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Lesson Plan

Election of 1860: Slavery Splits the Democrats

About this Video
This four-minute video explores the causes and consequences of the Democratic Party’s division into two parties following the Democratic national convention of 1860. After rejecting Stephen A. Douglas’s failed attempt to reconcile the Northern and Southern factions of the party with his doctrine of “popular sovereignty,” the Southern delegates walked out of the convention. That decision led to the election of Abraham Lincoln, the Civil War, and 50 years of Republican dominance in national politics. A concise summary of the unusual events that allowed Abraham Lincoln to win the election of 1860, the video fits into any sequence of lessons on the factors leading to secession and the Civil War.
Students will learn
  • How the issue of slavery divided the Democratic Party into Northern and Southern factions.
  • How the division of the Democratic Party affected the election of 1860.
  • How the collapse of the Democratic Party led to the Civil War and paved the way for 50 years of Republican dominance in national politics.
Upheaval at the 1860 Democratic Convention: What Happened When a Party Split
  • Civics & Government
  • U.S. History
  • Campaigns and Elections
  • Cultural and Social Change
  • Democracy
  • Political Parties
  • Civil War
  • Abraham Lincoln
  • Slavery
  • Stephen Douglas
For Teachers
Introducing the Lesson

The 1860 Democratic Convention provided a textbook illustration of what happens when a party splits: disaster.

The Democratic Party had been the dominant political party for decades, but that solidarity began to crumble over the volatile issue of whether to introduce slavery into the western territories.

Southern Democrats sought to extend slavery into every new state admitted to the union, while many Northern Democrats were opposed.

Front-runner Senator Stephen A. Douglas of Illinois hoped to hold the party together by advocating a compromise position that would allow the residents of new states to determine the issue of slavery for themselves.

But delegates from seven deep Southern states refused to support him, and attempted to block Douglas’s nomination at the party convention.

When that failed, the pro-slavery delegates held their own convention, nominated their own candidate, Vice-President John C. Breckenridge of Kentucky, and endorsed a pro-slavery platform.

The split in the Democratic Party led to electoral disaster for both party factions, as it contributed to the rise of the anti-slavery Republican Party and its little-known candidate, Abraham Lincoln.

With only brief interruptions, the Republicans would hold the White House until 1912.

Comprehension Questions
  • What was Senator Stephen A. Douglas’s position on slavery? Why did this position divide the first Democratic convention?
  • What happened at the second Democratic convention? How did Douglas end up being nominated at that convention?
  • Who did the Southern Democrats nominate for President at the third Democratic convention?
  • How did the Democratic divide of 1860 affect the outcome of the election of 1860?
Discussion Questions and Writing Prompts
  • Slavery was the most important issue facing the nation, but the Democratic Party had been hoping that the issue would somehow resolve itself. In retrospect, this seems foolish. Why, during the 1850s, do you think this approach seemed logical to many leaders of the Democratic Party?
  • How did the Democratic split in the 1860 election lead to 50 years of Republican dominance in national politics? What does this teach us about unintended consequences? If the Southern Democrats had known this would be the outcome of their actions, do you think they would have divided the party?
  • In the election of 1860, the Northern Democratic candidate, Stephen A Douglas, ended up winning 29.5 percent of the vote, and the Southern Democratic candidate, John Breckenridge, ended up winning 18 percent of the vote, which allowed Abraham Lincoln to be elected President with less than 40 percent of the vote (John Bell, a Southerner who was neutral on the issue of slavery, won 12 percent of the vote). How do you think the course of American history would have been different if the Democrats hadn’t splintered into two parties?
Additional Resources
Transcript for "Upheaval at the 1860 Democratic Convention: What Happened When a Party Split" Retro Report

Analyze a complex set of ideas or sequences of events and explain how specific individuals, ideas, or events interact or develop over the course of a text.

Evaluate how historical events were shaped by unique circumstance of time and place, and broader historical contexts

Skill 4.B: Explain how a specific historical development or process is situated within a broader historical context.

Theme 5: Politics and Power (PCE).