- The Election of 1860: "A Campaign Fraught with Consequences." by Michael F. Holt
By Michael F. Holt. (Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 2017. Pp. 256. Cloth, $29.95.)
Readers of Michael F. Holt's work will find familiar elements in this volume: illuminating details, an emphasis on historical contingency, a reconsideration of slavery's connections with antebellum politics, and, of course, a focus on elections. Rather than using quantitative data or manuscript sources, though, Holt here relies largely on newspapers to describe "how the campaign was presented to the electorate" (xiv). Abraham Lincoln has dominated this election's scholarship, he contends, even though most "voters in 1860 opposed the Republican Party." Holt aims to "decenter the Lincoln tale and give his competitors equal billing" (xi). The southern secessionists' interpretation, he maintains, has framed the 1860 election's common understanding—one that was about "slavery and the Republican Party's purported threat to it" (xii). But out of the four campaigns, only southern Democrats insisted upon contesting slavery extension. Republicans and Constitutional Unionists, in contrast, emphasized the Buchanan administration's corruption.
The Republicans' growth, Holt argues, resulted from "a series of contingent events that Republican propagandists persuasively portrayed as slaveholder or Slave Power aggressions" rather than from a growing revulsion [End Page 112] to slavery (2). But after receiving a plurality of the 1856 northern vote, the party's growth slowed. Following Kansas's failed statehood admission in 1858 under the proslavery Lecompton Constitution, Republicans realized that they "needed new ammunition" to highlight the slave power's threat (20). Holt uses Lincoln's "House Divided" speech as an example, particularly Lincoln's suggestion that the Taney Court's next decision might legalize slavery across the North. "Lincoln's pitch almost worked," but he lost the Illinois Senate seat in 1858, with Republican leaders becoming convinced "that free-soil sentiment was receding" (21, 19).
While many Republicans expected the Buchanan administration's corruption to be the election's key issue, Democratic Party factionalism defined the election. Buchanan's failed Lecompton gamble brought diminished support from northern Democrats and a feud with Illinois senator Stephen Douglas. This conflict forced slavery extension on the campaign, with southern Democrats demanding a federal slave code and refusing to support the Democratic nominee unless the party's platform endorsed such legislation. Northern Democrats quickly rejected this demand since they knew it was a losing issue with northern voters.
Unexpected developments affected each campaign. At the Democratic Party's first convention in Charleston, southern Democrats only "hoped to bend the national party to their will" and prevent Stephen Douglas's nomination (56). Following a second convention in Baltimore from which most southern delegates withdrew, those remaining nominated Douglas. Southern Democrats nominated John C. Breckinridge, who initially thought of himself as a placeholder for someone—like Franklin Pierce—who might head an anti-Republican coalition.
Republicans chose Lincoln over William Seward, according to Holt, not because they saw Lincoln "as any more conservative … on slavery and sectional issues" (92). Instead, Lincoln's appeal came from his honest reputation. "Disgust with corruption, not antislavery sentiment," explained Lincoln's nomination (97). Were Seward the nominee, his close ties with Thurlow Weed would have denied Republicans the corruption issue.
Republicans saw the winning of conservative ex-Whigs in Illinois, Indiana, and Pennsylvania as their key to victory and their biggest challenge, as these conservatives had supported Millard Fillmore in 1856. Unaffiliated former Whigs created the Constitutional Union Party in early 1860 and later nominated John Bell. They repudiated sectionalism and denounced Democratic corruption, with their dislike of Democrats preventing them from uniting against Republicans. They preferred a partisanship fueled by economic issues and saw slavery agitation as a "miserable abstraction" fostered by southern Democrats (80). [End Page 113]
Holt capably summarizes this multidimensional campaign. Rather than a four-candidate, two-section race, all four parties sought votes beyond their sectional base. Besides attacking Breckinridge, for example, Bell's forces also criticized Buchanan and the Republicans. Republicans chiefly focused on Buchanan's record, but also assailed southern Democrats' demand for a federal slave code and mocked Constitutional Unionists...