How Abraham Lincoln was like ... Hillary Clinton?

Historian Douglas R. Egerton, author of "Year of Meteors," talks about Abraham Lincoln and the tumultuous election of 1860.

When Abraham Lincoln won the Republican presidential nomination in 1860, some voters were upset, saying things like, "I don't know who this skinny guy from Illinois is."

For a man who'd become a national hero beyond compare, Abraham Lincoln was hardly Mr. Popularity when he ran for president in 1860.

He managed to win despite capturing just 40 percent of the vote against three major candidates. In case you're scoring at home, there have only been a couple presidential elections with that many significant rivals in the mix.

I just reviewed "Year of Meteors," reminiscent of behind-the-scenes political bestsellers like Theodore White's "The Making of the President" series and the recent "Game Change" by John Heilemann and Mark Halperin. In "Year of Meteors," historian Douglas R. Egerton examines the amazing 1860 election, which tore one political party apart before splitting the nation in two.

In an interview, I asked Egerton about the abrupt reversals of fortune that made American politics so compelling 150 years ago.

Q: During the Republican nomination race in 1860, Abraham Lincoln – a guy from the Midwest without much of a reputation – came out of nowhere to beat back the frontrunner, a New York senator who was later appointed secretary of state by his former rival. This scenario sounds really familiar for some reason.

A: I was writing a lot of this book in 2008, and when I read letters to Senator William Seward from his supporters, I felt like I was reading Hillary Clinton's mail.

People were saying things like "this isn't fair" and "I don't know who this skinny guy from Illinois is." One person wrote, "I shed bitter tears when I heard the news. I shall not lift a finger to elect him. Let those who chose him elect him."

The reality is after being deeply hurt and disappointed for about three weeks, Seward did finally contact Lincoln and campaign for him.

Q: You write that Lincoln was the most anti-slavery of the major candidates in the presidential election, but his position was nuanced and not targeted at immediately eliminating slavery in the South. Do you think he was even more opposed to slavery at heart but moderated his position in order to be politically sensible?

A: The vast majority of Republicans like Lincoln weren't abolitionists. They were mostly restrictionists, who wished to encircle slavery, keep it in the South and allow it to die slowly.

He was being a realist, a smart politician. He knew that the Constitution did protect slavery where it did exist, and he knew where the country was in 1860. Sixty percent of Americans voted against him on the grounds that he was too progressive on race.

Q: You write that some Southerners wanted Lincoln to win so they'd have a reason to secede from the union. To accomplish this, they actually helped their party, the Democrats, split into two.

A: What surprised me was how open they were about what they were planning to do. These were important Democrats who wanted their party to lose.

Q: How was campaigning different back then?

A : A lot of things that mattered then wouldn't work now. The main difference is that the conventions now are infomercials: the decision is made before anyone gets there. In 1860, conventions turned into these brutal fights about candidates and platforms.

The platforms meant as much to most American voters as the candidates. You'd go to a tavern, and there's somebody with a pint of ale standing on a table reading the platform out loud. 1860 is an election in which ideas really matter.

Randy Dotinga regularly reviews books for the Monitor.

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