Year of Meteors

The 1860 race for the US presidency was a wild tangle of political strategy and skullduggery.

Year of Meteors: Stephen Douglas, Abraham Lincoln, and the Election That Brought on the Civil War Blooomsbury USA 416 pp., $29

If you think the intricacies of modern presidential politics are complicated, try the 1860 United States presidential campaign on for size. Just make sure your brain’s ready for some heavy lifting.

One candidate has supporters who actually want him to lose, big time. Another is busy fighting off charges that he’s a tool of lunatic radicals. A third fails to discover a backbone until it’s too late. If that’s not enough, a fourth candidate makes a point of saying absolutely nothing about the biggest issue of the day: His nonstand wins him three states.

It’s an election for the ages, and not just because the winner receives not a single vote in nine states and wins just 40 percent of the vote. For once, voters couldn’t complain that everybody says the same thing or pussyfoots around tough issues.

With one exception, the candidates’ “positions were as clear as they were unyielding,” writes historian Douglas R. Egerton.

Voters knew exactly what they were voting for (or against). And now, today’s readers will understand their dilemmas thanks to Year of Meteors: Stephen Douglas, Abraham Lincoln, and the Election That Brought on the Civil War.

Thanks to Egerton’s insight into 19th-century political strategy and skullduggery, the graceful “Year of Meteors” reads like a fresh insider-informed exposé of a modern presidential election instead of an exposé of a race that took place when Maine had more residents than California.

As Egerton shows, Lincoln’s victory is a long shot for much of 1860. First, he has to get nominated by a brand-new party, the Republicans. He comes out of virtually nowhere to get the nod, infuriating supporters of the shoo-in front-runner who have absolutely no enthusiasm for this inexperienced, skinny unknown from Illinois. Many of them bitterly gripe about the usurper and threaten to cool their heels come November. (Sound familiar?)

To win, Lincoln needs to stake out a nuanced position on slavery without supporting its extinction in the South. Just as a pacifist could never get elected president today, no fire-breathing abolitionist has a chance to reach the White House in 1860.

Lincoln hopes to keep slavery in a bottle – the South – where it would eventually die. His three rivals in November aren’t prepared to go that far because they hope to get lots of votes in the South. One candidate even hopes to win by losing: his allies expect no one will win a majority of electoral votes, throwing the election into the House where he may come out ahead.

But Lincoln’s biggest threat is someone else – Stephen “Little Giant” Douglas, his 1858 debate partner, a man who had an “immense, frowsy head” as a critic put it, and a mind, Egerton writes, “quite capable of political error and miscalculation.”

Douglas is the leader of the Democrats. Well, some of the Democrats. In one of the epic crackups of American political history, the party had a giant nervous breakdown in 1860 and split in two, ruining any chance it had of keeping the White House.

Egerton turns Douglas into his book’s most compelling and cryptic character, a greatly ambitious politician who is haunted by demons and poor decisions: “rarely has a single politician helped produce such national chaos.”

Ultimately, he becomes a pathetic figure who reaches a state of grace only when it’s too late.

The travails of Douglas aside, there’s yet another complication in the 1860 election: Some Democrats in the South think it would be just peachy if the two Democratic candidates were to lose the election. In fact, they actively try to make them fail, for reasons that Egerton explains.

Earlier in 1860, Democrats who were in Charleston for their precrackup convention may have noticed stonemasons busy at work on 60-foot-high walls in the harbor. But they had bigger things – the possible destruction of their party – on their minds than a place called Fort Sumter. That’s where the nation would begin to lose the election that Lincoln won.

In the big picture, the comprehensive and readable “Year of Meteors” reveals how dreams and ideals are buffeted, trimmed, and extinguished by political realities.

As always, American democracy is messy, unpredictable, and endlessly absurd. But then, as now, it’s one the greatest shows on earth.

Randy Dotinga regularly reviews books for the Monitor.

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