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May 23, 2016


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Where shall we start with the misconceptions in such a short piece by Magliocca and abetted by Lubet? Lincoln became president with only 41% of the popular vote running against three candidates (Douglas, Breckenridge, and Bell) but would have won a majority of the electoral votes even if all the other candidates' votes were combined. This, of course was due to having an absolute majority in 15 of the 18 free states (excluding NJ, CA, and OR) while carrying only 4% of the vote in the 15 slave states. The Democratic Party split in two with Douglas and Breckenridge as sectional candidates but nothing Douglas did or didn't do could have prevented that split or stopped the Republican victory.

Magliocca misunderstands Douglas's campaign in the South. When state elections in PA (a key swing state) in October showed that a Republican landslide in the North would be forthcoming, Douglas, who was dying, ended his campaign in the North and spoke out in the most hostile regions in the South not for his own candidacy but to plead against secession and to urge them to work with Northerners to find a way to compromise, just as he had done with the Compromise of 1850 when disunion seemed likely.

Douglas's opposition to the Leocompton Constitution was not a matter of moral principle on his part. Instead, Douglas was always trying to advance his career and his personal financial interests by trying to reconcile the increasingly irreconcilable differences between North and South. Opposition to Leocompton has almost universally been seen by historians as his recognizing the damage done to him personally and to the Democratic Party in the North as the result of the Kansa-Nebraska Act.

For anyone interested in how the combination of broad historical forces (of special interest to historians) and the actions of individual political actors (who are seen as more central by politicians) interacted to cause secession and Civil War, I strongly recommend David Potter's The Impending Conflict.

Finally, I have no knowledge of Mr. Magliocca's political views but I suspect that he would view the general principle of a major politician running as a third party candidate to undermine his own party (which as pointed out above was not the case with Douglas) very differently if we were talking about Bernie running as a third party candidate. All depends whose ox is gored.

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