A literary agent asked what book I had most recently read. It was a kind of litmus test.
Between you and me, Dear Reader, my short-term memory is on its last groove. Had I not just polished off a book that very morning, I might have been struck speechless.
But it happens I had. So I spoke right up—“The Lincoln Miracle: Inside the Republican Convention That Changed History, by Edward Achorn.”
Do you suppose I passed the agent’s litmus test?
At least I knew the name of a book. There’s that to be said in my favor.
But I digress.
My purpose today, Fair Reader, is actually to acquaint you with that particular book.
In the mid-nineteenth century every American knew trouble lay ahead. The words “civil war” increasingly rolled off people’s tongues.
Southern politicians wanted to expand the geographic limits of the institution of slavery, while many in the Northern states wanted to limit slavery to the places where it already existed. These two agendas were incompatible—and people on both sides cared deeply about the question.
Abraham Lincoln summarized the situation in a famous speech, saying:
“A house divided against itself, cannot stand.”
I believe this government cannot endure permanently half slave and half free.
I do not expect the Union to be dissolved—I do not expect the house to fall—but I do expect it will cease to be divided.
It will become all one thing or all the other.
Either the opponents of slavery will arrest the further spread of it, and place it where the public mind shall rest in the belief that it is in the course of ultimate extinction; or its advocates will push it forward, till it shall become lawful in all the States, old as well as new—North as well as South.
But Lincoln was only a provincial politician, a self-educated man whose highest public office had been a single term as United States Representative from Illinois’ 7th District. Even after he skewered the great Stephen A. Douglas in Senatorial candidate debates in 1858, that did not make him a national figure. He won the debates but lost the election. So much for the upstart prairie lawyer.
William H. Seward was a two-term U.S. Senator from New York, a former governor of the state. He was the dear friend and the special project of a top kingmaker, Thurlow Weed of Albany. A long-time Whig, Seward was the most prominent figure to join the new Republican party when it formed. He could have been nominated for president in 1856, but his political manager Weed forced Seward to withdraw his name, throwing the nomination to grandiose political novice John C. Frémont. “We do not want him nominated for fun,” Weed explained to a friend. He was convinced the new party was too weak to win in 1856; better to sacrifice Frémont than Seward.
Four years later, in 1860, Seward’s time had come. He and Weed were ready. Seward, a top architect of the Republican party, believed he was owed the presidential nomination.
Seward, like Lincoln, had spoken of the North-South divide in stark terms.
“It is an irrepressible conflict between opposing and enduring forces, and it means that the United States must and will, sooner or later, become either entirely a slave-holding nation, or entirely a free-labor nation.”
Seward’s Irrepressible Conflict Speech “set off a firestorm,” according to author Achorn, whereas Lincoln’s House Divided Speech “had been all but ignored outside of Illinois.” Seward was a big-name politician; Lincoln was not.
The Republican Party chose Chicago as the site for its 1860 nominating convention. Seward and Weed approved the decision, perhaps considering Illinois a neutral ground, the home of no major rival candidate. When Thurlow Weed and a united New York delegation steamed into Chicago on a special train Saturday, May 12, it was to ensure Seward’s coronation.
Achorn’s book, The Lincoln Miracle—which I highly recommend—is a detailed examination of how a small team of Lincoln’s Illinois supporters, working feverishly around the clock over the course of the next week, spoiled Seward’s party.
The stakes were enormous. Not only was the entire nation gripped in the fear of civil war; the Democratic Party had split in a major debacle at its convention in Charleston, South Carolina. It looked like there would be not one, but two or even three Democratic candidates. Thus, it seemed the Republican nominee would win the White House.
Neither Lincoln nor Seward, nor any other potential candidate—Bates, Cameron, Chase, or any other—was present in Chicago. It would have been unseemly. Candidates were expected to stay home, serenely attending to personal or professional matters. They communicated with their floor teams daily by telegraph.
Lincoln’s campaign was run by his old friend, Judge David Davis. Just as Lincoln seemed a minor figure compared to Seward, so Davis—a purely local commodity—was eclipsed by the fame of Thurlow Weed, the great newspaperman and political boss.
But Davis was a long-time politician and knew just what to do.
Lincoln started with a home field advantage the New Yorkers were slow to grasp. The convention was held in a fresh-built wooden auditorium called The Wigwam. It was large enough to hold ten thousand people. And Lincoln supporter Norman B. Judd had charge of the seating arrangements. The Illinois delegation was seated close to those of wavering or undecided states, the better to lobby their delegates during the balloting, whereas the New York delegation sat isolated, separated by a broad aisle from those same delegates.
All week long the Lincoln men had been buttonholing delegates from other states. Their orders from Lincoln were never to speak ill of other candidates. They only sought to make Lincoln, so far as possible, every delegate’s second choice.
Seward was a great American, they granted, and a leading foe of slavery. Only—just in case his support was not quite as strong as everybody imagined—then Lincoln, not Bates or Chase or anybody else, was the logical second choice.
