In 1858, that lawyer was engaged in a fierce political contest with Stephen Douglas for the U.S. Senate seat from Illinois. Douglas was at the time the most nationally prominent leader of the Democratic Party, and according to common wisdom, a sure fire bet to take the White House in 1860. During the famous Lincoln-Douglas debates, Jesse W. Fell, founder of the first newspaper in Bloomington, Illinois, and a fellow attorney with Lincoln on the Eighth Circuit, was in the East, on behalf of the Illinois Republican Central Committee, for which he was corresponding secretary. Fell had been introduced to Lincoln back in 1835, and as legislators they had roomed together at the state capital, Springfield. Like Lincoln, Fell had promoted the policy of turning the muddy town of Chicago into a great lake port by building the Illinois-Michigan Canal.
Throughout the East, Fell was surprised to find that Lincoln's speeches were widely read and copied. People continually asked him about the lanky lawyer from Springfield. By the time he was to return to Illinois, Fell had decided that Lincoln should be pushed as Illinois' favorite son candidate for President. In a secret meeting of the Republican State Committee held in the offices of the Chicago Tribune Fell easily convinced others to support Lincoln and even map out a plan to swing the nomination to Lincoln. In an 1895 article, one of participants in the secret meeting, Chicago Tribune owner Joseph Medill, revealed that the appearance of spontaneous popular support was to be created by having "a dozen country papers down in the Whig belt of the State ... broach the subject; then the Journal in Springfield was to copy what they said and The Tribune also, with some editorial endorsement. A Rock Island paper was the first to open out for the presidency."
In December 1859, Lincoln finally conceded to an old request of Fell's, and wrote a short autobiography. Fell used this to start the ball rolling in the East, by planting it with a newspaper contact in Chester County, Penna., just outside of Philadelphia.
Also in December, according to Medill, "The time had come for The Tribune to take up Lincoln's name for the presidency in downright earnest." Medill went to Washington, and began pushing Lincoln as a compromise candidate to Congressmen he knew. After developing "agreement," Medill dispatched "a ringing Lincoln letter." Medill boasted that "It was the first letter written east of the Alleghany Mountains in any leading newspaper urging Lincoln for President in preference to the great and overshadowing Seward."
(New York Senator William Henry Seward was widely seen as the infant Republican Party's leading contender for the Presidency.)
The budding Lincoln faction of next hatched another operation, with fellow Illinois Republican Central Committee member and member of the Illinois state Senate Norman B. Judd. The next month, the Republican National Committee was to select a site for the national convention. Judd was on the RNC, and he was dispatched with instructions to convince the RNC to hold the convention in Chicago by claiming that Illinois would be "neutral" ground, since Lincoln was "obviously" not a front-runner for the nomination! As far as the Eastern Establishment was concerned, that was true. Lincoln was almost entirely blacked out by the Establishment press, despite the growing popular interest Fell had detected a few months before.
The 1860 Republican Convention Begins
On Saturday, May 12, 1860, Republican state delegations began arriving in "neutral" Chicago, among them half the members of the U.S. Congress. They came to the "Wigwam," the new hall built expressly for this convention. Most visible were the large retinues of cheering supporters supplied by each leading contender for the nomination. The front runner, of course, was William Seward of New York, the tall, imperious, famous statesman, a darling of the Abolitionists for having pronounced that a conflict with the South over slavery was "irrepressible." His supporters were led by infamous New York City political boss Thurlow Weed, who had hired the notorious prize-fighter Tom Hyer to lead 2,000 plug-uglies brought to Chicago to demonstrate and cheer for Seward.
From Pennsylvania came nearly 1,500 people, who would do for favorite son Simon Cameron what Hyer's men would do for Seward. Hundreds more came from Ohio, supporting the candidacy of their favorite, Salmon Chase. The other major candidates were Edward Bates of Missouri and old Supreme Court Justice John McLean, who had opposed the high court's evil Dred Scott decision.
The leader of the Lincoln forces at the Chicago convention was Judge David Davis, who had presided over the Eighth Judicial Circuit -- the circuit on which Lincoln had begun his practice of law. For years, Davis had debated points of law, shared rooms, discussed politics and economics, and traded stories with Lincoln. He later became like a second father to Lincoln's son, Robert Todd. Judge Davis was a huge man, and all 300 plus pounds were solidly devoted to "Honest Abe." As President, Lincoln would appoint Davis to the U.S. Supreme Court.
