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How We Got Lincoln
Every presidential election is exciting when it happens. Then the passing of time usually makes the outcome seem less than crucial. But after more than a century and a quarter, the election of 1860 retains its terrible urgency.
November 1988 | Volume 39, Issue 7
In the crowded months between the beginning of the 1860 presidential campaign and the attack on Fort Sumter, it is easy now to see the emergence of Abraham Lincoln as something preordained, as though the issues had manufactured a figure commensurate with their importance. Or at the least, one might imagine a dramatic, hard-fought campaign with Northern and Southern states rallying around their respective candidates. But that’s not quite how it happened.
There is drama enough in the 1860 campaign, but most of it does not spring from the election itself. The moment Lincoln was nominated, the issue was settled: He would become the President; he would be faced with the dissolution of the federal Union. The crucial steps on Lincoln’s road to the White House came earlier, during the most important party convention in our history—a convention that seemed, at the time, certain to nominate William Henry Seward as Republican party candidate for President of the United States.
The senator from New York cut an odd, slight figure. Spare and angular, Seward looked, one newspaper said, like “a jay bird with a sparrow hawk’s bill.” His unprepossessing appearance aside, Seward seemed like a man very much in control of his political life as he marched down the Republican side of the Senate chamber on May 7, 1860. Taking his seat, Seward produced a large quantity of snuff and a yellow handkerchief that he waved expansively as he amused his fellow Republicans with a joke or two. There were few things in life Seward enjoyed more than being the focus of attention. The senators who watched him perform understood that they were looking at the next President of the United States. And no one in the chamber was more certain of this than Seward himself.
Four days earlier the Democratic party convention in Charleston had done an extraordinary thing. Deliberately, the delegates had thrown away the forthcoming presidential election. They had met to confirm Sen. Stephen A. Douglas of Illinois, the only Democrat who could have reached out beyond the slaveholding South and gathered up enough electoral votes from the border states to win. But insurrection had been in the air at Charleston. The smooth-talking Democrat from Alabama, William Yancey, who took pride in being known as “the Prince of the Fire-Eaters,” had his mind not on success within the political system but on secession from the Union. With Yancey calling the shots, the convention turned away from Douglas and refused to nominate anybody. The party would eventually put up two candidates, Douglas and Vice-President John Breckinridge, while a hastily formed splinter group calling itself the Constitutional Union party nominated John Bell of Tennessee.
Yancey had what he wanted. The fragmented Democrats would most likely lose to a Republican committed to abolition. The South would have no choice but to secede.
So the way was left open for the Republicans. A political organization that had been stitched together five years earlier by grafting snippets of Free-Soilers, Know-Nothings, Abolitionists, and runaway Democrats onto the carcass of the old, moribund Whig party had the Presidency within its grasp for the first time. In 1856, with no reasonable chance of victory, the Republicans had nominated the romantic adventurer John Frémont, and lost. Now it was time for a seasoned man of politics. That man was Seward.
The senator had every right to be confident. He was a traditional politician of the day and had played the political game in the traditional manner. He had spoken out on the questions Republicans wanted addressed. He had led them where they wanted to go. Seward had paid his dues, and now it was time to collect.
He had the credentials. An early organizer of the party, Seward led the antislavery forces in Congress despite his uninspiring public-speaking style. Indeed, he frequently gave the impression of talking to himself. The great orators such as Daniel Webster and John C. Calhoun had ignored his speeches. But Seward had a keen mind and once, in a moment of inspiration, he described the issue between slave and free as an “irrepressible conflict.” The phrase went into the political language of the day, and Seward’s followers liked to call themselves “the Irrepressibles.”
He had the following. No American politician of the time could claim more devoted supporters. To a party based on opposition to slavery, Seward was more than simply a leader. He was, as the contemporary journalist Isaac Bromley put it, “the central figure of the whole movement, its prophet, priest, and oracle.” A presidential election without Seward, Bromley concluded, “would be the play without Hamlet.”
He had the money. With a war chest full of dollars culled from New York State political organizations, Seward’s campaign manager, Thurlow Weed, had been able to collar Republican leaders by promising “oceans of money” to underwrite not only Seward’s campaign but theirs as well.
He had the votes. To secure the nomination, Seward would need 233 delegates. He had 170 in his pocket as he sat in the Senate. If there had been a national primary at the time, Seward would certainly have won it. The Republicans held a number of straw votes before the convention showing him an easy winner. One from Michigan gave him 210 votes and all other candidates 30, while another from the Northwest showed him with 127 and 44 for the rest.