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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
When New York was called, its 70 votes gave Seward a tally of 102 to only 19 for Lincoln. But then the senator ran into trouble. New Jersey held its 14 votes for Dayton and Pennsylvania gave Seward 1½ and Lincoln 4, and kept 47½ for Cameron. Virginia, which Seward had counted on, gave him only 8 and Lincoln 14. Henry Lane’s eyes glittered when Indiana threw all 26 for Lincoin. By the end of the first ballot Seward led with 173½, some 60 votes shy of the 233 needed to win; Lincoln held a surprisingly strong 102. It was now the two-man fight Davis had wanted, and the victory would go to the one who gained more on the second ballot.
Again it began badly for Seward. Lincoln picked up 2 more votes from New Hampshire, and Vermont abandoned its favorite son and cast all 10 for Lincoln. “This was a blighting blow upon the Seward interest,” Halstead wrote. “The New Yorkers started as if an Orsini bomb had exploded.” Welles never did deliver Connecticut entirely to Lincoln, but the state stayed out of the Seward column, giving 4 to Lincoln and spreading its other 8 among Bates, Chase, and Cassius Clay, the old war-horse from Kentucky. But when Pennsylvania weighed in with 48 for Lincoln, the rout was on. The results of the second ballot showed Seward hanging on with 184½ and Lincoln with 181.
The third ballot was carried out “amid excitement that tested the nerves.” Lincoln crept forward. Massachusetts took 4 of its Seward votes and gave them to Lincoln. Lincoln picked up a 3-vote lead from New Jersey and 4 more from Pennsylvania. Ohio came in with 29 for Lincoln, a gain of 15. He picked up 4 more when Oregon deserted Bates. Up and down the line it was almost all Lincoln. But would it be enough to put him over on this ballot? As the people in the hall tallied up the results, one newspaperman wrote, “a profound stillness suddenly fell upon the Wigwam; the men ceased to talk and the ladies to flutter their fans; one could distinctly hear the scratching of pencils and the ticking of telegraph instruments on the reporters’ tables.”
Upon the nomination, said a reporter, “the shouting was absolutely frantic, shrill and wild. No Camanches, no panthers ever struck a higher note....”
The tally showed Seward sagging to 181 and Lincoln at 231½. Another vote and a half would do it.
It was time for one last squeeze. Sometime during the first ballot Medill had wormed his way into the Ohio delegation and sat next to its floor leader, D. K. Cartter. Medill whispered to Cartter that Salmon Chase had only to come to Lincoln and he “can have anything he wants.” When the suspicious Cartter asked how he could be certain, Medill assured him by saying, “I know and you know I wouldn’t promise if I didn’t know.”
Cartter, pockmarked and stammering, stood up on a chair and called for attention. “I-I a-a-rise, Mr. Chairman, to a-a-nounce the chchange of f-four votes, from Mr. Chase to Abraham Lincoln.”
It was done.
There was a moment’s silence,” Halstead noted. “The nerves of the thousands, which through the hours of suspense had been subjected to terrible tension, relaxed, and as deep breaths of relief were taken, there was a noise in the Wigwam like the rush of a great wind, in the van of a storm —and in another breath, the storm was there. There were thousands cheering with the energy of insanity.”
One of the secretaries with a tally sheet in his hand shouted over the crowd what they already knew, “Fire the Salute— Abe Lincoln is nominated!” With tears on his cheeks, Evarts, as Seward’s floor manager, moved to have the nomination made unanimous. A huge charcoal portrait of Lincoln was brought in for the convention to admire, and one exulting group of his supporters tried to seize the New York banner as a trophy but was fought off.
The Seward crusade was over. It was left to Austin Blair of Michigan to make, in elegiac tones, the speech of the day: “Michigan, from first to last, has cast her vote for the great Statesman of New York. She has nothing to take back. She has not sent me forward to worship the rising sun, but she has put me forward to say that, at your behests here to-day, she lays down her first, best loved candidate to take up yours…she does not fear that the fame of Seward will suffer, for she knows that his fame is a portion of the history of the American Union; it will be written, and read, and beloved long after the temporary excitement of this day has passed away, and when Presidents themselves are forgotten in the oblivion which comes over all temporal things. We stand by him still....” Other Seward supporters wanted to eulogize their man, but the convention was in a mood to celebrate and cut them off.
Back home, each candidate received the word by telegram. Always the pessimist, Lincoln had assumed he would lose and that the convention, after failing to nominate Seward on the first ballot, would turn to either Bates or Chase. When the wire arrived telling him of his victory, Lincoln accepted congratulations from his friends and said, “There is a lady over yonder on Eighth Street who is deeply interested in this news; I will carry it to her.”
In Auburn, Seward read the telegram: “Lincoln nominated third ballot.” There was no change of expression on his face. “Well,” he said, “Mr. Lincoln will be elected and has some of the qualities to make a good President.”