1860, Nov. 6: The fateful Election Day.

Lincoln wasn’t even on the ballot in ten of the eleven Southern states which would eventually secede. In Virginia, he was on the ballot – but so was Breckinridge, and Douglas, and John Bell – who had made such an effort at playing the Slavery card and combining it with a seemingly flexible approach to letting “constitutionalism” solve the mounting sectional problems somehow.

john bell 1860 campaign broadside on slavery

john bell 1860 campaign broadside on slavery

How did Bell’s pitch play around these parts?

It worked.

Bell got 44 percent of the vote in Virginia. That’s a higher percentage than Abe Lincoln racked up across the country, good enough in the four-way race, but Virginia wasn’t really a four-way race. Lincoln and Douglas weren’t expecting much support, because neither was seen as hardcore enough.  It was in fact a two-man contest, between the pro-slavery Breckinridge and the anti-anti-slavery Bell. Bell squeaked out a 156-vote margin over Breckinridge in Virginia, out of some 170,000 votes cast statewide.

He didn’t pull a majority of votes in any state, but given the multi-candidate campaign split, he actually wound up carrying the electoral votes of three slave states: Virginia, Kentucky, and his native Tennessee; and he came in second in the other slave states.

Yes, Lincoln wound up winning nationally in the four-way race. But in Virginia, he received 1.1 percent of the vote (and zero votes in Essex County). By contrast, in 2008 fringe candidate Ralph Nader got double that percentage in Virginia, with no perceptible impact on the results. But this was Abraham Lincoln!