No one was more shaken by Brown's raid than James Buchanan. In his memoirs he listed Seward, Helper, John Brown, and the Republican party generally as the chief authors of the Civil War, and 1860 found him and his White House family still convinced that they were an island of sanity and justice in a cruel and unfair world. Thus, when southern Democrats demanded a southern presidential nominee and a presidential platform guaranteeing federal protection for slavery in all territories regardless of majority public sentiment within such territories, Buchanan lost touch with reality and agreed. Some of his closest friends warned that the election of a Republican president in 1860 would bring secession, and Buchanan should have believed them. While a moderate southern Democratic candidate might gain a significant northern vote, he could not possibly do so on a platform including a federal slave code for the territories, and under any circumstances he would need the support of Stephen A. Douglas. Indeed, the election of Douglas seemed to many the best possible hope for peace. He was pledged to allow the people of any territory to have slavery if they wanted it, and he had studiously refrained from any moral condemnation of the institution. He had also, however, refused to help Buchanan and the South saddle antislavery Kansas with a proslavery constitution, and Buchanan's personal hatred for him had become a mania. Buchanan had vowed publicly in 1856 that he would serve only one term, but he probably resented the total absence of any requests that he break his pledge. He knew that like his predecessor, Franklin Pierce, he could not be re-nominated, but he was determined to play a vital role in the immediate future of the Democratic party.
As a reward for southern good behavior at the Democratic convention of 1856, Charleston, South Carolina, had been selected for the convention of 1860. Radical southerners, led by William Lowndes Yancey of Alabama, were determined to split the Democratic party by demanding federal protection for territorial slavery, and they were shrewd enough to know that the northern Democratic delegates could not accept such a platform and still hope to win the federal and state offices for which many of them were candidates. But the "Fire-Eaters," as extreme advocates of southern interests were known, needed at least some northern support to prevent a reasonable platform and the nomination of Douglas, and this was provided by James Buchanan. Much of the Northeast had already fallen to the Republicans, and most of the delegates from this region, therefore, were federal officeholders beholden to the Buchanan administration. Also, it should be remembered, a considerable residue of southern support existed in numerous northern cities, where working people feared the possible competition of both foreign immigrants and newly freed slaves. Thus, the convention was essentially managed by friends of the president, for whom the defeat of Douglas was the primary object and a territorial slave code was entirely acceptable.
In the spring of 1860 the Democratic delegates arriving by sea, coach, and train found Charleston a beautiful city graced by blooming flowers and lovely young women in from the plantations to enjoy the social season, attend the convention, and supply adrenaline to the more eloquent radical orators. Southerners and northerners of the Buchanan camp met gracious hospitality everywhere, while the Douglas supporters were housed in a hot, uncomfortable dormitory. Tempers were shredded, and reason gave way to emotion almost immediately. The so-called Buchaneers and the southerners delayed the selection of a candidate until the adoption of the platform, and the platform committee recommended the southern program. In the ensuing debate, the great southern orator William L. Yancey roused the convention and galleries to a fever pitch by a long recitation of northern aggressions and by accusing northern Democrats of supporting slavery for constitutional rather than moral reasons. If northern Democrats would not make a moral commitment to slavery by supporting his platform, said Yancey, they would deserve even greater condemnation than the hated Republicans. Senator George E. Pugh of Ohio spoke for most northern Democrats when he replied bitterly that after years of losing elections at home by defending the South, northern Democrats were now being asked to avow publicly the righteousness of slavery to save the party. The Democratic party, shouted Pugh, would not be "dragged at the chariot wheel of 300,000 slave masters," and its leaders would not "put their hands on their mouths and their mouths in the dust."
On 30 April 1860 the national Democratic party ran aground, having been steered onto the reef in large part by the party helmsman, James Buchanan. The Charleston convention rejected Yancey's platform and voted for popular sovereignty. The delegates from eight southern states bolted the convention. Several weeks later, meeting in Baltimore, the northern Democrats nominated Douglas, while the southerners nominated Vice President John C. Breckinridge of Kentucky to run on their extremist platform. Buchanan and former president Pierce promptly endorsed Breckinridge, and the White House in effect became his campaign headquarters.
