on December 17, 2010
Recently while watching a CSPAN program, I was reminded that the sesquicentennial of the US civil war/war between the states is fast approaching. And, of course, the presidential election that arguably brought on that war took place 150 years ago this fall. Thus it is appropriate that a book on the 1860 election should appear.
YEAR OF METEORS is historian DOuglas R. Egerton's study of what I have long believed is the single most important presidential election in US history. That is because the election's results caused states to secede from the union, and when the newly elected president of the US refused to allow their secession, the war came.
This book is almost entirely political history. Egerton begins with an examination of the political scene (issues, ideologies, events, candidates) on the eve of the election. He then devotes four chapters to each of the political parties which contested this election: Democrats (Stephen Douglas) and Southern break-away Democrats (John Breckinridge); Constitutional Union (John Bell) and Liberty (Gerritt Smith); and Republican (Abraham Lincoln). Next comes a chapter describing events, issues, and candidates during the fall campaign and then one on the secession of the lower-South states. There follows a chapter on the establishment of the CSA government and the formation of Lincoln's administration. We are also reminded of the several attempts at a Compromise of 1860 and that a Peace Convention met in the District of Columbia in February 1861 following the first phase of secession. An Epilogue describing events leading immediately to the outbreak of the war concludes the work.
When I came across this book something inside me said "it's about time a historian published a modern history of this election". I was somewhat excited. However, after finishing it, my attitude is slightly different. I found the book not terribly interestingly written and felt a need rather than a desire to finish it. I'm not certain why I felt this way. Maybe I've already read too much on this period and its political characters. Perhaps the book is so politically oriented and might have benefitted from the inclusion of a little more non-political material. Yes, I know: elections are very political events!
So I tried to identify some of the parts of the book which I found especially interesting. The author's treatment of Stephen Douglas (he begins and ends the book with Douglas) is one. And I really enjoyed the sections on Virginia fireater Edmund Ruffin, a slightly bizarre figure, and the young group of Republican Party partisans during the fall campaign known as "Wide Awakes". More profiles and topics along these lines would have been helpful in adding variety. I also would have liked to have seen a chapter describing how common people in various sections of the country reacted to and responded to Lincoln's victory in November.
I definitely would prefer to see more interpretation and analysis from the author. In the book he pretty much gives us narrative history. Greater inclusion of interpretation and maybe even some conjecture would have made the book more attractive for me. For example, would Douglas' election as president likely have led to delay of or even prevention of secession and war? I don't know, but I have long wondered about this and would like to see Egerton's views.
A couple miscellaneous comments in closing. The book badly needs a bibliography. With the huge number of sources cited in the notes, the lack of a bib is appalling and inexcusable. What is the matter with editors and publishers? As for the book's title, in case anyone is wondering, it is taken from a Walt Whitman poem.
And yes, elections do matter.
Tim Koerner December 2010
A quite good account of the immediate political run-up to the Civil War. Professor Douglas R. Egerton's book should be read by anyone with an interest in how the various political parties and factions handled, or mishandled, the presidential election campaign of 1860 and, afterward, the months leading to Abraham Lincoln's inaugural in March of 1861.
Many general history books on the period glide over such events as Senator Stephen Douglas' campaign foray into the South, the Peace Convention, or the details of the formation of Jefferson Davis' cabinet. "Year of Meteors" is a full account, essential to understanding of why planters and firebrands acted to take the South out of the union and what compromises had been attempted to prevent this disunion.
Professor Egerton is right in placing slavery (not economics or constitutional theory) front and center as the reason so many soldiers died in the 1860s.
I personally do not value Senator Douglas as much as does the author, but I do value this book and highly recommend it.
on March 19, 2011
I actually started this book by first reading the Appendix and the Acknowledgements, and it left me with a sense of foreboding. The author, a college professor based in New York, is (surprise!) very liberal.
In the Acknowledgements, he oddly concludes by saying George McGovern's 1972 Presidential campaign "now stand(s) vindicated" (page 341). McGovern himself, however, once observed "For years, I wanted to run for President in the worst possible way - and I'm sure I did!" In the Appendix, Egerton labels the George W. Bush administration as "failed" (337). That seems a premature judgment for an historian - would he say the same of Harry Truman, whose party also lost the next election by a wide margin? Finally, Egerton makes sure to point out that the modern-day Republican Party is now the dominate party of the American South (338). He no doubt wanted to make this point because the American South is the clear villain in Egerton's book.
Yet, I am pleasantly surprised to report that this is actually a good book, if you read it with the understanding that it is written from an old-fashioned, immediate abolitionist perspective. I have read a number of Presidential campaign books, and I would rank this among the better ones (my personal favorites are "The 103rd Ballot" - 1924 - and "Dark Horse" - 1880). It is, indeed, a comprehensive survey of the momentous election of 1860. There is little or no cultural history covered here. It's all politics - smoke-filled rooms, speeches, floor fights in legislative and convention halls, and electoral map strategizing. And, that's what I like in my Presidential campaign books.
