Thursday, March 15, 2012

How Lincoln Won the 1860 Republican Nomination

In May 1860, the nation’s attention turned toward Chicago, where the Republicans were meeting to select their presidential candidate.

William H. Seward, the Republican front-runner from New York, sent his political team to Chicago to lock up his party’s nomination. In the mid-nineteenth century, it was not considered proper for the aspiring candidate to go to the convention himself, so Seward sent his political manager, Thurlow Weed, along with his states’ 70 delegates and 13 railroad cars of supporters.

The residents of Chicago were delighted to have their city of 100,000 chosen for the Republican party’s second presidential convention. At the cost of about $6,000, Republicans there built a new convention center for the occasion. Nicknamed “The Wigwam,” it had excellent acoustics and could seat more than 10,000, which purportedly would be the largest audience yet assembled in the country under one roof.

The Candidates

Seward and Weed--some would say the unscrupulous Weed--were confident. It would take 233 votes to win the nomination, and they had nearly a third of that in the New York delegation alone.

Who could possibly upset their plans? Not Pennsylvania’s candidate, Simon Cameron. Cameron was considered a crook by most of the country, and would have little support outside of the 54 delegates from Pennsylvania. Not Ohio’s Salmon P. Chase. Ohio’s 46 votes probably would be split between he and fellow Ohioans Sen. Ben Wade and Judge John McClean. Not Missouri’s Edwin Bates--although Bates had Missouri’s 18 delegates and the backing of the nation’s most powerful newspaper editor, Horace Greely of the New York Tribune.

William H Seward
Seward and Weed recognized that they were not on their own turf, and anticipated that Illinois’ “Favorite Son,” Abraham Lincoln, probably would receive all of the states’ 22 votes. Since Illinois was considered a doubtful state for candidate Seward should he be the Republican candidate (where he would have a tough time defeating the anticipated Democratic nominee--Illinois’ other favorite son, Stephen A. Douglas), Weed was prepared to acquire Illinois votes on the second ballot by offering Lincoln the vice-presidential spot.

That should secure Seward’s nomination in the event of a tough floor fight, he and his supporters reckoned.

Lincoln's Strategy

Lincoln had been busy preparing for the convention as well. Using all his political skill, he had persuaded the Illinois delegation to vote for him in a bloc. To lead the floor fight, he selected David Davis, a trusted friend, and Norman Judd, who was due most of the credit for bringing the Republican convention to Chicago. Finally, he provided them with some tactical guidance and limitations of engagement, which included an admonishment to “make no deals that bind me,” and waited in Springfield for the results.

Confident that Seward would not have enough votes to lock up the nomination on the first ballot, Lincoln intended to get the second highest vote count on the first ballot and line up additional votes for the second ballot in order to show increasing strength. He hoped that this strategy--combined with the presence of an enthusiastic band of followers on the floor--would be sufficient to win the nomination on the third or subsequent ballot.

Lincoln’s men left no detail unattended in their pursuit of this strategy. They made certain that Seward’s New Yorkers were seated far from other critical delegations with whom they might collaborate. They printed hundreds of counterfeit tickets and distributed them to Lincoln supporters with instructions to show up early--in order to displace Seward’s supporters.

They also assigned two men with noted stentorian voices to lead the cheering. One of these men reportedly had a larynx powerful enough to allow his shout to be heard across Lake Michigan.

Stop Seward

The first two days of the convention were devoted to acceptance of delegates, administration, and the platform. The evenings were spent in the caucusing of delegates. Weed’s approach was to offer champagne for the present and “oceans of money” for the future.

In contrast, Davis and Judd spent their time lining up votes from delegates of other states that didn’t want to see Seward win. Indiana committed 26 first ballot votes to Lincoln. Several of the New England states, including New Hampshire and Maine, provided Lincoln with many first ballot votes that Seward was planning on.

Even more important were the second ballot votes. Several states, including Vermont, were glad to find that the “stop Seward” forces were finally uniting behind one man and committed most of their subsequent votes to Lincoln.

Pennsylvania was harder to crack. Davis chose to ignore Lincoln’s direction about making pledges in his absence, and got a commitment from Pennsylvania to support Lincoln on the second ballot by offering a cabinet position to Simon Cameron.

Beyond Description

Finally, the third day arrived. One thousand Seward men marched behind a smartly uniformed brass band. They wound their way noisily through Chicago’s streets, playing the song “Oh, Isn’t He a Darling?” and finally arrived triumphantly in front of the Wigwam. To their horror, they found that they could not get in: the Lincoln men, admitted with their counterfeit tickets, had taken their seats.

Still, Seward had his share of support. When his name was offered in nomination, tremendous applause went up from the audience--followed by louder applause for Lincoln. The crowd quickly recognized them as the front-runners when the other candidates received less enthusiastic commendation.

When Seward’s name was seconded, the demonstration was so vociferous that “hundreds of persons stopped their ears in pain.” But when Lincoln’s nomination was seconded, the uproar was “beyond description.”

Leonard Swett, a friend of Lincoln’s, said that “Five thousand people leaped to their seats, women not wanting, and the wild yell made vesper breathings of all that had preceded. A thousand steam whistles, ten acres of hotel gongs, a tribe of Comanches might have mingled in the scene unnoticed.”

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