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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
Fifty-one years old, Abraham Lincoln was a made-over Whig with considerable local experience and some small national distinction. Born in Kentucky, and raised in Indiana and Illinois, he had worked as a land surveyor and won election as a captain of militia during the Black Hawk War before turning to law. He served for eight years in the Illinois legislature as a Clay Whig and generally could be relied upon to vote down the line with his party. Elected to Congress in 1846, he was turned out after one term, largely because of his opposition to the Mexican War, and afterward returned to Springfield to practice law.
No American politician of the time could claim more supporters than William Henry Seward. He was more than simply a leader.
Lincoln attained national recognition ten years later when he ran for the Senate against Douglas. His opening speech declared, famously, that “a house divided against itself cannot stand.” It became part of the national conscience, but it cost Lincoln the election. Douglas used the phrase to paint Lincoln as an abolitionist, and Leonard Swett, one of Lincoln’s closest advisers, later commented that Lincoln had defeated himself in the first sentence of his first speech. During his famous series of debates with Douglas, Lincoln attempted to backpedal. “I am not...in favor of making voters or jurors of Negroes,” he said in Charleston, Illinois, “nor of qualifying them to hold office....” But the political damage had been done.
Nevertheless, Lincoln made his national mark. He carried the antislavery issue about as far as most Republicans wished it taken and he had emerged as the leading Republican in Illinois.
Lincoln was woven of genuine homespun—he said “jist” for “just” and “sich” for “such”—but he was no political naif. He had toiled hard for the party and done the scut work of driving Frémont’s campaign wagons in 1854. He knew the names of hundreds of precinct and county workers and was careful to keep in contact with them. Lincoln was fiercely ambitious for political advancement. His long-time legal associate, Henry C. Whitney, said Lincoln picked his companions for what they could do for him. Noting that Lincoln used to play billiards with a somewhat disreputable Illinois attorney from time to time, Whitney remarked that “it was the only non-utilitarian thing” he ever saw Lincoln do.
Lincoln and Seward never confronted each other. The struggle was fought out by their supporters in Chicago. Lincoln awaited word of the results in Springfield, while the senator remained in his hometown of Auburn, New York. In a letter to Lincoln marked “Profoundly private,” Dr. Charles Ray, editor of the Chicago Tribune, laid it out simply enough: “You need a few trusty friends here to say words for you that may be necessary to be said....A pledge or two may be necessary when the pinch comes.”
The trusty friends behind Lincoln were solid, practical men of good sense and considerable diligence. Judge David Davis, who had known the candidate since they had both been circuit-riding lawyers in Illinois, served as Lincoln’s campaign manager. Weighing close to three hundred pounds, Davis gave the appearance of a sleepy mountain, but he was quick-witted and possessed of a nice political judgment. Charles Ray and his fellow editor Joseph Medill were ready to put the Tribune at Lincoln’s disposal. The state auditor Jesse Dubois was in Lincoln’s camp, as were Judge Stephen Logan, who had once been Lincoln’s law partner, and Norman Judd, a prominent railroad attorney who had been instrumental in setting up the Douglas debates.
They compared their man with Seward and were not unhappy. On the principal issue, Lincoln’s record was as good. And for a national campaign he was considered less radical.
Seward’s ringing “irrepressible conflict” had become something of an embarrassment to someone who hoped to win a national election without goading the South into insurrection. Seward admitted to a Washington hostess that if the Lord forgave him this time, he would never again put together two such high-sounding words. Lincoln had said almost as much in his “House Divided” speech, but coming from a minor Illinois politician its implications did not fall as stridently upon the ear as they did from a powerful New York senator.