Collection of the U.S. House of Representatives
About this object
This April 1861 print from the closing days of the 36th Congress (1859–1861) illustrated how contentious the House had become on the eve of the Civil War.
On this date, Congress met in a Joint Session to count the Electoral College votes to certify the results of 1860 presidential election. Following the victory of Republican Abraham Lincoln
the previous fall, but prior to the official count of the electoral votes, seven slaveholding states (South Carolina, Mississippi, Florida, Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana, and Texas) seceded from the Union to form the Confederate government. The New York Times described an atmosphere of tense apprehension on Capitol Hill in early 1861 with fear that “the counting of the electoral votes would never be peacefully accomplished.” House leadership responded to “rumors of plots to take the city, blow up the public buildings, and prevent the inauguration of Lincoln” with a large police detail and limited access to the House Chamber. Local authorities increased security throughout the city to ensure that Members of Congress could perform their constitutional duty. The Baltimore Sun
described the House as “filled to overflowing with spectators, and an eager crowd . . . poured along the passages and corridors leading to the galleries.” The “immense throng strained its ears to catch . . . every word,” when Representative John Smith Phelps
of Missouri read the results of the election. The crowd did not react to the smaller New England states which voted solidly Republican, but results from larger states such as New York and New Jersey drew the spectators’ attention. When Senator Lyman Trumbull of Illinois read the electoral results for the seceded states—all of which voted for Democrat John C. Breckinridge
—the reporter noted “an irrepressible and indescribable feeling” in the chamber. Those feelings ranged between “half jolly, half angry, some sneering, some smiling, some swearing.” The total number of electoral votes was 303, of which 152 were needed secure a majority. Lincoln and Vice Presidential candidate Hannibal Hamlin
of Maine each received 180 electoral votes. Eight weeks later, on April 12, Confederate guns fired on Fort Sumter in Charleston Harbor, the first shots of what would become a four-year Civil War.