Meanwhile, a collection of former Whigs and Unionist Democrats nominated John Bell of Tennessee on a brief platform that spoke only for sectional peace. During the election campaign, this Constitutional Union party circulated a pamphlet outlining the horrendous results that would follow a Lincoln victory and thereby contributed much to southern hysteria.
The Republicans, almost certain of victory against their divided opponents, met in Chicago and rejected Seward, the conservative front-runner who had too often sounded like a dangerous radical, and turned instead to the moderate Abraham Lincoln, who had spoken only for containment of slavery and a hope for its ultimate extinction. With a candidate who fit almost every American stereotype of what a president should be and a platform that promised tariffs, homesteads, internal improvements, liberal immigration laws, and western railroads—something for almost everyone—the Republicans had an appeal far beyond the question of slavery, and their candidate could be reasonably presented as the one most likely to bring sectional peace. The platform did not even require Lincoln to oppose the expansion of slavery unless a specific situation should arise, and no such event was even on the horizon.
Only Douglas campaigned actively, and placing sectional peace above his ambitions, he assured southern listeners that the election of Lincoln would pose no threat to slavery and begged them to remain calm regardless of the result. When hecklers asked how Douglas would react to secession, the "Little Giant" shouted back that he would suppress it with military force.
Throughout the South the 1860 election campaign was one long rehearsal for secession. Politicians and editors filled the air with warnings of northern conspiracies, new John Brown invasions, slave rebellions, the burning of homes, and the murder of women and children. Congressman Lawrence Keitt of South Carolina would never "permit a party stained with treason, hideous with insurrection, and dripping with blood, to occupy the government." In Dalton, Georgia, thirty-six blacks were arrested and charged with a plot to burn the town and kill all the people. In Talladega, Alabama, two whites and eight blacks were arrested, and one white man was hanged. Rumors that the wells were being poisoned swept through Texas, and a moderate opponent of slavery was hanged. A vendor of Breckinridge campaign badges was almost hanged because a Lincoln button fell from his bag. The threat of mob violence shadowed local conservatives and Unionists who might be tempted to speak out for common sense.
James Buchanan might have supported the contention of Douglas that a Lincoln victory would not justify secession, and he could have combined his support for Breckinridge with warnings that secession would be resisted. He considered the Breckin-ridge platform a reasonable solution and probably hoped the threats of disunion would do no more than force a northern surrender to southern demands. The administration newspaper, the Constitution , subject to Buchanan's orders under pain of immediate dismissal as the recipient of executive patronage, cooperated zealously with the disunionists. Lincoln's election, wrote editor William M. Browne, would put abolitionist officeholders in every community to spread antislavery ideas among whites and foment rebellion among slaves.
Douglas feared a rumored southern plot to seize Washington if Breckinridge should carry the border states, and campaigned vigorously in those areas. In the end, Bell carried Virginia, Kentucky, and Tennessee, while Douglas himself took Missouri. Breckin-ridge carried Maryland by only 700 votes. The total vote apparently indicated that most southerners still hoped to remain in the Union. Lincoln received 1,866,452 votes; Douglas, 1,376,957; Breckinridge, 849,781; and Bell, 588,879. While Breckinridge carried eleven of the fifteen slave states, he won a majority in only seven of them. The majority in eight of the fifteen voted for Bell and Douglas. The combined slave-state vote was 570,000 for Breckinridge and 705,000 for Bell and Douglas. Even in the states that seceded almost immediately, Bell and Douglas won 48 percent of the vote.
Equally important, the Republicans did not win either house of Congress. As Douglas pointed out, if the southerners would stay in their seats, Lincoln, tied hand and foot by his opposition, would be "an object of pity and commiseration rather than of fear and apprehension by a brave and chivalrous people," and in four short years another election would quickly remedy any real grievances. Also, the Supreme Court remained under firm southern control. Whatever the long-range prospects for slavery, the southern states were clearly in no danger from either Lincoln or the Republican party in 1861 unless they should try to divide a nation that Lincoln and most northerners would be determined to preserve.