Egerton also wisely does not devote much attention to the winner - Abraham Lincoln. The story of his rise from long-shot to surprise nominee is a well worn yarn, and the sections devoted to his campaign are actually among the slowest. The author focuses on the other candidates, especially Stephen Douglas, and it really is fascinating. I also learned a lot about the largely forgotten campaigns of John Bell and John Breckinridge.
There are only two qualms I have, one light-hearted, the other more serious. Light-heartedly, while I found it interesting to read about Gerrit Smith and the Liberty Party, Egerton puts way too much emphasis on Smith as a potential spoiler for the Republicans. Smith finished fifth in the popular vote that year, and he only got about 500 votes (or 0.01%) nationally. Egerton, I suspect, knew he was making too much of Smith's candidacy - because he never does tell us how many votes Smith actually got.
A more serious problem is Egerton's all-out determination to lay the entire cause of the Civil War on the issue of slavery alone. On this basis of argument, everything the South does seems incomprehensible or simply evil to the reader. He then personifies this incomprehensible, evil South in the words and deeds of fire-eaters Edmund Ruffin and, especially, William Yancey. When they eventually meet their personal dooms in 1865 and 1863, respectively, we the readers take grim satisfaction.
However, Egerton should know better than this because among his sources is Volume II of "The Emergence of Lincoln" by Allan Nevins. According to Nevins, it was not one cause unattached to anything else, and it was not one section alone, that was to blame for the war. After a thorough analysis of its many alleged causes, Nevins concludes on page 468: "The main root of the conflict (and there were minor roots) was the problem of slavery with its complementary problem of race-adjustment; the main source of the tragedy was the refusal of either section to face these conjoined problems squarely and pay the heavy costs of a peaceful settlement." I would also recommend, in that same book, the long chapter on "Slavery in a World Setting," which offers a very fair analysis of the slavery problem in the South. Why wouldn't Egerton listen to Nevins? As a speech writer for JFK, he was very liberal himself.
While not the author's intention, this narrowly-focused book demonstrates the vulnerability that the US political system has to the willful distortion of the political process by a powerful minority intent on preserving their self-interests regardless of the prospects of egregious harm to the entire nation. The year is 1860 and the elite minority is the Southern slave-owning plantation class who, fearing that their dominance of the federal government was coming to an end, permitted a few notorious fire-eater [fanatic] spokesmen located in South Carolina, Alabama, and Mississippi to wreck the Democratic Party convention held in Charleston, SC, practically guaranteeing a victory by the "Black Republicans." The fear-mongering led by these unscrupulous individuals throughout the election year reached a fever pitch with Lincoln's election, bringing on secession by six states as quickly as conventions could be organized, which was their stated goal.
The book barely scratches the surface of the broader political, economic, and cultural landscape in the run-up to the Civil War. However, key to the author's story is Illinois' Sen. Stephen Douglas, the leading politician of the 1850s, who pushed through the Kansas-Nebraska Act primarily to further his railroad and real estate interests. But Douglas was treading on dangerous ground as the Act called for popular sovereignty to determine slave-ownership in those territories, effectively overturning the Missouri Compromise of 1820. The subsequent bloody struggles in Kansas appalled the "free-soilers" in the North, resulting in the formation of the Republican Party. The "doughface" president, Buchanan, accentuated those feelings with his vigorous support of the Dred Scott decision of 1857 that essentially removed all restrictions on carrying slave property into any territory.
Little could the ambitious Douglas have known in 1854 the forces that he would unleash in the slavery-issue stalemate. To stay in favor with Northern Democrats after the Kansas debacle, Douglas suggested that without "slave codes" in place in territories, slave-owners realistically would not be able to bring in slaves. However, even the possibility of slavery being undermined by popular action or inaction was anathema to the Southern plantation owners. It was Douglas, the presumptive presidential nominee for 1860, who became the target for the fire-eaters. Their insistence on an "Alabama" platform for the Democratic Party that proactively protected slavery in all territories was unacceptable to moderate Northerners and essentially broke apart the Democratic Party.
Most of the book is concerned with details of the various nominating conventions: logistics, possible candidates, strategies, and the like. The breakup of the first Democratic convention resulted in not only two more such conventions in Baltimore, nominating Douglas in one and current Vice President John C. Breckinridge in the other, but also spawned a resurgence of old-line Whigs called the Constitutional Union Party, which nominated John Bell. The Republican convention held in Chicago, while it did not splinter, did reject the presumptive nominee William Seward of New York in favor of native son Abraham Lincoln, who appeared to have broader appeal.
1860 was an anxious year for Americans. The Southern fire-eaters had put the American political system into crisis mode - just as they wanted. They waited for the inevitable to happen: the election of Abraham Lincoln. The remainder of the book clearly shows a mad rush to secession orchestrated by the fire-eaters immediately after the election. Moderate and non-slave-owning voices in the South were pushed aside. As the author points out, the Confederacy adopted a Constitution similar to that of the US, but democracy got lost in the stampede.
