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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
There was a great deal to do, and Davis was the sort of man who had a good eye for the detail as well as the big picture. To ensure that Lincoln was well represented on the floor with demonstrators, a large number of counterfeit tickets were printed and several Lincoln men stayed up all night forging signatures on them. And if Seward was going to have some shouters on the floor, so would Lincoln. Davis rounded up a group of strong-lunged men, including one Dr. Ames, reportedly possessed of lungs so hearty he could be heard across Lake Michigan, and even a stray Democrat who apparently had nothing better to do the next day.
Nobody slept very much that night. Seward’s band serenaded the streets as politicians crisscrossed the city. Weed reportedly uncorked three hundred bottles of champagne, and Halstead saw Henry Lane of Indiana, “pale and haggard, with cane under his arm, walking as if for a wager,” going from one caucus to another trying to bring it home for Lincoln.
Greeley was making the rounds as well. His Bates boom had fizzled and at 11:40 P.M. Greeley telegraphed the New York Tribune, saying, “My conclusion, from all that I can gather to-night is, that, the opposition to Gov. Seward cannot concentrate on any candidate, and that he will be nominated.”
Davis, however, was far from finished. After Greeley left, he met with members of the New Jersey and Pennsylvania delegations and produced a tabulation showing Lincoln a solid second with many more votes than any other candidate except Seward. Both states said they would caucus and get back to Davis. New Jersey agreed to go along that night, but Pennsylvania would let him know in the morning.
A few hours before the convention was to reconvene on Friday, Judge Joseph Casey from Harrisburg arrived with the deal. Simon Cameron would deliver Pennsylvania on the second ballot if he could be named Secretary of the Treasury. A wire went off to Lincoln saying things looked good if Cameron could be accommodated. Lincoln sent back a startling telegram: “I authorize no bargains and will be bound by none.” The wording was simple enough, but what did Lincoln mean by it? He knew Davis was in Chicago making deals for him. That’s why Davis was there in the first place. Besides, Lincoln also had said earlier that he wanted that “big Pennsylvania foot” to come down on the scale for him. Surely he did not mean to back off just because the going was getting a little rough. The most likely explanation is that Lincoln expected Davis to continue dealing in his name while he covered himself for the record. The “Rail Splitter” was developing the long view.
As his agents discussed the telegram, Davis cut in sharply, “Lincoln ain’t here.” The candidate, he went on, “don’t know what we have to meet, so we will go ahead, as if we hadn’t heard from him, and he must ratify it.” Dr. Ray agreed. “We are after a bigger thing than that; we want the Presidency and the Treasury is not a great stake to pay for it.”
The extent of just how much Davis actually committed in Lincoln’s name has been the subject of debate ever since. When Davis and his team later presented Lincoln with the due bill for political services rendered in Chicago, he responded, “Well, gentlemen, where do I come in? You seem to have given everything away.”
The results, however, are certain. Pennsylvania dutifully swung over to Lincoln on the second ballot, and its leader was awarded a seat in Lincoln’s cabinet. The sticky-fingered Cameron didn’t get the Treasury, however. That went to Salmon Chase of Ohio. Cameron was named Secretary of War and after one inept and corrupt year in office was shipped off to Moscow as the U.S. ambassador to Russia.
On Friday morning the Seward people received their first setback at the door. When Seward’s brass band arrived with a thousand supporters, they found they couldn’t get in. Their places had been taken by Lincoln men with forged tickets.
The nomination of the candidates was swiftly done with, and it was obvious that only Seward and Lincoln had any clear vocal support. When Seward’s name was seconded, his depleted backers gave a good account of themselves. Trying to describe it stretched Halstead to the journalistic limit. He wrote: “The effect was startling. Hundreds of persons stopped their ears in pain. The shouting was absolutely frantic, shrill and wild. No Camanches, no panthers ever struck a higher note, or gave screams with more infernal intensity.”
Then it was Lincoln’s turn. “Imagine all the hogs ever slaughtered in Cincinnati giving their death squeals together, a score of big steam whistles going,” Halstead wrote, “and you conceive something of the same nature. I thought the Seward yell could not be surpassed; but the Lincoln boys were clearly ahead....”
When the shouting finally petered out, it was time to begin the balloting, and things began to unravel quickly for Seward. Maine, voting first, gave Seward 10 and Lincoln 6. Abolitionist New England, which was supposed to be solid for Seward, was starting to crack. New Hampshire cast one wistful vote for Frémont, one for Chase, one for Seward, and 7 for Lincoln. As Evarts tallied up the New England bloc, it showed 32 for Seward, 19 for Lincoln, and the remaining 30 spread out among the field. A lead, but not the kind to start parades for.