- The Election of 1860: "A Campaign Fraught with Consequences." by Michael F. Holt
This is a stimulating and persuasive book from the historian who knows more about Civil War-era politics than anyone else alive— and probably more than anyone now dead. It offers a measured but necessary corrective to what has become the most currently favored interpretation of the coming of the Civil War exemplified by the influential work of James Oakes, which presents the Republican Party as a radical antislavery insurgency. Holt shows that this picture, whatever its merits as a description of abolitionists' hopes, does not accurately describe the assumptions of ordinary voters.
As he has in his previous scholarship, Holt emphasizes the fluidity of politics in the late 1850s. Even as late as the early months of 1860, Republican leaders worried about the possible formation of alternative more avowedly centrist political movements. Needing to justify the existence of a purely sectional party, Republican leaders relied on the public's sense that they were experiencing an exceptional crisis that required emergency measures. The crisis, as they saw it, was the threat posed to the freedom of white men in the free states by the Slave Power. Crucial to Lincoln's eventual victory was his campaign's ability to add into its coalition voters who, in the words of one newspaper, did not "care a broken tobacco-pipe for the negro question" (p. 165).
Yet if Holt's account downplays the radical antislavery appeal of the Republicans in 1860, he nevertheless emphasizes the very real fear of the Republican Party in both sections. His focus on the non-Republican voters is unusual among scholars of the 1860 election but it is necessary. Some of the most important scholarship on the [End Page 121] rise of the Republicans over the last half century associates that party so closely with the values of Northern free labor society that a reader may fairly wonder why it was the case that in 1856 the proportion of Northern voters who rejected the Republicans was about 55 percent and even in 1860 about 46 percent. Holt offers one of the best answers to this question that we have available. Notwithstanding their conscious attempt at moderation, many voters were deeply anxious that a Republican victory would precipitate disunion, which, of course, it did. This in spite of the fact that, in the North, Douglas supporters shared many of the basic political presumptions of their Republican neighbors: they wanted the West open to the settlement of free white labor; they disliked the arrogance of Southern slaveholders; and they opposed the Dred Scott ruling's declaration that the Fifth Amendment's protection of property owners applied as inviolably to enslaved people as to any other kind of property. Douglas Democrats, however, differed from Republicans in their proposed solution to these threats. Whereas Republicans believed Congress could and should ban slavery in the Territories, Douglas Democrats put their faith in local control—the policy known as "popular sovereignty." Since the defeat of the proslavery Lecompton constitution in Kansas, there was no existing U.S. territory into which slavery could realistically expand. Democrats tried to argue therefore that Republican dogmatism about the principle of non-extension was an unnecessary provocation of an abstract issue. A majority of voters in the free states were nonetheless so aggravated by Southern arrogance and/or so disgusted by the corruption and incompetence of the Buchanan administration that they voted for the party that promised to drain the swamp.
In large part, the fight over secession within the slave states after the election was about whether the Republican victory was permanent or not. Secessionists warned that having won once, Republicans would win every time. Antisecessionists countered that the Republican majorities in crucial states were small and tenuous and that the party was far from a monolithic abolitionist bloc—and therefore there remained a chance of reconstituting a cross-sectional conservative [End Page 122] movement. In this respect, the secessionists mirrored...