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BOOK REVIEW:

Year of meteors : Stephen Douglas, Abraham Lincoln, and the election that brought on the Civil War

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Call Number: 
973.711 E29

I missed this book when it was published in 2010, but with the renewed interest in all things Lincoln, I was intrigued by the idea of a book about the backroom politics that resulted in Lincoln's election in 1860. Surprisingly, Lincoln is only a supporting character in Egerton's book; the main focus is on other important figures of the time, whom history has more or less forgotten in the wake of the 16th President's accomplishments.

The most important character in the book is Lincoln's Illinois rival, Stephen Douglas. Coming into the election of 1860, Douglas was the most famous - as well as the most loved and hated - political figure in America. In trying to find a solution to the territorial expansion of slavery, Douglas came up with a plan that made things worse, popular sovereignty, which would allow the residents of the territories choose for themselves whether or not to allow slavery. This led to even more strife.

In 1860, there were four major candidates for president and one "third party" candidate who drew significant support. The Democrats ended up having four different conventions in two different cities. Southern extremists, called "Fire Eaters," had no desire to compromise and hoped that the Democrats would fall apart, ensuring a Republican win that would force Southern states to secede. And that is what happened, as the Democrats nominated two candidates, Douglas, a Northerner who owned slaves in Arkansas (indirectly), and John Breckenridge, a Kentuckian who actually didn't own any slaves.

The Republicans were expected to nominate New York Senator William Seward, but the party believed that he would be considered too radical and would not have carried states like Pennsylvania or Ohio (or even New York), so the party turned to Lincoln, who was a popular, yet lightly-regarded figure at the time.

Unusual for the time, the election of 1860 played out the way, political experts of the day thought it would back in June of that year. The Republicans carried all of the Northern states. Breckinridge won most of the South. Douglas won only in Missouri and a few electoral votes in New Jersey despite finishing second in the popular vote. Compromise candidate John Bell of Tennessee finished third in the electoral vote despite never espousing any platform. Lincoln won with the lowest popular vote percentage ever, just 39.8%.

After Lincoln's election, South Carolina and Georgia started the secession movement. There were last ditch efforts at compromise, but the Republicans would not back them, primarily because they granted an expansion of slavery into the territories. Also, Lincoln did not want to come into office with his hands tied. And so the nation headed off on into the Civil War. The Southern Fire Eaters, whose ideology was based on white supremacy and an antiquated economic system, got their wish of plunging the nation into a bloody conflict. The South thought that the North would cave easily, one in an increasingly great series of miscalculations they would make.

Egerton's book does a tremendous job of portraying the events of 1860 in a way that makes the reader feel like he or she is living in that time. In 1860, no one would have expected that Abraham Lincoln would become one of the most important historical figures of all time. Stephen Douglas seemed bound for that. But Douglas would die early in 1861, a victim of his own alcoholism, while Lincoln's fame persists, and other figures played their parts in a drama that we hope we never see again.

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