This week in history: Lincoln wins the Republican nomination

Published: Wednesday, May 15 2013 5:45 p.m. MDT

Abraham Lincoln (Wikimedia Commons) Abraham Lincoln (Wikimedia Commons)

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.”

Several other men threw their hats into the ring, many with prominent, nationally recognized names. One of these second-tier hopefuls was 51-year-old Abraham Lincoln of Springfield, Ill. Though Lincoln had served in Congress as a Whig during the 1847-49 term, he had remained a generally obscure political figure who had personally accomplished little. He was certainly not a national figure in the league of Seward and Chase.

By 1860, Lincoln was not a complete political unknown, however. Lincoln had become a national figure during the 1858 race for the Senate. During that race, he had challenged the incumbent, Stephen Douglas, who had been a Lincoln acquaintance for years (and early suitor of Mary Todd). A Democrat, Douglas had supported the idea of compromise between North and South, which would have theoretically allowed the extension of slavery to the Western territories.

During a series of debates throughout Illinois, Lincoln and Douglas discussed the crucial question of slavery and states rights. The two men must have been quite a sight to see — the tall, lanky Lincoln and the short, squat Douglas. Lincoln's penetrating arguments failed to win him the Senate seat, but nevertheless made him an up-and-coming star in the Republican Party.

By the time of the Republican National Convention in Chicago in May 1860, Lincoln was clearly in the inferior position in respect to Seward, though many believed he was favored over Chase and other candidates. Lincoln did have one advantage: The convention was in Chicago, in Lincoln's home state.

In his book “Lincoln,” biographer David Herbert Donald wrote: “While the Republican National Convention was in session, Lincoln went quietly about his business in Springfield, but he eagerly sought to learn what was going on in Chicago. Up early on Friday, May 18, the day when the nominations were to be made, he passed some time playing 'fives' — a variety of handball — with some other men in a vacant lot. … Unwilling to tempt fate by being overoptimistic, (Lincoln) said that either (Edward) Bates or Chase would probably be the choice.”

The total number of voting delegates at the convention was 466. Soon telegrams arrived in Springfield and announced that Seward had won the first ballot with 173½ votes, while Lincoln had come in second place with 102 votes. Bates had taken 48, Simon Cameron had taken 50½, and Chase had collected only 49. Several other candidates received the rest of the votes. This was good news for Lincoln, as Seward had fallen far short of the 233 votes needed to win. On the second round of voting, Seward climbed to 184½ votes, though Lincoln's support skyrocketed to 181, thanks in large part to Pennsylvania’s delegation switching to Lincoln.

Lincoln predicted the third round would be the one to decide the issue. Seward's numbers held firm, but many delegates had now switched their support to Lincoln from the other candidates. Lincoln's votes now stood at 231½, just 1½ votes shy of the number required. Several delegates rose and changed their votes, in view of Lincoln's dynamic rise, and Lincoln won the nomination with a total of 364. Seward's supporters, with the support of their candidate, threw their votes behind Lincoln as well, making Lincoln's nomination a unanimous decision of the convention.

Lincoln's presidency was unique in that virtually all of his primary rivals would later hold Cabinet positions within his administration. His chief rival for the nomination, Seward, became Lincoln's secretary of state. Chase served as secretary of the Treasury and later as chief justice of the Supreme Court. Bates served as attorney general, and Cameron served as secretary of war at the beginning of the Civil War.

Cody K. Carlson holds a master's degree in history from the University of Utah and currently teaches at Salt Lake Community College. He is also the co-developer of the History Challenge iPhone/iPad apps. Email: ckcarlson76@gmail.com

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