In early 1860, pundits across America confidently predicted the election of Illinois senator Stephen A. Douglas in the coming presidential race. Douglas, after all, led the only party that bridged North and South. But the Democrats would split over the issue ofslavery, leading Southerners in the party to run their own presidential slate. This opened the door for the upsta
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The Election of 1860 is one of the moments of our history that Americans need to understand before saying silly things like “the election between Obama and Romney reached new heights in nastiness and incivility.” Every time I see a “secession petition” on Facebook, or read about somebody saying that the election/re-election of Barack Obama is the worst thing that has ever happened to the country, I sigh and think “somebody needs to read a history book.” And, very likely, this is the history book
In 1860, secession was not a social media meme. It was a deadly real threat that had been openly discussed in the Southern States since the 1820s, when measures such as the Missouri Compromise had postponed the ultimate reckoning over the issue of slavery for a generation. With the collapse of the compropmise-friendly Whig Party in 1852, and the rise of the explicitly anti-slavery Republican Party in 1856, there did not appear to be any way to prevent the block secession of at least the Lower South. Southern radicals (“fire-eaters”) understood that and worked intentionally to split the Democratic Party into two factions in 1860, thus ensuring a Republican victory and a Southern secession.
The Year of Meteors, which takes its title from a poem by Walt Whitman, opens with Stephen Douglas’s futile attempts to save the union after his fourth-place electoral finish in the five-way contest that was the election of 1860. It then goes back in time to describe the conventions that produced the largest number of major-party candidates ever to run in an American election. Egerton describes the five parties, and their candidates, very well, and very succinctly:
LIBERTY (Garrit Smith): The abolitionist party, led by Smith, a wealthy philanthropist who had partially financed John Brown’s raid. The Liberty Party did not have a reasonable chance of winning, but could play the spoiler by taking votes away from Lincoln in New York and New England, thus throwing those states’ electoral votes to Douglas.
REPUBLICAN (Abraham Lincoln): The Party of Lincoln opposed slavery on moral grounds and opposed the expansion of slavery into any state or territory where it did not already exist (the “free-soil” position). They did not believe that the federal government had the Constitutional authority to end slavery in the 15 states that already permitted slavery. Unwilling to compromise on the extension of slavery, but willing to compromise on “personal liberty laws” in Northern states that prevented the recapture of escaped slaves.
NATIONAL DEMOCRATIC (Stephen Douglas): After the North-South split in the Democratic Party, Douglas was left with little chance of winning. In the end, he captured electoral votes only in Missouri and in part of New Jersey. Douglas, who had spent years in the Senate crafting compromises between slavery and anti-slavery positions, ran on the principle of “popular sovereignty,” which allowed the residents of each new territory to chose for themselves whether they would allow slavery.
SOUTHERN DEMOCRATIC (John C. Breckenridge): The Southern Democratic Party, whose candidate was the sitting vice president, insisted on a “no-compromise” position on the expansion of slavery. They insisted that all territories of the United States be open to settlement by slaveholders, that the Constitution explicitly recognize the legality of slavery, that the Atlantic slave trade be reopened, and that all Northern “personal liberty” laws be nullified. Southern fire-eaters understood that these terms would never be accepted by the North and that the only course of action when the election ended would be secession. Breckenridge received all of the votes of the lower South.
CONSTITUTIONAL UNION (John Bell): Constitutional Unionists were, in the most part, the remnants of the old Whig party with its strong belief in compromise. Constitutional Unionists insisted that slavery was only an abstract disagreement and that no position on slavery justified the dissolution of the Union. They conspicuously avoided even talking about slavery during their campaign. Bell captured the electoral votes of Tennessee, Kentucky, and Virginia.
It is impossible to read this (or any other serious history of the time) and have any intellectual respect for the modern revisionist claim that the South’s secession and the CIvil War were about anything other than slavery. None of the principles (other than the Constitutional Unionists) believed this. Slavery was the defining issue of this election, and where one stood on it determined who one voted for.
But Egerton also does a good job of showing that there were a lot of people in the South who did not support the open secessionist candidate. And there were a lot of people in the North who did not support the abolition or free-soil candidates. The country was not as polarized as its leaders were or as our memories make it out to be, which is why the ultimate abolition of slavery required the delicate, multi-front political maneuvering portrayed so brilliantly in Spielberg’s “Lincoln” and in Doris Kearns Godwin’s Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln, to which Year of Meteors: Stephen Douglas, Abraham Lincoln, and the Election that Brought on the Civil War is a worthy companion.