Monday, February 14, 2011

What We're Reading

Year of Meteors: Stephen Douglas, Abraham Lincoln, and the Election that Brought On the Civil War by Douglas R. Egerton

One hundred and fifty years ago today, Abraham Lincoln was abiding in studied silence as the nation’s new President-Elect in Springfield, Illinois. The interregnum between the election of a new president and the inauguration were at the time even longer than they are today, and Lincoln’s administration would not begin until he was inaugurated in March. In the meantime, he kept a careful silence about the debates and moves towards secession that were unfolding as a result of his election, concerned that anything he might say would only inflame the already perilous state of the union.

While Year of Meteors tells us a little about this period, including Lincoln’s attempts to form his cabinet and new administration from Springfield, the primary focus of this book is on the political season of 1860 that brought Lincoln the Republican nomination, saw the destruction of the national Democratic Party, and unveiled the strategy of Southern secessionists to further polarize the north and south in what was becoming an increasingly sectionalized union.

While much has been written about the battles of the Civil War, less is well known about the election of 1860, which cast the die, and Egerton’s account of this period is fresh and interesting. He makes us witness to what was, essentially, the most fatal failure of the American political system in the country’s history. It is an instructive and frightening thing to see, and it is hard not to find in the story traces of the ways and strategies of American politics which are still familiar to us to this day.

What most of us vaguely know about Lincoln’s nomination was that he was a “dark horse” for the nomination. In some ways that is true, in other ways misleading. He was certainly not the expected nominee of the party when the Republicans met to nominate a candidate in Chicago. That was Senator William Seward of New York, and if the nominee was not to be Seward, perhaps two or three other potential nominees had as good a chance as Lincoln of getting the nomination. Lincoln did, however, have some national reputation as a result of the debates he had with Stephen Douglas in the election he lost for the Illinois senate seat in 1858, and Douglas’s stature as the author of the Kansas-Nebraska Act, which reignited the slavery issue, and as the presumptive nominee for President of the Democratic Party, gave Lincoln some national stature by association. But Lincoln was less well known and had less a reputation as a radical than Seward, who Republican Party bosses feared could not be elected, and Lincoln’s western associations made him a good candidate to carry some of the critical northwestern states the Republicans needed to win the election. How Lincoln’s convention strategists pulled it off is a very engaging story, and the great virtue of Egerton’s account is that we get to see what a masterful politician Lincoln was, something that tends to get obscured by his subsequent apotheosis which has placed him beyond a consideration of his ability in what we think of as mere politics.

The other great story here is that of Stephan Douglas and the collapse of the Democratic Party. Today, Douglas, known in his time as “The Little Giant,” has sunk into relative obscurity compared to Lincoln (how could it not be so). That presents a challenge to historical understanding. At the time of the election of 1860 Stephen Douglas was certainly better known nationally than Lincoln, and he had been a much more important mover in the U.S. Senate on the national scene. Egerton’s portrait is not very sympathetic, and Douglas emerges here as the quintessential vulgar American politician and opportunist, someone to be contrasted with Lincoln’s more principled positions on national issues. He was incredibly short at 5 ft. 3 inches tall, his most prominent feature was his enormous head, he was pugnacious, and he was a heavy drinker and a smoker of cigars. He and the 6 ft. 4-inch, abstemious Lincoln must have made quite a sight together in their senate campaign debates.

Douglas had tried to steer a middle course between his more moderate northern supporters and southern interests in the party, and in the end, while he retained the loyalty of a dwindling Democratic northern base, he lost the southern wing of his party. They broke away after a riotous and inconclusive Democratic national convention held in Charleston, and nominated James Buchanan’s vice-president, John Breckinridge, for president. The remnants of the old Whig Party, reformed as the Constitutional Union Party, nominated John Bell of Tennessee, who had support mainly in the border states. New York congressman Gerrit Smith ran on an abolitionist ticket. This crowded field set up the real possibility that no candidate might win an electoral majority and that the determination of the election might be thrown into the House of Representatives to decide. As it turned out, Lincoln won the electoral college vote handily, although he polled less than 40% of the vote nationally. Still there were cabals that attempted to get electors to change their votes and throw the election to the House all the way up until the time the electoral college met to confirm the election results.

In addition to the fascinating politics of all of this, which Egerton gives us vividly, he also discusses the issues Lincoln faced as a minority President. To what degree did he have the right to enforce his party’s platform in making national policy? Was he under any obligation to compromise his principles in view of the national vote in order to try to conciliate southern secessionists? These are important and interesting questions, and we see Lincoln dealing with them, and as usual, having a clear-eyed perspective on events and their political implications. Egerton is a Lincoln partisan, and his opinions are clear about the actions he describes, but he gives a refreshing and bracing response to those historians who wish to parcel around blame for the crisis to all parties. His exposition is a riveting exploration of the politics of the era, one rife with resonant cautions as we navigate our present highly charged political landscape.

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