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The Presidential Transition That Shattered America

A Trump-Biden transition is sure to be scary. But it’d be hard to beat Buchanan-Lincoln.

Whatever the results of the presidential vote on Nov. 3, the time between Election Day and Inauguration Day seems set to be a dark and terrifying 11 weeks in the history of the United States. However, perhaps there’s some comfort to be taken in the fact that we’ve experienced fraught transitions before—and longer ones. To wit: When Abraham Lincoln won the election of 1860 and prepared to take the reins from James Buchanan, who had kept a promise he made in his inaugural address not run for a second term, we suffered through a four-month slog of turmoil, because until the passage of the 20th Amendment in 1933, inaugurations used to take place in March. And during Buchanan’s endless lame-duck period, quite a bit went down: Seven states declared for secession, and Southerners seized forts and garrisons, arming themselves for the war we know now was coming.

I spoke about the Buchanan-Lincoln transition with historian Susan Schulten, whose most recent book is A History of America in 100 Maps. I wondered what, exactly, the lame duck thought he was doing and what the incoming president could (or couldn’t!) have said or done to change the transition period’s outcomes. Our conversation has been condensed and edited for clarity.

Rebecca Onion: How did the 1860 election set Lincoln up for this rough transition?

Susan Schulten: The 1860 election was unlike any other, because for the first time the contest wasn’t only party versus party. Of course there was a long history of robust partisanship in the antebellum era, but for the first time the country was also divided politically by section.

The Democratic Party broke apart on sectional lines. They couldn’t even agree on a single candidate in the summer of 1860, so the North went with Stephen Douglas, and the Southerners went their way with John Breckinridge, a pro-slavery, states-rights, pro-secession candidate. And of course the Republicans had no hope of getting any electoral votes in the South; they barely appeared on any Southern ballots.

In the postmortem, even if you add up the electoral votes of the other three candidates [Douglas, Breckinridge, and the Constitutional Union candidate John Bell], Lincoln still prevailed. That’s really important because part of the radical Southern pro-slavery position had to do with the fact that they considered the Republican Party illegitimate. By its party platform, radical Southerners considered it by definition hostile to slavery—because the party, of course, was born out of the desire of Congress to regulate slavery.

So the very outcome of the election confirmed to the South, particularly South Carolina, which ended up leading the secessionist movement, that it had no voice. Now Northerners would say, and Lincoln says something like this in his first inaugural address: Get over it. We had elections; this is what ...