After all, his House Divided Speech said the same thing Seward’s Irrepressible Conflict Speech did. It was just maybe a bit more carefully worded, with its language looking to slavery being placed “in the course of ultimate extinction.” The pro-slavery firebrands already agitating for secession would not be happy with either Seward or Lincoln, but conservative Union men in the Border States might be able to stomach the more cautious and politic Abe.
When the balloting started on Friday, it came as a great surprise to Weed and his cohorts that Lincoln, not Bates or Cameron or Chase or McLean, stood in second place with a strong showing of 102 votes to Seward’s 173½.
Since 233 votes were needed for a majority, a second ballot was taken and showed Seward at 184½ and Lincoln at 181. A hushed crowd suddenly realized that Seward did not have it sewed up.
Enough delegates swtiched to Lincoln to give him the nomination on the third ballot.
The Illinois delegation, other Lincoln supporters, and local residents of Chicago generally went wild. Fireworks erupted. There was pandemonium. There were joy and tears in distant cities as telegrams went out to announce the stunning news.
A committee of party poo-bahs took a train to Springfield the next day to formally tender the nomination to Lincoln in person. Most of them had never met the Railsplitter and wondered whether the party had made a great mistake by nominating the ignorant country bumpkin of hostile press accounts.
Imagine their delight when the candidate and his wife, Mary Todd Lincoln, received the little group of big men in their modest and tasteful home with grace, dignity, and irresistible warmth.
They decided Lincoln would do.
Reader, intending to tell you about Achorn’s book. Instead I have told you some little bit of what the book says.
Why do I like the book? Because, in addition to explaining in perfect detail the political machinations behind Lincoln’s nomination at The Wigwam in May 1860, it gives memorable and insightful portraits of the main characters.
William Seward is no villain. He is a man of towering stature, better qualified than Lincoln in many ways. He is kind-hearted, generous of spirit, unwilling to overstep the bounds of propriety. He is also a man of no small ego, and he genuinely believes he has a date with destiny as president of the United States. But the smart and hard-working campaign engineered by David Davis deprived him of it. It was a bitter pill to swallow. He did find a way to swallow it, accepted the post of Secretary of State, and became a key Lincoln ally throughout the war and the far-sighted purchaser of Alaska afterwards.
Thurlow Weed comes in for sympathetic treatment. Too often dismissed as a crude machine politician, he emerges in Achorn’s telling as a man of great intelligence, sensitivity, and magnetism, a man of high Christian principles. He, too, was bitterly disappointed by the 1860 result. He, too, made the best of it and forged a strong working relationship with the new president.
The Hon. Horace Greeley, founder and editor of the New York Tribune, is the joker in the deck at the 1860 Republican convention. Formerly a great friend of Seward and Weed, he turned on both of them in the years just before the convention, apparently because they would not help him achieve public office. Neither Seward nor Weed seemed to realize the depth of Greeley’s animus, but the old curmudgeon spent a lot of time and effort lobbying delegates with the notion that Seward could not be elected. Though he was ostensibly working for Edward Bates of Missouri, the seeds of doubt Greeley sowed about the front-runner worked in Lincoln’s favor. With his demanding, querulous nature, he went from bedeviling Seward at the convention to bedeviling Lincoln once the new president was in office.
Finally, there is Lincoln himself. Honesty was a big part of his brand at Chicago in 1860. Whether or not people felt he was the right candidate, they knew they could trust him not to be corrupt. That is because he genuinely was honest and not corrupt.
He was a shrewd politician, for sure. But one reason he stood head and shoulders above other politicians in his mastery of the whole political scene was his ability to see the long picture. Throughout his political career, whenever anyone did him ill, he bore no grudge. He turned the other cheek. He suffered a lot of insufferable people. So when the time came to make his move, there were not a lot of people holding specific grudges against him.
He gave Davis and his team a clear written instruction: “Make no contracts that will bind me.” Yet Lincoln was in Springfield; his flying squad was in Chicago on the convention floor. It appears that, when push came to shove and they needed to shift a few more votes to accomplish the miracle, they promised cabinet posts to Pennsylvania strongman Simon Cameron and Indiana politico Caleb Smith.
Lincoln may not have felt “bound” by these undertakings but he did appoint Cameron Secretary of War and Smith Secretary of the Interior. Neither man was well-qualified, and Cameron was soon replaced by the zealous and effective Edwin M. Stanton.
By the standards of the time, only two cabinet posts was a remarkably light obligation for a successful candidate to have incurred. That his campaigners did not obligate him for more than this is probably because they knew the candidate would object. Mister Lincoln’s command not to “bind” him had its effect. But as a practical politician, he did what he had to do to cover his operatives afterward.
All in all, The Lincoln Miracle sheds welcome light on the 1860 convention and is a very enjoyable and entertaining read. It uncovers new meaning in our common past.
Larry F. Sommers
Your New Favorite Writer
Author of Price of Passage—A Tale of Immigration and Liberation.
Price of Passage
Norwegian Farmers and Fugitive Slaves in Pre-Civil War Illinois
(History is not what you thought.)