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Updated on September 20, 2012


In stark contrast to the Democrats’ funeral dirge at Charleston, Republican delegates descended on Chicago in a loud, boisterous and celebratory mood. They had good reason to make noise, knowing if they played their cards right, the next president would be chosen here. This came about because by 1860, the population of the North so far exceeded that of the South, a candidate could win the presidency without a single Southern electoral vote. The key would be to choose a nominee that could unite the disparate elements that then made up the Republican Party. Only in existence since 1854, the Republicans were more a loose collection of former Democrats, Whigs, Free-Soilers, abolitionists, and even Know-Nothings (the anti-immigrant group popular in the 1850’s), than a strong national organization.

The clear front-runner was William Seward, current Senator and former governor of New York. A stalwart of the anti-slavery movement, Seward had shocked many in the country with comments about an “irrepressible conflict” approaching between the sections, and a “higher law” than the Constitution. Behind him, the two other main contenders were Salmon Chase of Ohio, another staunch anti-slavery man, and Edward Bates, a prominent lawyer from Missouri, who appealed to more moderate Republicans. Besides those three, there were states’ favorite sons and a slightly obscure lawyer from Illinois named Abraham Lincoln. The New York delegates were perhaps the loudest and hardest drinking of all the states represented. Led by savvy political operator, Thurlow Weed, they were confident their man Seward would glide smoothly through the convention and election, straight into the White House. Their optimism was not misplaced, but there were strong undercurrents that just might de-rail the Seward Presidential Express.

William Seward’s main weakness was being too prominent. Long a figure on the national stage, he had made enemies along the way. While his support was strong in anti-slavery New England, there were mid-western Republican leaders who feared he could not carry their states because his views on slavery were too radical. Salmon Chase had the same problem. Edward Bates dabbled in the Know-Nothing movement, making him a non-starter in immigrant communities, especially among Germans. The Illinois delegation, headed by 300 pound Judge David Davis believed the convention could be convinced that Abraham Lincoln was a candidate who could pull all the different factions together, as he did not possess enemies among any of them. He was not as well known as the other three and had not been on the national stage as long.

Honest Abe or the Rail-splitter, as his followers called him to emphasize his humble origins, was not completely unknown in 1860. His famous “House-Divided” speech in 1858 and legendary debates with Stephen Douglas during the Illinois Senate race the same year had given him some national exposure. Early in 1860, several New York Republican leaders, eager to learn more about the prairie lawyer and perhaps deflate Seward’s presidential balloon, invited Honest Abe to speak in New York City. Lincoln’s masterful Cooper Union address won many converts as did several other speeches he gave in New England afterwards. David Davis’ strategy was to persuade as many delegates as possible that Abe made an excellent second choice candidate. Once the convention realized Seward, Chase, or Bates might not carry the general election, gravitation toward Lincoln would begin.

Opening on May 16 in the spacious new hall built specially for the occasion called the Wigwam, the convention featured a shortened program for the first day. Introductory speeches were given, followed by a cruise on Lake Michigan. On Day Two, the delegates quickly adopted a platform whose main plank was no slavery extension into new territories. Next came the placing of names in nomination, which occurred with much enthusiasm. If the roll had been taken right away, the energy and momentum in the hall might have carried Seward over the top on the first ballot. The New York delegation, in fact, called for an immediate vote, but the tally sheets to record each states’ votes were not quite ready. Did the convention mind waiting a few minutes? The last thing the delegates wanted to do was sit around and doing nothing. They wanted to hoot and holler. Amid all the noise, the chair finally gaveled an adjournment until tomorrow. The Seward men were not too upset, feeling things were still well in hand. The convention poured out into the street, ready to party through the night. As darkness fell, David Davis and the Illinois delegation sprang into action.

The image of the smoke filled back-room, with political operatives making deals came vividly to life in Chicago. Working from a suite at the Tremont Hotel, Davis and his cronies toiled feverishly till dawn- visiting other delegations to talk up Honest Abe as second choice; cutting deals (although Lincoln expressly forbid any be made in his name); counting heads to see how the vote might turn out. Team Lincoln also employed other stratagems to give their man the best chance to win. They hired two leather-lunged yellers to stand at opposite ends of the hall and direct cheering for the Rail-splitter. Fake tickets to the gallery were allegedly printed up and passed out to Lincoln supporters, in an effort to freeze out those who favored Seward. The skill with which David Davis and the Illinois delegation handled the convention is hard to match in U.S. History.

It all worked. Seward came close to winning on the first ballot, yet not quite. He went a little higher on the second, but no further. Lincoln, meanwhile, garnered more votes each successive ballot, pushed along by the deafening roar of the crowd. The third ballot proved the charm. Abe ended up just three votes short of victory, while Seward fell back. Before a fourth ballot could be taken, Ohio switched three votes from Chase to Lincoln. That did it. The explosion in the hall was overwhelming. A man stationed on the roof to fire a small cannon when the nominee was named, poked his head through a skylight to see what was going on. An ecstatic spectator in the gallery looked up and shouted, “Fire the salute- Old Abe is nominated!” The only ones not joining in the celebration were the New York delegates, their leader Thurlow Weed pressing fingers to his eyes to keep from crying.

The delegates at Chicago took a large leap of faith in nominating the relatively unproven Abraham Lincoln. David Davis and the Illinois delegation, however, knew what they were about, and knew the qualities of the man being put forward. The American people would be forever in their debt. Secession of the Southern states came, just as William Yancey predicted, after Lincoln won the election of 1860. Neither he, nor anyone else for that matter, could have forecast the magnitude of the trial and tragedy the nation was about to pass through.

For a longer and better look at the national conventions of 1860, I would recommend the first chapter of historian Bruce Catton’s excellent book, “The Coming Fury”.


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