CWTS Article of the Month!

July 1999

"The 1860 Presidential Campaign Medalets"

by Bill Jones

Extracted from The Civil War Token Journal, Volume 30 Number 4.

    The 1860 presidential election was a turing point in our nation's history and a harbinger of the Civil War that would follow. Four presiden- tial candidates won votes in the Electoral College. A previously dominant political party split in two.  Another party, formed only six years before, emerged as a major force that would dominate presidential politics for more than six decades.  A third political party formed, carried three states in the election and disappeared forever.  One promising politician, who at age 35 was the youngest man ever elected vice president of the United States, would see his career end in shambles.  Another national leader, who had long sought the nomination of his party, would realize his dream only to find it a hollow victory.  And an Illinois country lawyer, whose name was sometimes misspelled as 'Abram' on his early campaign literature and medalets, would become the greatest of all our presidents.

    By 1860 slavery and its spread to the western territories had become the burning issue.  The best political minds had tried to settle the question, but it would not go away.  Some had tried to draw lines across the country in which all territories north of the mark would be free, and all those south would be slave.  Others advanced the concept of 'popular sovereignty' where the people in the territories could choose if they wanted slavery.  Many in the South wanted all the territories to be slave states while growing numbers in the North were calling for the containment or the abolition of slavery.

    Following the 1852 presidential election, the minority opposition Whig party split over the slavery issue on regional lines and disintegrated. In its place liberal Whigs and anti-slavery Democrats formed the Repub- lican party which ran its first presidential candidate, John C. Fremont, in 1856.  During the same period, the Democratic party nominated and elected two weak presidents, Franklin Pierce and James Buchanan, who were from the North but were acceptable to the South.  In 1860 it would be the Democratic party's turn to split over regional differences.

    Though out the 1850s, Stephen Douglas had sought the presiden- tial nomination of the Democratic Party.  He had failed in 1852 and 1856, but 1860 seemed to be his year.  Douglas based his candidacy on 'popular sovereignty' although it had led to a civil war in the Kansas territory. The Supreme Court had also derailed Douglas' plan in its Dred Scott decision. There the court decided that neither the territorial governments nor the United States Congress had the right to prohibit slavery in the territories which took the choice out of the hands of the people. In response, Douglas, during one of the Lincoln - Douglas debates in 1858, proposed that the territorial governments could prohibit slavery by refusing to enact the laws to support it.  This statement, which was known as the 'Freeport Proviso' after the Illinois town where Douglas delivered it, infuriated hard line southerners and doomed Douglas' presidential aspirations. In April 1860 the Democrats held their national convention in Charleston, South Carolina.  Although Douglas led on all 57 ballets that were cast at the convention, he could not get the two-thirds majority that was required by the party rules for the presidential nomination.  Finally after some hard line southern delegates walked out of the convention, the party leaders decided to adjourn and try again at in later date.  The Republican party held its nominating convention in Chicago the following month.  Already the Republicans sensed that they could be choosing the next president of the United States because of the deep divisions within the Democratic party. New York Senator and abolitionist, William H.  Seward, was the early front-runner, but the convention came to view Abraham Lincoln as a stronger, more moderate Candidate.  Lincoln won the nomination on the third ballot.

    In May a new group, the Constitutional Union party, met in Balti- more.  The Constitutional Unionists were mainly conservative Whigs who had refused to join the Republican party and remnants of defunct Ameri- can or 'Know Nothing' party.  The convention nominated John Bell over Texas hero, Sam Houston.  Bell, who had been Speaker of the House of Representatives and a cabinet member in the Harrison and Tyler adminis- trations, based his campaign on, 'the Constitution and enforcement of the laws," to preserve the union.  (i.e.  Let's muddle though the way we have in the past.) Bell's candidacy never took off, and he received limited support, mainly in the South.

    In June the Democrats met again in Baltimore.  There Douglas won the nomination on the second ballot, but the party leaders refused to seat the southern delegates who had walked out of the first convention. In response the southern wing of the party also met in Baltimore the same month and nominated John C.  Breckinridge. Breckinridge had enjoyed a meteoric rise to power.  At age 35, which was the Constitutional minimum, Breckinridge had been elected Vice President in 1856 under James Buchanan.  Breckinridge did not want the nomination, and he favored compromise and the preservation the union.  His friends convinced him , however, that his presence in the race would force Douglas to withdraw in favor of a stronger candidate.  Douglas did not withdraw, and the Democratic party was hopelessly split. The election was divided along regional lines with the main contests between Bell and Breckinridge in the South and Lincoln and Douglas in the North and West.  Given the split in the Democratic party and the large number of electoral votes in the North, Lincoln's election was a foregone conclusion. In the election, Lincoln overwhelmed his opponent's with 180 electoral votes, but he received only 40% of the popular vote.  Breckinridge finished second with 72 electoral votes, mostly from the deep south.  Bell received 39 votes from Virginia and two boarder states, and Douglas finished last with only 12 electoral votes. Interestingly Douglas finished second to Lincoln in the popular vote with 29% of the total.  Ominously, Lincoln did not receive a single vote in the South.

