A picture is worth a thousand words. During the 1860 election Republican presidential nominee, Abraham Lincoln was hoping this common expression was factual. Lincoln told one supporter, “By the lesson of the past, and the united voice of all discreet friends, I am neither (to) write or speak a word for the public.” According to a presidential historian, Arthur Schlesinger, “Lincoln was the least active of the four candidates and the only one who did not make a single speech.” Lincoln’s campaign posters were a major factor in his win of the 1860 election because they expressed his desire for the nation through symbols, during this dividing time period. These symbols focused on patriotic issues that appealed to many Northerners and immigrants.
“…The parties (of 1860) held countless rallies, parades,
picnics, barbecues, pole raisings, and other events to attract
and entertain the masses. Flags, banners, and likenesses of
the candidates decorated buildings and were strung across the
streets in countless communities” (Schlesinger).
One way the Republican Party made up for Abraham Lincoln’s quietness was through his campaign posters.
While the Republicans were busy nominating Lincoln for their ticket, the Democrats split into two parties over a disagreement concerning the issue of slavery and new western territories. The Northern Democrats nominated Stephen A. Douglas who supported the right for a territory to decide if they wanted to be a free or slave state. The Southern Democrats nominated John C. Breckinridge who called for the adoption of a congressional slave code for the new territories. The Constitutional Union Party nominated John C. Bell. Schlesinger believed the election was inevitably going to be decided in the North because the Democrats, mainly Southerners, were divided into two political parties. Also, the Northern and Mid-Western States were gaining political power as a result of a booming population causing the Southern states to lose political power. Hence, the Republican Party focused on the common voting Northerner whose characteristics were, white, male, well educated and Republican. The Northerners also realized the huge male immigrant population, which was a major factor in this election.
The Republican Party first focused on the well-educated white Northerners. Many of Lincoln’s campaign posters consisted of the words “union” and “liberty.” These words can be associated with patriotism, an important issue during this time. Before the 1860’s many quarrels concerning secession and slavery were emerging between the North and South. According to Origins of the American Civil War, “most Northerners thought that owning slaves was wrong” and “Some of those Northerners loudly disagreed with the South’s laws and beliefs concerning slavery.” Northerners, along with Abraham Lincoln, did not want to spread slavery into the new states. The Southern states were dependent on slaves for agriculture work and thought states had to right to choose. The radical Southerners determined the only way to assure and maintain their rights, was secession from the union. Many Southern states also publicly announced they would secede if Lincoln were elected President. The word union represents the Union that the southern states were trying to secede from. Liberty is also associated with freedom i.e. the freedom of slaves.
The well-educated Northerner could then associate these symbols with debates Lincoln held in 1858 during an Illinois senator race. One reason why the Lincoln’s campaign posters were so successful is because many people already knew how he felt about the issue of slavery and the issue of seceding. Many could look at these debates between Abraham Lincoln and Stephen A. Douglas, for Lincoln and Douglas’s views. It was reported that
“In July, Lincoln challenged Douglas to a series of face-to-face
debates. Douglas accepted the challenge. Seven three-hour
debates to be held throughout Illinois were arranged. They were
to be held between August and October. The crux of the debates
was the mortality of slavery. About 10,000 people listened to the
debate under the hot, hot sun at Ottawa. Over15,000 people
listened in the rain at Freeport. Even in small towns where the
candidates spoke alone, crowds of as many as 6,000 attending
were common. The arguments of each were carried throughout
Lincoln once stated during a debate “I believe this government cannot endure permanently half slave and half free.” Even though Lincoln lost the race for the Illinois senator seat, these debates were tremendously helpful in his race for the Presidency.
Another way Republicans were successful in the 1860 election was realizing the abundance of immigrants saturating the Industrial/Northern States. Schlesinger stated
“Recognizing the naturalized voters were a key element in
many northern states, Republicans made special appeals to
Germans and other immigrant groups. Besides newspapers,
campaign pamphlets, and document in foreign language…” (245)
The immigrants were attracted to the Republican Party because it took the time to print material for them to read, since many did not have access or could not understand the debates held two years earlier. Republicans also used simple symbols in the campaign posters that represented patriotism hoping the immigrants would understand what they meant.
