I have been working on a television project about the Lincoln presidency, and the first thing that struck me about Lincoln’s time was how similar it was to ours: a country bitterly divided, everybody yelling, nobody listening, the air polluted with acrimony, suspicion, and rage. On the night of Lincoln’s election, there were riots throughout the South and effigies of him were burned or hanged. Assassination threats arrived at his Springfield home in letters that were crudely misspelled.

When the Electoral College votes were to be counted at the Capitol in early January to confirm Lincoln’s victory, Southern sympathizers plotted to break into Vice President Breckinridge’s office, where the ballots were kept, and burn them. To protect the legislators charged with completing what had previously been this routine duty, the Capitol was ringed by police and military guards.