It really shouldn’t surprise anyone that the Illinois Senate Election of 1858 – the first midterm election to really be remembered – tops the list. However, it wasn’t the famous debates that put the Lincoln-Douglas election at the top; the candidates and the result did that.
At the time Stephen Douglas ran for his third term as U.S. Senator, he was already one of the most well-known politicians in America. Infamous for his role in the Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854, and just as well known for his recent (in 1858) opposition to the pro-slavery regime in Kansas itself, Douglas had already vied for the Democrats’ nomination for president twice, and was widely perceived to be the front-runner for the nod in 1860…but only if he could get re-elected.
On the Republican side, Lincoln was known to Midwest party leaders, Illinoisans, and no one else. Eastern Republicans were so thrilled at the defeat of the pro-slavery-Kansas “Lecompton Constitution” (which was defeated with Douglas’ help) that some wondered if it was worth opposing Douglas at all. Yet where outsiders saw strength, Lincoln saw weakness, and hit Douglas’ let-the-territories-do-what-they-want position on slavery (known as “popular sovereignty”) with both barrels.
The result was a contest between a polarizing yet moderate Democrat and a principled yet coalition-building Republican. Douglas’ position in his party all-but-ensured his re-election campaign would catch national attention. Lincoln’s performance as a candidate ensured his name would be remembered with the Democrat.
That said, the result itself had ramifications that flowed into the 1860 election and well beyond.
Of course, as well know (and were taught), Lincoln’s ability to essentially tie Douglas in the votes for the legislature that would choose a Senator (the Democrats had an overwhelming advantage in holdover seats, which enabled Douglas to win) made him a national figure…and it revealed to the Republicans a Midwestern alternative to the polarizing figures of William Henry Seward and Salmon Chase. It goes without saying how important that would become when the Republicans chose their nominee in 1860. Without a strong Lincoln performance, there’s no guarantee the Republicans even win at all in 1860.
However, the fact that Douglas won might even be more important. His victory validated his political position not just for himself, but for hundreds of northern Democrats holding elected offices. The fact that President Buchanan even tried to build an anti-Douglas Democrat ticket in 1858 (it was trounced in Illinois) was icing on the cake. Had Douglas lost, a whole slew of northern Democrats would have decided that playing the middle of the road on slavery was pointless, and that it would be better to toe the increasingly strident line of the southern Democrats. With Douglas shunted into premature retirement, its quite possible that Democrats would have united behind Vice President Breckinridge, making 1860 look very, very different.
How different? Well, for starters, about 10 electoral votes Lincoln did get thanks to the Douglas-Breckenridge division (different regions of the Democrats would nominate each one) would have vanished, and the “lower north” (Illinois, Indiana, Ohio, and Pennsylvania) would have been much more competitive. Even if Lincoln had won the electoral votes he needed in 1860 (and I think that’s still likely), it is just as likely he would have been a minority president. How much would the North have been willing to fight the Civil War if Lincoln had come in second in the popular vote? Given that the only previous example at the time was John Adams and 1824, the matter of legitimacy could have been front and center that year.
Instead, Douglas won, ensuring his faction would have enough strength to block any southern choice for the Democrats’ nominee. This led to the split amongst the Democrats that made Lincoln a plurality president (and eliminated any Jackson-Adams rehash). That split would also allow many northern Democrats to follow Douglas (albeit in spirit after his death in June 1861) in supporting Lincoln’s war effort. As bizarre as it might sound, Lincoln needed Stephen Douglas in Washington in 1860 – and arguably, so did the rest of us.
Cross-posted to Bearing Drift