointed, & may understand the truth that no southern man can be made president, or as a candidate, receive the support of the northern democrats. To obtain their support, everything must be yielded to their wishes, prejudices, & interests—& by so doing, the South may rule, as it is called. This disappointment, or some new outrage, or the entire separation (as I hope may occur) between the Southern & Northern democrats, may dispose the South again to resist.”

Abraham Lincoln, to Truman Smith, Nov. 1860 (before the election), refuses to reassure the South

“It is with the most profound appreciation of your motive, and highest respect for your judgment too, that I feel constrained, for the present, at least, to make no declaration for the public.”

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Brigman, Edward. "Letter from Edward Brigman." PBS. May 26, 1856. Accessed November 17, 2015.

Henretta, James and Eric Hinderaker, Rebecca Edwards, Robert Self. America's History. Boston: Bedford/St. Martin's, 2014.

Ruffin, Edmund. “Edmund Ruffin Urges Secession in Advance of the 1860 Presidential Election.” Gale U.S. History in Context. 2015.

"Voter Turnout in Presidential Elections: 1828-2012.” The American Presidency Project. 2015.