Originally published in Helix SF #4
"...there are no correct alternate histories; there are only plausible alternate histories."
Author of Captain Confederacy
Shetterly's quote raises the question of plausibility and what it means. Alternate histories which may appear plausible on the surface, or to the ill-informed, may quickly lose their plausibility when the actual history is studied. A problem can occur when the author is too close to the idea to step away from it when the plausibility of the idea goes out the window.
What if Abraham Lincoln had lost the election of 1860 to Stephen Douglas?
While Lincoln and Douglas did run against each other in the election of 1860, their names are more famously tied together because of a series of Senatorial debates they held throughout Illinois before the 1858 election. Although the debates catapulted Lincoln into the national consciousness, Douglas won re-election to a third term.
Two years later, when Douglas ran against Lincoln in the Presidential election, it was in a field as crowded as the Kentucky Derby. The Democratic party split its nomination between Douglas and John C. Breckinridge, from Kentucky. Douglas's nomination came only when Southern Democrats left the convention. They later nominated Breckinridge.
Not only did Lincoln and Douglas run against Breckinridge, but a coalition of Whigs and American Republicans (the Know Nothing Party) got together to nominate John C. Bell of Tennessee for the Presidency.
The election, therefore was a four man race, although in a couple of states (notably New Jersey, New York, and Rhode Island), the non-Republicans combined to limit the choices on the ballot. On the other hand, Lincoln didn't even appear on the ballot in nine Southern states.
When the votes were all counted, Lincoln won with 39.8% of the vote, Douglas had 29.5%, Breckinridge had 18.1%, and Bell had 12.6%. However, as the 2000 election so clearly demonstrated, the electoral vote is the one that counts. In the electoral college, Lincoln had 180 votes, Breckinridge came second with 72, Bell came third with 39, and Douglas, who was second in popular votes, wound up with only 12 electoral votes, having won only Missouri and New Jersey.
There obviously are several problems with the plausibility of having Douglas win the general election in 1860. First, of course, is that Lincoln received nearly 60% of the electoral votes. Second is that although Douglas had broader support than Bell or Breckinridge, he needed to have support that was more concentrated.
Are there ways to make a Douglas victory more plausible?
Once the Democrats split into the Breckinridge and Douglas camps, there probably wasn't any way to make Douglas the President of the United States. Any divergence from actual history must take place before that happened.
In order to find a good place for a divergence, it is necessary to understand something of Douglas's character and why the South had such a hard time with him as a candidate. One place to look would be the famous Lincoln-Douglas debates that took place two years before the presidential election.
On August 27, 1858, Lincoln and Douglas met for their second debate in Freeport, Illinois, a small town just twenty miles from the Wisconsin border. In this debate, Douglas responded to a question by Lincoln concerning the rights of sovereign states to ban slavery, as outlined in the Kansas-Nebraska Act and the decision in Dred Scott v. Sanford, which said that slavery could not be excluded from the territories.
With his eyes focused on winning re-election to the Senate, Douglas crafted an answer that was a compromise position between the Kansas-Nebraska Act and Dred Scott. Dred Scott could apply to a state, according to Douglas, but it couldn't override the decisions made by the state under the auspices of the Kansas-Nebraska Act. This statement would haunt Douglas when he sought the Democratic Presidential nomination in 1860 as it alienated Southerners who saw the Supreme Court decision in the Dred Scott case as paramount to their interests.
The principle author of the Kansas-Nebraska Act in 1854, however, was Stephen A. Douglas, and the act had the effect of reversing the Missouri Compromise of 1820. While Southerners formed a great antipathy to Douglas following his statement of the Freeport Doctrine, Northerners frowned upon his involvement with the Kansas-Nebraska Act which allowed slavery to be practiced north of the line delineated in the Missouri Compromise.
Whatever his own convictions about slavery, therefore, between the Act of 1854 and his statements in 1858, Douglas had managed to put off much of the North and the South. The author of a President Douglas alternate history must address the perceptions by both sides in order to get Douglas an unopposed nomination within the party, and to allow him to win Northern and Western states as well as Southern ones.
So, starting back in 1854, we have Douglas pushing the Kansas-Nebraska Act. At the time, his concern is less about slavery and more about arranging to have the railroads go through Chicago rather than New Orleans. In return for allowing the railroads to take a Northern route, Douglas wrote the bill to allow new territories (Kansas and Nebraska) which would have the right to decide whether to permit slavery.
While the Southerners liked the idea, because they saw in it a chance for slavery to regain a foothold north of the line demarcated by the early Missouri Compromise, Northerners, particularly abolitionists, disliked that it would effectively repeal parts of the Compromise. One of the results of Douglas's maneuvering to get the bill passed was the creation of a grass roots organization which would become the Republican Party.
A different solution to the railroad situation in 1854 could, therefore, result in no Republican Party. If the author wants to ensure that Douglas defeats Lincoln, any changes made in 1854 must still allow Lincoln to plausibly run against Douglas in 1860, whether as a Republican or as a Whig.
