The corner of Amity Street and North Pleasant Street, where the Bank of America stands today, was once the location of the Amherst House hotel. This prominent downtown landmark not only housed guests visiting Amherst, but also served as a focal point for civic life. Public meetings of all kinds took place there, including those of a political nature. Next to the Amherst House, where today there is a municipal parking lot for visitors to downtown Amherst, stood Amherst Academy, a secondary school which later grew into Amherst College, and which educated many local young men. These two buildings and the surrounding businesses constituted the heart of civic life in Amherst.
As election day approached in 1860 residents of Amherst understood that a great deal would hinge upon the outcome of the contest. As the Hampshire Franklin Express, the town’s weekly newspaper put it, “a spirit of anxiety as to the result began to manifest itself among our usually staid and sober people.” The divisive and thorny issue of slavery had shouldered almost all others in national politics to the side. In Amherst, as was the case throughout the North, support for the abolition of slavery was a minority position. But the people did strongly support the Free Soil position taken by Lincoln and the Republican party, which vigorously opposed the spread of slavery outside the South, especially into the new states that would be formed from the Western territories. Lincoln was especially popular in Western Massachusetts, and that Tuesday 79% of Amherst voters cast their ballots for the Republican candidate.
In 1860 the telegraph was a new and uncommon technology, and no national news services existed to spread news of the outcome of the election. So anticipated were the results by some Amherst citizens that the day after the election a party of young men rode to the nearest telegraph station, across the Connecticut River in Northampton, to await word. It arrived at 1 AM: Lincoln had won, and would become the President of the United States. The news galloped back to Amherst in the dead of the night, and soon the town was awakened in celebration. The newspaper reported about that night “the bells of both church and chapel, soon united their voices with the living throng, and awoke the echoes of the silent hills. Soon the big gun was brought forth, and boomed out its satisfaction, at the triumph of right over wrong - justice over oppression - truth over error.”
The jubilation felt in Amherst was not universal. The election of Abraham Lincoln prompted a series of events that led to the bloodiest war in US history. Southern states, fearing that slavery would not be allowed to spread into the vast American west, and mistrusting Lincoln’s assurances that he would take no action against slavery where it already existed, began, one-by-one, to secede from the Union. By the time Lincoln took office on March 4th, 1861 seven states had broken away. Little more than a month after that, on April 12th, the Civil War would begin with the shelling of Fort Sumter, in Charlestown, South Carolina. With conflict now inevitable four more slave states joined the new Confederate States of America, and President Lincoln called for 75,000 volunteers to help suppress the rebellion.
The Civil War would eventually claim approximately 750,000 lives and devastate uncounted farms and cities. Yet on that fall night in 1860, when the town center rang with the sound of celebration, all of that lay in the future. The election itself seemed the culmination of a hard-won victory. In that air of exuberance it was possible for a local writer to declare that “we expect now to see peace and prosperity restored to a country which has for the last eight years been almost on the brink of Civil War.” Sadly the optimism of the local people was to be disappointed by events; the nation, and Amherst, would not know peace again for years to come.