Abe, Steve, Breck and Bell: A Multi-Colored Map

If one “back-lit” the now traditional red-blue election map, one would find FIVE colors in the 1860s elections. The Unionists and Secessionists were about to collide in the irrepressible conflict.

The Black States:

In this case, the “black” colored states were not states at all. They were U.S. territories. Some were “Indian lands.” It is true that there were dozens of towns and cities within the traditional map lines, but although they may have held many U.S. citizens, they had no voting rights.

election1860In 1860, there were only 33 states in the Union. Three more would be added during the next few years. One, West Virginia, is an oddball, and actually did not exist in 1860.  It was a piece of Virginia that steadfastly remained tied to the Union, and had successfully seceded from its own state.  It was admitted to the Union in 1863. Kansas was admitted in 1861, and Nevada in 1864.

The Red States:


Charles Fremont, “The Pathfinder,” was the first Republican presidential candidate in 1856. He lost.


Charles Francis Adams, son and grandson of Presidents, was an old time Free Soiler. He had opposed the extension of slavery for decades.

The red states, traditionally Republican, made their first winning appearance on the 1860 election map. In 1856, the newly-established political party fielded a presidential candidate, John C. Fremont, but he lost to James Buchanan.


salmonchase The 13th President Millard Fillmore (top) had run in 1856 on the “Know Nothing” party ticket.  Salmon P. Chase (below), Gov. of Ohio, was a long time abolitionist.


Sen. William Seward of NY, was a long-time Whig, and considered the front-runner for the election of 1860.

The Republicans were a motley assortment of political bedfellows when they first assembled in the 1850s. They consisted of some abolitionists, like Salmon P. Chase, some old Free Soilers like Charles Francis Adams, a pile of disaffected Whigs like William Seward, a remnant bunch of “Know Nothings” (a narrow, xenophobic, ultra-conservative group reminiscent of today’s far-right) like ex-President Millard Fillmore, and a broad range of Unionist Democrats, like the powerful Blair family, whose patriarch had been in Jackson’s “kitchen cabinet.”

President Lincoln

Abraham Lincoln of Illinois had little national credentials in 1860.

Abraham Lincoln, who was the Republican candidate in 1860, was a come-lately to the Republicans. He had been a long-time Henry Clay Whig, who bided his time, perhaps waiting until the political dust settled. By 1858, he not only had joined the party, but had begun to make his voice heard.

The Purple States:

John Breckenridge

Sitting VP John C Breckenridge, at 36, had been the youngest Vice President ever elected. He was the choice of the Southern Democrats.

The traditional “blue” Democratic states were not blue at all but an odd-ball bunch in 1860. Perhaps this is why graph-maker Max Galka avoided “blue” entirely, choosing close-shades instead.  The Democrats had imploded as a party during the hopelessly inept presidency of James Buchanan. Stephen Douglas, Lincoln’s fellow Illinoisan, had been a powerhouse in the party for a decade, but his Popular Sovereignty policies had spawned only bitterness and violence. The Southern delegates to the Democratic convention walked out in disgust when he was declared the candidate, met separately, and fielded their own “Southern” Democratic ticket, headed by Vice President John C. Breckenridge, a Kentuckian, who was still grappling with his allegiances.

It would be “Breck” who commanded the purple states in the 1860 election. Even though the party platform was not officially espousing secession, Southern Democrats were united. Abraham Lincoln, and indeed NO Republican candidates were even on the ballot.

The Green States:

While Northern Democrats had traditionally prevailed in the North prior to 1860, the Republicans had siphoned off many of their supporters during the turbulent 1850s.


Stephen Douglas, “The Little Giant,” was unquestionably the best known Democratic politician in the country in 1860, but he had espoused divisive policies and had disunited his party.

Stephen Douglas, “The Little Giant,” so-called because of his 5’4″ stature and his powerful influence, campaigned relentlessly across the country – the first presidential candidate to take an overt part in his own election campaign.

It didn’t work. Although he was second to Lincoln in popular votes, Douglas captured only two states in the electoral college: Missouri and Delaware. After Lincoln’s election, he became a strong supporter of the new president, but died only a few months after Lincoln’s inauguration.

The Turquoise States

In Max Galka’s 1860 version, a turquoise state is sort-of blue-ish; the electorate is evenly divided and is luke warm in its affiliations.

It was true. Border states like Kentucky, Virginia and Tennessee were not happy with the Northern or Southern Democratic candidates. A Republican in those contentious areas, which still had large slave-holding populations, was out of the question. So was secession.


John Bell had a long and distinguished, but not stellar, career. Few people knew him outside of the border states.

Former Senator John Bell was an old-school Democrat-turned-Whig, now in his sixties. He was staunchly opposed to secession, but even though he was a prosperous slave-owner, he staunchly opposed the extension of slavery. He attracted many like-minded followers.

The Constitutional-Union party was formed as a somewhat hybrid, i.e. the Constitution ostensibly “permitted” slavery, and the Union was indivisible. Border states were an amalgam, thus turquoise it was.

The Map.

election1860Max Galka is a clever fellow who (judging from his delightful and wide-ranging statistical website, of which the electoral maps are just a small part) obviously knows how to take raw data and make some sense out of it in a way that is easy to understand.

The 1860 U.S. election map has been drawn and redrawn many times, and has been our most colorful and most complex. Our greatest POTUS was elected only by plurality in both his elections. He was not even on the ballot in the South in 1860.  In 1864, with the Civil War going poorly, the “Republican” name did not even appear on the ballot: it was the “Union” party.

Fractious and factional elections go with the territory of democracy, and the more things change, the more they stay the same in essence.

It has always been the genius of America to find a balance, and to prevent the pendulum to swing too far in any direction.


Presidential Elections Used to Be More Colorful

Abraham Lincoln and the Election of 1860


About Feather Schwartz Foster

Feather Schwartz Foster is an author-historian who has made more than 500 appearances discussing presidential history. She teaches adult education at the Christopher Wren Association (affiliated with William and; Mary College), and adult Education programs at Christopher Newport University. She has been a guest on the C-SPAN "First Ladies" program. She has written five books.
This entry was posted in A POTUS-FLOTUS Blog, American Civil War, Nifty History People and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to Abe, Steve, Breck and Bell: A Multi-Colored Map

  1. Max says:

    What an interesting election! And a very relevant perspective for the upcoming one. The country seems hopelessly divided. But far from being unprecedented, this would argue that it’s just the normal course of a democracy working out tensions in the system (though hopefully the resolution comes at a lower cost than in did in this case).

  2. energywriter says:

    More great information. Thank you, Feather sd

  3. myeagermind says:

    Reblogged this on Lenora's Culture Center and Foray into History and commented:
    A fascinating bit of history

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