Civil War era Presidential Elections

by Jim on November 21, 2009

In this season of elections, I thought it would be interesting to share a website on Civil War era elections.

Harper’s Weekly has created a website for researching historical elections from 1860 to 1912. According to the website, the Presidential Elections page features political cartoons from several different digital resource centers such as Harper’s Weekly, the Library of Congress and Vanity Fair. The website also “provides explanations of the historical context and images of each cartoon, campaign overviews, biographical sketches, a review of the era’s major issues, and other valuable information.”

Let’s take a moment to explore the 1860 election between Lincoln, Douglas, Breckinridge and Bell. First, each election contains four sections: Overview, Cartoons, Biographies and Events. From here you can learn about the events leading up to to the 1860 election, how the Democratic party split, the Union Constitution Convention, the Republican Convention and the Campaign.

One of the greatest part of this site for teachers are the political cartoons. Let’s look at one and see how you can use it in your classroom.


The above image shows Abe Lincoln as a rail-splitter and is intended to appeal to the average voter. Before giving your students the full description of the cartoon, ask them to tell you what they see, what do they think is going on in the cartoon, what does the little child represent and why are the words “Democratic Party” listed on the rail?

You can then follow up by reading them the complete description: “In order to appeal to average voters, Republicans emphasized the poor, hardworking origin of their candidate through the myth of Abraham Lincoln as a rail-splitter. This cartoon in the Wide-Awake Pictorial plays on that image by joking that the last rail he split is th Democratic Party in 1860, which divided into the Northern and Southern Factions.”

Then, have your students think about presidential campaign ads or commercials they have seen recently. Do any of those ads try to appeal to the average voter by making the candidate look like every hardworking American? I think so and can name a few but let me know what your students come up with as you review these cartoons.

Until next time….

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