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The Nomination of 1860

The subject of this chapter is the republican convention that nominated Lincoln for the presidency. But for an intelligent narration of this, it is necessary to give a brief account of at least one of the three other important political conventions that were held that year. That one was the regular democratic convention at Charleston. And certain other facts also must be narrated.

Leaven was working in two respects. The first is that the plan of secession and of setting up a Southern nation founded upon slavery, was not a sudden or impromptu thought. The evidence is conclusive that the plan had been maturing for years. Recent events had shown that slavery had reached the limit of its development so far as concerned the territory of the United States. The plan to annex Cuba as a garden for the culture of slavery, had failed. California had been admitted as a free state. Slavery had been excluded from Kansas, although that territory had for two years been denied admission to the sisterhood of states.

As the slave power was not content with any limitation whatever, its leaders now looked for an opportunity to break up this present government and start a new one. At the time (December, 1860) South Carolina passed the ordinance of secession, to be narrated later, certain things were said which may be quoted here. These utterances exposed the spirit that animated the slave power long before Lincoln’s election, long before he was even known in politics.

Parker said that the movement of secession had been “gradually culminating for a long series of years.”

Inglis endorsed the remark and added, “Most of us have had this matter under consideration for the last twenty years.”

Keitt said, “I have been engaged in this movement ever since I entered political life.”

Rhett said, “The secession of South Carolina was not the event of a day. It is not anything produced by Mr. Lincoln’s election, or by the non-execution of the fugitive slave law. It is a matter which has been gathering head for thirty years. The election of Lincoln and Hamlin was the last straw on the back of the camel. But it was not the only one. The back was nearly broken before.

The other important fact was the result of Lincoln’s Freeport question. The answer of Douglas was: “I answer emphatically ... that in my opinion the people of a territory can, by lawful means, exclude slavery from its limits prior to the formation of a state constitution.” This answer satisfied the democrats of Illinois and secured his election to the senate, as Lincoln predicted that it would. But it angered the southern leaders beyond all reason–as Lincoln knew it would.

When, therefore, the democratic convention met in Charleston, the first purpose of the southern leaders was to defeat Douglas. In their judgment he was not orthodox on slavery. He was far the strongest candidate before the convention, but he was not strong enough to secure the two-thirds vote which under the rules of that party were necessary to a choice. After fifty-seven ballots, and a corresponding amount of debating, the feeling of antagonism rising, continually higher, the crisis came. The southern delegates withdrew from the convention and appointed a convention of their own to be held in Richmond. This was done with the full knowledge that, if it accomplished anything, it would accomplish the defeat of the party. It was probably done for this very purpose,–to defeat the party,–so as to give an excuse, more or less plausible, for carrying out the matured plan of secession, claiming to be injured or alarmed at the ascendancy of the republican party.

Up to this point, at least, Lincoln had no aspirations for the presidency. But he did aspire to the United States senate. He accepted his defeat by Douglas in 1858 as only temporary. He knew there would be another senatorial election in four years. When asked how he felt about this defeat, he turned it into a joke, and said that he felt “like the boy who had stubbed his toe, too badly to laugh, and he was too big to cry.”

He had thought of being nominated as vice-president with Seward as President, which would have given him, if elected, a place in the senate. He was glad of any possible prominence in the Chicago convention, which was still in the future. For that would help his senatorial aspirations when the time came. But as to anything higher, he declared, “I must in all candor say that I do not think myself fit for the presidency.” And he was an honest man. With the senate still in view, he added, “I am not in a position where it would hurt me much not to be nominated [for president] on the national ticket; but I am where it would hurt some for me not to get the Illinois delegates.”

Thus, at the beginning of the year 1860, Lincoln was in no sense in the race for the presidential nomination. About that time a list of twenty- one names of possible candidates was published in New York; Lincoln’s name was not on the list. A list of thirty-five was published in Philadelphia. Lincoln’s name was not on that list. After the speech at Cooper Institute the Evening Post mentioned Lincoln’s name along with others. That was the only case in the East.

In Illinois his candidacy developed in February and came to ahead at the republican state convention at Decatur. Lincoln’s name had been prominent in the preceding local conventions, and the enthusiasm was growing. Decatur was very near to the place where Thomas Lincoln had first settled when he came into the state. When Abraham Lincoln came into this convention he was greeted with an outburst of enthusiasm. After order had been restored, the chairman, Governor Oglesby, announced that an old-time Macon County democrat desired to make a contribution to the convention. The offer being accepted, a banner was borne up the hall upon two old fence rails. The whole was gaily decorated and the inscription was:

ABRAHAM LINCOLN, THE RAIL CANDIDATE FOR PRESIDENT IN 1860.