The real problem facing the Lincoln faction was not stopping Seward -- the other candidates were already exerting enormous effort to do that. Henry Lane, candidate for governor in Indiana, and Henry Curtin, candidate for governor in Pennsylvania, were almost desperate to do anything to keep Seward from being nominated, swearing that they could never carry their states with Seward at the head of the ticket. Lincoln had ordered, before his supporters left for Chicago, "I want that big Pennsylvania foot set down on the scale!" Davis adopted the strategy of antagonizing no one, but securing pledges of support for Lincoln as the second choice of each state.
The convention formally began at noon on May 16, with a rousing speech by David Wilmot, the U.S. Senator from Pennsylvania who had proposed as a Democratic Congressman in 1848 that all territories acquired from Mexico be kept free from slavery. The Wilmot Proviso, as it became known, had led to Wilmot being categorized as a "barn burner" Democrat. The rest of the day was filled with more speechifying.
Consideration of the party platform took most of the second day. Of the 17 planks presented for consideration, discussed, and adopted, fully eight dealt with the various facets of the slavery issue. The eighth plank insisted that "the normal condition of all the territory of the United States is that of freedom." It is extremely interesting, in the context of today's ongoing financial and economic crises caused by a financial system gone mad with speculation, to note the remaining planks, which dealt with political economy, and reflected the Hamiltonian nation-building orientation of the new party, long since abandoned by the Republican Party in favor of the "free markets" and "free trade" of the British East India Company clerks/economists. The 12th plank called for a protective tariff "to encourage the development of the industrial interests of the whole country." The 15th plank called for "appropriations by Congress for River and Harbor improvements of a National Character," while the 16th plank demanded that the federal government "render immediate and efficient aid" to the construction of a railroad across the continent to the Pacific Ocean.
When the platform was voted up the evening of May 16, the throng in the Wigwam burst into roars of approval. The Seward men, flushed with confidence, moved that nominating and balloting for the presidential candidate begin immediately -- the hour was theirs, and they knew it. To stop this precipitate acceptance of Seward, the Lincoln men hastily instructed the clerks - local lads loyal to Lincoln - to inform convention chairman George Ashmun, that they were unable to proceed to general balloting because they had not yet been provided with the tally sheets. The Seward men, sensing that victory was in their grasp, were insistent: Find the sheets, and let us ballot now! Now the clerks told Chairman Ashmun that the tally sheets had yet to be printed. Reluctantly, the disgusted New Yorkers allowed the restless convention to be adjourned; they were confident of their ultimate victory. In fact, the "Irrepressibles," as the Seward men called themselves, had arranged to hold a huge rally inside the Wigwam that evening.
But again the Lincoln forces intervened. Congressman William D. ('Pig Iron') Kelley, of Pennsylvania, who was a proponent of American System political economy, and who secretly supported Lincoln, gained the floor, ostensibly to make a small, technical motion. Instead, as the Irrepressibles fumed, Kelley delivered a long, laborious speech which dragged on until midnight.
As thousands of Irrepressibles drifted out of the Wigwam, to join one of many loud parties celebrating Seward's imminent nomination, Judge Davis and the Lincoln supporters worked feverishly to swing delegates their way. Intelligence came that the crucial Pennsylvania delegation, along with the Indiana delegation, had gathered at the court house, and was being harangued by the Bates men. Davis dispatched Gustave P. Koerner, a leader of Illinois' German community and 1856 of the Illinois Republican Party, and Illinois Congressman Orville H. Browning to the meeting. Koerner later recalled that Browning's "most beautiful and eloquent eulogy on Lincoln ... electrified the meeting."
First warning of impending war
Addison G. Proctor, a delegate from the embattled Territory of Kansas, described how his delegation was visited by "a group of about 30 of as resolute a looking body of men as I had ever seen" from the border states, led by Cassius M. Clay of Kentucky, a captain in the Mexican War, who started an abolitionist newspaper in Lexington, and was beaten and nearly killed in a confrontation with a pro-slavery gang. Clay dramatically told the Kansans, "Gentlemen, we are on the brink of a great civil war and we want you to know that the South is preparing for war. If the man that you nominate should be elected on the platform you have already adopted, the South will attempt the destruction of this Union. On your southern border, stretching from the east coast of Maryland to the Ozarks of Missouri, there stand today a body of resolute men who are determined that this Union shall not be dissolved except at the end of a terrible struggle in resistance." Noting that "Our homes and all we possess are in peril, we realize just what is before us," Clay demanded that the Kansans support the nomination of the man "who will inspire our confidence and our courage," Abraham Lincoln.
