Mel Maurer - Email interview transcript
Lincoln and Civil War historian, Lincoln portrayer, former President of the Cleveland Civil War Roundtable (2004-2005), Lincoln Forum member
-Why was the Election of 1860 a turning point in American history?
It was an event that ultimately determined whether the democracy founded in 1776 would survive or cease to exist - a failed experiment. As Lincoln put it in his Gettysburg Address: "whether that nation or any nation so dedicated and so consecrated ('all men created equal') could long endure."
-What caused the increase in sectionalism leading up to the election?
While there were a number of reasons - social and economic - that divided the northern and southern states, the greatest of these, which was both social and economic was slavery. The repeal, in 1854, of the Missouri Compromise, which had "kept a lid on slavery," followed by the Dred Scott decision brought slavery to the political forefront, forcing the country to address its future - sharply dividing advocates and opponents - was slavery going to be expanded or was it going to be contained where it would gradually fade out and die? (A small example in today's issues is gun control - some people want to contain gun ownership while some gun supporters feel that any restrictions would mean the end of gun ownership as we know it today.)
-What's the key reason why the Democratic Party split in 1860?
I think the party split along the same lines as did the country - the key reason being the future of slavery in this country.
-If the Democrats had united behind one candidate, would Lincoln have won the election?
No, a united Democratic party would have had the numbers to beat Lincoln especially with Stephen Douglas as its candidate - he had appeal to both regions. The political events of the 1850s almost meant that war was inevitable by 1860 - blood was up and a political solution, even another temporary one, with Douglas as president was beyond acceptance by the south.
-How much of an underdog was Lincoln going into the Republican convention in Chicago?
He was definitely an underdog but not as much of one as he appeared to be. In his campaign against Douglas for senator in 1858, Lincoln described himself as "the candidate who was for the union and against the expansion of slavery "- the attributes the north needed in 1860. William Seward was the favorite for the nomination and would have been the nominee if the convention were held a year earlier. Seward, was so confident of his nomination, he went to Europe to expand his foreign relations experience when he should have stayed home and strengthened his base, opening the door to other candidates like Chase and Lincoln. Lincoln was an underdog but a very strong one, who, like race cars that take advantage of drafting behind lead cars, was well positioned to take the lead when they faltered.
-How was Lincoln able to defeat so many solid candidates in the Republican field?
The "solid" candidates - Seward, Cameron, Bates and Chase - were not that solid, all had political baggage that weighed down their chances to get a majority vote for the nomination. Lincoln was second to Seward on the first vote taken and gained votes as the others faded. Lincoln was a master politician, supported by a great political team that read the party correctly, positioning Lincoln to be the candidate of choice as the others failed, not only to get the needed votes but who continued to lose votes as counts were taken. In effect, Seward was overrated while Lincoln was underrated - once Lincoln showed so much strength on the first ballot and Seward didn't get the majority he needed the result was inevitable - Lincoln wins.
-Would any Republican candidates other than Lincoln have been able to win the general election?
Yes, I think Seward would have won. He and Lincoln were very much alike politically - for the union and agianst slavery with Seward being closer to abolition than Lincoln. Seward can even be viewed as a more sophisticated version of Lincoln, who with Lincoln's political team could have won the nomination and the presidency.
-Would secession have occurred with one of the Republican candidates besides Lincoln as President-elect?
As I indicated in another answer, given the events of the 1850s, I think secession and the war it brought was nearly inevitable by 1860. A Seward presidency would surely have brought secession as quickly as did Lincoln's election. The election of any of the others may have slowed things down a bit but not forever - war would have come.
Would any of them have done a better job of calming down the South than Lincoln did by not saying anything?
The south began to secede almost immediately with Lincoln's election, not allowing the president-elect to say much of anything. When Lincoln spoke at his inauguration, he used concilitory words - "we must not be enemies but friends"..."we will not attack you" etc. but the south had made its decision and would not listen. Seward could not have done better and the others could have only if disastrous concessions were made to the south.
-Was it realistic for Lincoln to talk about trying to keep the Union together during the campaign?
Yes, Lincoln believed in the union above all, once clarifying his positions on the union and slavery to newspaper publisher Horace Greeley, with these words: "If I could save the union by freeing the slaves, I would free them and if I could save the union by not freeing any slave I would do that." While it was realistic for LIncoln to believe the union could be saved - and must be saved for democracy to survive - it would not have been very realistic to believe a war could be prevented, given the political realities of that time even as both sides decried warfare.
Note: Mel Maurer was also interviewed in person. Audio clips are scattered throughout website.