Abraham Lincoln was a little-known Illinois legislator when he won election for president 150 years ago. He defeated three other major-party candidates to lead the country through one of its darkest periods and earn a place among history's most beloved presidents. In Year of Meteors: Stephen Douglas, Abraham Lincoln, and the Election That Brought on the Civil War, Le Moyne College history professor Douglas Egerton explores the campaigns, conventions, and caucuses leading up to the 1860 election. U.S. News recently talked to Egerton about the political state of the country as it teetered on the edge of civil war. Excerpts:
Why were their four major candidates?
The Democratic Party, the majority party, . . . couldn't see eye to eye on the question of slavery. Most northern Democrats, represented by Stephen Douglas, were middle-class farmers who were not antislavery but did not want to go west and compete with slave labor or, frankly, be around African-Americans. So the majority party broke up and fielded two candidates. This was great news for the Republicans because they were the minority party. They existed only in the North [and] had a very small presence in western Virginia, in Kentucky. Then John Bell, who represented the one-time-only Constitutional Union Party, appealed to former Whigs who couldn't bring themselves to vote Democratic but also couldn't get on the Republican bandwagon because it seemed too radical, too antislavery.
How did Lincoln pull off his win?
Once the Democrats blew apart, the win was pretty much in the bag. The really clever thing he and his campaign manager David Davis did was the way they got the nomination. Davis, at the Chicago convention, appealed to various delegations to vote for whoever they wanted, including [William] Seward, on the first ballot, but then begged them to vote for his man, Lincoln, on the second. So out of no place comes this person who was not supposed to get the nomination. Seward was calmly waiting in Auburn [N.Y.] for word to arrive that he had the nomination. He got a telegram on the first night of the conference saying: "Your nomination tomorrow for sure." [The next day] the telegram simply said: "Lincoln nominated third ballot." He sat there for about an hour, quietly staring at the telegram, and finally said, "Well, Lincoln is a good man, he'll make a good president."
Why did this election bring on the Civil War?
What made the election unusual in so many ways was that really important southern Democrats actually wanted their party to lose. So really it was an excuse for them to leave [the Union]. And they believed that secession would be peaceful. One Fire-Eater [pro-slavery extremist] once said, "You could slap a Yankee and he'll sue you, but he won't fight back," and that was their assumption. So actually, on election night when news arrived to Charleston [S.C.] that Lincoln had won, there were celebrations, fireworks, bonfires.
Would it have been different if Douglas had won?
A handful of militant pro-slavery advocates would still have wanted out of the Union, but they would not have been able to bring the masses, who had been terrified by Republicans because of the way they were being depicted in the South.
What can we learn from the 1860 election?
We should be positive about the ability of the government to fix problems. Americans today are very cynical about the government, and certainly that's what we saw in this most recent election with the anti-incumbent, antigovernment approach. Lincoln, of course, again, as a big-government activist, believed that the government had the power to fix things, change the country for the better, and decide policy in a very sort of positive way. I hope Americans would think about the Civil War years and understand that the government is not the problem. The government can be the agency for good and for change. I know that sounds naive, but Lincoln believed it and look at the enormous good he accomplished.
What surprised you in your research?
I often felt like I was reading current newspapers. I was writing the chapter on the Republican convention at about the same time Sen. [Hillary] Clinton was giving up the  race. I had a lot of friends who were very supportive of her campaign. They were very unhappy when this person they'd never heard of got the nomination, and they would say things like "On Election Day, I'm just going to stay home." The correspondence I was reading addressed to Seward said almost the same thing. One person wrote—and these are Republicans—"I'm shocked the person who has the most experience isn't the nominee." In the end, Seward did get on the bandwagon, campaigned for Lincoln in the Midwest, and was rewarded with the State Department. Sometimes history just repeats itself.