Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Lincoln President-Elect: Abraham Lincoln and the Great Secession Winter, 1860-1861, by Harold Holzer

In just two short weeks, Americans will elect their next president, the nation's forty-fourth. No matter the victor, this year's election will no doubt go down as a historic one. But perhaps America's most historic presidential election, and certainly the most significant, occurred 148 years ago, in November 1860.
With threats of secession and the "momentous issue of civil war" at stake, and as the nation headed further toward that "irrepressible conflict," Americans elected Abraham Lincoln, of Illinois. Although he received the lowest percentage of votes in American history (less than 40%), and although his name did not even appear on the ballots in several of the Deep South states, Lincoln prevailed in large part due to the divided Democratic Party--which ran two candidates, Stephen Douglas and John Breckinridge--and yet another contender, John Bell, of the short-lived Constitutional Union Party. Following Lincoln's election, America entered, in the words of Henry Adams, the "Great Secession Winter" of 1860-1861, during which seven states left the Union while the lame-duck president James Buchanan did little, if anything, to stop them. To say, then, that president-elect Lincoln would assume a difficult challenge upon entering the White House in March 1861 would be an exercise in understatement.
Being both fascinated by Abraham Lincoln and having a great interest in American presidential history, I agreed several weeks ago to read and review Lincoln President Elect, by Harold Holzer, one of the nation's foremost Lincoln scholars. With nearly 500 pages of text, this book provides a detailed day-by-day and, in some cases, minute-by-minute account of Abraham Lincoln's actions and decisions from his election in early November 1860 until his inauguration in early March 1861. With a clear and fast-paced style, Holzer takes us through Lincoln's period of "masterly inactivity" as the nation drifted apart and explains Lincoln's stoicism in refusing to agree to or promote any kind of compromise that would address the "grievances" of the South and attempt to save the Union by essentially overturning the decision of the American people in electing Lincoln. We learn of Lincoln's efforts to establish a presidential image, the difficulties he encountered in trying to shape his Cabinet, and how he was continually besieged, even plagued by office-seekers. At the same time, Holzer recounts Lincoln's historic inaugural journey, including his infamous passage through Baltimore, and his drafting of his famed first inaugural address. In summarizing Lincoln's actions during that Great Secession Winter, Holzer writes, "[He] had successfully maintained a masterly inactivity and public silence to prevent the spread of slavery, privately fought a bare-knuckle political battle to bar unprincipled compromise, and brilliantly introduced himself to the press and people of the North with a new look, new images, and a new style of informal oratory along a triumphant voyage to the capital. And then, despite a giant step backward at Baltimore that might have crippled less agile leaders, he had recaptured public confidence while harmonizing a balanced and brilliant cabinet. And," concludes Holzer, "he had crafted one of the nimblest and most eloquent of all inaugural addresses, one that not only reiterated his devotion to the rule of law and invoked the emotional power of national tradition, but maintained that slavery could be maintained without compromising founding principles." [Pg. 458]
In the end, Holzer presents a convincing challenge to the established notion of a wavering, uncommitted, and perhaps even delusional Abraham Lincoln in the wake of his election. At the same time, he further cements himself as an eminent Lincoln scholar. I enjoyed reading Lincoln President Elect and believe that others, with similar interests in Civil War and presidential history, will enjoy it as well. In the seemingly endless catalog of Lincoln titles that has already appeared and will continue to do so over the next year as Americans commemorate the 200th Anniversary of Lincoln's birth, this work will surely rank among the best and most important.


Harry said...


I don't know that "a wavering, uncommitted, and perhaps even delusional Abraham Lincoln in the wake of his election" is an established notion. But what did you think of the lack of a bibliography? Over 100 pages of notes, and no bibliography!

John David Hoptak said...

Hope all is going well. It was great to see you several weeks back. Perhaps my phraseology was wrong with that statement; I meant to say that Lincoln has often been portrayed as failing to comrehend that the South would go ahead with their efforts to form a new nation and that the nation was heading toward war.
As for the bibliography. . .or lack thereof: a gross oversight both on my end and S&S's.

Drew@CWBA said...

"Masterly inactivity" seems to be a beloved phrase in the Lincoln literature. I thought it originated with Russel McClintock's recent book but a google books search finds it used in the same context in McPherson's "Battle Cry of Freedom" and many earlier books, along with an emancipationist context in Quarles's "Lincoln and the Negro".

Harry said...

500 pages of text on a period described by the Republicans as one of "masterly inactivity."