he populous, economically important state of Pennsylvania was also a
political powerhouse in the mid-19th century. In 1860 it had 27 electoral votes, second only to New York’s 35 and just ahead of Ohio’s 23. Pennsylvania possessed as many electoral votes as Virginia (15) and Kentucky (12) had together and more than Indiana (13) and Illinois (11) combined. In 1856 Democrat James Buchanan had carried his home state of Pennsylvania and won the presidency. In 1860 the state was considered crucial to the campaign strategies of the Republican, the Constitutional Union, and the Democratic parties.
The 1856 Republican loss of Pennsylvania, Indiana, and Illinois, whose electorates were more moderate on the slavery question, was a key reason that delegates to the 1860 Republican National Convention passed over front-runner William Henry Seward of New York for Abraham Lincoln of Illinois, who at the time was perceived as less radical on the slavery issue than Seward. The ability of David Davis, Lincoln’s campaign manager, to secure the votes of the Pennsylvania delegation at the Republican National Convention was a major factor in Lincoln’s nomination. Although the Democrats had won Pennsylvania in 1856, the vote had been close when Republican and American party ballots were added together. In 1860 the Republicans hoped to add Pennsylvania and either Illinois, Indiana, or New Jersey to their stronghold in the Northeast-Upper Midwest corridor and thus win the presidency.
Capturing Pennsylvania’s electoral votes was even more vital to the new Constitutional Union party and its nominee, John Bell. They stood little realistic chance of an electoral college victory in November 1860. Constitutional Unionists believed, however, that they could win enough states to send the presidential election into the House of Representatives, where they thought Bell might very well be elected. The first panel of the Vanity Fair cartoon shows the extent to which the Bell-Everett ticket was relying on a Pennsylvania victory. The second panel of the cartoon points to a Constitutional Unionist’s unconvincing denial of the importance of his party’s losses in Pennsylvania’s state elections in October. The second panel also underlines how much the party still pinned its fate on a surprise victory in the presidential balloting in November. In the end, Bell lost Pennsylvania to Lincoln, and carried only Virginia, Kentucky, and his home state of Tennessee.
This cartoon also reveals a political practice distinctive to 19th-century American politics. Today, most voters go to the polls and cast ballots for president, members of Congress, and state officials on the same day. For much of the 19th century, though, elections for state and national races were held in different months. State elections were scheduled in the late summer or early fall, while presidential elections (as today) took place in early November.
Voting was more difficult in the 19th century than today because America was overwhelming rural, with transportation to the polls consisting primarily of horseback-riding, carriage-riding, or walking on roads made mainly of dirt (or mud in bad weather). Despite those obstacles, eligible voters turned out for presidential elections in numbers at or above 80% during the 1840-1890 period, and with often higher levels of participation for state elections.
Because political party allegiance was so strong in that era, the outcome of the state elections was a reliable indicator of the likely results of presidential elections.
In 1860 Stephen Douglas had begun campaigning with a positive attitude toward his own chance of election. When Republicans won large victories in the Maine and Vermont state elections in August, though, he began to have doubts. When state elections placed Pennsylvania, Indiana, and Ohio in the Republican column, then he knew that Lincoln was virtually assured of victory in the November presidential election. Upon receiving the telegram conveying the results of the Pennsylvania state elections, he is alleged to have told his secretary: "Mr. Lincoln is the next president. We must try to save the Union. I will go South." And so he did. Douglas traveled throughout the South urging Southerners not to leave the Union if Lincoln was elected. By that point, however, the South was not listening to Stephen Douglas.
Sources consulted: Elting Morison, "Election of 1860" in The Coming to
Power: Critical Presidential Elections in American History, ed. Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr. (New York: Chelsea House Publishers, 1971), pp. 118-143.; Phillip Shaw Paludan, The Presidency of Abraham Lincoln (Lawrence, KS: University Press of Kansas, 1994); George Brown Tindall and David E. Shi, America: A Narrative History.