Review of “Year of Meteors” by Douglas R. Egerton

The United States presidential election of 1860 was possibly the most seminal in our history. Egerton follows the election with great care, giving the bulk of his attention to Democratic party politics. He articulates the positions of Stephen Douglas, John Breckenridge, and John Bell, and describes what happened at the various party conventions held to select these candidates.

Egerton posits several theses about the election that I believe he proves quite adequately in this book.

One is that the “fire-eating” Southerners were determined to brook no compromises; they wanted to split the Democratic party vote. Their stated goal was to get a Republican elected, so that the South would have an “excuse” to secede. The two chief engineers of this plan were the rabid secessionists William Yancey of Alabama and Robert Rhett of South Carolina. Both of them had been publicly calling for secession for years.

The second is that, in spite of what later revisionist historians claimed about the motives of Southerners, it was never about “states’ rights”; it was always about slavery. As the Vice President of the Confederate States, Alexander Stephens, declared of the new government:

…its corner-stone rests upon the great truth that the negro is not equal to the white man; that slavery – subordination to the superior race – is his natural and normal condition.”

(It should also be noted that southern planters rejected northern offers to free blacks and then colonize them in Liberia or elsewhere so the southerners wouldn’t have to deal with them. Southern “Yanceyites” had no interest in freeing blacks. In fact, they wanted more enslaved workers, not fewer, and even lobbied to get the Atlantic slave trade re-opened to “stock” the western territories.)

At the time of the 1860 election, as Egerton points out:

[white southern planters] saw no reason to disguise their message; it would only be in later years, after the Confederacy had collapsed under northern guns, that statesmen writing their memoirs would think it necessary to point to more morally acceptable causes such as economic grievances.”

Even President Buchanan, trying to diffuse the secession crisis, made a speech in which he admonished that talk of liberty and equality by northerners could cause servile insurrections and terrify plantation mistresses in dread of what could happen to them. [No one of course was concerned about the terrified young black girls in the slave quarters, whose fears were actually based on reality. This best-ever example of projecting your worst characteristics onto your enemies was repeated over and over again in the South in the reconstruction years.] (Buchanan, who wasn’t even our worst or our most racist president, endorsed Breckinridge for president in the 1860 race because Breckinridge was the only one to favor a federal slave code for the territories, as opposed to letting the territories decide based on popular sovereignty, and thereby taking the risk that some of them would be – gasp – free.)

A third theory Egerton advances is that even had the Democratic party stayed united behind Stephen A. Douglas, Lincoln still would have won. He includes an analysis of the electoral and popular voting to support his position.

Stephen A. Douglas

Stephen Douglas, no matter what else he might have been, was a staunch unionist, and when Lincoln won the election, he backed him all the way, meeting with him often to consult on the deteriorating national situation. In fact, they got on so well that Secretary of State Seward, who wanted to exert the most influence over Lincoln, was disturbed over “the growing intimacy between the senator and the president.” As it happened, Seward needn’t have worried. At President Lincoln’s request, Douglas undertook a mission to the Border States and to the Northwest to rouse Unionist sentiments among their citizenry, but the non-stop schedule and non-stop drinking wore him down. He died of typhoid fever on June 3, 1861, at the age of forty-eight.

Discussion: This excellent book covers only a small slice of antebellum politics, but is rich in detail. It is especially valuable for its focus on Douglas and his southern rivals rather than on Lincoln. I enjoyed it a great deal, but I wouldn’t recommend it to a reader unfamiliar with the broader context, or with the constitutional, territorial, and sectional issues that were roiling the nation.

Rating: 3.5/5

Published by Bloomsbury Press, 2010

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