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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
If Lincoln did not have the public record of Seward, that meant also that he did not have as much to defend. There is nothing like being a political front-runner to find out who really doesn’t like you, and the more Judge Davis poked around Seward’s record, the more possible roadblocks to Seward’s nomination he found. Former Democrats, new to the Republican party, were unhappy with Seward’s contention that blacks should have the vote. Then there were the Know-Nothings, whom Seward had consistently mocked. They were particularly powerful in states such as New Jersey, where the Republicans had no real organization of their own. Indiana and Pennsylvania were also strong KnowNothing country. The big Northern businessmen, usually a source of strength for Seward, were getting shy about his prominence as a lightning rod for Southern hatred ever since Harpers Ferry and were beginning to worry about their commercial trade with the South. And, oddly for such a moral man, Seward had a hint of corruption about him. Weed had not always been scrupulous about how he raised money for Seward, sometimes resorting to little more than shakedowns from Republican officeholders and the promoters of New York City street railways who relied on Weed to guide their franchises through the legislature. Horace Greeley’s New York Tribune said that when Seward was governor, the New York legislature was “not merely corrupt but shameless.”
Greeley’s animosity was difficult to understand. By rights, the two New Yorkers should have been political allies, but they had fallen out somewhere along the line over a matter of political patronage, and now Greeley remained implacable in his opposition to Seward’s candidacy.
And then there was the image question. In many ways, Seward, a wealthy corporation lawyer, was in the classic old Whig mold of a wellborn moralist telling the people what was good for them whether they wanted to hear it or not. These Whigs had a poor record in winning the White House. The only two Presidents they had been able to elect were dusted-off generals, Harrison and Taylor, who had run on their war records while the Whig leadership made fools of themselves wearing coonskin caps and drinking hard cider, trying to look like men of the people.
But with Lincoln, the Republicans could have a man who really was from humble origins and looked comfortable in the part. Lincoln carefully cultivated his populist appeal. During the Douglas debates, when Douglas and his party arrived in a line of carriages, Lincoln trailed behind in a wagon hauled by oxen. His rail-splitter image was an inspired piece of political Hackery conjured up by his supporters. When Lincoln secured the presidential pledge from the state convention on May 9, a group of men dressed as farmers carried in a pair of rails supposedly split by the candidate in 1830. Lincoln went along with the gag — up to a point. “I cannot say whether 1 made those rails or not, but I am quite sure I have made a great many as good,” he said amid applause so great that part of the canvas roof covering the meeting hall collapsed.
Lincoln would do nicely if they could put him over. And that was a question of mathematics. Could Seward be stopped short of 230 delegates and could Lincoln then pick them up before the convention rallied to someone else?
Lincoln had already demonstrated one quality vital to a presidential candidate: he was lucky. Chicago had been chosen as a compromise site before Lincoln was considered a serious candidate. If he had been seen as a contender, the city would have been unacceptable to Seward’s people; and if any other place had been chosen, it is unlikely Lincoln’s Illinois team could have swung the nomination.
Months before, Lincoln had astutely indicated the basic strategy to be taken. Writing to a delegate from Ohio to thank him for his support, Lincoln said, “If I have any chance, it consists mainly in the fact that the whole opposition would vote for me, if , nominated. (I don’t mean to include the pro-slavery opposition of the South, of course.) My name is new in the field, and I suppose I am not the first choice of a very great many. Our policy, then, is to give no offense to others —leave them in a mood to come to us if they shall be compelled to give up their first love.…”
Davis, having established Lincoln’s campaign headquarters in a two-room suite at the Tremont House, had three immediate jobs to do:
First, Seward had to be stopped from winning on the first ballot. Everything depended on that. As far as Davis was concerned, anyone who wouldn’t vote for Seward was a Lincoln man. At least for one round.
Second, Lincoln had to be built into something more than a favorite-son candidate. Favorite sons would be blown away by the second ballot. Lincoln needed votes from outside Illinois to demonstrate his depth. Davis had hoped for a solid second-place finish from Lincoln on the first ballot —no easy task, because Chase, Cameron, and Bates were all coming to Chicago with more delegates than Lincoln.
Welles was undecided about which way to jump until Lincoln’s people talked to him about a cabinet position.
Finally, Davis had to play a waiting game and secure as many second-ballot pledges for Lincoln as possible. Once Seward was stalled, it was imperative that Lincoln forge ahead before the convention could gather around someone else.