The presidential election of 1860 was unlike any other in American history. The product of the contentious and often violent politics of the 1850s, it saw no less than four candidates contesting for the White House. With the fracturing of the Democratic Party over the issue of slavery, the Republican candidate Abraham Lincoln was able to win with a only a plurality of the vote, thanks to the majority he won in the electoral college through his near sweep of the populous states of the northern United States. In response to his victory, seven southern states sought to break away from the Union, an action that led to the bloodiest war in the nation's history and the eventual abolition of slavery in the country.
Given its dramatic nature and the momentous events that followed, the 1860 campaign has never wanted for attention from historians. Yet Michael F. Holt argues that a number of misconceptions have accumulated around the election which have skewed our perception of it. His book offers a revisionist account of the campaign that highlights these obscured or distorted elements in an effort to gain a better understanding of the issues that defined it for the voters who participated. Foremost among them, he argues, is the idea that the election was primarily about slavery, which he sees as the view of the southerners who would subsequently seek to break away from the union. For most voters, though, the main issue was the corruption of the Buchanan administration. Holt shows how Republicans highlighted this in the months leading up to the election, making the case that what was needed was a clean sweep of the executive branch. As he explains this also played a key role in the selection of "Honest Abe" as the nominee, as Lincoln's profile was one better suited to make the case for the Republicans than that of his main competitors, William Seward and the corrupt Simon Cameron.
While the Republicans sharpened their arguments about Democratic corruption in advance of the election, the Democratic Party was plagued with infighting between the president, James Buchanan, and Stephen Douglas. Holt traces the origins of this to Douglas's refusal to admit Kansas as a state under the proslavery Lecompton constitution. As Holt points out, this coupled with Douglas's qualified acceptance of the Dred Scott decision also alienated him from the southern Democrats who increasingly dominated the party, setting the stage for the party convention in Charleston in 1860 at which the Democrats fractured into pro- and anti-Douglas factions. With a victory by the (at that point undecided) Republican candidate increasingly likely, a group of politicians organized a conservative alternative to Republicans in the form of the Constitutional Union Party, who selected the elder statesman John Bell as their presidential contender. With the nomination of Douglas and Vice President John Breckinridge by the separate Democratic factions, the stage was set for a chaotic contest.
In covering the campaign that followed, Holt pushes back against the traditionally narrow view of it as separate contests between Lincoln and Douglas in the north and Breckinridge versus Bell in the south. Though Breckinridge, and Bell both refrained from electioneering, their campaigns sent speakers and mounted rallies in the northern states as well as the southern ones, while Republicans distributed ballots in the border slave states as well. Most dramatically Douglas undertook the then-unusual step of personally campaigning by making speeches in both the northern and southern states. Holt's chapter on the campaign itself is the best in the book, as he describes the myriad activities the parties adopted to turn out the vote. In this respect the Republican effort proved the most successful, as the dramatic appeals to young voters with the "Wide Awake" clubs and criticisms of Democratic corruption delivering them the victories they needed in the key swing states. As Holt points out, slavery was a salient issue only in the south, where arguments that Republicans were seeking outright abolition were so disconnected from Republican campaign goals that Republicans failed to take seriously the threats of secession by many southerners —a delusion that would quickly be dispelled in the weeks following Lincoln's victory.
As a longtime scholar of antebellum politics, Holt brings a lifetime's worth of learning to his subject. Yet he wears this lightly, providing an accessible description of the election while making arguments that go far towards shaking up the traditional interpretation of the 1860 election. Yet Holt oversells the revisionist nature of his account. Though he performs a valuable service in highlighting aspects of the campaign that were obscured by subsequent events, as Holt himself acknowledges at the end, perceptions of Democratic corruption and "misrule" in the north were as much tied to the perception of the party's excessive deference to southerners' anxieties about slavery as it was the buying of votes or the favoring of Democrats in awarding contracts. Moreover, his account of the election itself only qualifies somewhat the view of it as separate contests, suggesting the misconception is more one of emphasis than detail. Yet in the end these are criticisms of degree rather than of substance. Overall, Holt's reexamination of the 1860 election offers a refreshing reexamination of one of the truly pivotal moments in American history, and is necessary reading for anyone seeking to understand the election and how it led to the devastating conflict that followed.
