Black and white photo of the inauguration of Abraham Lincoln, March 4, 1861.

How Did Abraham Lincoln's Election Lead To Civil War

The reasons for the American Civil War are long and varied. While it is true that the major point of contention around the North and South divide was the practice of slavery, it goes much deeper than that. For decades before the 1860s, tension between the two regions was ramping up in one way or another. Most of this tension was rooted in mutually shared anxiety that either the North or South would become too powerful and politically influential than the other. By the 1860s, the North was gaining the upper hand, and an already fractured nation was shattered in the aftermath of the election of Abraham Lincoln.

Road to War

Black and white depiction of Marais des Cygnes massacre of anti-slavery Kansans, May 19, 1858
Marais des Cygnes massacre of anti-slavery Kansans, May 19, 1858.

The Civil War was not solely caused by the election of Abraham Lincoln in 1860, but it was certainly the straw that broke the camel's back. Starting in the 1830s, a strong group of anti-slavery abolitionists made up a significant portion of Northern politicians. The South, who was in fear of losing the backbone of its largely agricultural economy, fought tooth and nail to preserve the institution. As the United States expanded westward, both the anti-slavery North and the pro-slavery South squabbled over whether or not these new states and territories would be free or not.

The North eventually gained the upper hand in this duel of wits and political maneuvering by the late 1850s, and Southern resentment was at an all-time high. This new power imbalance was finally manifested in anti-slavery when Abraham Lincoln became the 16th president of the United States.

Lincoln's Platform

"The Rail Candidate", anti-Republican political caricature published by Currier and Ives in September 1860, showing Abraham Lincoln being carried on a fence-rail labeled "REPUBLICAN PLATFORM" by a black man and Horace Greeley (editor of the New York Tribune), alluding to Lincoln's nickname of the "rail-splitter".
"The Rail Candidate," an anti-Republican political caricature published by Currier and Ives in September 1860.

The Republican Party that Lincoln belonged to had mixed views on how to deal with slavery. Some wanted only to contain the practice within the South, while others thought it was their duty to eradicate it in its entirety. During his election and campaign, Lincoln tried to remain as pragmatic as possible and fell on the side of containment rather than total destruction. The thought process behind this strategy was that he did not want to alienate an already fractious part of the nation even further.

This eventually changed a few years after the Civil War began. But his main concern heading into the 1860 election was ensuring the United States did not fall apart.

The 1860 Election

Black and white portrait of Abraham Lincoln, taken on November 8, 1863, eleven days before his famed Gettysburg Address
Portrait of Abraham Lincoln, taken on November 8, 1863, eleven days before his famed Gettysburg Address.

The 1860 Election was chaotic and divisive from the very start. Each party that ran had difficulty choosing who they wanted to be their frontrunners. The Democrat Party was in such shambles that they did not even have a nominee until June 1860, when one was finally nominated at their second conference in Baltimore. This lack of cohesion was only made worse by the fact that many in the Democratic Party were far from ideologically unified on the main issue of slavery. Many of the Southern Democrats were staunch supporters of a state's right to maintain the institution of slavery without interference from the federal government, whereas the Northern Democrats tended to fall in line with what much of the Republican Party preached on the issue.

Stephen Douglas, the eventual Democratic nominee, was barely elected by his party on account of the level of hatred and disdain that many of the Southern Democrats held towards him. On numerous occasions, crowds of pro-slavery Democrats stormed out of meeting halls and conferences to protest Douglas's nomination.

The third major party that ran in 1860 was the Constitutional Party. This party primarily appealed to Americans who were living on the frontier and tended to stray away from the divisive topic of slavery and wanted to focus more on making sure that the United States was abiding by the Constitution more than anything.

Lincoln ended up winning the election convincingly in the electoral college. He was able to nab 180 of the electoral votes. Despite his resounding victory in the electoral college, he only received around 40% of the popular vote. As predicted, Lincoln dominated in the North but did not win a single Southern State.

War and Succession

Black and white depiction of the “Bombardment of Fort Sumter by the batteries of the Confederate states,” 1861
“Bombardment of Fort Sumter by the batteries of the Confederate states,” 1861.

Only a few months after Lincoln won the election, seven Southern states announced that they had succeeded from the Union. Mississippi, Georgia, Florida, Alabama, South Carolina, Louisiana, and Texas were the original states that formed the Confederacy. War was not declared immediately, but it was clear to everyone that armed conflict was inevitable. Lincoln ran a campaign to keep the nation together, and it was a promise that he intended to keep.

Both the Union and Confederacy prepared for war. In 1861, when the Confederate forces threatened the Union-controlled Fort Sumter, Lincoln ordered a fleet of ships to supply the garrison. When the Union ships approached the fort, they were fired on by Confederate cannons. The war had officially begun. At the immediate outbreak of war, Tennessee, Virginia, Arkansas, and North Carolina also declared their loyalty to the Confederacy.


The election of Abraham Lincoln was not the sole reason for the American Civil War, but it did serve as the last straw for the South. Many Southerners saw the election of Lincoln as a guarantee that slavery would eventually be eradicated in one way or another. Something that much of the Southern aristocracy could not risk. The American Civil War still remains the most destructive conflict in the history of the United States. By 1865, when the Confederacy finally surrendered, more than 620,000 Americans died.


More in History