1858: Abraham Lincoln, Jefferson Davis, Robert E. Lee, Ulysses S. Grant and the War They Failed to See - Bruce Chadwick Despite inexcusably poor copy editing (a particular bete noire of mine since that's my profession - the national anthem of the French Revolution was La Marseillaise not Marseilles) and, at times, clunky writing, 1858 is a fascinating look at a pivotal period of American history - James Buchanan's disastrous presidency.

Chadwick primarily focuses on the lives of men who would figure large in the Civil War: Jefferson Davis, Robert Lee, Abraham Lincoln, John Brown and William Sherman. He takes a few side trips to explore the political/social background of the period and look at the lives of a few lesser characters such as William Seward. As someone not overly familiar with this period of history, I enjoyed many of the revelatory passages. For example, how little the tactics of political campaigning have changed in 150 years. Operatives resorted to the lowest of low tactics to smear their opponents; votes were determined by appeals to emotion and group identity more than reasoned thought.

And it was instructive to learn about the parallels between the careers of Lincoln and Barack Obama (though the author, quite rightly, never brings up contemporary topics).

Another interesting parallel to our current politics is the vicious in-fighting that plagued the Democrats in Illinois, where Buchanan, loathing Stephen Douglas, did everything he could to deny Douglas victory. He wound up dividing the Democrats, who were routed in both the 1858 and 1860 elections. And how did Buchanan cope? Willful obliviousness to the situation and foreign adventures that ended disastrously.