Al Smith is best remembered today as the first Catholic to win the nomination of a major political party. In doing so his campaign overcame considerable opposition from within his own prejudice-bound Democratic Party, and though he fell well short of winning the White House in 1928 he is credited with winning for them the support of the millions of ethnic voters who would go on to become an important part of the "New Deal coalition" that made the Democrats the dominant political party in America for a generation. While his appeal traditionally has been credited to their identification with his ethnic and religious background, in this book Robert Chiles makes the case that this obscures the real source of his appeal, which was the unabashedly progressive agenda he advocated in that race, one rooted in the policies he pursued throughout his career in New York politics.
As Chiles explains, Smith was drawn to progressivism through his interactions with settlement house activists in New York City in the 1910s. Though them he gained a greater awareness of the issues facing immigrants and urban workers, which he sought to address through government policy. As a state legislator and governor he pursued reforms on issues ranging from conservation to government efficiency, all of which were central to his platform as the Democratic presidential candidate. This won him the support of many ethnic voters, whose political identification at this time was in a state of flux. Drawn to the candidate of a party who addressed their concerns, they maintained their allegiance for his successor, Franklin Roosevelt, who drew upon much of Smith's progressive legacy when formulating the policies of his own administration during his time as president.
By highlighting Smith's progressivism, Chiles contributes both to our understanding of this important politician and his long-term impact upon American politics. In the process he also helps to explain the under-appreciated origins of a political shift that shaped the nation in which Americans live today. Together it makes for a book that no student of the era or of American political history more generally can afford to ignore.
The presidential election of 1840 in America was a notable one for a number of reasons. Not the least of these was its result, as it was the first election in which the nominee of the Whig Party, William Henry Harrison, triumphed by defeating his Democratic opponent, incumbent president Martin Van Buren. Though this was the product of a variety of factors, foremost among them was the Whig's perfection of electioneering techniques that had emerged over the previous sixteen years, the employment of which served in many ways as a model for presidential campaigns down to the present day. In this book Mark Cheathem describes the evolution of presidential campaigning during the antebellum era, showing how these techniques emerged and how they framed the contests for the growing number of Americans voting in national elections.
As Cheathem explains, the development of presidential campaigning was a relatively recent phenomenon. With George Washington as a consensus choice, the nascent political parties did not even confront the problem of electing candidates until the third election in 1796. Even then, elections took place in a very different context, with the electoral college delegates chosen by their state's legislatures rather than in a popular vote. This changed in the 1820s as popular democracy was expanded, a development intertwined with the emergence of the "second party system" in the aftermath of the presidential election of 1824.
With the new parties now needing to appeal to this growing pool of voters they began to develop a range of electioneering devices. Here Cheathem details the emergence of a variety of tools in print, music, and visual culture that sought to promote a chosen candidate and undermine their opponent. As the dominant mass media of their time newspapers were at the forefront of this, often serving as the most direct means for candidates to reach out to their supporters across long distances. But the songs and displays at rallies also emerged as important implements for campaigns to rally voters to support their man. Cheathem also details the growing role women played in this process, as the contemporary views about their role as moral guardians proved a valuable asset in political campaigns.
Cheathem describes this in a brisk narrative that demonstrates a command of both the campaign material of the era and the secondary source literature on his subject. By weaving into this a succinct narrative of the presidential politics of the time, he provide a useful background to the issues touched upon in the campaign materials he describes. All of this is presented in a fluid text that provides its readers with a clear presentation of the era and makes a convincing argument about the development of presidential campaigning in the era. The result is a book that everybody interested in American politics should read, both for the understanding it provides in the development of modern electioneering, both for better and for worse.