- Historic Sites
Lincoln Snatches The Nomination
Bare-knuckles politicking and a brilliant campaign strategy enabled the dark horse to win
Spring 2010 | Volume 60, Issue 1
That warm Friday morning, 25,000 people lined up outside the Wigwam for the right to occupy just 10,000 spectator seats. Judd had scored one more quiet triumph. Responding to rumors that Seward’s men had forged admission tickets for the previous day’s deliberations on the antislavery extension party platform, he arranged for the printing of counterfeit ducats and quietly distributed them to Lincoln loyalists along with an appeal to show up early. While Seward supporters paraded through the streets, Lincoln
enthusiasts surged into the hall—“men of good lungs” ready to roar for their man. Startled and then angry Seward supporters with official tickets found themselves turned away in droves. Seward’s name went into nomination that day to the expected “deafening shout.” But when Lincoln’s name was proposed as “a man who can split rails and maul Democrats,” the roar was so explosive, one eyewitness recalled, that the Wigwam’s windows trembled “as if they had been pelted with hail.”
The convention finally got down to business and considered the 12 nominess. The state of Maine surprised everyone at the outset by splitting, casting 10 votes for Seward, six for Lincoln. Pennsylvania went, as anticipated, for Cameron, but the Illinoisan won a few more votes than the New Yorker. By the end of the dramatic first ballot—Seward’s best chance to win—he had amassed only 173.5 votes to Lincoln’s startling 102, with none of the others coming close.
Now came the crunch. Would a quick second canvass give Seward the 60 additional delegates he needed to cross the threshold—or would his dispirited supporters waver? The answer became clear during the next raucous roll call. Pennsylvania switched 44 votes to Lincoln (in return for the Treasury Department, some later speculated); as pandemonium erupted, the new total showed the two front-runners virtually tied: Seward with 184.5 votes; Lincoln with 181. Seward still clung to the lead but had gained only 11 votes compared with Lincoln’s 79. The ground was shifting.
Now, before Seward’s desperate operatives could squeeze out of their seats in search of more support, Lincoln men rushed to the Maryland, Kentucky, and Virginia delegations. When the third-ballot roll call ended, Lincoln had reached 231.5 votes—just 1.5 votes short. For a moment, the din that had enveloped the Wigwam suddenly evaporated, replaced by an almost eerie silence while the stunned delegates waited for someone to make a move. One onlooker claimed it grew so still that he could hear the 60 reporters frantically scribbling.
The Ohio delegation chairman, David Kellogg Cartter, broke the logjam by rising dramatically—moments after someone from the Lincoln camp reportedly promised him “anything he wants”—to switch four votes to the man from Illinois. The resulting cheer, one journalist reported, was “like the rush of a great wind.” Someone shouted to a man perched above in a skylight, “Fire the salute! Abe Lincoln is nominated!” Inside, the “wildest excitement and enthusiasm” swelled to “a perfect roar.”
Geography and biography, packed galleries and lung power, bare-knuckle politics and deal making, and above all the brilliant strategy of casting Lincoln as everyone’s second choice, triumphed in Chicago. Electability trumped inevitability, and a paradigm shifted. With rival Democrats hopelessly split, delegates to that convention 150 years ago not only chose a candidate—they picked the next president.
Ultimately, Lincoln did “appear” at the convention after all. The moment he won the nomination, friends in the balconies showered the hall with crude woodcut portraits. Then, as eyewitness Montgomery Blair, future postmaster general, recalled, someone appeared on the platform carrying “a hideous” Lincoln painting. “Most of the delegates having never seen the original,” Blair said, “the effect upon them was indescribable.”