It seems to be a very popular belief that the Republican Party won the 1860 presidential election with Abraham Lincoln as the third party. That is one of the most common arguments I hear from Libertarians when I am debating with them that third party candidates only succeed in assuring that the candidate that you most dislike is elected. The Libertarian Party must teach this, I hear it a lot. It sounds great, however, there is no truth to it at all.
If that isn't true what happened? Let's start with a very significant development when Democrat Senator Stephen Douglas brokered the Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854. This was because Douglas saw the importance of a transcontinental railroad that Asa Whitney was trying to build. Douglas knew it would make his own Chicago a major hub for the entire middle of the United States. With very little controversy the congressional delegations from Iowa, Missouri, and Illinois introduced the bill to organize a Nebraska Territory, the northern part of the old Louisiana Purchase, and , once again, illegally erase Indian claims to the lands there.
However, the South realized that their balance of power was about to be usurped. Since the Northwest Ordinance and Missouri Compromise, the understanding was that for every free state added to the Union, there would be a new slave state. Now this proposal would soon add at least one new free state, with no sectional balance. This state of Nebraska would be free because it was north of the Missouri Compromise 36-degree 30-minute line. To appease his concerned Southern Democrats, and hopefully court them for his presidential run coming up soon, recrafted the Nebraska Bill into the Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854. It assuaged the South by revoking the thirty-three-year-old 36/30 Missouri Compromise line and replacing its restriction of slavery with popular sovereignty, a vote on slavery by the people of the territory. In the stroke of a pen, Douglas abolished a thirty year covenant and opened the entire Louisiana Purchase to slavery.
Douglas naively believed that this would win him more political friends than enemies and gain his home state a Chicago railroad empire in the process. He soon learned however that he was horribly mistaken about the Kansas-Nebraska Act. After its passage, a contagion swept the country every bit as strong as the one sparked by Uncle Tom's Cabin, Free-Soilers, now including many Northern Democrats, arose in furious protest. The Democrat Party shattered over the Kansas-Nebraska Act. Douglas was stunned what he thought would win him the White House only succeeded in fracturing his own party and starting a national crisis. The final straw to the divide among the Democrats came at the National Convention in 1860 were the pro-slavery Southern Democrats walked out called their own convention and nominated their own separate candidate for president.
While the Democrats were fighting over slavery whatever was left of the Whigs withered away in the South after the Kansas-Nebraska Act. The Whigs had always been a party tied to the American system, but were unwilling to take as stand on the major moral issue of the day, and that was its downfall. Failing to address slavery, their major differences over the tariff, a national bank, and land sales did not separate the two parties as much as had been assumed in the past. While these differences were important on one level, nothing was as important as the single issue that was truly separating Americans.
As the Democrats grew stronger in the South, the Whigs, rather than growing stronger in the North, slipped quietly into history. The Whigs disintegrated, and two new parties dismembered them. One, the American Party, arose out of negative reaction to an influx of Irish and German Catholic immigrants. The American Party tapped into the anti-immigrant perceptions that still burned within large segments of the country. Based largely in local lodges, where secrecy was the by-word, the party became known as the Know-Nothings. The Know-Nothings were also very strongly anti-Masonic. However, the Know-Nothings were also still born, they also failed to see that slavery constituted a far greater threat to their constituents than did foreign immigrants.
Abraham Lincoln perceived that a fundamental difference in principle existed between antislavery and nativism, between the new Republican Party and the Know-Nothings, asking, "How can anyone who abhors the oppression of Negroes be in favor of degrading classes of white people?" He warned, "When the Know-Nothings get control, the Declaration will read, 'All men are created equal, except Negroes and foreigners and Catholics.'"
A second party, however, picking up the old Liberty Party and Free-Soil banners, sought to unite people of all stripes who opposed slavery under a single banner. Originally called the Anti-Nebraska Party, the new Republican Party bore in like a laser on the issue of slavery in the territories. Foremost among the new leaders was Salmon P. Chase of Ohio, a former Liberty Party man who won the gubernatorial election as a Republican in Ohio in 1855. Along with William H. Seward Chase provided the intellectual foundation of the new party.
The Republicans, unlike the Democrats and Whigs, recognized that every other issue in some way touched on slavery, and rather than ignore it or straddle it, they attacked it head on, elevating it to the top of their masthead.
In 1860 the Republicans nominated Abraham Lincoln. The Democrats, who split into two, the Northern Democrats ran Stephen Douglas, the Southern Democrats ran John Breckinridge, and a "third" party the Constitutional Party ran John Bell. The Republican Abraham Lincoln won with 39.8% of the vote, the Northern Democrat Stephen Douglas carried 29.5%, Southern Democrat John Breckinridge carried 18.1% while the Constitutional Party's John Bell carried only 12.6%
As much as our Libertarian friends want to believe Republicans did not win as a third party. They also won a governorship within their first two years, and the White House in six years.