Professor Holt opens his book with a look at the political landscape just before the election that preceded the Civil War. While many assume that the Republican Party was riding an ascendant wave following its impressive showing in the election of 1856, the author notes that Republican fortunes appeared to have peaked, and would likely have declined, were it not for what Holt argues was the real dominant issue of the campaign that followed: widespread corruption within the administration of President James Buchanan, and Buchanan's obsequious kowtowing to the slave-holding interests in the south. Many northerners were angry about being held hostage by a petulant southern minority who threatened to break up the union if they did not get their way. They resented Buchanan for giving in to many of what they saw as unreasonable demands.
Holt looks at the dissension and disunity that existed within the Democratic Party over differences concerning the Kansas-Nebraska Act and Buchanan's disingenuous support for the minority which supported allowing slavery in the territory, to the detriment of the legitimate free soil majority. He explores the schism in the Democratic Party between Buchanan, supported by southern slave-holding interests, and Illinois Senator Stephen Douglas, who called for "popular sovereignty" (i.e. letting the majority decide if they would or would not permit slavery in the territory), something the slaveholders saw as prejudicial to their interests.
Holt describes what went on at the conventions of the major parties, including the split that saw two candidates nominated by Democrats, the northerner Douglas, and the southern candidate, Vice-President John Breckinridge. He describes how Abraham Lincoln supporters were able to snatch the Republican nomination from front-runner William Seward because of Seward's alienation of "Know-Nothing" Party supporters (the avid anti-immigrant faction) and how Lincoln's nomination led to what Holt describes as unfounded fears of abolitionism among the slave-holding faction in the south. He also looks at the efforts for compromise to hold the union together in the wake of this issue, and how John Bell came to be selected as the candidate for the Constitutional Union Party.
Holt describes the fascinating election campaign, one in which Douglas broke tradition by giving campaign speeches (something seen as unseemly at the time), while Lincoln remained quiet and let his organization follow its strategy to win enough electoral votes by knowing who to court and who not to offend. He describes the regional political calculus: who among the four opposed who, where and why. Holt's analysis of the election results are remarkable, given the absence of any exit polling data. He looks at what led to southern secession, making the case that it was unnecessary and stupid, given what Lincoln had said about not interfering with slavery where it was constitutionally lawful.
The author makes extensive use of contemporary newspaper accounts and editorials from both major and small local newspapers to take the pulse of the electorate as events unfolded. This is helpful in giving the reader a sense of what was going on in the nation at the time. This book is part of a series of presidential election post-mortems published by the University of Kansas. It does not read like a novel. Its tone is quite professorial, but it supplies plenty of a political history junkie's drug of choice. It is exceptional in its depth of analysis and in its explanation of the complexities of the time and in informing the reader about many of the issues that voters of the day were well aware of, but which have been lost in the rush to create sound-byte history. Professor Holt has produced a most worthwhile scholarly work.