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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
Always meticulous in such matters, Seward started working on a draft of the resignation speech he would give to the Senate upon receiving the nomination. But the smooth senator from New York found himself heading into some very rough territory.
In a neat piece of symbolism for the emerging importance of the party’s Western reach, the Republican convention was set for Chicago. It was not much of a city. Writing in the mid-1850s, the historian James Parton said that of all American prairie towns, Chicago “was the most repulsive to every human sense.” Cattle still crowded the sidewalks, and stables were routinely emptied into Lake Michigan, which provided the city’s drinking water. Consumption, cholera, and smallpox were commonplace; Chicago had the highest death rate in the nation. But it was an energetic place. When engineers decided the city streets had to be raised twelve feet to bring them safely above river level, every building in town was jacked up and twelve hundred acres were filled in.
By 1860 Chicago had made itself into a convention city of fifty-seven hotels, eight of them considered deluxe by the town’s relaxed standards. And just for the Republicans the city had erected the first building in America specifically constructed to hold a political convention: an immense two-story wooden structure called the Wigwam and billed as “the largest audience room in the United States.” Completed only four days before the convention opened, the eighteen-thousand-square-foot Wigwam could accommodate somewhere between six and fifteen thousand people. With more than twenty thousand Republicans coming to town, it was going to be a tight fit.
Chicago was a good town in which to practice a little political bushwhacking, and Seward, although he carried the cachet that goes with being the front-runner, made an appealing target. He was so confident of the righteousness of his causes that he seemed indifferent to the intensity of the resentment he aroused.
Once when Senator Douglas, exasperated during an all-night Senate session, used the word nigger, Seward snapped, “Douglas, no man who spells Negro with two gs will ever be elected President of the United States.” The line played well back home, but it made Seward enemies. Although there was no evidence to support the charge, many suspected Seward, among other Northern Republicans, of complicity in John Brown’s raid on Harpers Ferry the year before. One Richmond newspaper carried an advertisement offering fifty thousand dollars for the head of the “traitor” William Seward.
Several highly placed Republicans disliked the senator as well, and all of them were coming to Chicago. If Seward was to be stopped, the Wigwam was the place where it could be done.
The Republicans began streaming into Chicago in crowds that made the railroad depots “beat like great hearts with their living tide,” according to one correspondent. They came in such numbers that some 130 of them had to sleep on pool tables in hotel billiard rooms. They were a rough, contentious group who smelled victory and started their celebrating early. The New York Republicans in particular, said one witness, “can drink as much whiskey, swear as loud and long, sing as bad songs, and ‘get up and howl’ as ferociously as any crowd of Democrats....”
The imperious Thurlow Weed, nicknamed “Lord Thurlow,” led the pack. He set up headquarters at the Richmond House with an abundant supply of good cigars and champagne, and a willingness to promise anything required to secure the remaining 60 votes Seward needed. To back him up with muscle and yelling power for marching in parades and shouting in floor demonstrations, Weed had brought in a gang of roughnecks, among them the former American heavyweight champion Tom Hyer (who in fact was considered by many to be the best-mannered man at the convention).
There were other candidates in the contest besides Seward, but Weed discounted them. Salmon Chase of Ohio yearned to be President, but he seemed too proud to campaign actively for it. Judge Edward Bates of St. Louis, backed by powerful forces within the party, had been tainted by his association with the Know-Nothings and their chauvinistic policies against the foreign-born and Roman Catholics, two important voting blocs with long memories. Simon Cameron, the party boss of Pennsylvania, had presidential ambitions, but Cameron was essentially a deal-maker who could be made content as long as he got something for himself out of the convention. The field was filled out with favorite-son candidates such as William Dayton of New Jersey and Abraham Lincoln of Illinois.
Surveying it all, Weed calculated that although Lincoln was a marginal candidate, he would require scrutiny. In an attempt to give some regional balance to the campaign, Weed offered him second place on the ticket. The offer was tempting, but Lincoln and his advisers refused. They were after bigger game.