Two rails from a lot of 3,000 made in 1830 by Thos. Hanks and Abe Lincoln-whose father was the first pioneer of Macon County.

This incident was the means of enlarging the soubriquet “Honest Abe” to "Honest Old Abe, the Rail-splitter.” The enthusiasm over the rails spread far and wide. That he had split rails, and that he even had done it well, was no test of his statesmanship. But it was a reminder of his humble origin, and it attached him to the common people, between whom and himself there had always been a warm feeling of mutual sympathy.

The democratic convention had, after the bolt of the extreme southerners, adjourned to Baltimore, where they duly nominated Douglas. What any one could have done for the purpose of restoring harmony in the party, he did. But the breach was too wide for even that astute politician to bridge over. Lincoln grasped the situation. It was what he had planned two years before, and he confidently expected just this breach. “Douglas never can be President,” he had said. He fully understood the relentless bitterness of the slave power, and he well knew that whatever Douglas might do for the northern democrats, he had lost all influence with the southern branch of that party. So Lincoln told his “little story” and serenely awaited the result.

The second republican national convention met in Chicago, May 16, 1860. A temporary wooden structure, called a wigwam, had been built for the purpose. It was, for those days, a very large building, and would accommodate about ten thousand people.

The man who was, far and away, the most prominent candidate for the nomination, was William H. Seward, of New York. He had the benefit of thirty years of experience in political life. He was a man of wide learning, fine culture, unequaled as a diplomatist; he was a patriot, a statesman, and loyal to the principles of the republican party. He had a plurality of the delegates by a wide margin, though not a majority. It seemed a foregone conclusion that he would be nominated. Horace Greeley, who was determinedly opposed to him, gave up the contest and telegraphed to his paper that Seward would be nominated. The opposition, he said, could not unite on any one man.

The next most prominent name was Lincoln. He had the full delegation of Illinois, who, at Decatur, had been instructed to vote for him as “the first and only choice” of the state. He had many votes, too, from the neighboring states.

In addition to these two candidates before the convention, there were half a dozen others, all “favorite sons” of their own states, but who at no time developed any great strength.

The only point against Seward was his inability to carry certain doubtful states. If the split in the democratic party had not occurred, and if the election were to be carried according to the experience of 1856, it would be necessary for the republicans to carry certain states which they had at that time failed to carry. The most available states were Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Indiana, and Illinois. Under favorable circumstances, these could be carried. Seward’s long public career had inevitably caused antagonisms, and these necessary states he could not carry. The question with his opponents then was, Who is most likely to carry these states? Lincoln’s popularity in three of the four states named singled him out as the rival of Seward. It then became only a question whether the opposition to Seward could or could not unite in the support of Lincoln.

At this point there came in a political ruse which has been often used in later years. Seward’s friends had taken to Chicago a small army of claquers, numbering nearly or quite two thousand. These were distributed through the audience and were apparently under orders to shout whenever Seward’s name was mentioned. This gave the appearance of spontaneous applause and seemed to arouse great enthusiasm for the candidate.

Lincoln’s friends soon came to understand the situation and planned to beat their rivals at their own game. They sent out into the country and secured two men with phenomenal voices. It was said, with playful exaggeration, that these two men could shout so as to be heard across Lake Michigan. They were made captains of two stentorian bands of followers. These were placed on opposite sides of the auditorium and were instructed to raise the shout at a preconcerted signal and keep it up as long as desired. The plan worked.

Leonard Swett describes the result: “Caleb B. Smith of Indiana then seconded the nomination of Lincoln, and the West came to his rescue. No mortal before ever saw such a scene. The idea of us Hoosiers and Suckers being out-screamed would have been as bad to them as the loss of their man. Five thousand people at once leaped to their seats, women not wanting in the number, and the wild yell made soft vesper breathings of all that had preceded. No language can describe it. A thousand steam-whistles, ten acres of hotel gongs, a tribe of Comanches headed by a choice vanguard from pandemonium, might have mingled in the scene unnoticed.”

