Lincoln's election to the presidency gave him anything but a solid mandate to lead. In 1860 the Democratic party split into northern and southern branches. Douglas of Illinois ran on the northern ticket, and, though the only candidate to win substantial numbers of votes in all the states, he carried only Missouri. John C. Breckinridge, later a Confederate general, carried the southern Democratic banner and won all the slave states except a few on the border. Some former Whigs and Know-Nothings formed the Constitutional Union party, nominated John Bell, and carried Virginia, Kentucky, and Tennessee. The Republicans' Lincoln took every free state except New Jersey, where he received four of seven electoral votes. His honest rail-splitter image, with its connotation of the right to rise blending into his stand opposing slave labor, was enough to give him the electoral college. There being almost no Republican votes in the southern states, his popular vote (1.9 million) was not quite 40 percent of the total. (He received 180, or 59.41 percent, of the electoral vote.) A shift of 25,000 votes, out of a total of 675,000 in New York, an area with a high concentration of swing voters, would have thrown the election into Congress, where his chances would have been very slim. Thirty-nine thousand voters merely staying away from the polls in four smaller strategic states would have done the same.
The votes were barely counted when, in December 1860, South Carolina declared its secession from the Union. It was followed early in 1861 by all the states of the Deep South: Mississippi, Florida, Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana, and Texas. In February these seven states formed the Confederate States of America and adopted a constitution much like that of the United States. They elected Jefferson Davis president, and Alexander H. Stephens, Lincoln's friend from his first stay in Washington, vice president.