Thursday, January 17, 2013

Year of Meteors by Douglas R. Egerton

Douglas Egerton's Year of Meteors presents the events leading up to and following the 1860 election.  It is an excellent history of the campaigns of Stephen Douglas and Abraham Lincoln for the Presidency.

Stephen Douglas
Egerton's work begins with events in April - June 1861 that end with Stephen Douglas's death at 48 years.  Lincoln was stunned by the death of the long-time political rival.   Douglas died a bitter man convinced that "leaders of the secession movement" had orchestrated the Republican victory by willfully dividing the Democratic Party.   Douglas put the blame on two "fire-eating" secessionists: Robert Barnwell Rhett and William Lowndes Yancey.   From this introduction, Egerton takes the reader on a roller-coaster ride of political intrigue and back-room bargaining to the events leading to the Civil War.

At the heart of the struggle was the debate on the extension of slavery into the western territories.  On the one side, Robert Rhett through his paper, the Charleston Mercury, advocated the "formation of a Slave Republic" and contrasted the differences between the societies of the North and South.  On the other, were Republicans who refused to see the country become a slave-based economy and give into the demands of slave-holding states. 

Abraham Lincoln
The path to the election starts with the notion that it will be a contest between the Democrat front-runner Douglas and his Republican rival, William Seward.  Neither had counted on the political turmoil created by the southern Democrats and Seward's missteps that produced a Lincoln victory even before election day.  The author explains how Rhett and Yancey became convinced that the slave-based economic and social system could not be sustained in the Union.  Therefore, they plotted to destroy the Democratic party and virtually guarantee the election of the Republican candidate.  Thus armed with this unfavorable outcome, the southern states, led by South Carolina, would simply leave the United States and form their own group of slave-holding states.  The flaw in their thinking was that the Northern states would let them leave without a fight.

We follow the party conventions and learn about the formation of new parties, The Constitutional Union and Liberty Party. Egerton explains how disagreements with the Democratic party concerning the expansion of slavery with the Northern branch favoring state-by-state determination and the Southern part demanding the freedom to carry their "property" and economic system into the west destroyed party unity and ended up offering two separate presidential candidates.

The author also discusses the last-minute "compromises" proposed by Kentucky Senator John Crittenden which was based on the Missouri Compromise that limited slavery to below the 36 degrees, 30 minutes parallel and the 1861 Peace Conference.  The refusal of the states that had already seceded to alter their position doomed both of these efforts to failure.

The Year of Meteors is an intriguing history of the politics in the 1860 election. 

Douglas R. Egerton is a professor of history at Le Moyne College and author of five books.

We rate Year of Meteors


No comments: