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Year Of Meteors

April 16th, 2011 · 1 Comment

YEAR of meteors! brooding year!
I would bind in words retrospective, some of your deeds and signs;
I would sing your contest for the 19th Presidentiad;
I would sing how an old man, tall, with white hair, mounted the scaffold in Virginia
Walt Whitman – Year of Meteors [1859-60]

Year of Meteors by Douglas R. Egerton is the first book in my Civil War reading project.  This is a new book, just published in 2010.  The title invokes the Walt Whitman poem of the same name, which ponders the political crisis that erupted in 1860.

Egerton examines that crisis in close detail.  Chronologically, the book starts with the nominating conventions that picked the candidates for President in 1860.  There were four political parties that year, evidence of how the American political scene had splintered apart:

  • Democrat – The party of Andrew Jackson that had started out as the most populist party but, by 1860, had come to represent the status quo and the established order of things.  After years of successfully dampening down the growing tension between the Northern and Southern wings of the party, it finally split in 1860.  The northern Democrats united behind Stephen A. Douglas while the Southern delegates left the convention and formed a new party:
  • Southern Democrat – The southerners united behind John Breckenridge of Kentucky.  Their platform was like the Democrats in most ways but differed on slavery.  The Democrats favored Douglas’s concept of Popular Sovereignty, which held that each new territory on the western frontier should have a referendum to decide whether or not slavery should be allowed.  The Southern Democrats rejected this approach as too risky for the South and favored a policy that barred new territories from banning slavery.
  • Republican – The Republicans were a new party, risen out of the ashes of the old Whig party which had traditionally challenged the Democrats but fell apart in 1850s as its members increasingly couldn’t agree on how to handle the challenge of…  slavery in the western territories.  (See a pattern emerging?)  As we all know, the Republicans rallied behind Abraham Lincoln.  The Republican platform recognized that slavery couldn’t legally be barred where it already existed but was adamant that it should not be allowed to spread west into new territories.
  • Constitutional – Also made up mostly of Democrats with some old Know Nothings who didn’t feel comfortable with any of the other parties.  Their platform mostly sought  to evade the slavery issue by emphasizing the traditional virtues of the Constitution and the Union as it used to be.  Their candidate, John Bell, didn’t get very far in the general election.

Egerton devotes a full chapter to each of the four parties, following it through its creation, the nominating convention of 1860 and the general election.  The characters that emerge, while not all well known today, are fascinating:

  • Lincoln and Douglas – Both from Illinois, known respectively as The Rail Splitter and The Little Giant (Douglas was very short but with a barrel chest and enough fight in him for a much larger man).  These two had been rivals for years, running against each other for the US Senate in 1858 (Douglas won).  As younger men, they had both courted the lovely (and wealthy) Mary Todd who went on to choose Lincoln as the most suitable husband.  One of the more touching parts of the book describes an ailing Douglas, after losing the election, on a speaking tour through a hostile South telling the people to their faces that Lincoln was to be the President and that succession was treason.  Douglas was dead less than two years later, victim of a live of hard living and (especially) drinking.
  • William Seward – Considered the heavyweight of the Republican party and a shoo-in for the nomination until his political manager at the convention was out-maneuvered by Lincoln’s.  We went on to accept the post of Secretary of State, traditionally considered the spot occupied by the President’s right-hand man and heir-apparent.
  • William Yancey – One of the Fire-Eaters, a group of Southern agitators who believed that the South was doomed if it stayed in the Union.  Yancey worked behind the scenes with others of the same ilk to make sure the Democrats split.  Egerton shows pretty convincingly that the Fire-Eaters weren’t really interested in electing their man President but actually wanted to ensure a Republican victory on the theory that only then would the South wake up to the danger and secede.  It worked.

Why was slavery in the territories the major bone of contention in 1860?  It was all about the balance of power in Washington DC.  For years, Congress had been balanced between free and slave states.  The Missouri Compromise of 1820, for example, allowed the entry of Missouri as a slave state in exchange for the entry of Maine as a free state.  So long as Congress was kept in balance, the South could feel assured that the North would not try to forcibly abolish slavery.  There were two problems emerging for the South, however:

  • The great influx of immigrants from Ireland, Germany, and Scandinavia that had been going on for several decades were mostly settling in the industrial North, where there were more economic opportunities for newcomers.  This rise in population was starting to tilt the House of Representatives toward the North.
  • The increasing settlement in the west was also starting to tilt toward the North, partly because of those same immigrants.  The South was hemmed in by Mexico while the North had access to a vast expanse of territory that everyone agreed was not economically suitable for slavery.  This is why the Mexican War had been supported disproportionally by Southerners.  If all that land to the North started becoming free states, the day might come when there was no more room for compromises to keep the Senate balanced.

Despite these worries, the South had one final trump card:  the Presidency.  In 1860, it had been literally decades since the President had not either been a Southerner or a Northerner sympathetic to the South’s view of slavery (these Northerners were known colloquially as Doughfaces).  So long as the South or it’s Northern allies occupied the White House, the Southern planter class could breath easier.

And then, Abraham Lincoln of Illinois won the election of 1860.

What was worse, Lincoln wasn’t even on the ballot in most Southern states (laws dictating how candidates got on local ballots were a lot looser then).  Mr. Lincoln became President based solely on votes from the North and West.  To the South, this was a fire bell in the night.  A sectional candidate could now become President without the Electoral College votes of a single Southern state.  The message seemed clear:  the South was under the effective control of other sections of the country that did not have her best interests at heart.  Were, in fact, hostile to her best interests.

On December 20, 1860, less than two months after the election and before Lincoln’s inaugural, South Carolina voted to secede from the United States.  Within a few weeks, Mississippi followed suit.  On February 4, 1861, a convention of southern states approved the constitution of the newly-formed Confederate States of America.

On April 12, 1861, South Carolina militia forces opened fire on the federal garrison of Fort Sumter in Charleston harbor.  The crisis had become a war.

Tags: The Civil War

1 response so far ↓

  • 1 Lincoln: President-Elect // Jul 20, 2011 at 10:18 pm

    […] See Year of Meteors for a look at the events just before this book […]

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