(What follows is a modified version of our earlier review of Lincoln: President-Elect as it will appear in this Friday’s Haysville Sun Times.)
“Every nation,” Joseph de Maistre once exclaimed, “has the government it deserves.”
While almost certainly far too inclusive in the sweep of his judgment, de Maistre has a valid point when it comes to such venerable historical democracies as the United States. As Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr., has written, in America “citizens cannot escape the ultimate responsibility. It is in the voting booth, not on the presidential desk, that the buck finally stops.”
By their choice in an election, in the 220 years since the adoption of our Constitution, the American people have witnessed 33 presidential transitions by election – 34 if you count our present unfolding experience.
Of the 42 men who have served us as president to date, slightly more than half (22) assumed office by election representing a different political party than that of their predecessor (counting John Tyler, the first “accidental president,” who assumed office after the death of William Henry Harrison, as a Whig, and Andrew Johnson, who assumed office upon Abraham Lincoln’s assassination, as a Democrat).
Upon his inauguration in eleven days, President-Elect Barack Obama will be the twenty-third to represent a party change by election. (Only one president, Grover Cleveland, participated in more than two of these party transitions; with his two non-consecutive terms, he participated in four. A few – James K. Polk, Benjamin Harrison, Woodrow Wilson, Dwight Eisenhower, Jimmy Carter, Bill Clinton and George W. Bush – have participated twice, at both the beginning and the end of their service.)
Many of these presidential-and-party transitions have been reasonably smooth – some almost cordial. Others – 1800, 1876 and 2000 come to mind – have been fraught with difficulties.
But no other presidential transition has been more perilous, traumatic and angst-ridden than that of the long four months between the election of Abraham Lincoln and his inauguration as America’s sixteenth president.
Our greatest president was not merely the first president to be elected as a Republican. He was the only president to be elected with less than forty percent of the popular vote. His name and party had not even been allowed on the ballot in most southern states. John C. Breckinridge (the Democrat nominated for the South) had swept the southern states; John Bell (the Constitutional Union candidate) had captured the vote in the border states; and even Lincoln’s home state of Illinois had cast its ballots for Stephen Douglas* (the nominee of the Northern wing of the Democratic party).
Here’s how Harold Holzer in Lincoln: President-Elect describes it:
“Abraham Lincoln won election as the sixteenth president of the United States by carrying every Northern state save New Jersey. No candidate had ever taken the presidency with such an exclusively regional vote.(Even the Jefferson-Adams contests of 1796 and 1800 had featured exceptions to lopsided regional voting, with Pennsylvania going to Jefferson in their first contest, and New York in their second.) In the end, Lincoln would amass 180 electoral votes in all – comfortably more than the 152 required for an absolute majority. In the raw count, Lincoln could take comfort from the fact that the rapidly growing nation awarded him more popular votes than any man who had ever run for president – 1,866,452 in all, 28,000 more votes than Democrat James Buchanan had earned in winning the presidency four years earlier. But Lincoln’s votes amounted to only a shade under 40 percent of the total cast, the smallest share ever collected by a victor. And the national tally alone did not tell the full story.
“Testifying alarmingly to the deep rift cleaving North from South, and presaging the challenges soon to face his administration, was the anemic support Lincoln garnered in the few Southern states where his name was allowed to appear on the ballot. In Virginia, the Lincoln ticket received just 1,929 votes out of 167,223 statewide – barely one percent. The result was even worse in his native Kentucky, where only 1,364 out of 146,216 voters cast their ballots for the Republicans, in this case amounting to less than one percent . . . Analyzed geographically, the total result gave Lincoln a decisive 54 percent in the North and West, but only 2 percent in the South – the most lopsided vote in American history.”
Yet even this nearly unbridgeable chasm was not the greatest of Lincoln’s trials. For four long months, from his election until his inauguration, he was impotent before the swelling surge toward internecine war. Lincoln’s grossly incompetent predecessor, James Buchanan, had brought the nation to the brink of destruction through mismanagement, procrastination and inaction. He grew, if possible, even more paralytic through the months of the transition. As Holzer writes, “Lincoln’s hapless predecessor, James Buchanan, made procrastination into an art form.” State after state, beginning with South Carolina in December of 1860, seceded from the Union while Buchanan fiddled. And Lincoln, powerless until the fourth of March 1861, could not act.
Harold Holzer’s brilliant, insightful masterpiece, Lincoln: President-Elect, is the fascinating story of this uniquely dangerous period, and of Lincoln’s navigation of these treacherous shoals. Doris Kearns Goodwin, herself author of the exquisite Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln, describes Lincoln: President-Elect as “a stunningly original work that casts completely new light on the most turbulent and critical presidential transition in American history” – an accurate assessment with which I wholeheartedly concur.
The conventional wisdom, largely unexamined since a vastly overrated Henry Adams penned a critical essay entitled “The Great Secession Winter” in the late nineteenth century, has been that a lackadaisical and inert transition was a blot upon Lincoln’s subsequent record of greatness. Holzer obliterates this myth with cogent analysis and definitive evidence, clearly documenting Lincoln’s extraordinary performance under almost insuperable constraints and against great odds. It is difficult to imagine how any other politician of the time, or of any time, could have equaled Lincoln’s careful balancing act.
Holzer’s Lincoln is a strong-willed, resolute, thoughtful and cautious but ultimately decisive statesman of clear vision and shrewd planning. From the immediate aftermath of the 1860 election until the moment of his inauguration, Lincoln’s acts and thoughts are carefully documented and rigorously evaluated in a tour-de-force. For a work focusing upon this vital transitional period in American history, Lincoln: President-Elect is absolutely unparalleled.
Because this volume is focused exclusively upon the ‘interregnum’ between election and inauguration, I cannot recommend it for those who are seeking a single more comprehensive biography of Lincoln’s life. If you will read only one book about Lincoln ever, this would not be your best choice. But for everyone interested in more – much more — Lincoln: President-Elect is an imperative read of exceptional value.
(You will find many excellent new biographies of Lincoln on the Haysville Community Library shelves, and near the front of the library in a special display celebrating the two hundredth anniversary of Lincoln’s birth. You will also find reviews of a number of new books concerning our sixteenth president online in the HCL blog at http://www.haysvillecommunitylibrary.org. Other special events – including a book discussion on the 21st led by Clark Killion — are scheduled throughout the month of February to honor Lincoln during his bicentennial. You can visit, call or check the library website, or consult the Haysville Sun Times for further details.)
* Error Correction Update: Whatever possessed me to say that Douglas carried Illinois, I can’t imagine. Douglas carried Missouri’s 9 electoral votes and 3 of New Jersey’s 7 electoral votes. Lincoln captured the 11 electoral votes of Illinois and 4 of New Jersey’s. 01/07