Book Review: Year Of Meteors

Year Of Meteors:  Stephen Douglas, Abraham Lincoln, And The Election That Brought On The Civil War, by Douglas R. Egerton

It ought to surprise no one that I am fond of reading books about the complex relationship between Lincoln and Douglas and also about the tense atmosphere in the period before the beginning of the Civil War [1].  I was admittedly a bit surprised that the title itself played so little a role in the book itself, considering there was really no discussion of meteors in a literal sense in 1860 in this particular book.  What there was instead was a thoughtful discussion of the conflicting demands of statesmanship and moderation in a period where there was little room to maneuver on the side of the political class who wanted peace and reconciliation and a general populace that had grown increasingly partisan.  It is hard not to read this and think of our own troubled times and the question of legitimacy in government.  The author, who makes his own sympathies abundantly plain, clearly looks at this period with a sense of anxiety with concern to our own history, although the work does not draw that conclusion out explicitly very often, to the relief of this reader at least.

In terms of its contents, this book certainly fits within the genre of political history and within the large body of works about Abraham Lincoln and about the Civil War in general.  The author tries to add a bit of uniqueness by doing some research on the campaign of Garrit Smith that year, which is little noted or recognized, as well as highlighting the busy travels of the indefatigable Murat Halstead, who traveled to seven of the eight major political conventions that year, which cannot have been a very enviable experience.  Besides these flourishes the book is largely a chronological look at the political context of 1860 and the bad omens that year had for the fate of the United States at large.  The author notes, with a surprising degree of fairness, the level of stubbornness in both the northern and southern sections of the country, and how that inflexibility of thought left no room for compromise.  For the most part, this is a book that can be broadly enjoyed by readers who have an interest in those times and who are prepared to draw their own conclusions about the contemporary relevance of the late 1850s for our own time.

Where the book took on a problematic nature for me, at least, was not in the book’s harsh treatment of fire-eaters, but rather in the way that the author showed his hand and perspective in the epilogue and appendix to the book.  He shows his hand in two ways that particularly offended me.  For one, the author commented on the correlation between the Republican vote in 2008 with the lingering effects of the Civil War as a way of delegitimizing the Republican party as a whole.  Second, the author stated in a brief closing bit of praise to failed 1972 Democratic standard-bearer McGovern that he was vindicated by what happened later.  I happen to disagree.  However bad Nixon was, and I think he is viewed harsher than he deserves to be, McGovern was a terrible option for the leader of our country.  No amount of criminality on the part of Nixon’s presidency makes McGovern a good option for president.  As the election of 1860 makes plain, one does not only vote against people, but one has to vote for them either, and a worthwhile president has a good vision for a country, a vision that includes fidelity to the principles of our nation as well as a concern for the well-being of all and a combination of idealism and pragmatism.  The contemporary politicians that the author seems to admire the most are those that simply have the wrong principles, and that makes this book a good deal less enjoyable to read as a result.

[1] See, for example:

About nathanalbright

I'm a person with diverse interests who loves to read. If you want to know something about me, just ask.
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