One of the easiest ways to allow Douglas to win the election of 1860 is to change his character in a fundamental manner. Make him more sympathetic to the plight of the slave owners and secessionists, or even make him one himself. However, as soon as an author changes a character in this manner, the character loses all resemblance to the historical person upon whom the character is based. In science fictional terms, it is akin to fixing a problem by "reversing the polarity."
Keeping Douglas's character in mind, what could he have done in 1858 when Lincoln challenged him in Freeport? Both men were skilled debaters, despite the yokel image that the gangly Lincoln exuded. Lincoln wouldn't allow Douglas to avoid the question and the best Douglas could do is skirt the issue, something else that Lincoln wasn't about to let Douglas get away with.
Because the South's animosity towards Douglas was stronger and of a more recent vintage than the North's, in order to get Douglas the nomination, it would probably have been necessary to pair him with someone who could help bolster his support in the South. Breckinridge might be a good choice, although as can be seen by the actual results, Breckinridge wouldn't help in the North and might actually be an hindrance there. He could stay with Herschel Johnson, who ran with him in our own timeline, or try his luck with Joseph Lane, who actually ran with Breckinridge.
Johnson was originally chosen in the hopes that he would heal the rift caused by the dual nomination of Douglas and Breckinridge, but he wasn't a heavy enough hitter to do that. Of course, without a spoiler in the form of Breckinridge, Douglas might not have needed a strong man in the South.
Joseph Lane, from Oregon, had run for the nomination at the first Democratic Convention in Baltimore. He had been one of the people responsible for the admission of Oregon as a state and, as with many politicians of the era, been a Mexican War hero.
Instead of any of those three men, perhaps the best man for the job would have been Robert Mercer Taliaferro Hunter. Hunter had been one of the five men to run against Johnson for the nomination, but lost. The others included Lane, Andrew Johnson of Tennessee, Daniel Dickinson on New York, and James Guthrie of Kentucky. In our own time-line, Hunter proposed a variety of schemes to avoid the dissolution of the Union by Southern states following Lincoln's election, but when it became apparent that he wouldn't succeed, he urged Virginia to secede. Hunter became the second Confederate Secretary of State, serving from 1861 through 1862. Joining the Confederate Congress, Hunter tried to broker a peace between the US and the CSA in February of 1865 and was called by Lincoln to help with the restoration of Virginia to the Union following Appomattox.
Douglas-Hunter is a ticket which is not as anathema to the Southern interests and Breckinridge is no longer a rally point for those who seek to secede. The race is now between Lincoln (R)-Douglas (D)-Bell (W). With a three-man race, I'm now going to simplify things by deciding that everyone who voted for Breckinridge in our own timeline would have voted for Douglas, although in reality many would have voted for Bell. In any event, it doesn't really matter because even with my dubious supposition, in the best case scenario for Douglas, he only winds up with 134 electoral votes, 18 short of the 152 needed to elect a president. However, this does decrease the spread between Lincoln and Douglas. In our world, Lincoln had 180 electoral votes, now he's down to 169 (combining the tallies causes California, Oregon, and part of New Jersey to switch).
Even with all that work, Douglas comes up short in the electoral college, but he still has a trick up his sleeve, even as we're moving away from the realm of the plausible.
Although the nickname "The Great Compromiser" belonged to Henry Clay earlier in the century, Douglas was also quite accomplished at compromise. As noted, it was the compromise that he brokered in 1854 that caused a problem for him with the North. With the North facing the very real prospect of a divided nation in the wake of a Lincoln victory, Douglas could make an attempt to subvert the electors to try to bring them to his side as a means of "saving the nation," although in reality it would only serve to once again delay the inevitable.
Unfortunately, with plausibility the goal of this alternate history, Douglas has little chance of swaying enough electors, although there was a history of faithless electors at the time, with the entire Virginia delegation refusing to cast ballots for the Democratic Vice-Presidential nominee in 1836.
After all that effort to elect Stephen A. Douglas in 1860, the success of his election is questionable since in our own timeline, Douglas died on June 3, 1861 from typhoid fever. Would he have contracted the disease if he had been in Washington instead of Chicago? Possibly, possibly not. If he had died, however, it would have been only three months into his term in office.
The South would not have seceded based on his election, the way it happened with Lincoln's election and Rather than have Lincoln in office in 1860, President Hunter, who not only wanted to see the Union remain together, but who had more sympathy and understanding for the Southern argument, would have been in control of the White House.
On the whole, it might be easier and give a more plausible history to have Breckinridge win.
The only story I could find in which Douglas does win the election of 1860 is Bill Fawcett's "Lincoln's Charge," originally published in Alternate Presidents, edited by Mike Resnick. Fawcett handled the issues described above by the simple expedient of not dealing with them. In the story, which is set in 1863, Abraham Lincoln is leading Federal troops against the Confederates in southern Indiana. Douglas's actions following his election, in trying to find another compromise the nation could live with, only served to drive the South away from the union in a different way.
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