Monday, July 3, 2017

The Election of 1860

When it comes to the scholarly study of the sectional politics of the 1850s, historian Michael Holt remains one of our best resources. I don't think it would too unfairly pigeonhole his views on the coming of the Civil War to say that he is sympathetic to the "blundering generation" thesis. His next book will examine the Union-shattering event that kicked off the next decade. The Election of 1860: A Campaign Fraught with Consequences will be published later this year by University of Kansas Press. The book aims to create "a clearer and more comprehensive account of how the election unfolded and what it was actually about."

"Most critically, the book counters the common interpretation of the election as a referendum on slavery and the Republican Party’s purported threat to it." That's an odd way of putting it. "However significantly slavery figured in the election, The Election of 1860 reveals the key importance of widespread opposition to the Republican Party because of its overtly anti-southern rhetoric and seemingly unstoppable rise to power in the North after its emergence in 1854."

"Also of critical importance was the corruption of the incumbent administration of Democrat James Buchanan—and a nationwide revulsion against party." Michael Burlingame has said that playing the Democratic corruption angle was a successful strategy for the Republicans and a key element in their electoral victory in 1860. Two of the three jacket blurb writers confirm that this is a major theme of Holt's book.

More from the description: "Grounding his history in a nuanced retelling of the pre-1860 story, Michael F. Holt explores the sectional politics that permeated the election and foreshadowed the coming Civil War. He brings to light how the campaigns of the Republican Party and the National (Northern) Democrats and the Constitutional (Southern) Democrats and the newly formed Constitutional Union Party were not exclusively regional." That sounds interesting. "His attention to the little-studied role of the Buchanan Administration, and of perceived threats to the preservation of the Union, clarifies the true dynamic of the 1860 presidential election, particularly in its early stages."


  1. Other than some specific incidents by Southerners on the eve of secession (ex: SecWar Floyd) I wasn't aware of corruption issues in Buchanan's administration. That's an interesting angle.

    I do wonder how Holt is going to separate Republican "anti-southern rhetoric" from Republican anti-slavery rhetoric.

    1. That might interest us as distanced observers of today, but I am sure it was an irrelevant distinction to the southerners at the time!


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