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I trust that I have the courage to lead a forlorn hope… John C. Breckinridge

meteors008A crude nonpartisan satire, parodying all four candidates in the 1860 presidential election. A map of the United States hung on a wall is being torn apart by three of the candidates. Lincoln (far left) and Douglas tear at the western part of the country, as Breckinridge (center) attacks the South. The fourth, John Bell (right), stands on a stool trying to repair the northeastern section with a jar of “Spaldings,” a widely marketed glue of the period. Several boxes of this adhesive appear, prominently labeled, at right.

Read almost any current American history textbook and you will come away with the impression that the presidential election of 1860 was between the clear victor – Abraham Lincoln of Illinois – and the sour grapes loser of the first series of presidential debates, ala Kennedy/Nixon style, Stephen A. Douglas. Political correctness will reinforce your understanding that although Lincoln was nominally a republican he was first, foremost and always the heir to Jefferson’s promise that all men are created equal. You will not be told that Douglas was a Democrat, had always been a democrat, had won the debates – which actually occurred in 1858 and won him the Democratic senate seat from Illinois in a contest with Abraham Lincoln.

meteors005A pro-Breckinridge satire on the 1860 presidential contest. Republican candidate Abraham Lincoln (right) and Democrat Stephen A. Douglas (left) appear as boxers squaring off in a ring before a small crowd of onlookers. Douglas is seconded by an Irishman (left), presumably representing Douglas’s Democratic constituency. Lincoln is coached by a black man, who kneels at right, armed with a basket of liquor bottles, and signifies Lincoln’s antislavery leanings. In the background a third candidate, John C. Breckinridge, thumbs his nose and points toward the White House. He is encouraged on his way by a number of men who cheer and doff their hats to him.

The reality of the election was that Lincoln was the candidate of the north who managed to incorporate a large number of tactics – membership in clubs, arm bands, marching societies – that have been used by other successful politicians since. Douglas, who came in second in the popular vote but last in the electoral vote, was something like a current establishment Republican in that he controlled a machine that could deliver a nomination but not an election. John C. Breckinidge was Lincoln’s true rival winning 11 states – all Southern – with John Bell taking the “border states” of Tennessee, Kentucky and Virginia. All told the three challengers for the White House would amass 60.3% of the popular vote and still be unable to deny Lincoln the presidency in the first modern failure of the Electoral College system. It should really come as no surprise that the election resulted in secession and it was only the post electoral manipulation by Lincoln’s adherents that managed to turn it into the catastrophe of the civil war.

meteors002Rival presidential nominees Lincoln and Douglas are matched in a footrace, in which Lincoln’s long stride is a clear advantage. Both sprint down a path toward the U.S. Capitol, which appears in the background right. They are separated from it by a rail fence, a reference to Lincoln’s popular image as a rail-splitter. Douglas, whose characteristic shortness is here exaggerated to dwarfish dimensions, wonders aloud, “How can I get over this Rail Fence.” Over his shoulder he carries a cane on which hangs a jug marked “M.C.,” which probably refers to the Missouri Compromise, repealed in 1854 largely through Douglas’s efforts. As he runs, playing cards spill from his pockets (suggesting perhaps a penchant for gambling). Lincoln, whose height is equally exaggerated, runs along beside him waving his hat and carrying a rail-splitter’s maul over his shoulder. He says confidently, “It [i.e., the rail fence] can’t sto\p me for I built it.” From the fence on the far right a black youth taunts Douglas, “You can find me in dis yer Fence Massa Duglis.” The last is evidently a reference to the slavery question central to the election campaign.

Year of meteors : Stephen Douglas, Abraham Lincoln, and the election that brought on the Civil War Douglas R. Egerton New York : Bloomsbury Press, 2010 Hardcover. 399 p. : ill. ; 25 cm. Includes bibliographical references and index. Clean, tight and strong binding with clean dust jacket. No highlighting, underlining or marginalia in text. VG/VG

meteors011Prominent candidates for the Democratic nomination at Charleston, S.C. [Composite of bust portraits of Stephens, Alexander Hamilton, 1812-1883; Davis, Jefferson, 1808-1889; Slidell, John, 1793-1871 [diplomat and politician]; Lane, Joseph, 1801-1881 [U.S. Sen Dem.]; Breckinridge, John Cabell, 1821-1875; Douglas, Stephen Arnold, 1813-1861; Orr, James Lawrence, 1822-1873 [U.S. Cong Dem S.C.]; Guthrie, James, 1792-1869 [lawyer; Sec. of the Treasury]; Pierce; Houston, Samuel, 1793-1863

In early 1860, pundits across America confidently predicted the election of Illinois senator Stephen A. Douglas in the coming presidential race. Douglas, after all, led the only party that bridged North and South. But the Democrats would split over the issue of slavery, leading Southerners in the party to run their own presidential slate. This opened the door for the upstart Republicans, exclusively Northern, to steal the Oval Office. Dark horse Abraham Lincoln, not the first choice even of his own party, won the presidency with a record-low 39.8 percent of the popular vote.

meteors009 An illustrated sheet music cover for campaign music honoring Constitutional Union party candidates John Bell and Edward Everett. The candidates’ bust portraits are framed in floral and acanthus tracery. In the upper right a streamer with stars and stripes hangs on the twigs which sprout from the rusticated wooden letters of Everett’s name. Below is an arrangement of motifs, including an eagle with shield, a cannon, flags, and a fasces. In the distance (left) is a harbor with several ships.

