Read an Excerpt
From the Prologue:
The 1860 presidential election, one of the most critical in United States history, has often been presented as a rather staid four-man race in which Abraham Lincoln, through little effort of his own, was able to slip in the back door of the White House, even though he won only 39 percent of the popular vote. In many books, movies, plays, and stories he is wrongly depicted as a man far above politics whom the nation naturally turned to in its hour of need. His Republican Party won the 1860 election, of which the key issue was presented exclusively as slavery, most agreed, because the country had split into two camps-North and South. The slavery forces won in the Southern states, and the antislavery forces, the Republicans, took the Northern states and their huge electoral votes and won the election.
Lincoln won, historians seemed to suggest, because the Democratic Party was torn apart and its three different candidates-Stephen Douglas, John Breckinridge, and John Bell-split the opposition vote, giving Lincoln victory. Subsequently, the conventions and election were thought to have provided little drama. The major biographers of Lincoln paid little attention to them. One of his earliest biographers, Carl Sandburg, in his Abraham Lincoln: The Prairie Years, devoted just 40 of 900 pages, or just 5 percent of the book, to the election. Later history works followed suit. David Herbert Donald's 1995 Pulitzer Prize-winning Lincolndevoted only 14 of its 600 pages to the 1860 race, or just 2 percent of the work. Richard Carwardine gave only 9 percent of his Lincoln Prize-winning book, Lincoln: A Life of Purpose and Power, to the campaign, and Doris Kearns Goodwin, in Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln, only spent 38 of 754 pages on the campaigns.
A new look shows, however, that Abraham Lincoln did not back into the presidency but avidly chased and finally captured it after prodigious work in what was a dramatic and often gripping race filled with feuds, jealousies, secret agreements, lies, failed promises, and betrayals among both parties and all four candidates.
Lincoln's biggest strength was not simply that he was opposed to slavery. His greatest asset was that he was an outsider, from the distant reaches of Illinois, the western rim of America's population center at that time, far from the politicians in Washington who had maneuvered the nation into the mess it found itself in 1860.
Over the previous twelve years, Lincoln held no national office, did not vote for or against any of the laws that were causing such firestorms in the 1850s. Fed up with a divided country and sick of the politicians who divided it, people were looking for a fresh face. As an outsider, Lincoln had few real enemies in the political world, unlike the other men in the race, all longtime public officeholders. No one in the Republican Party had any reason to feud with Lincoln, but enemies collected by other candidates over long careers in the public spotlight hurt them.
Lincoln was popular in the northwestern states (today the Midwest), whose combined population had nearly doubled in the previous ten years. They were key to any election and to each party's political future. Lincoln was a well-to-do, successful lawyer who ran as a blue collar "rail-splitter." He was nicknamed "Honest Abe," a scandal-free man of convictions riding the religious and moral wave against slavery in an era tinged with widespread political corruption. He was flexible, a man who could change as the nation and its people changed. He made it a point from an early age to know what was on the minds of the people as they tumbled through a generation of constant upheaval. He had beaten the powerful Stephen Douglas, the mainstream Democratic nominee, once in the popular vote in the 1858 U.S. Senate race and promised to do it again in the presidential contest. Most important, though, Abraham Lincoln was a masterful politician who had spent nearly three decades building alliances with other politicians throughout his home and neighboring states. He had traded favors with dozens of party leaders. He rode his horse over the chilly back roads of many regions in the North, even strife-torn Kansas, in sunshine, rain, and snow, delivering speeches on behalf of candidates running for office. He was a superb strategist who knew how to target swing counties and towns, conduct efficient public opinion polls, and tailor campaigns in specific areas.
He was not merely the spokesperson for the Illinois Republican Party but one of its hardworking founders. He spent years courting, and winning, the support of Illinois' huge immigrant population, which by the late 1850s represented over 30 percent of the state's vote. He devoted as much time as he could with newspaper reporters and editors, even those from Democratic papers, in an effort to earn publicity for himself. Lincoln was careful, over years of political storms that saw many different groups ride the whirlwind of public opinion, never to champion or denounce any particular group and never to disclaim his long years in the defunct Whig Party. He developed a close-knit group of friends who became trusted political operatives, amateurs who would outsmart the best political bosses of the day and who would bring Lincoln the presidency.
He was, in short, a pragmatic politician, a man who knew the peoples' pulse, a man of great perseverance with an enormous capacity for work, who assiduously sought some kind of high office all of his life-history's man of opportunity-and finally succeeded in 1860.
The Republicans were never the happy beneficiaries of votes from the old Whigs, Free Soilers, German Americans, or Know-Nothings, as often reported, but the active pursuers of all groups that could bring victory in the most dramatic election in the nation's history. They were a party led by men in different states who, county by county, town by town, put together efficient machines that brought triumphs. The new party, formally organized in 1854, was fueled by crossover votes, particularly from disenchanted Democrats, and by record Republican registrations of new voters, mostly young, and high voter turnouts. They were able to place dozens of men on key congressional committees and help to turn the direction of the federal government. Then, as the White House finally seemed within reach on the hazy horizon in 1860, the Republicans, led by Lincoln, strategically zeroed in on the key states that could bring them victory.
The Republicans were a major party in 1860 because of their opposition to slavery. Throughout the 1840s and 1850s several new, small antislavery parties, such as the Liberty and Free Soil parties, had some success in elections. Slavery had haunted America since the first slaves arrived in 1619 in Virginia. Thomas Jefferson put it best. Slavery, he said, was like holding a wolf by the ears-you can't hold it in comfort and can't let go out of fear for your safety. The issue had no strong political traction until the controversial Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854, which permitted the residents of territories to determine whether or not they wanted slavery. Opposition to the spread of slavery in Kansas and Nebraska caused all the small antislavery parties to merge with disgruntled Democrats and new voters to form the Republican Party.
One of those new Republicans was Illinois' former congressman Abraham Lincoln, who was furious in his opposition to the Kansas-Nebraska Act. He said that by permitting the expansion of slavery, "we are proclaiming ourselves political hypocrites before the world...by thus fostering human slavery and proclaiming ourselves, at the same time, the sole friends of human freedom."