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245 9 “An Inscrutable Election?” The Historiography of the Election of 1860 Douglas G. Gardner “Altogether, it was a very curious, a very mixed, and except for its grand central result, a very inscrutable election.” So Allan Nevins in 1947 judged the presidential contest of 1860, back in an era when political history, and especially the political history of elections, was incontestably at the center of the historical profession’s interests.1 Outside of the immediate context of the argument Nevins was making about how the popular and Electoral College votes in 1860 had not lined up with each other (a common enough result in American presidential elections), it is difficult to see how anyone can regard the election of 1860 as really having been inscrutable. Defined by the Oxford English Dictionary as “that [which] cannot be searched into or found out by searching; impenetrable or unfathomable to investigation; quite unintelligible , entirely mysterious,” the term inscrutable does not seem to fit the circumstances of the canvass that made Lincoln president. Odd, bizarre, unexpected, comic, tragic—all of these adjectives and more aptly apply to the election of 1860 and its short- and long-term consequences, but not “inscrutable.” Nevins himself wrote over a hundred fact-filled, lucid, coherent , narrative-driven pages on what happened at the national political level during the campaign of 1860. For over a century, the major historical analyses of the election of 1860 have concentrated on a few key issues, creating a historiographical tradition whose confines may be ready to be shattered at this sesquicentennial moment. The primary focus of the tradition has been on Abraham Lincoln and his candidacy’s impact on the shape of the election and on Fuller text.indb 245 1/15/13 2:55 PM 246 · The Election of 1860 Reconsidered the attitudes of the body politic. A narrative counterpoint to the success of the Republican candidate has been the concomitant failure of Stephen A. Douglas to achieve victory in the fall elections in the wake of the split of the Democratic Party. This combined concentration on Lincoln (and also his supporters and advisors) and Douglas (and the ripping apart of his party) has varied only occasionally over the past century as historiographical generations have succeeded one another. It continues even into the current crop of book-length reconsiderations of the election. As an adjunct to this traditional focus on the candidates and their candidacies , an overwhelming sense of “inevitability” about some part of Lincoln ’s emergence, or his nomination, or his election, of the dissolution of the Union in the wake of his inauguration has been expressed in many of these accounts. It is true that some accounts have allowed for more contingency from the actors and circumstances, but most writers take a deterministic view of the presidential contest. Inevitability is a word that sends shivers through Civil War scholars as they contemplate how to explain best the road to war, and there is no need to re-cover that familiar ground at any length. Instead, the purpose of this essay is to focus on how a few specific narratives about the election do or do not encapsulate the concept. Of course, “contingent” is not precisely the antonym of “inevitable ,” but it has become an historical buzzword over the past two or three decades, as academic historians have sought to explicate the role that chance, accident, and fortuity played in—to use more buzzwords—the “social construction” of past worlds. Further complicating the inevitabilitycontingency divide is the fact that the exact terms of the inevitability that various authors have identified over the decades have been so imprecise that at times the concept is prone to rhetorical drift even within the same sentence or paragraph. The pall of the historiographical division over the possibility of inevitability in the literature is so strong that it calls to mind what Edward L. Ayers has recently categorized as the fundamentalist position on the entire problem of Civil War causation, which in his words “emphasizes the intrinsic, inevitable conflict between slavery and free labor.”2 For such fundamentalists, the differences over slavery (and anything else, but mostly slavery) between the sections were so intertwined with such deeply felt and basic notions of sectional identity and security that war at some point became inevitable. This historiographical tradition about the election of 1860—focused on Lincoln and Douglas, and usually, but not always, stressing inevitability— Fuller text.indb 246 1/15/13 2:55 PM “An Inscrutable...


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