A dramatic scene had occurred at the adoption of the platform. When the first resolution was read, Joshua E. Giddings, an old-time abolitionist of the extreme type, moved as an amendment to incorporate the words from the Declaration of Independence which announce the right of all men to “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” The hostility to this amendment was not so much owing to an objection to the phrase, as to its being introduced upon the motion of so extreme a partisan as Giddings. The new party was made up of men of various old parties, and it was important that the moderate democrats should not be antagonized by the extreme abolitionists. The motion was lost by a decided vote, and the old man, almost broken-hearted, left the hall amid the protestations of his associates.

There then came to his rescue a young man, about thirty-six years of age, who was then not widely known, but who since has more than once decidedly influenced republican conventions at a critical stage of the proceedings. It was George William Curtis. When the second resolution was under consideration he presented the amendment of Giddings in a form slightly modified. He then urged it in an impassioned speech, and by his torrent of eloquence carried the enthusiasm of the convention with him. “I have to ask this convention,” he concluded, “whether they are prepared to go upon the record before the country as voting down the words of the Declaration of Independence.... I rise simply to ask gentlemen to think well before, upon the free prairies of the West, in the summer of 1860, they dare to wince and quail before the assertion of the men of Philadelphia in 1776–before they dare to shrink from repeating the words that these great men enunciated.”

The amendment was adopted in a storm of applause. Giddings, overjoyed at the result, returned to the hall. He threw his arms about Curtis and, with deep emotion, exclaimed,–"God bless you, my boy! You have saved the republican party. God bless you!”

The candidates in those days were simply announced without speeches of glorification, Mr. Evarts of New York named Seward, and Mr. Judd of Illinois named Lincoln. The names of half a dozen “favorite sons” were offered by their states, the most important being Bates of Missouri. After the seconding of the nominations the convention proceeded to the ballot. There were 465 votes, and 233 were necessary for a choice.

On the first ballot Seward received 173-1/2, and Lincoln, 102. The rest were scattering. On the second ballot Seward received 184-1/2, and Lincoln, 181. Seward was still ahead, but Lincoln had made by far the greater gain. On the third ballot Seward received 180, and Lincoln 231- 1/2. But this ballot was not announced. The delegates kept tally during the progress of the vote. When it became evident that Lincoln was about elected, while the feeling of expectancy was at the highest degree of tension, an Ohio delegate mounted his chair and announced a change of four Ohio votes from Chase to Lincoln. There was instantly a break. On every side delegates announced a change of vote to Lincoln. The result was evident to every one, and after a moment’s pause, the crowd went mad with joy. One spectator has recorded the event:

“The scene which followed baffles all human description. After an instant’s silence, which seemed to be required to enable the assembly to take in the full force of the announcement, the wildest and mightiest yell (for it can be called by no other name) burst forth from ten thousand voices which were ever heard from mortal throats. This strange and tremendous demonstration, accompanied with leaping up and down, tossing hats, handkerchiefs, and canes recklessly into the air, with the waving of flags, and with every other conceivable mode of exultant and unbridled joy, continued steadily and without pause for perhaps ten minutes.”

“It then began to rise and fall in slow and billowing bursts, and for perhaps the next five minutes, these stupendous waves of uncontrollable excitement, now rising into the deepest and fiercest shouts, and then sinking, like the ground swell of the ocean, into hoarse and lessening murmurs, rolled through the multitude. Every now and then it would seem as though the physical power of the assembly was exhausted, when all at once a new hurricane would break out, more prolonged and terrific than anything before. If sheer exhaustion had not prevented, we don’t know but the applause would have continued to this hour.”

During all this time Lincoln remained at Springfield, where he was in telegraphic communication with his friends at Chicago, though not by private wire. At the time of his nomination he had gone from his office to that of the Sangamon Journal. A messenger boy came rushing up to him, carrying a telegram and exclaiming, “You are nominated.” The friends who were present joyously shook his hands and uttered their eager congratulations. Lincoln thanked them for their good wishes, and said “There is a little woman on Eighth Street who will be glad to hear this, and I guess I’ll go up and carry her the news.” Pocketing the telegram he walked home.

At the wigwam, the news spread quickly. A man had been stationed on the roof as picket. He shouted, “Hallelujah! Abe Lincoln is nominated. Fire the cannon!” The frenzy of joy spread to the immense throng of citizens outside the wigwam, then through the city, then through the state, then through the neighboring states. At Washington that night some one asked, “Who is this man Lincoln, anyhow?” Douglas replied, “There won’t be a tar barrel left in Illinois’ tonight.” With unprecedented enthusiasm the republican party started on this campaign which led to its first victory in the election of Abraham Lincoln of Illinois, and Hannibal Hamlin of Maine.

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