Lincoln For President: An Unlikely Candidate, An Audacious Strategy, And the Victory No One Saw Coming, by Bruce Chadwick
As someone who has read many books about Abraham Lincoln , I am always intrigued when someone tries to find something new about him, some area of his life and behavior that have not drawn a great deal of scrutiny, an immensely difficult task given the fact that many thousands of books have been written about the man, about nearly every aspect of his life as can be imagined. Yet while I cannot say that this book provided something that was entirely new, it did shine some light on a period of time that I have frequently seen ignored and brushed over, his handling of the 1860 campaign. It was pleasing for me to see the way that the different candidates (at one point there were five, before Texan hero Sam Houston dropped out) handled the pressure of a divided election that made the race two separate races, and worthwhile to see the author capture some sense of drama in what many people have seen as rather ho hum and uninteresting.
The book itself is a fairly conventional campaign history, a genre of book I find enjoyable to read , in which a historian takes an event that is viewed in hindsight as inevitable and therefore uninteresting and then proceeds to give the backstory and add drama to the past that we have taken for granted. Such an approach works very well here, as the author begins with Lincoln as an obscure also-ran who nevertheless was a good campaigner for other candidates whom he had helped win and who was able to collect his debts and have a capable group of advisers to wheel and deal while allowing him plausible deniability about the corruption of their deals, and then proceeds to focus on the way that all of the other candidates ran their campaigns. While Lincoln stayed at home and avoided speaking, which could only lead to increased gaffes, he wrote and kept in control of his campaign, choosing a risky strategy that focused only on the free states and required winning nearly all of them in order to take the straight draw into the White House. We know, in hindsight, that this strategy was successful, but it was not so obvious at the time given the razor-thin margin in much of the Midwest in Lincoln’s own neighborhood. Douglas’ overconfidence in his skills as a stump speaker led him to wreck his health campaigning in areas where he had no chance rather than competing more in the North, where he had a legitimate chance to deny Lincoln an electoral college victory. Bell and Breckenridge (along with Douglas) spent too much time sniping at each other to build the fusion tickets that could have ensured the election ending up in the House of Representatives, which was the only chance either of those candidates had. Yet if they had been able to work together, the Democratic party would not have split in 1860 as disastrously as it did. Neither is Lincoln shown as perfect, as his denial of the South being serious about secession allowed the rebels to steal a march during the months before his inauguration and seriously try to divide the country. The book succeeds in adding a great deal of drama to this period of time.
Ultimately, this is a very good book, over 300 pages of material that read well and that contain some genuine political drama. The author notes, towards the end, that only a few thousand votes had to go the other way to make it a very different outcome. Given that Lincoln won less than 40% of the vote, his electoral strategy was a very risky one, although precisely the sort of strategy that can win in a fiercely divided electorate (see Trump’s win in 2016, where Clinton piled up large electoral majority in states that were not seriously contested and lost a lot of closer fights in the battleground states). Those who enjoy reading political history and who have a fondness for the personalities and characters, the tactics and strategy and logistics of campaigning, will find much to enjoy here. Overall, this book was a pleasure to read and one I warmly recommend to those who enjoy the book’s subject matter, even if plenty of people expected Lincoln to win once the Democrats divided in 1860.
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