- The Election of 1860: "A Campaign Fraught with Consequences."by Michael F. Holt
Michael F. Holt's book sets out to show how slavery, long considered the prime issue in the 1860 election, did not play that prominent a role in the campaign. Instead, the James Buchanan administration's incompetence and corruption were the targets of Republican efforts to win over former Millard Fillmore voters; only among Democrats, specifically in the South, did fears about the end of slavery motivate voting. To make this case, Holt begins with an exploration of the Republican and Democratic Parties in the run-up to nominations. He then launches into very thorough descriptions of the nominating conventions that ultimately selected Stephen A. Douglas, John Bell, Abraham [End Page 695]Lincoln, and John C. Breckinridge. Finally, the last two chapters cover the campaigns, with an emphasis on party messaging in the different regions of the country and how citizens voted.
Holt does an excellent job of stressing the lack of importance of slavery to Republican appeals in 1860, while also casting light on southern Democrats' concerns that a Republican victory signaled strong anti-South sentiment throughout the North and an end to southern influence in the national government. The author's use of a variety of newspapers and primary source materials makes clear that Republicans running the campaign were focused more on Buchanan's corruption than on other issues, while Douglas and Breckinridge traded barbs over slavery. Bell's campaign reflected the belief that issues of slavery extension had just recently been settled once more and that a true Union Party, national in scope, was a better option than the Republicans and sectional Democratic candidates. Overall, the argument is well supported by the evidence presented.
However, there is a danger in relying too heavily on newspaper articles and campaign rhetoric for understanding how white southerners perceived the Republican Party and how Republican leaders perceived the South. Even if not centerpieces of the campaign, the important roles played by former Liberty Party and Free-Soil Party men in the Republican Party signified that, of any party, it was the one decidedly opposed to slavery. Such a point could be lost on average voters in a campaign, but southern leaders and activists in the Democratic Party were certainly aware of this situation. As such, southerners could still perceive the Republicans as the greatest threat to slavery and the so-called southern way of life.
Likewise, Republican Party elites generally understood that nominating a vocal abolitionist, or someone perceived to be one, would not play well with northern audiences. Most leaders were willing to moderate their rhetoric to win an election—a perfectly understandable electoral strategy for any political party. Yet the fact that Republican editors and leaders avoided the discussion of slavery and its extension, and often avoided discussions of southern power, in news reports and private campaign correspondence only shows that their focus was on the issues needed to win the presidential election. Regardless of the abolitionist sentiment of the population, leaders shaped outcomes in politics and led opinion—and if these Republican leaders still harbored concerns about the South and slavery, the ascendance of this regional party meant trouble to Democrats and to southerners.
Therefore, slavery was still present in the campaign. Silence on the subject did not indicate that it played a marginal role, as questions of how to treat the subject, and what other issues to engage, shaped the campaign strategies of all political parties.
Still, this criticism is more about perspective than content. Holt does an excellent job describing how the Buchanan administration's failings were front and center during the 1860 presidential campaign, and this well-written and well-researched book should appeal to a broad range of scholars. [End Page 696]