I know that Abraham Lincoln read Shakespeare, which makes the events at the Illinois Republican state convention in Decatur on May 9, 1860, so revealing. Three times the 22 delegates demanded that Lincoln “identify your work!”, and three times their nominee refused to claim the boards supporting his campaign banners had come from logs he himself had split. Like Julius Caesar three times refusing the crown of a Roman king, each display of modesty drove the crowd into a greater frenzy. It was this invention of “Lincoln The Railspitter” which marked “Honest Abe” as a real contender for the Presidential nomination, one week later at the Republican National Convention. Clearly, Abraham was prepared to perform exactly the kind of theatrics required in politics.
Just a year earlier Lincoln appeared to have given up any Presidential ambitions. In March of 1859 he had written a friend, “Seriously, I do not think I am fit for the Presidency.” But two events in early 1860, changed his mind. First, at the end of February, Lincoln gave a speech at the prestigious New York City private college, the Cooper Union. His arguments against slavery were reprinted in newspapers across the north and positively received. And secondly, in the last week of April the Democratic Party convention in Charleston adjourned after 57 ballots, unable to agree on a nominee. With Democrats splitting into three wings, the young Republican party had a chance to win the November election.
Senator William Seward was the presumptive Republican nominee. At 70 members, his own New York delegation was the largest. The dour NYC banker and merchant Edwin Morgan (above), also a Seward man, was the Republican Party National Chairman. And the crafty Thurlow Weed, “The Wizard of the Lobby”, who had helped build Seward's reputation for more than two decades, was in Chicago. Even eight members of the Illinois delegation were suspected of preferring Seward to Lincoln. Chairman Morgan had even chosen the city of 100,000 on the lake as a bribe for Illinois Party Chairman Norman Judd., as was the tempting offer to name Judd, Seward's nominee for Vice President.
All that Lincoln had to offer was himself, but for a few that was enough. Their leader was the imposing Judge David Davis (above). He had presided over the Illinois Eighth Circuit Court, deciding almost 90 cases lawyered by Lincoln. And although he decided only forty in Lincoln's favor, Davis trusted the younger man enough to ask him to substitute as judge occasionally. Davis described Lincoln as “a peculiar man; he never asked my advice on any question.”
But when new lawyer Leonard Swett joined the circuit, he was introduced to Davis and Lincoln, dressed in their nightshirts, as they engaged in a boisterous pillow fight. Sett became Lincoln's most trusted friend. Also working for the prairie lawyer was Lincoln's longtime law partner, the big, jovial hard drinking Virginian born, Ward Lamon (above).
Judge Davis was an abolitionist. Lamon's family owned slaves and he hated abolitionists. Swett (above) preferred a good fight, a guitar and a jug of whiskey over politics. This diverse group, along with dozens of like minded others, sacrificed their time and money to win the nomination for Lincoln.
They started late, having to beg families to give up their rooms at the Tremont hotel (above). Davis spent $700 out of his own pocket, and more for whiskey and food, but on the Friday, four days before the convention opened, the Lincoln men were headquartered at the Tremont, ready to the seduce the arriving delegates . Said Swett, “I did not, the whole week I was there, sleep two hours a night.”
The delegates arrived by foot and horseback, carried on lake steamers or the dozen rail lines serving Chicago - 10,000 delegates, alternates, reporters and spectators, all converging five blocks from the Tremont, at a two story, 5,000 square foot timber building which had not existed five weeks earlier. They called the $6,000 structure “The Wigwam” (above).
Writer Isaac Hill Bromley described the scene, “The stage proper (left) was of sufficient capacity to hold all the delegates, who were seated on either side of a slightly elevated dais...
The galleries were reserved (FG)...the miscellaneous public (center)...four or five thousand stood in the aisles and all the available unoccupied space....the delegates could be seen from all parts of the auditorium...Something of convenience was sacrificed to dramatic effect. The convention was just then ‘The greatest show on earth.”
There were just 465 voting delegates from 24 states, and the District of Columbia. As they arrived, but especially the delegates from the four swing states that would likely carry the November election, Illinois, Indiana, Pennsylvania, and New Jersey, they were met and courted by agents representing Seward, Lincoln and a half dozen other “favorite son” candidates. The Seward men, headquartered in the upscale Richmond House, were particularly blunt in their tactics. Before the convention had even started, on Tuesday, 15 May, the Illinois delegation was offered a campaign chest of $100,000 for the fall, if they would vote for Lincoln as Seward's Vice President. The same offer was made to the Indiana delegation, and New Jersey. It was an attempt to derail Lincoln, and win the nomination for Seward on the first ballot. But it backfired. Illinois party chief Norman Judd felt betrayed. When the convention opened the next day at ten minutes after noon, Judd threw his full support behind Lincoln.