One poster had Lincoln’s face on an American flag. Lincoln’s face was in a circle inside the blue square surrounded by stars. On the red and white stripes were the words “For President Abram Lincoln. For Vice-President Hannibal Hamlin.” The publisher shortened Abraham to Abram because he did not have enough room on the flag. The flag is an easy symbol for representing our country, as a whole. Another one of Abraham Lincoln’s posters also contained the picture of an eagle, the national bird, a very patriotic and easy symbol to recognize. The immigrants, who hardly knew English, could easily translate these well-known symbols, which represent America. These posters also appealed to the common Northerners, who could conjure up their thoughts of the Lincoln-Douglas debates, by associating the patriotic symbols to Lincoln’s hopes of keeping the Union together.
Furthermore the Republicans built up Abraham Lincoln’s image as the common hard working man who was for “the people.” Schlesinger noted, “Republicans routinely referred to their candidate as Honest Abe, Honest Old Abe, or just Old Abe in order to enhance his image as a trustworthy common man”. Lincoln was also known as the “Rail-splitter.” This nickname developed after his cousin, John Hanks, spoke at a Republican State convention in Decatur, Illinois. He showed two rails he claimed to have split with Lincoln. Republicans used this image to portray a man the ordinary Americans, as well as the hard working immigrants, could identify with. Many posters sprang up with the image of Lincoln working hard to split rails. This associates Lincoln with hard work that the common white man and the immigrants deal with everyday. This “Rail-splitter” image emotional appealed to the immigrants who desperately believed in the “American Dream”. By seeing a man who was laboring, like them, and then also running for President lets them associate Lincoln with their lifestyles. This also reaffirms their dreams of one-day becoming successful.
Stories also circulated, throughout the nation, that when Abraham was a small boy he would walk several miles just to borrow books whenever he could even while he rested from plowing the fields. These stories and descriptions conjured up the image of a smart and dedicated man. A man that people could look up to and in some ways relate too. One could look at one of Lincoln’s campaign posters and just by seeing his face remember the stories and descriptions that were circulating during the elections.
With Hannibal Hamlin as his running mate, Lincoln was elected the 16th President on November 6, 1860, defeating Stephen Douglas, John Bell, and John C. Breckinridge. Since Lincoln had his views on secession and slavery publicly available, he let the campaign posters do his campaigning for him. It can not be denied that Lincoln was the least active presidential nominee, so how could he win? Many would believe, Americans would feel like Lincoln was not for the common man or for the Union. With the help of the Lincoln-Douglas debates, Lincoln’s campaign posters abolished these assumptions. The use of patriotic symbols; the flag, eagle, and the words union and liberty, showed he was for the union and against secession. The stories of Lincoln as a little boy and the name of Honest Abe and the Rail-splitter dispelled the assumption that he was not for the common man. It is oblivious that the campaign posters of 1860 were a major factor in Abraham Lincoln’s win because they were one of the only sources people could rely for their information. The campaign posters served as windows into Lincoln’s platform, helping Americans determine Lincoln was the best candidate for the presidency.
- “The American Civil War Overview.” Online. Internet. 26 January 1999. Available http://www.civilwarhome.com/overview.html
- “Lincoln-Douglas Debates.” The Story of the Lincoln and Douglas Debates. Available http://gsbkmc.uchicago.edu/parker/museum97/ldmain.html)
- Origins of the American Civil War.” n. pag. Online. Internet. 26 Jan. 1999 Available http://www.auvurn.edu/~langfml/src/Origins-of-conflict.html
- “1860 Presidential Election” Popular vote. n. pag. Online. Internet. 26 Jan. 1999 Available http://www.multied.com.elections/1860.html
- “1860 Presidential Election Map” Election Map–% of Popular Vote. n. pag. Online. Available http://viva.liab.virginia.edu/gic/elections/1860pv.html
- “Pictures of Abraham Lincoln” Presidential Election. n. pag. Online. Internet. 24 Jan.1999 Available http://lcweb.loc.gov/exhibits/treasures/tlc0040.jpg
- Schlesinger, Arthur. “Running for President: the candidates and their images. V.1” Simon & Schuster. New York, New York. 1994. (Pp. 243-261)