- 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
The first day of the convention was given over to forming committees and listening to prayers and speeches blessing various Republican endeavors. David Wilmot gave a stem-winder of an antislavery speech and there was a small flap over the seating of Horace Greeley. Shut out from the New York delegation by Seward, Greeley had managed to get himself seated as a delegate from Oregon. No one seemed to mind very much. There would always be room for Horace Greeley at a Republican convention, although some wag played a joke on the editor by pinning a Seward campaign badge on the back of his coat. George Ashmun of Massachusetts was named president of the convention and presented with a gavel made of wood from Com. Oliver Hazard Perry’s flagship Lawrence. Knowing a cue when he saw one, Ashmun told the convention, “I have only to say today that all the auguries are that we shall meet the enemy and they shall be ours.”
The most spirited debate was whether or not to accept the Chicago Board of Trade’s invitation to take a boat ride on Lake Michigan later in the day. After some discussion it was agreed to go, and the convention adjourned until the next day, when the platform was to be adopted and the candidates voted upon.
Davis did not go on the boat ride. Nor did Weed. Both men worked furiously on the Kansas delegation. First the Kansans went over to see Weed for a smoke and a glass of champagne and a spot of politics. Weed surprised and delighted them by knowing most of their names and pouring the wine’ with a generous hand. As he told them how Seward was unbeatable, one Kansan said the expansive host reminded him of Byron’s Corsair—“The mildest mannered man that ever scuttled a ship or cut a throat.”
Arriving back at their hotel, the Kansans were greeted by a beatific Horace Greeley all pink and sleek, “looking like a well-to-do farmer fresh from his clover field.” Greeley came quickly to the point: “...you couldn’t elect Seward if you could nominate him....to name Seward, is to invite defeat. He cannot carry New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Indiana, or Iowa, and I will bring to you representative men from each of these states who will confirm what I say.”
If Greeley had been fronting for Lincoln’s men, which he was not (he still had hopes for Bates), he would have been hard put to define their position more clearly. Davis manipulated him masterfully. “We let Greeley run his Bates machine,” Swett wrote later, “but got most of them for a second choice.”
And for harder cases, Davis had stronger methods.
Gideon Welles, with a Santa Claus beard and an ill-fitting wig, came to Chicago heading up a badly split Connecticut delegation. He was not particularly well disposed toward Seward but was undecided about which way to jump until Lincoln’s people talked to him about a cabinet position. Welles went to work and was later named Secretary of the Navy.
At some point Davis got to the influential Blair family of Maryland, which had been politically prominent since the days of Andrew Jackson. With the promise of Maryland’s votes on the second ballot, Montgomery Blair was ticketed to be Postmaster General.
Thursday the seventeenth was largely given over to adopting the party platform, and had it not been for the excitement in the air of selecting the next President of the United States, a dreary day’s work it would have been. The platform promised something for everyone except, perhaps, the slaveholding Southerners. There was a protective tariff to keep Greeley and Pennsylvania happy. There was a homestead law for the farmers and a Pacific railroad for the West. But there was little fire in the document. The 1856 platform had been given over almost entirely to the question of slavery. The 1860 platform included the issue as one of many before the voters, and not necessarily the most important one. The homestead and tariff planks received more cheers than the plank calling for the limiting of slavery.
So timid were the framers on the question of slavery that they turned down a proposed amendment by Joshua Giddings, an old campaigner in the abolitionist struggle, to reaffirm the line from the Declaration of Independence that “all men are created equal.” Giddings, feeling “everything lost, even honor,” stormed off the floor. His departure, however, was an empty gesture, for he was back a few minutes later when the New York delegation had the phrase inserted into the platform. As Giddings came back to his seat, William Evarts, Seward’s floor manager from New York, commented, “Well, at least we saved the Declaration of Independence.”
Greeley said, “You couldn’t elect Seward if you could nominate him.…to name Seward, is to invite defeat.”
Unaware of the extent of the headway Davis was making off the convention floor, Seward’s people were riding high. The delegates called to start the balloting, and if it had proceeded, Seward, still the leading candidate, would probably have been the party’s nominee. But fate and Judge Davis intervened. The convention clerks said the tally sheets were prepared but, for some reason, were not at hand. After some desultory debate, the convention agreed to go to supper and reconvene in the morning.
Davis, “nearly dead from fatigue,” would have one more night.