In The Election of 1860 Reconsidered, editor A. James Fuller has assembled a handy collection of essays that outline what historians have told us about the fateful election that ushered Abraham Lincoln into office while charting new and fruitful paths of study.
The nine essays in this collection center on three themes: political biography, ideology, and political culture. The first four essays in the book focus on the candidates who sought the presidency. Michael S. Green’s study of the “political organizer” Abraham Lincoln follows the path of recent Lincoln biographers in emphasizing his considerable political acumen and ability to unite disparate wings of the nascent Republican Party behind his banner. Fuller’s essay on southern Democrat John C. Breckinridge seeks to revise the major interpretations of the Breckinridge campaign through the concept of honor. By offering to lead southern Democrats into a “forlorn hope” regardless of the prospects of victory, Breckinridge sought to uphold the honor of the South in a changing Union. Fuller’s essay on Constitutional Unionist John Bell persuasively argues that Bell was the last true Whig presidential candidate. Furthermore, the essay nicely illustrates how Bell typified compromise sentiment from the border-state region that seemed cognizant and fearful of the perils of [End Page 613] war on their homeland. James Huston’s essay on Stephen A. Douglas—one of the gems of this collection—masterfully chronicles the Little Giant’s abortive candidacy in the southern states. Along the way, Huston carefully analyzes what the Republicans and Democrats believed about the future of slavery and the Union and how they made their cases on the hustings. John McKivigan’s essay continues on the theme of political biography by looking at Frederick Douglass and the abolitionist response to the election. McKivigan, one of our foremost scholars on Douglass and abolitionism, presents a nuanced chronicle of how Douglass shifted grounds throughout the 1850s and even during the election season between radical, and sometimes violent, idealism, and the more pragmatic approach of Lincoln and the moderate Republicans.
By investigating the disconnect between ideology and pragmatic politics, McKivigan’s essay reveals the second theme of the collection. Ideology loomed large in the 1860 election according to Thomas Rodgers’s marvelous essay on political mobilization and ideology. Continuing the trend of questioning political-realignment theory, Rodgers instead argues that the election was a referendum on competing visions of republicanism as channeled through party politics. He makes a persuasive case.
Rodgers’s essay addresses ideology in the context of political culture—the third major theme of the book. Fuller’s third essay in the collection, a case study of Indiana politics in 1860, also challenges political-realignment theory, arguing that it obscures the significance of local party politics. As with all case studies, Fuller’s essay amasses plenty of information showing the unique nature of the election in Indiana. Yet his own evidence shows that the politicos of Indiana were quite attuned to national issues and events. There is plenty of room for the local and national—more than proponents of both approaches are willing to admit. Lawrence Sondhaus places political culture in a transatlantic context by studying how the British and French interpreted and reacted to the election. Many scholars have focused on the transatlantic context of the Civil War, but few have looked at [End Page 614] European views of the election. Sondhaus’s essay nicely fills that gap.
The collection ends with a thorough historiographical essay by Douglas G. Gardner, who lucidly lays out the major interpretations that historians have offered for this election. The essay is a fitting coda to this strong collection. As usual with essay collections, some pieces are more innovative and imaginative than others, but scholars will enjoy this thorough reexamination of an important American election.
Christopher Childers is assistant professor of history at Benedictine College in Atchison, Kansas. He is the author of The Failure of Popular Sovereignty: Slavery, Manifest Destiny, and the Radicalization of Southern Politics (2012) and is currently researching the influence of Richmond...