Egerton chronicles the contest with a political reporter’s eye for detail. Vividly, Egerton re-creates the cascade of unforeseen events that confounded political bosses, set North and South on the road to disunion, and put not Stephen Douglas, but his greatest rival, in the White House.

meteors006Print shows a large campaign banner for Constitutional Union party presidential candidate John Bell and running mate Edward Everett. The banner consists of a printed, thirty-three star American flag pattern with an oval bust portrait of Bell encircled by stars on a blue field.

We see Lincoln and his team outmaneuvering more prominent Republicans, like New York’s grandiose William Seward, while Democratic conventions collapse in confusion. And we see the gifted, flawed Douglas marking his finest hour in defeat, as he strives, and fails, to save the Union. Year of Meteors delivers a teeming cast of characters, minor and major, and a breakneck narrative of this most momentous year in American history.

meteors001 A caricature of Abraham Lincoln, probably appearing soon after his nomination as Republican presidential candidate. The artist contrasts Lincoln’s modest posture at the Illinois Republican state convention in Springfield in 1858 with his confident appearance at the 1860 Illinois Republican ratifying convention, also held in Springfield. The two Lincolns are shown joined at the back and seated on a stump. The 1858 Lincoln (facing left) addresses a small audience of men, including a young black man. He denies any presidential ambitions, his words appearing in a cabbage-shaped balloon: “Nobody ever expected me to be President. In my poor, lean, lank face, nobody has ever seen that any Cabbages were sprouting out.” In contrast, the 1860 Lincoln (facing right) states, “I come to see, and be seen.” There may be, as Wilson maintains, an implied criticism here of Lincoln’s reticence about his political views during the 1860 campaign, when from May to November Lincoln made no speeches except for a brief address at the meeting in Springfield. This may explain the less-than-enthusiastic, puzzled look of several of his listeners here.

meteors007A membership certificate for the Wide-Awake Club, a Republican marching club formed in February or March 1860 and active throughout the North during the election campaign. The club was dedicated to the preservation of the Union and the non-extension of slavery. The certificate has a central vignette showing crowds and troops before the U. S. Capitol. Some of the troops march in long parade lines, others fire cannons into the air toward the Capitol. Crowds line the Capitol steps, flanking a lone figure (Lincoln?) who ascends toward the building’s entrance. The certificate is framed by an American flag draped over a rail fence, with olive branches at the top. In the upper corners are oval medallions of Abraham Lincoln (left) and running mate Hannibal Hamlin (right). The rail-splitter’s mallets also appear in the corners. A vigilant eye peers from a halo of clouds at the center. On either side stand uniformed members of the society, wearing their characteristic short capes and visored caps. One holds a staff and a lantern (left), and the other holds a burning torch. Below, an eagle on a shield holds a streamer “E Pluribus Unum,” arrows, and olive branch. Broken shackles lie before him. In the left distance, the sun rises over a mountainous landscape and a locomotive chugs across the plains. On the right is a more industrial scene: an Eastern city with its harbor full of boats. In the foreground a man hammers a wedge into a wooden rail.

Grand procession of Wide-Awakes at New York on the evening of October 3, 1860. Republican Wide Awakes in N.Y. – Lincoln-Hamlin Campaign [Printing-House Square (Park Row and Nassau St.)

meteors013During the 1860 election campaign the “Wide Awakes,” a marching club composed of young Republican men, appeared in cities throughout the North. (See no. 1860-14.) They often wore uniforms consisting of visored caps and short capes, and carried lanterns. Here Republican presidential candidate Abraham Lincoln (left) is dressed as a “Wide-Awake,” and carries a lantern and a spear-like wooden rail. He rounds the corner of the White House foiling the attempts of three other candidates to enter surreptitiously. At far right incumbent James Buchanan tries to haul John C. Breckinridge in through the window. Buchanan complains, “I’ll do what I can to help you Breck, but my strength is failing and I’m afraid you’ll pull me out before I can pull you in.” Breckinridge despairs, “. . . I’m too weak to get up–and we shall be compelled to dissolve the Union.'” His words reflect his and Buchanan’s supposed alliance with secessionist interests of the South. In the center Democrat Stephen A. Douglas tries to unlock the White House door, as Constitutional Union party candidate John Bell frets, “Hurry up Douglas! and get the door open, so that I can get in, for the watchman [i.e., Lincoln] is coming.” Douglas complains that none of the three keys he holds (labeled “Regular Nomination,” “Non Intervention,” and “Nebraska Bill”) will open the door, “. . . so I’d better be off, for old Abe is after me with a sharp stick.”


