This week in history: Lincoln wins the Republican nomination
On May 18, 1860, Abraham Lincoln won the Republican nomination for president. Only the second person to be nominated for president by the Republican Party, Lincoln's nomination was the result of some deft political maneuvering.
The Republican Party was born out of the political turmoil of the 1850s, a period that saw the passage of the Kansas-Nebraska Act and the subsequent mini-civil war by pro-slave Southerners and free-state Northerners over the future of the state of Kansas. The end of the decade saw the Supreme Court's Dred Scott decision, which ruled that slavery could not be denied in the territories, and that African-Americans, slave or free, were not U.S. citizens.
The 1850s also saw the decline of the Whig Party, which fractured over the issue of allowing slavery into the Western territories. Since the acquisition of Western territories in the Mexican-American War, the Democratic Party had stood for compromise between the North and the South and the continued appeasement of the Southern slave power, lest Southerners attempt to secede from the Union.
As members of the Whig Party could not agree on a solid political platform dealing with the question of slavery in the Western territories, many left the party and soon began to organize among themselves. The result was the gradual formation of the Republican Party, which included those from other political movements opposed to the expansion of slavery. In 1856, the Republicans engaged in their first presidential campaign and selected as their nominee John C. Fremont, who lost to Democrat James Buchanan.
In early 1860, the political battles between North and South had only increased. "Bleeding Kansas" continued unabated, and abolitionist John Brown's 1859 raid on the federal armory at Harper's Ferry had only exacerbated the problems. The Republican Party had grown dramatically in the Northern states since 1856, and many prominent figures at the forefront of the anti-slavery movement looked to be ideal candidates for the 1860 Republican Party nomination.
New York Senator William H. Seward (whose Auburn, N.Y., home boasted a fireplace built years earlier by a young craftsman named Brigham Young), stood foremost among those seeking the Republican nomination. For years, Seward had been the standard-bearer of the anti-slavery forces in the Senate. During the Compromise of 1850 crisis, he had given his famous “Higher Law” speech, which placed the debate over slavery firmly on moral ground for the first time in Congress.
In her book “Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln,” historian Doris Kearns Goodwin wrote: “So certain was Seward of receiving the nomination that the weekend before the convention opened he had already composed a first draft of the valedictory speech he expected to make to the Senate, assuming that he would resign his position as soon as the decision in Chicago (the site of the Republican convention) was made.”
Salmon P. Chase, another Republican hopeful, was currently serving as the governor of Ohio and was a former senator. He, too, passionately hated the institution of slavery and was instrumental in the formation of the Republican Party. After Seward, he was perhaps the most well-known Republican candidate.
Goodwin wrote: “Certain that his cause would ultimately triumph, Chase refused to engage in the practical methods by which nominations are won. He had virtually no campaign. He had not conciliated his many enemies in Ohio itself, and as a result, he alone among the candidates would not come to the convention with the united support of his own state. Listening only to what he wanted to hear, discounting troubling signs, Chase believed that 'if the most cherished wishes of the people could prevail,' he would be the nominee.”
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