Gary Gallagher: What if Lincoln lost the election?
Professor of history at the University of Virginia
Given the realities of electoral politics in 1860, it is almost impossible to imagine how Abraham Lincoln could have lost. It is even more difficult to say what the election of Stephen A. Douglas — the only one of the other three candidates who stood even a remote chance of success — would have elicited in the way of responses across the nation.
Rather than try to answer a question that cannot be answered, it is worthwhile to remember that Lincoln’s election did not trigger the war. More than six months elapsed between the casting of ballots in November 1860 and the firing on Fort Sumter in April 1861. Only seven of the 15 slaveholding states deemed Lincoln’s triumph sufficient cause to secede; four others followed suit only after Sumter and, more especially, the new president’s call for 75,000 volunteers to suppress the rebellion. Four slaveholding states remained loyal to the Union, a fact that should remind us why describing the war as North against South is misleading and why we should never use “Confederacy” and “the South” as synonyms.
We always should resist what might be called the Appomattox syndrome, that is, reading back from what we know happened to understand how that end came about. We know that Lincoln won the election and that a war eventually came, so we often assume that a Republican victory inexorably led to military conflict. In fact, only a fascinating and complex series of decisions and events, some centered in Washington but many played out elsewhere, finally brought a war that rapidly escalated to a level of bloodshed far beyond what anyone at the time could imagine.
| October 31, 2010; 10:31 PM ET
Categories: Views | Tags: Gary Gallagher
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