FULLER (ed.): The Election of 1860 Reconsidered (2013)

Posted: 6/26/2013
Reviewed By: Elizabeth R. Varon

The Election of 1860 Reconsidered edited by A. James Fuller. Kent State University Press, 2013. Cloth, ISBN: 1606351486. $49.95.

This series of essays on the election of 1860 had its origins in the third annual symposium of the Civil War Study Group, hosted by the University of Indianapolis, in 2010. The symposium’s organizer A. James Fuller has edited the volume, and provided its introduction and three of its nine essays. The other contributors are Michael S. Green, James L. Huston, John R. McKivigan, Thomas E. Rodgers, Lawrence Sondhaus, and Douglas G. Gardner. The first four essays take up the contenders—Lincoln, Douglas, Breckenridge and Bell—in turn. They are followed by four thematic essays, covering the abolitionist response to the election, the issues of turnout and political realignment, and European perspectives on the election. The collection closes out with an overview of the historiography.

This volume is just the sort of reassessment that one hoped the sesquicentennial would occasion. The essays work as stand-alone primers, accessible to non-specialists, and as keen analyses offering new insights for specialists. Huston’s essay on Stephen Douglas’s 1860 sojourn in the South, for example, shines a light on a key irony: Douglas Democrats and Lincoln Republicans shared the doctrine of secession’s illegality and an emphasis on law and order, but Douglasites, in their determination to brand the Republicans as disunionists, shied away from these themes, and thus obscured from Southerners the “unanimity among Northerners about the illegitimacy of secession” (40). Fuller’s deft essay on Breckenridge explains that what historians have treated as conflicting interpretations of his aims—to unite the Democratic party behind a Southern rights candidate; to fuse with Douglas and Bell supporters and thereby deny Lincoln an electoral majority and throw the election to the House; to use Lincoln’s election to vindicate secession—were a series of contingencies, a plan A, plan B, and Plan C, as it were. McKivigan’s essay on Frederick Douglass notes that the famous abolitionist remained ambivalent about Lincoln and the Republicans in the wake of the election. McKivigan reveals that Douglass considered New York state’s referendum on black suffrage a window into the true character of the Republican Party. New Yorkers supported Lincoln’s election, but rejected equal suffrage, thereby illustrating that opposition to the Slave Power did not translate into support for black citizenship.             

Even the less fully realized essays in the collection raise provocative questions and open avenues for further research. Fuller observes in his essay on John Bell that it was “not surprising that Bell lost. Rather, it was more surprising that he did so well” (60); Fuller does not offer a sustained explanation of Bell’s success but he does challenge historians to see Bell as the last Whig candidate for the presidency. Rogers’s essay reminds readers that turnout, as a percentage of the electorate, was higher in the South than in the North, despite the fact that the Southern vote proved largely irrelevant; he speculates that Southerners saw the election as a high stakes referendum on republicanism and its legacy. On the subject of Northern turnout, Fuller invokes electoral realignment theory—with its focus on the primacy of national issues and the cyclical nature of party realignments—only to debunk it, with the help of the work of political scientist David R. Mayhew. Using the swing state Indiana as his test case, Fuller argues that local issues, such as the lingering effects of the Panic of 1857, were the lens through which national issues were interpreted.  Sondhaus’s essay on the European perspective establishes that European observers failed to recognize the pivotal stakes of the 1860 contest and to anticipate its consequences; they reasoned that the contending parties would find a way to compromise, as they had at other moments of crisis. He notes that the Republican Party was an unknown quantity for European intellectuals, and raises the question of how Britons in particular came to take the measure of Lincoln and his administration.                            

The final essay, surveying the historiography on the election, is the only one that falls short. It offers a clear but predictable chronological march through the literature, and stops short of acknowledging the most striking trend in the scholarship: the effort of scholars such as John Ashworth, William Link, Eric Walther and William Freehling to link the “infrapolitics” of resistance and reform to the traditional narrative of electoral politics. Fuller thereby misses the chance to fully contextualize McKivigan’s fine essay on Frederick Douglass. This oversight notwithstanding, The Election of 1860 deserves a wide readership and will surely inspire new scholarship.


Elizabeth R. Varon is the Langbourne M. Williams Professor of American History at the University of Virginia.

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