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The Election of 1860

100 min

Why was the transfer of power not peaceful after the election of 1860?

Students will:

  • Understand important developments leading up to the election of 1860 that challenged the Constitution’s original compromises on slavery.
  • Analyze why the election of 1860 did not result in a peaceful transfer of power.
  • Assess the validity of South Carolina’s justification of secession.

  • Handout A: The Election of 1860
  • Handout B: Mock Ballots
  • Handout C: Lincoln’s First Inaugural Address
  • Handout D: The Right to Leave?
  • Handout E: Two Declarations

To create a context for this lesson, have students complete Constitutional Connection: Presidents and the Transfer of Power.

Have students read Handout A: The Election of 1860 and answer the questions.


As students enter, share with them the following fictitious scenario: Some students have complained to the principal that there is too much homework. The principal has decided that a “Homework Czar” will decide on a school-wide homework policy. The students will elect the Homework Czar.

Tell students there will be a secret ballot vote as you distribute Handout B: Mock Ballots. Give boys the ballot with four candidates and girls the ballot with three. Important: Have copies of the two different ballots ready in your hand as you pass them out, and do NOT tell students there are two different ballots.

Make a show of counting the ballots. (The actual count is irrelevant.) Announce that the winner, with thirty-nine percent of the vote, is Candidate D. What is important is the fact that the “winning” candidate will not have been on the girls’ ballots, yet his stated intentions will affect them. Allow students to discuss how this process made them feel.


Divide the class into four groups. Give each of the groups one of the scenarios from Handout D: The Right to Leave? Ask groups to role-play their scenarios in their groups and answer the questions that follow.

After a few moments, ask one student from each group to share their scenario and responses.

Ask students as a whole about when it is acceptable to leave a group. Does it matter if they joined the group voluntarily or were born into the group?

Remind students that our Constitution is, in part, an agreement to form institutions that will perform certain duties. What kinds of agreements have you seen or been part of ? Students may suggest: merchant-customer; landlord-tenant; husband-wife; etc.

Finally, ask: Who or what were the parties to the Constitution? What would Lincoln say? What would South Carolina say?


Connect this exaggerated Homework Czar scenario to the election of 1860 by directing students to the quote in Handout A by a Southern pamphleteer: “[The Republican Party] exists only in the Northern states. …Where is the security of the South, and what is her position in the Union?”

Ask students to consider the following questions as a large group, encouraging them to refer to Handout A for support in their thinking:

  • What does the Southern pamphlet author mean by “partisan organization”?
  • What does the he mean by “exclusively and intensely sectional”?
  • Are these complaints justified?
  • Are his last two questions justified?


Distribute Handout E: Two Declarations. Give students a few moments to skim over the two documents, and then ask the class if they notice any similarities in phrasing.

Divide the class into pairs and assign each pair one or more sets of quotations from the Declaration of Independence and South Carolina’s Declaration of Secession.

For each set of quotations, students should answer the following questions:

  • What do these two sections have in common?
  • How are they different? How significant are those differences?
  • What main points does the Declaration of Independence make?
  • What main points does the Declaration of Secession make?

Ask each pair to share their analysis with the class.

Once all sections of the documents have been discussed, ask students if they think South Carolina was justified in using the Declaration of Independence as a model for its Declaration of Secession.


In a mini-lecture, remind students that Lincoln, who was not even on the ballot in ten Southern states, received only forty percent of the popular vote. The two major Democratic candidates split their Party’s votes. Added together, they won eighty-four electoral votes and received forty-seven percent of the popular vote. Since Lincoln’s party promised to halt the expansion of slavery, Southerners feared that they had become a permanent minority. Harking back to the Continental Congress in 1776 declaring that the thirteen colonies were “free and independent states,” South Carolina asserted in its 1860 Declaration of Secession that it would once again become a free and independent state. In his First Inaugural Address, Lincoln outlined his arguments against the constitutionality of secession.


To wrap up, discuss the following questions:

  • Whose arguments were more persuasive: Lincoln’s or South Carolina’s?
  • In arguing for/against the legitimacy of secession, both South Carolina and President Lincoln referred to the numerous agreements made between the colonies and, later, the states: the Articles of Association (1774), the Declaration of Independence (1776), the Articles of Confederation (1781), and the Constitution (1789). Does the existence of this series of agreements support or oppose the argument that the Union is perpetual?
  • Who gets to decide whether the Union is perpetual? Why?


Have students read and complete Handout C: Lincoln’s First Inaugural Address.

The question of whether states should be able to oppose the federal government’s acts as unconstitutional has been debated in several important documents. Have students summarize the arguments about how states should be able to judge the constitutionality of federal government actions in the following documents: Report and Resolutions of the Hartford Convention; Virginia Resolutions; Kentucky Resolutions; South Carolina Exposition and Protest; South Carolina Ordinance of Nullification. Students should also look for more contemporary resolutions of this nature, passed by New Hampshire and other states in response to proposed national healthcare legislation.

Student Handouts

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