meteors010The antislavery plank was a controversial feature of the 1860 Republican platform. Here Republican nominee Abraham Lincoln is shown uncomfortably straddling a rail–a dual allusion to the platform and to Lincoln’s backwoods origins–carried by a black man and abolitionist editor of the New York “Tribune” Horace Greeley (right). Lincoln says, “It is true I have split Rails, but I begin to feel as if “this” rail would split me, it’s the hardest stick I ever straddled.” The black man complains, “Dis Nigger strong and willin’ but its awful hard work to carry Old Massa Abe on nothing but dis ere rail!!” One of Lincoln’s foremost supporters in the Northeast, Greeley here assures him, “We can prove that you have split rails & that will ensure your election to the Presidency.”

meteors014A pro-Lincoln satire, deposited for copyright weeks before the 1860 presidential election. The contest is portrayed as a baseball game in which Lincoln has defeated (left to right) John Bell, Stephen A. Douglas, and John C. Breckinridge. Lincoln (right) stands with his foot on “Home Base,” advising the others, “Gentlemen, if any of you should ever take a hand in another match at this game, remember that you must have a good bat’ and strike a fair ball’ to make a clean score’ & a home run.'” His “good bat” is actually a wooden rail labeled “Equal Rights and Free Territory.” Lincoln wears a belt inscribed “Wide Awake Club.” (See no. 1860-14 on the Wide-Awakes.) A skunk stands near the other candidates, signifying that they have been “skunk’d.” Breckinridge (center), a Southern Democrat, holds his nose, saying, “I guess I’d better leave for Kentucky, for I smell something strong around here, and begin to think, that we are completely skunk’d.'” His bat is labeled “Slavery Extension” and his belt “Disunion Club.” At far left John Bell of the Constitutional Union party observes, “It appears to me very singular that we three should strike foul’ and be put out’ while old Abe made such a good lick.’ Bell’s belt says “Union Club,” and his bat “Fusion.” Regular Democratic nominee Douglas replies, “That’s because he had that confounded rail, to strike with, I thought our fusion would be a short stop’ to his career.” He grasps a bat labeled “Non Intervention.”


meteors012Probably issued late in the campaign, the print seems to express the growing confidence among Republicans in the election of their candidate Abraham Lincoln. It may also be that like “The National Game” (no. 1860-42) the print was published after the election. As in “Stephen Finding His Mother” (no. 1860-35), Uncle Sam (center) is here shown as an elderly man in knee-breeches. He stands before the White House, about to take down a notice that reads: “Wanted. An honest upright and capable man to take charge of this house for four years. Undoubted testimonials will be required. Apply to Uncle Sam on the Premises.” At the same time he hands Abraham Lincoln a notice that “I have hired [him] for four years from March 1st 1861.” Lincoln is in shirtsleeves and rustic boots, and carries an axe and valise. Uncle Sam announces to the other presidential applicants (left to right) Bell, Breckinridge, and Douglas, “You’re too late gentlemen! I’ve concluded to take down the Notice and let Abraham Lincoln have the Place. I find his record all right, and can safely trust him with the management of my affairs.” Lincoln thanks him, saying, ” . . . I will endeavor to do my duty.” The losers plead their cases. Bell, holding a cane and satchel, says, “I’m an old gentleman sir, but I have a good many friends, to help me take care of your matters, if you’ll let me have the place.” Breckinridge, the southern Democratic nominee, claims, “This little man in front of me Sir [i.e., Douglas], is an imposter, it is “I” that have the genuine Certificates, and besides I can refer to the last incumbent.” Breckinridge served as vice president under discredited incumbent James Buchanan, who can be seen at right through an open White House window, stuffing “dirty linen” into his valise. Buchanan complains, “It is too bad! here [Uncle Sam’s] given me Notice to pack up and quit, without a character, and I’ll never be able to get another place.”Northern Democrat Douglas asks, “Please Sir, I’ve been trying a long time to get a recommendation for the place, and here it is at last, you’ll find me a young man of regular habits.” Breckinridge and Douglas carry valises similar to Lincoln’s, and all three candidates hold pieces of paper with their party affiliations.


meteors003 A view of the public meeting in Johnson Square, Savannah, prompted by news of Lincoln’s election, where a resolution was adopted for a state secession convention. In the nocturnal scene, the square is crowded with animated spectators surrounding an obelisk, where a banner emblazoned with the image of a coiled rattlesnake and the words “Our Motto Southern Rights, Equality of the States, Don’t Tread on Me” is displayed. The scene is lit by fireworks and a bonfire. The old City Exchange building is visible beyond the monument.



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