THE ELECTION OF 1860
The opening salvo in the American Civil War may have come in big city and back woods polling places around the country on November 6, 1860, one hundred and fifty years ago this week. Four different candidates, three of them Democrats, vied for the highest office in the land. While the three Democrats garnered more than sixty percent of the popular vote, it was the Republican candidate, Abraham Lincoln, who tallied the most votes in the Electoral College. This election was the lighted match thrown into a highly volatile mix of abolitionists, secessionists, Unionists, and quite frankly, many who cared nothing at all about the issue of slavery.
The split in the presidential voting in East Central, Georgia became apparent in the 1856 election. Laurens County voters cast 85.3 percent of their votes for the Know-Nothing party candidate, Millard Fillmore. Montgomery voters were even more opposed to the idea of secession in casting 88.57% of their ballots for the former president, who only carried one state, the border state of Maryland. Fillmore carried Jefferson County, the home of Herschel V. Johnson, but barely. The race in Emanuel was very close, with the eventual winner, James Buchanan coming out on top. Buchanan carried the remaining counties in the region by large margins.
The election of 1860 pitted the Republican candidate, Abraham Lincoln of Illinois, against three Democratic factions headed by John C. Breckinridge (Kentucky) of the Southern Democratic party, John Bell (Tennessee) of the Constitutional Union party, and Stephen Douglas (Illinois) of the Northern Democratic Party, which nominated as its vice-presidential candidate, Gov. Herschel V. Johnson of Georgia, and future judge and namesake of Johnson County, Georgia.
Some political historians have concluded that the turnout in the 1860 election was lower than normal because the outcome was never in doubt. It has been said that most voters accepted the fact that another Democrat would be in the White House and that the total electoral votes of the three Democrats would be consolidated into a compromise winner and Abraham Lincoln would go back to practicing law in Illinois.
The heaviest vote for John Bell came in Montgomery County. Ironically the once home county of Gov. George M. Troup, the founder of State Rights, was most supportive of the Unionist Democrats. Montgomery was primarily composed of male voters who were of Scottish ancestry. Eight of nine voters, who owned very few slaves and saw hard work on their part as a part of their heritage, wanted no part of secession. The county's delegates to the Secession Convention and the subsequent sessions of the Georgia Legislature consistently voted against the actions of the state's Confederate government. Nevertheless, the county sent 114 men off to fight the Yankees, all but fourteen were killed, wounded, imprisoned or died of disease. Clearly it was not their war. Washington and Emanuel County supported Bell in large numbers.
In Troup's home county of Laurens, support for Bell soared to more than seventy-two percent, a level slightly higher than in the election of candidates to the convention which was held the following January in the capital at Milledgeville. Breckinridge gathered only 36 of 592 votes, while Douglas only got 21.6 percent of Laurens County voters to mark his name on the ballot.
The highest support for Breckinridge came from voters along the Coastal Plain and in the mountains of Georgia. Locally, voters in Wilcox, Wilkinson Twiggs and Pulaski voted for Breckinridge, though his support waned the closer the counties were to the "Slave Belt." Surprisingly it was in the area where blacks were in the majority, voters overwhelmingly supported Bell and remaining in the Union despite their dependence on slavery.
There appeared no direct relationship between the percentage of slaves among the county populations to their white masters votes for the pro-Union and pro-secession candidates. The highest percentage of a county's slave population was in Twiggs (64.5) and the county's voters (63.1) voted for Breckinridge, the pro-slavery candidate. However, in Jefferson and Washington counties where slaves were more than fifty percent of their populations, white males voted for Bell and Douglas, the more pro-Union parties.
On the other hand, the lowest slave populated counties with less than 1 in 3, (Emanuel, Johnson and Montgomery) were the mostly pro-Union supporters, choosing to stay in the Union to avoid a military and economic war and being content with owning their slaves and uncaring about slaves in the western territories and states.
When the nearly 4.7 million votes were tallied and electoral college delegates appointed, Abraham Lincoln won more than half of the electoral votes and carried more than half of the states in the country, all in the North and the West. Breckinridge carried all of the Southern States, except Virginia, Kentucky, and Tennessee.
In Georgia, Breckinridge received nearly half of the 107,000 votes. Bell placed second with 40 percent of the vote, while Douglas, despite Jefferson County's native son's spot on the ticket, only tallied one-tenth of the popular vote.
As the news of Lincoln's election spread first throughout Milledgeville and the state's largest cities and then to the small town around the state, enthusiasm for secession began to swell. Another election was held to choose delegates to a Secession Convention in Milledgeville. More than two-thirds of Laurens County voters remained Unionist, but elected Dr. Nathan Tucker and J.W. Yopp to a split delegation of Unionist and Secessionist sentiments respectively. Washington County, who provided the most men per capita to the Confederate Army , were split at the convention. Johnson and Emanuel County's voters were anti-secession. Montgomery Countians remained steadfastly pro-Union, never giving up on their convictions. Georgia Unionists, led by Herschel Johnson and Alexander Stephens, the future Vice President of the Confederate States of America, held their firm position against leaving the Union at first, but eventually succumbed to the fervent secessionists led by Howell Cobb and Robert Toombs, who convinced Georgia's legislature to vote for leaving the Union in January 1861.
The importance of the national election of 1860 can never be understated. However, every election, either on a national, state or local scale is important. By voting, you can change the history of our future. By not voting, someone else will change your future or your children's future. One thing is certain, if you stay home, your voice won't be heard. So vote.