Historian Douglas R. Egerton, author of "Year of Meteors," talks about Abraham Lincoln and the tumultuous election of 1860.
For a man who'd become a national hero beyond compare, Abraham Lincoln was hardly Mr. Popularity when he ran for president in 1860.
He managed to win despite capturing just 40 percent of the vote against three major candidates. In case you're scoring at home, there have only been a couple presidential elections with that many significant rivals in the mix.
I just reviewed "Year of Meteors," reminiscent of behind-the-scenes political bestsellers like Theodore White's "The Making of the President" series and the recent "Game Change" by John Heilemann and Mark Halperin. In "Year of Meteors," historian Douglas R. Egerton examines the amazing 1860 election, which tore one political party apart before splitting the nation in two.
In an interview, I asked Egerton about the abrupt reversals of fortune that made American politics so compelling 150 years ago.
Q: During the Republican nomination race in 1860, Abraham Lincoln – a guy from the Midwest without much of a reputation – came out of nowhere to beat back the frontrunner, a New York senator who was later appointed secretary of state by his former rival. This scenario sounds really familiar for some reason.
A: I was writing a lot of this book in 2008, and when I read letters to Senator William Seward from his supporters, I felt like I was reading Hillary Clinton's mail.
People were saying things like "this isn't fair" and "I don't know who this skinny guy from Illinois is." One person wrote, "I shed bitter tears when I heard the news. I shall not lift a finger to elect him. Let those who chose him elect him."
The reality is after being deeply hurt and disappointed for about three weeks, Seward did finally contact Lincoln and campaign for him.