"You give us Lincoln," Clay declared, "and we will push back your battle lines from the Ohio -- right at your doors -- back across the Tennessee into the regions where it belongs . . . . Do this for us and let us go home and prepare for the conflict."
"Here was a new issue," Proctor recalled 40 years later, "just at a psychological moment, when everyone realized that something unusual had to happen. Up to this time it had been 'how shall we keep slavery out of the territories?' Now it was the question 'how shall we make sure to preserve this Union?'"
Under cover of darkness
The Lincoln men slept scarcely at all that night. They were determined to be well organized for the third day of the convention -- the day of decision, when the nominating and balloting would begin. Norman Judd, who served the Rock Island Railroad as attorney, had arranged with other railroad companies to give cut-rate fares to Lincoln supporters in Illinois and adjoining states; these "Wide Awakes" had been instructed to be in Chicago early on the third day. Lincoln organizer Leonard Swett, another Eight Circuit lawyer, later recalled that they brought in "fully 10,000 men from Illinois and Indiana, ready to march, shout, or fight for Lincoln, as the case required." Jesse Fell had secretly printed thousands of extra admission tickets to the convention; these were now distributed. Men already inside handed their tickets over the railings and out the windows. When the Seward Irrepressibles and other delegates reached the Wigwam the morning of the third day, they found it already packed with screaming, howling Lincoln enthusiasts.
The Lincoln men had carefully made the seating arrangements. At one end of the great hall was seated the New York delegation, surrounded by other state delegations considered to be hopelessly for Seward. "At the other extreme," according to an 1895 Chicago Tribune account based on the recollections of Medill, "was placed Pennsylvania, at so long a remove that the voices of the Seward orators of New York could barely be heard by the doubtful delegates of Pennsylvania. Close about the Keystone State, on the side toward New York, were packed the faithful Lincoln delegates of Illinois and Indiana, and also the New Jersey delegation, which was accounted but a tail to the Keystone dog. There were convenient passages leading from the Pennsylvania seats to the anterooms which were also directly in communication with Illinois, so that when delegates from Pennsylvania betook themselves from the hall for anteroom consultation they were reasonably certain to meet delegates from Illinois or Indiana primed with an argument for Lincoln." Medill concluded that "It was the meanest political trick I ever had a hand in, in my life."
Mr. Chairman! I rise to . . .
Finally, the nominations began. William M. Evarts, chairman of the New York delegation, arose, and with a baleful glare at the thousands of Lincoln supporters who packed the hall, nominated Seward in a one-sentence speech. The Seward men let loose with "a deafening shout which," Leonard Swett later worte, "I confess, appalled us a little."
But Davis was prepared: from lake front to prairie, the Lincoln men had rounded up every bass, baritone, and plain old hollerer they could find, and placed each at a strategic location in the hall. Moreover, signals had been devised to instruct a man stationed on the roof of the Wigwam of the precise moment at which a yell from the 20,000 Wide Awakes thronging outside the building might influence those within. Now Judd arose, and nominated Lincoln. The thousands of "Wide Awakes" inside and outside shrieked a response that, according to Murat Halstead, reporter for the Cincinnati Commercial, "was absolutely terrific."
"It now became the Seward men to make another effort," Halstead continues, and when Seward's nomination was seconded, "The effect was startling. Hundreds of people stopped their ears in pain. The shouting was absolutely frantic, shrill, and wild.... Now the Lincoln men had to try it again...."
"The idea of us Hoosiers and Suckers being out-screamed," Swett recalled later, "would have been as bad to them as the loss of their man." When Lincoln's nomination was seconded, "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 Commanches, headed by a choice vanguard from pandemonium, might have mingled in the scene unnoticed." Halstead wrote that "I thought the Seward yell could not be surpassed; but the Lincoln boys were clearly ahead, and feeling their victory, as there was a lull in the storm, took deep breaths all round, and gave a concentrated shriek that was positively awful, and accompanied it with stamping that made every plank and pillar in the building quiver."
As the tumult subsided, a voice cried out "Abe Lincoln has it by the sound now; let us ballot!" The New England states were called first, and it was immediately clear that Seward had not the firm grasp on them which the pundits had attributed to him. When Virginia, which was expected to go solidly for Seward, gave Seward only eight votes, to Lincoln's 14, the startled New Yorkers looked at each other with apprehension. At the end of the first ballot, Seward led with 173.5 votes, but Lincoln was second with 102, twice as many as any of the other contenders. Chase of Ohio had 49, and Bates 48. Pennsylvania's favorite son, Cameron, had 50.5.
