The Large Consequences of Small Events: The Day Lincoln Lost by Charles Rosenberg
Charles Rosenberg explains that one of his reasons for writing alternative histories is that “I’ve always been fascinated by the way in which very small events can sometimes have very large consequences.” His latest re-imagining of history is The Day Lincoln Lost (Hanover Square Press, August 2020) and Rosenberg’s pitch is that “The election of Abraham Lincoln to the presidency of the United States in 1860 was one of the pivotal events of American history. And yet he could easily have lost; this book tells you how.”
What Rosenberg imagines Lincoln losing is the “presidential election held on November 6, 1860 because, although he had more popular votes than any of his three opponents, he did not have enough electoral votes to win the presidency outright (i.e., didn’t have a majority of electoral votes). Instead, under the 12th Amendment to the Constitution, a ‘contingent election’ was held in the House of Representatives in February 1861, to choose one winner from among the top three electoral vote finishers” which, in this novel, was Lincoln. Therefore he still became president, albeit under different circumstances and on a later date than in reality.
The “small events” that have the “large consequence” of Lincoln losing the electoral vote start with the fictional escape and recapture in Springfield of the slave, Lucy Battelle; of the Fugitive Slave Act court hearing in which Lucy’s owner demands the return of his property; a passionate abolitionist speech in a nearby Presbyterian Church given by Abby Kelley Foster; the subsequent riot, for which Foster is accused of incitement, that leads to the death of the slave owner and the escape of Lucy; and the trial of Foster for “conspiracy to violate the Fugitive Slave Act”, in which she is successfully represented by Lincoln.
Abby Kelley Foster was a real person and, as Rosenberg discovered from his research, “one of the most famous – and most radical – abolitionists of her time; indeed, so famous as an anti-slavery speaker (or ‘lecturer’ as she called herself) that she had thousands of women followers around the country, known everywhere as Kelley-ites.” Although Foster was such a “fiery, eloquent, effective anti-slavery orator that towns tried to bar her from coming to speak lest she rile up their citizens,” she never actually went to Springfield, nor, to Rosenberg’s knowledge, was she ever “in close proximity to any riot that tried to block the return of anyone to slavery. Indeed, she was a pacifist.” Foster’s inflammatory speech as told in the novel is imaginary as Rosenberg found, to his disappointment, that “with one exception, there are no known texts of her fiery speeches. They are not to be found, apparently, because, in the Quaker tradition, she always spoke extemporaneously, and it appears no one bothered to take them down.”
Lincoln did live in Springfield and was a successful lawyer, although, based on the vast amount of research data that is available, Rosenberg found that “he never met or knew Abby Kelley Foster and, indeed, also as far as I know, never represented anyone accused of violating the Fugitive Slave Act. He did once, to his later great embarrassment, represent the so-called ‘owner’ of an enslaved man in an effort to have the man returned to slavery.”
Rosenberg explains that the key issue that triggers and drives the imaginary events described in his novel, is that “the United States was badly split between those – mostly in the South – who wanted to perpetuate chattel slavery and those – mostly in the North – who wanted to abolish it. But the main issue in the election wasn’t whether slavery should be immediately abolished. It was, instead, whether legal slavery should be allowed to expand beyond the states in which it already existed, to the vast territories in the west that had not yet become states.” The real and fictional characters in the novel represent the very disparate opinions that prevailed at the time. At one end of the spectrum are the Southerners, most of whom are slave owners, “who desired to plant ever-more cotton on ever-more acres [and] saw the creation of ever-more slave states as key to their economic survival.” At the other end of the spectrum are the abolitionists, such as Abby Kelly Foster, who want slavery abolished and the slaves freed with immediate effect. Then there are those in the middle; who don’t agree with slavery but are uncertain what to do about it – the so-called “gradual abolitionists.” Rosenberg explains, “A lot didn’t like slavery and preferred that it go away, but didn’t know how that could be accomplished given the political situation.” Lincoln himself, “condemned slavery as evil, but pledged, if elected, not to disturb it where it already existed.”
By the time of the electoral vote, according to Rosenberg’s re-telling, Lincoln is in a lose-lose situation because if he condemns the riot and agrees that Foster is guilty of incitement, then he will lose the vote of the Northerners, but if he supports Foster, then he will lose the vote of the Southerners. In The Day Lincoln Lost, Rosenberg “explores how a small thing (a local riot in Lincoln’s home town) could have, as one event followed another, caused him to lose.”
About the contributor: Marilyn Pemberton’s ambition is to bring Mary De Morgan, Victorian writer of fairy tales, out of the shadows. Marilyn has fictionalised her life in “The Jewel Garden.” Her second published novel, “Song of the Nightingale,” tells of the fate of two young castrati and was the Fiction Winner of the 2020 International Rubery Book Award. Marilyn has recently finished the first book of a trilogy that will tell of three generations of women who are story-tellers but who face sometimes insurmountable obstacles to getting their her-stories heard.