- Historic Sites
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
Davis dispatched his men to meet the various conventioneers as they arrived. Samuel Parks, who was born in Vermont, went to that delegation and Swett went to see his old friends from Maine. Every delegation Davis could get to was visited by Lincoln’s men. They carried with them a pair of powerful messages from Davis.
Although they were careful not to disparage Seward, they drove home the point that he was not as solid as he looked. With only New England firmly in the Republican column, the national election would be won or lost in New Jersey, Indiana, Illinois, and Pennsylvania, where Know-Nothing sentiment remained high. The Republicans had to win three of those four doubtful states or lose it all. And these were precisely the four marginal states where Seward was weakest.
Something Seward had said in 1852 now returned to haunt him. When the Whigs of his state wanted to give the venerable Henry Clay a third chance for the Presidency, Seward had written a New York congressman saying, “it is not a question of who we should prefer but whom can we elect.” Now the same hard political judgment was to be used against Seward. Even if he was the best man, his party could not elect him.
The second message was the Davis counter to Weed’s “oceans of money.” Davis had hardly any money at all. He later calculated the total expense of nominating Lincoln, including everything from band music to railroad tickets for delegates, at less than seven hundred dollars. With no cash, Davis did the next best thing he could think of. In effect he established a futures market in Lincoln’s cabinet and sold it off chair by chair.
He had to start by securing his own Illinois delegation. Not all of the 22 delegates were solid for Lincoln. Men from the northern part of the state, about a third of the state delegates, were for Seward. Davis handled that by binding the state to vote as a unit.
Lincoln swiftly won Indiana’s 26 delegates. Dr. Ray checked in with Medill at the Tremont House to tell him the news that Indiana was committed to Lincoln down the line. Asked how this was done, Ray replied, “By the Lord, we promised them everything they asked.” After the election Indiana’s Caleb Smith was appointed Secretary of the Interior and William Dole was given the post of Commissioner of Indian Affairs, where the hours were good and the money excellent.
As Chicago filled up with Republicans, and with the balloting only two days away, Lincoln still trailed Seward by as many as 90 votes, but Davis was happy. Lincoln’s cause was moving forward, and he would likely have the solid secondplace finish Davis wanted for his man.
The convention took over the city. Seward’s men, led by a brass band with bright white and scarlet feathers in their hats, trooped up and down the streets playing the Seward campaign song, “Oh Isn’t He a Darling?,” as if the election was already over. Inside the hotels the delegates talked politics. As Murat Halstead of the Cincinnati Commercial described the scene, “Men gather in little groups, and with their arms about each other, and chatter and whisper as if the fate of the country depended upon their immediate delivery of the mighty political secrets with which their imaginations are big....There are now at least a thousand men packed together in the halls of the Tremont House, crushing each other’s ribs, tramping each other’s toes, and titillating each other with the gossip of the day; and the probability is, not one is possessed of a single political fact not known to the whole, which is of the slightest consequence to any human being.”
It was an insistent crowd that surged up to the Wigwam on Wednesday, May 16, for the opening of the convention. One man, a Mr. Johns, delegate-at-large from Iowa, described as “a plain, homespun western farmer, but sound to the core,” had walked 150 miles to get to the railroad that would bring him to Chicago. The doors opened and the flood of delegates, newsmen, and spectators poured in. The press tables had the latest in telegraphic equipment but only sixty seats for nine hundred applicants. The standing-roomonly delegate floor for forty-five hundred was filled within five minutes. The galleries, which would accommodate gentlemen only in the company of ladies, caused considerable problems for the all-male convention. Schoolgirls were offered a quarter for their company, and one woman, who was offered a half-dollar, refused because she had already accompanied six gentlemen inside and was afraid the police would object if she came in a seventh time. One enterprising Republican attempted to bring in an Indian woman who was selling moccasins on the street but was rebuffed by the guards, who held that an Indian woman could not be a lady.