Lincoln does not dominate the author's story, but it is at this point that Lincoln's intellect and resolve become exceedingly clear. It was evident with Southern secession that the nation was facing an emergency; there was, if not panic, widespread alarm in Washington. Several plans were proposed by the House and the Senate, the most prominent being one suggested by Sen. John J. Crittenden of Kentucky. But all such plans were clearly attempts to appease the South - to solidify the standing of slavery via Constitutional amendment. It was Lincoln who stood tallest; he refused to undermine the election results where the American public clearly rejected extending slavery. In addition, through the strength of his character, he easily rebuffed the ill-advised efforts of Seward to control him. The Southern fire-eaters had no understanding that their bluster would more than be matched by the resolve of Lincoln to preserve the Union on the principles of the Declaration of Independence.
The book, as said, is not comprehensive history. The focus is definitely on the machinations surrounding the 1860 election, in particular those of Southerners. The focus on those details gets a bit tedious at times. The author's account of what occurred after the election of 1860 lacks substance and is better told elsewhere. As far as the book being instructive for our times, one does not have to be overly observant to appreciate that powerful, wealthy interests control the political process - and not for the general good.
on March 26, 2015
I strongly recommend this book as a beautifully researched, immensely readible history of an election that truly changed America.
While so many histories of the 1860 contest are understandibly centered on the character and presidency of Lincoln, or on the leadup to the Civil War, this volume offers fresh perspectives on the political environment and the leaders who shaped this epic electoral contest. Egerton offers detailed portraits of some of the key personalities, with nuances found in few other accounts: Douglas, Seward, Chase and other candidates come alive, and the treatment of their political falures offers insights not found elsewhere. The description of the many rival political conventions and multi party campaigns- especially the clever intrigues to destroy the unity of the Democratic Party, and the ill-fated but impressive boomlet for the Constitutional Union Party- is an absorbing narrative for anyone intrigued by the period. This rich history invites the reader to consider how the circumstances, and election results, could have easily been so very different. What if the Republican Party had nominated the controversial William Seward rather than the obscure Abraham Lincoln? What if the Democrats had held their initial convention in a community other than Charleston- poisoned by sectional intrigue? What if the Constitutional Union convention had followed its first instinct: to select as their nominee the appealing and coalition shaking Sam Houston rather than ex-Whig Bell? This book is irresistable for any reader drawn to the politics of the Civil War.
on March 10, 2012
Very interesting book on why and how the American Civil War happened. It really illustrates that the 'States' Rights' the Sourherners were really interested in was thevright to own slaves, and were fighting to expand slavery into other states and territories. I found it a fascinating read.
on July 23, 2013
This is the political story of the crucial year when the divisions between the slave and free states became the chasm which engulfed over half a million Americans. It is detailed and does a great job of describing the death throes of the union, but it doesn't really explain them because the explanation lies in the preceding generation (see The Impending Crisis by Potter). Well written and an easy read, the principal fault of the book lies largely in the last chapters where the author takes off his historian's hat and instead unleashes his strident political ideology, drawing inappropriate and wrong modern analogies. Fortunately, that failure to respect the historian's objectivity is so transparent that it is easy to discard it and to see what is good here. Too bad the editor didn't do that for us.
on January 28, 2013
Egerton's history of the election of 1860 is very well written and provides great insights into the character of Douglas. Douglas is the real center of this book. Douglas' misguided faith in popular will, his co dependent relationship with the southern planter class, his ambition for wealth and power proved his political undoing and even contributed to the causes of the war. Yet, in the end, he proved a true patriot.
Fewer new insights into Lincoln, of course, but I did appreciate the small stories of Lincoln's obession with physical height
If you love American history, you will probably enjoy this book a great deal.
on December 7, 2012
I started reading this book to give myself some perspective on the 2012 presidential election. If nothing else, I hoped it would show me what was similar with the hotly contested election 152 years ago and what was different. I wasn't disappointed. By choosing to focus on the front-runners going into the contest -- Stephen Douglas and William Seward -- the author is able to dish up a lot of information that I've never run across in my other readings on this period.
About the only place I felt the book dragged a bit was during the accounts of the multiple conventions that eventually generated four candidates who received votes in the Electoral College. I suspect some of that may have simply stemmed from the fact that I didn't know all the characters and how they fit. Once the ballot was set, though, it was fascinating to see how the election evolved, from organizers who plotted to send the choice to the House of Representatives to the winning of battleground states (yes, Ohio and Pennsylvania among them) to Douglas' first-ever whistle-stop tour.
However, Egerton isn't content to let the story end with Abraham Lincoln's victory. He continues on with Congress' ineffective efforts to generate a last-minute compromise on slavery as the South began withdrawing from the Union, a state-generated effort that met with a similar lack of success, and the selection of Jefferson Davis as the president of the Confederacy. All in all, it's a whirlwind tour of an exciting episode in our country's history, and one that ultimately left me weighing just how divided our country really is today and when it's time to compromise and when it's time to stand your ground.
on December 9, 2012
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 that they need to read.
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.