The Pennsylvania delegation now rose as one, and squeezed into one of the anterooms to confer. The anxious Lincoln men could only wonder whether or not Pennsylvania would go for Lincoln as its second choice, or for McLean, as the delegation had been instructed before leaving home.
The second ballot began. Lincoln's first gains came from New England. Particularly significant was the ballot cast by Vermont, which switched all 10 votes to Lincoln, "a blighting blow upon the Seward interest," Halstead reported.
Just before their state's name was called, the Pennsylvanians filed back into the hall, and the whole Wigwam now learned what had been decided in the anteroom: "Pennsylvania casts her 52 votes for Abraham Lincoln!" The big break to Lincoln had begun, and the New Yorkers sat stupefied, as cheer followed cheer, inside and outside the hall. Lincoln had gained 79 votes, and now had 181, while Seward had climbed only to 184.5. Two hundred thirty-three votes were needed to win.
Medill now walked over to the Ohio delegation. Many of these men were his friends, and he sat down next to former Congressman David Cartter, chairman of the delegation, to do what missionary work he could. Ohio had given only 14 votes to Lincoln on the second ballot; she still clung to her favorite son, Chase, on whom, in Medill's eyes, she had squandered 29 votes.
The third roll call began. The fatal defection from Seward in New England became clearer still. When Ohio's name was called, it was apparent Medill had been persuasive enough. Without bothering to poll his fellow delegates, Cartter threw 29 votes to Lincoln.
Hundreds of men had added up the votes as they were announced, and now it was whispered about: "Lincoln has 231.5; just one and a half more, and he has it!" About 10 seconds ticked by, as the convention considered the idea. Medill leaned over to Cartter, and whispered, "Now is your chance. If you can throw the Ohio vote for Lincoln, Chase can have anything he wants." Cartter, suspicious, stuttered "H-how do you kn-know?" Medill replied "I know, and you know I wouldn't say so if I didn't know. Ask Judge Davis; he holds the authority from Lincoln."
In a flash, Cartter was standing on his chair, wildly waving for recognition. "Every eye was on Cartter," Halstead reported, "and everybody who understood the matter at all, knew what he was about to do.... He had been quite noisy during the sessions of the convention, but had never commanded, when mounting his chair, such attention as now. He said, 'I rise (eh), Mr. Chairman (eh), to announce the change of four votes from Mr. Chase to Mr. Lincoln.' The deed was done. There was a moment's silence. The nerves of the thousands, which through the hours of suspense had been subjected to terrible tension, relaxed, and as deep breaths of relief were taken, there was a noise in the Wigwam like the rush of a great wind, in the van of a storm -- and in another breath, the storm was there. There were thousands cheering with the energy of insanity.
"A man who had been on the roof, and was engaged in communicating the results of the balloting to the mighty mass of outsiders, now demanded by gestures at the sky-light over the stage, to know what had happened. One of the secretaries, with a tally sheet in his hands, shouted-'Fire the Salute! Abe Lincoln is nominated!' As the cheering inside the Wigwam subsided, we could hear that outside, where the news of the nomination had just been announced. And the roar, like the breaking up of the fountains of the great deep that was heard, gave new impulse to the enthusiasm inside. Then the thunder of the salute rose above the din, and the shouting was repeated with such tremendous fury that some discharges of the cannon were absolutely not heard by those on the stage. Puffs of smoke, drifting by the open doors, and the smell of gunpowder, told what was going on."
As soon as the cannon had boomed the news to the thousands gathered outside, Lincoln biographer and future muckraker Ida Tarbell writes, "Twenty thousand throats took up the cry. The city heard it, and one hundred guns on the Tremont House, innumerable whistles on the river and lake front, on locomotives and factories, and the bells in all the steeples, broke forth. For 24 hours the clamor never ceased. It spread to the prairies, and before morning they were afire with pride and excitement." The working men of Chicago knew who had promoted the policies that had built their city, who had pushed the Illinois-Michigan Canal through to completion, who had championed the rapid construction of the railroads over the prairies. Now they cheered wildly for Honest Abe.
Halstead reported that the next day, as he traveled east on the Fort Wayne and Chicago railroad, "At every station where there was a village, until after two o'clock, there were tar barrels burning, drums beating, boys carrying rails; and guns, great and small, banging away. The weary passengers were allowed no rest, but plagued by the thundering jar of cannon, the clamor of drums, the glare of bonfires, and the whooping of the boys, who were delighted with the idea of a candidate for the presidency, who 30 years ago split rails on the Sangamon River -- classic stream now and forever more -- and whose neighbors named him 'honest.'"