Harold Holzer - Email interview transcript
Renowned Lincoln and Civil War-era politics author, lecturer, TV guest, chairman of The Lincoln Bicentennial Foundation, appointed Co-Chairman of U.S. Abraham Lincoln Bicentennial Commission by President Clinton in 2000 (served until 2010), awarded National Humanities Medal in 2008 by President Bush, Hertog Fellow at The New-York Historical Society
-Why was the Election of 1860 a turning point in American history?
In 1860, Americans essentially decided between extending slavery—and the slave power—or restricting it to the states where it already existed, and placing it, as Lincoln and other Republicans put it, on the “course of ultimate extinction.” It was a watershed moment for America—a future tilting toward freedom, or slavery. The North knew it, and so did the South—hence their haste to secede after the Republicans won.
-What caused the increase in sectionalism leading up to the election?
-What's the key reason why the Democratic Party split in 1860?
Slavery! Stephen A. Douglas’ idea of “popular sovereignty”—meaning that white voters in new western states could vote to accept or ban slavery for themselves, was hated by the Free Soil people; but it was equally hated by Southerners, who didn’t want ANY restrictions on where slavery could spread. So when Douglas emerged as the likely nominee of the Democrats, the convention deadlocked, and later, southern delegates peeled away and named their own candidate.
-If the Democrats had united behind one candidate, would Lincoln have won the election?
This is a tough one. If you go county by county, district by district, Lincoln would still have won the free states and thus, the election. But such purely mathematic accounts don’t take into account the momentum of campaigns. I personally think he would have lost. Others disagree.
-How much of an underdog was Lincoln going into the Republican convention in Chicago?
Lincoln was a real underdog—maybe 5th in line. But his strategy was to offend no one, criticize no other candidate, and lie low as everyone’s second choice. So on the first ballot, when he came in second and Seward did not have enough votes to go over the top on either that or the next ballot, the campaign steamrolled to Lincoln. The others were never factors.
-How was Lincoln able to defeat so many solid candidates in the Republican field?
Conventions in those days were hard to figure. No primaries, no long run-up to the vote (weeks, not years), and lots of deal making on the floor. It’s entirely possible, as legend holds, that Lincoln’s managers (he wasn’t there!) gave away Cabinet spots to Ohio and Pennsylvania in return for 2nd and 3rd ballot support.
-Would any Republican candidates other than Lincoln have been able to win the general election?
Yes, I think Seward would probably have won too as long as the Dems split; if not, then no—but then again, I’m not certain Lincoln would have beaten a united Democratic party either
-Would secession have occurred with one of the Republican candidates besides Lincoln as President-elect? Would any of them have done a better job of calming down the South than Lincoln did by not saying anything?
I think the only Republican who could have calmed the South any better than Lincoln did was Bates, who was a real conservative, and a Southerner (Missouri). Lincoln tried calming the waters, too, but the secessionists wouldn’t believe him. Seward flirted with the idea of compromise before the inauguration more earnestly than Lincoln, and he was prepared to make slavery almost permanent in return for unity, but he was so toxic to the slave power that he could never have managed such a compromise had he, not Lincoln, been elected (Good question!).
-Was it realistic for Lincoln to talk about trying to keep the Union together during the campaign?
Well, he didn’t talk about anything during the campaign—he was just as silent after the nomination as he was during the interregnum known as the great secession winter—but people knew where he stood: the Union was almost sacred to him.