Anyone who thinks the past two presidential elections have been uniquely divisive needs only to look back to 1860. That race didn’t just split the voting population. It split the country.
Douglas Egerton’s new book, “Year of Meteors,” explores the heated competition between presidential candidates Stephen Douglas and Abraham Lincoln and how politics catapulted the country into a civil war.
Egerton provides a fresh perspective on the war, focusing on its prologue, in which Lincoln plays a minor role. That allows readers to get to know many of the other political players involved.
Though they were both Illinois-based politicians, Douglas and Lincoln differed in many ways. Most obvious was their physical appearance. Douglas was just over 5 feet tall, while lanky Lincoln towered over him at 6 feet 4 inches. Douglas had attended school, while Lincoln was self-educated.
Even before they won their respective nominations — Douglas for the Democrats and Lincoln for the Republicans — the most-debated issue in the country was whether and how slavery should continue. Democrats, with their numbers largely in the South, wanted to preserve slavery and for new western states to have the option of allowing it. The Republican Party, which had only recently been created, wanted slavery abolished.
Both parties held several regional conventions to choose nominees. But these were nothing like the highly organized events held in arenas and convention centers today. Egerton depicts the conventions in detail.
On the Democratic side, Alabama Rep. William Lowndes Yancey had been advocating for secession for years and used the conventions to stoke that fire. Disagreements over slavery dominated the meetings, which frequently devolved into all-out brawls. One convention ended early because the whisky supply had run dry, which one delegate called a “great calamity.” Despite the raucous meetings, the party still managed to select Douglas as a candidate.
Douglas, however, was not everyone’s pick. President James Buchanan, a Democrat, was more interested in persuading Douglas to quit than voting for him.
The Republicans, though not as violent, had their own difficulty choosing a candidate. Lincoln was by no means the favorite. His humble origins did not impress experienced politicians. But his political advisers knew how to use that to his advantage. They portrayed him as “Honest Abe,” the working everyman, an image that Lincoln himself was uncomfortable with. But it worked.
Third parties, such as the Wide Awakes, threw their support behind Lincoln, earning him a decisive victory in the general election.
But that victory was the last straw for some. Soon after the election, Yancey’s talk of secession became a reality in South Carolina. The state had threatened secession before during the Nullification Crisis of the 1830s, but it was the only state to do so. Lincoln hadn’t even taken office yet, but the mere possibility of Lincoln trying to abolish slavery was enough for South Carolina to remove itself from the Union right away. And this time, there were other states on their side.
The chain reaction of seceding states then launched the country into some of the bloodiest battles ever seen on American soil.
Egerton ends the book at Lincoln’s inauguration and the war’s beginning. Other books have explored the intricacies of the battles that followed, but “Year of Meteors” focuses on the war before the war.