Bare-knuckles politicking and a brilliant campaign strategy enabled the dark horse to win
Ten thousand delegates, reporters, and spectators poured into Chicago from 24 different states and territories the second week of May 1860—all fully believing, as one put it, that their choice “would be the next President of the United States.” That year’s Republican convention would prove to be one of the most important political gatherings in U.S. history.
These Republicans, assembling for only their second presidential convention, represented a wildly diverse political party: old Whigs, antislavery former Democrats, high-tariff Easterners, and onetime anti-foreigner Know Nothings. Probably their only point of agreement was that Sen. William H. Seward of New York would be nominated.
Lurking among the likely also-rans were notables such as former Gov. Salmon P. Chase of Ohio, Sen. Simon Cameron of Pennsylvania, and former Rep. Edward Bates of Missouri. But few regarded them as more than regional choices. A few weeks before, former Rep. Abraham Lincoln had won designation as Illinois’s favorite son. But even his 22 pledged delegates did not expect to do more than offer his name in nomination before Seward swept home with far more than the 233 votes needed to carry the 465-delegate convention.
Lincoln has often been portrayed as gaining the White House largely because of the disarray of the opposition party in the general election. Closer examination reveals that his meteoric rise from prairie lawyer to chief executive came as the result of an extraordinary work ethic, canny allegiance building over three decades, and a political team not afraid of a little skullduggery.
As the big event approached, Lincoln described himself as “a little too much of a candidate to go, and not quite enough of a candidate to stay home.” (Candidates were supposed to remain at a dignified distance until, they hoped, a delegation would arrive to announce word of their nomination.) A shrewd headcounter, he calculated that he might receive as many as 100 votes on the first ballot but that it would be “the high-water mark for me.” In his stead he dispatched a team of brilliant, devoted operatives, led by David W. Davis, a man of such immense girth that he uniquely received his own bed at the country inns frequented by attorneys on the state’s judicial circuit.
Davis and his team did not sleep at all, arriving in Chicago four days early to work on swaying votes in the event of a first-ballot deadlock. “We have persistently refused to Suffer your name used for Vice President on any ticket,” Lincoln’s friend William Butler wrote from Chicago. From their headquarters in a parlor at the overflowing Tremont House, Davis bewitched delegates with stories of Lincoln’s honesty, work ethic, rise from poverty, and political moderation (in direct contrast to Seward’s alleged extremism). While Davis did the grunt work, there’s no doubt who designed the strategy. “Our policy,” Lincoln had instructed, “. . . is to give no offence to others—leave them in a good mood to come to us, if they shall be compelled to give up their first love.”
The convention opened May 16 in the wondrous new 5,000-square-foot temporary timber building dubbed “the Wigwam,” lavishly decorated with flowers, American flags, patriotic bunting, and portraits of all 15 previous presidents. Few doubted that Seward’s image would soon join the panoply.
For all their bravura confidence, however, Seward’s forces never realized how successful Lincoln’s strategists had been in peeling off delegates during their extra days in Chicago. Suddenly, Lincoln stood alone—and all but unnoticed—as Seward’s most formidable obstacle to a smooth early triumph. One Philadelphia newspaper did report that “Lincoln’s stock is on the rise,” but Chicago papers, to which delegates had easier access, failed to herald his steady rise. Had they done so, the Sewardites might have recognized the danger in time to nip it. His people had come armed with confidence and money; but Lincoln now had momentum.
Using his contacts as a railroad lawyer, Judd convinced clients to discount fares into town—triggering an onrush of locals eager to cheer Lincoln’s progress. He worked further miracles by designing the convention’s seating plan. Before anyone noticed—much less objected—he had arranged for the all-Seward New York delegation to occupy the center of the floor, surrounded by Lincoln delegates, rightly assuming that Seward’s operatives would find it difficult to escape their isolation to troll for votes in the certain clamor of extra balloting. Judd placed pro-Lincoln Illinois and Indiana together near the front, where they could easily spread out, mingle, and make deals. “Keep cool,” a Lincoln man presciently wired the candidate the night before the voting. “Things is working.”
Back home, Lincoln worried anyway: “Make no contracts that bind me,” he wired his supporters. But Davis ignored him, telling his team that “Lincoln ain’t here and 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.” Historians remain divided as to whether Lincoln’s representatives promised specific Cabinet seats for delegate support. Nonetheless, it’s clear that whatever switching occurred during the next 72 hours, as Davis admitted, came from “paying the price.”
But would these measures really affect Seward’s vast plurality? As the decisive balloting began on May 18, no one knew for sure. Back in Springfield, Lincoln worked off his nervousness with a morning game of handball, then strolled to his law office to try and get some work done. Concentration did not come. By the time the convention came to order in Chicago, he and a few friends had gone to await the results at the telegraph office across the square.
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.”