    In December 1860 South Carolina became the first state to secede from the Union in response to Lincoln's election.  During the next four months, the rest of the South followed her lead and set the stage for America's blood- iest war.  Following the election, John Bell tried to keep his home state, Tennessee, in the Union.  Following secession, he retired from public life. Bell died in 1869.  Stephen Douglas became a statesman after the election.  As the Union dissolved, Douglas toured the country urging support for Lincoln's efforts to reunify the nation.  Weakened by a strenuous political campaign and a grueling speech schedule, Douglas died of typhoid fever in June 1861.

    John Breckinridge was elected to the United States Senate follow- ing the presidential election.  Although he had committed no treasonous act, he was alleged to be a southern sympathizer which led to a warrant for his arrest.  Breckinridge fled south where he embraced the Confederacy and received a commission as a brigadier and later a major general in the Rebel army.  He led troops in many battles including Shiloh, Chickamauga and Missionary Ridge and won a significant victory on his own at New Market.  During the waning days of the Confederacy, Breckinridge became the Secretary of War in Jefferson Davis' cabinet.  At the end of the war he fled the country but returned in 1869 following a general amnesty. Breckin- ridge practiced law until his death in 1875.

    All four of the major candidates who participated in the election of 1860 were remembered in a series of political medalets that are included with the CWTS.  Benjamin True, the Cincinnati token maker who also made the Wealth of the South tokens, produced all the dies.  They have been assigned variety numbers 506 through 510 in the Patriotic catalog. Among this group there are minor varieties of the Lincoln and Bell medalets which are of interest to only the most meticulous of die variety collectors. These dies were often paired with die 510A that features a view of the White House. Other combinations include two dies, numbers 512 and 513, with a shield containing the Stars and Stripes in the center of the piece. Number 512 has the pro-Union legend, 'The union must and shall be preserved,' around the outside.  Variety 513 features the mildly pro-southern legend, 'Our rights, the Constitution and the Union.' Both of these dies were paired with all four candidates.  In addition to these 'normal' varieties, there are numerous mulings or odd die combinations, some of which make very little sense.  For example, there are 'double header' tokens that feature the portraits of the same or different candidates on both sides.  There is even a ridiculous variety that features Abraham Lincoln on the obverse and the 'No submission to the North,' side of the Wealth of the South secessionist token on the reverse.  All these 'strange bedfellows' were produced for 19th century collectors who wanted something that was rare and unusual.

    All of these medalets are scarce and expensive.  The Douglas and Bell varieties range in price from $175 in EF to more than $300 in choice Mint State.  The Breckinridge token sells for perhaps $200 to $325 because so few Breckinridge campaign items were issued.  The Lincoln token is very popular and has a following that extends well beyond CWT collectors. Its price range begins at around $350 for an EF and reaches $500 or more for a Mint State piece.  In all cases the presence or absence of a small hole for suspension at the top of the piece has no effect on the value. Since one could easily spend more than $1,000 for a set of four medalets, they are not for everyone.  Fortunately there are other less expensive non CWT pieces that were issued during the 1860 campaign.  Some of them, such as the Lincoln rail splitter token, are colorful and attractive. Collectors who would like to know more about these medals and medalets should consult American Political Badges and Medalets 1789-1892 by Edmund B.  Sullivan and Political Buttons Book III.  1789 to 1916 by Theodore C.  Hake.

CWTS Article Archive
Winter 2016 A Reminiscence
Winter 2016 My First Sulter Token
Spring 2016 Protesting Union Civil War Policies
Winter 2015 Slave Owner Issued Civil War Tokens
Fall 2014 Hill the Barber & African American Store Card Issuers
Fall 2014 Gustavus Lindenmueller: The Myth, The Man, The Mystery
Apr. 2004 Henry Varwig - OH165GD
Mar. 2004 Dating Mr. Sayre's Tokens
Feb. 2000 Knowledge of Civil War Tokens
Jan. 2000 Ohio 710A
Dec. 1999 Speculations About Yankee Robinson
Nov. 1999 Hussey's Private Message Post
Oct. 1999 The Great Central Fair
Sep. 1999 Wm. S. Wilcox of Adrian, Michigan
Aug. 1999 Grading Isn't Really a Monster
July 1999 The 1860 Presidential Campaign Medalets
June 1999 The Other Store Cards of Central New York
May 1999 George McClellan - The Peace Maker?
Apr. 1999 Sutler Tokens at Gettysburg
Mar. 1999 More on the Monitor and Merrimac
Feb. 1999 Civil War Token Mini-Set -- General Franz Sigel
Jan. 1999 Die Sinker Errors on Civil War Tokens
Dec. 1998 The Abraham Lincoln Mini-set
Nov. 1998 Civil War Token Errors
Articles reprinted with permission of The Civil War Token Society.
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