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Elections in America can change history. Among the more momentous election years within living memory are 1932, 1968, 1994 and, yes, 2008. But only one American election was momentous in the grand sense–triggering a war that charted a new course for the nation and putting in the White House a man who would become the most revered national figure since George Washington.
“Year of Meteors” is Douglas R. Egerton’s fascinating account of the bizarre and explosive election of 1860, which boasted not two but four major candidates and which set the two halves of the country at each other’s throats. It is in part the tale of a political elite’s vain search for compromise when compromise was no longer possible, leading to an access of rage without parallel in our history.
As Democrats and Republicans gathered that summer for their nominating conventions in, respectively, Charleston, S.C., and Chicago, a storm had been building in the country for nearly 40 years over the future of slavery. While Democrats were deeply, fatally split on the matter, Republicans were united–determined not to abolish slavery outright but, at the least, to block its extension into Nebraska and Kansas, territories that were about to become states.
The real battle in Chicago was over personalities, not politics. To right- thinking Republicans, Abraham Lincoln seemed an absurd dark horse. They dismissed him as “a third-rate Western lawyer” and an “illiterate partisan” compared with heavyweights like New York’s William Seward and Ohio’s Salmon P. Chase. But thanks to shrewd planning by David Davis– Lincoln’s Karl Rove–Lincoln had a major advantage: He was everyone’s second choice. When the heavyweights got jammed at the starting gate, Lincoln was able to slip through to the finish. His problem, once chosen, was that he was clearly the Northern abolitionist candidate. No one expected him to get a single vote south of the Mason-Dixon Line.
In Mr. Egerton’s account, Lincoln the candidate remains a vague figure. Doris Kearns Goodwin’s “Team of Rivals” (2005) tells that side of the election story much better, showing how Davis engineered the upset of the century. Mr. Egerton gives us instead, quite rightly, a compelling portrait of the real man of the hour, Democratic nominee Stephen Douglas. No figure reveals more about the dynamic of 1860–or, indeed, of our recent political past.
Like Lincoln, Douglas hailed from Illinois, if less toweringly. He was “the little giant,” standing barely 5 feet 4 inches, with an enormous rugged head that might have been carved by Rodin. But he had been born and bred in New England and understood better than his supporters the abolitionist impulse. He had organized his political career around finding the ideal compromise between the slave-state fire-eaters, who were willing to split the Union to protect their way of life, and those who saw slavery as America’s shame.
For Lincoln, the Founding Fathers meant what they said when they declared that “all men are created equal”: All men, black or white, were by nature free. For Douglas what counted was less what the Founders said than what they did. Jefferson, Adams and the rest may have had their doubts about slavery, but they had put up with it. They had avoided discussing it in the Constitution, and eminent political figures had later worked out one compromise after another to hold the nation together. If Lincoln could claim that his position rested on principle and political tradition, so could Douglas.
With Henry Clay, Douglas had been a key mover of the Compromise of 1850–extended in 1854–which allowed future states to decide for themselves whether they would allow slavery. The measure was seen to be a practical success–at the very least a means of avoiding war. Had Douglas run for president in 1856 (he withdrew his nomination to avoid splitting the vote with James Buchanan), he might have spent that winter measuring drapes for the White House.
Running in 1860, however, was bad timing. Douglas’s compromise had triggered a vicious and unexpected outburst of violence in Kansas, where John Brown had launched a bloody anti-slavery insurrection in the mid-1850s that was only stamped out a few years later with his capture at Harpers Ferry, Va. Then came the Dred Scott decision in 1858, in which the Southern-dominated Supreme Court gave slavery the force of the law of the land, alienating the other side. A compromise on slavery proved to be both a national disaster and political suicide.
Democratic delegates at Charleston, in the end, rallied to Douglas, but only after Southerners endorsed their own candidate, John Breckinridge of Kentucky. Meanwhile, a handful of old-fashioned Whigs endorsed the aged and honorable but utterly irrelevant Unionist John Bell. The anti-Lincoln vote was split three ways. Douglas had no chance of winning. He persevered through the campaign of 1860 more out of a sense of honor than conviction.
This was his final collision with his old rival. Douglas had once courted Mary Todd, who had married Lincoln instead. The two men clashed in 1858 over an Illinois Senate seat and over slavery. Lincoln and Douglas never renewed the slavery debate during the 1860 presidential contest. Instead, each watched as events and emotions swept the many questions on which they agreed into irrelevance and intensified the one on which they were irrevocably split. Douglas, the man who might have been president in 1856, won the electoral votes of exactly one state, Missouri, and half of New Jersey.
After the election, Douglas pledged his support to Lincoln. “If any man attacks Lincoln,” he told reporters at the inauguration, “he attacks me.” Douglas never got the chance to redeem his pledge. Worn out and irrelevant, he died on June 3, 1861. He was only 48. The man who thought that finding the middle in an issue critical to the nation found himself nowhere instead.
Arthur Herman is a visiting scholar at AEI.
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