The 54 members of the Pennsylvania delegation were pledged to vote for their “favorite son”, Senator Simon Cameron (above) on the first ballot. Cameron, meanwhile had assured Thurlow Weed he would sell his delegation for a cabinet post, and Seward expected to win the nomination on the second or third ballot. In fact almost half of Cameron's delegation hated him so much, they were secretly prepared to vote for anybody else. The only question was for who?
In another sign Thurlow Weed had over played his hand, the dapper Illinois party chairman Norman Judd (above) managed to isolate the New York delegation in the back of the hall, and seated the Keystone delegates between the Indiana and Illinois delegations – 22 and 26 delegates each– where Illinois Lieutenant Governor Gustave Koerner and Indiana Gubernatorial candidate Caleb Smith could reminded the Pennsylvanians that Lincoln was an alternative to Seward and Cameron.
Missouri's delegate's were pledged to vote for Representative Edward Bates (above), despite his being an unrepentant Know Nothing, who despised Catholics and foreigners - such as the German Catholics in St. Louis, Chicago and Cincinnati.
Bates was being marketed by the owner and editor of the New York Tribune, Horace Greeley (above). Even tho the newspaperman had never been west of Iowa, Greeley was an Oregon delegate, and would deliver Oregon's 8 votes, along with Missouri's 18, to Bates because Greeley was convinced Seward was too radical to carry the swing states - Ohio's 48 delegates were pledged to support Salomen P. Chase, who was even openly opposed to slavery, and therefore even more un-electable, than Seward.
Seward's perceived radicalism also worried party leaders in Maine and Massachusetts – 16 and 26 delegates respectively. The New York Senator (above, right) had told the truth, that democracy and slavery were in "irrepressible conflict", just as Lincoln had said "a house divided against itself, can not stand". But Seward told his truth in 1858, on the senate floor, and earned the hatred of Mississippi Senator Jefferson Davis (above, left). The perception was that Seward was the radical. So the New Engenders had already reached a quiet deal with most of the delegates from Pennsylvania and Ohio to jointly, after the first ballot, abandon their favorite sons and support somebody, anybody, but Seward. The only question was, who?. The name that kept coming up was Lincoln.
Although he had been a favorite son candidate at the 1856 convention, Lincoln was still an unknown quantity to most of the delegates But thanks to Judge Davis' strategy, he had become, the convention's second choice. If they couldn't have Seward, or Bates, or Chase, then the vast majority of delegates was willing to nominate Lincoln. But to strengthen that argument, Judge Davis figured Lincoln had to get at least 100 votes on the first ballot, just under half way to the 233 needed to win the nomination.
It is true that Lincoln telegraphed from Springfield, warning Judge Davis that he would not make political compromises to become President. But years later Chicago Attorney Wirt Dexter suggested that Davis was guilty of the same sin he had accused Thurlow Weed of - offering duplicate rewards to politicians from several delegations. “You must have prevaricated somewhat”, suggested Dexter. To which Judge Davis shouted in his high pitched voice, “PREVARICATED, Brother Dexter? We lied like hell!”
On Friday, as the temperature and emotions inside and outside the Wigwam climbed, Thurlow Weed pulled a final rabbit out of his hat - retired bare knuckle champion, Tom Hyer (above). The 6'2”, 185 pound boxer earned his living as an enforcer for William “Bill The Butcher” Poole, leader of a notorious five points gang, until Bill was shot and killed in an 1855 bar fight.
The now 41 year old Hyer was reduced to a Know Nothing celebrity thug, and this Friday was leading a brass band and 2,000 New York “pug-ugly” Seward (above) supporters, marching to the Wigwam, singing “Oh, isn't he a dar-ling! With his grace-ful ways,. And his eye so gay. Yes, he's a lit-tle dar-ling. To me he is di-vine. He loves me too, with a heart so true. This charming beau of mine.”
It was an impressive and enthusiastic parade, until Hyer and his iron voiced shouters reached the convention hall, where their way was blocked by a crowd of perhaps 25,000. When they finally worked their way to the doors and presented their tickets, they were denied entrance to the Wigwam. The spectator gallery, even the standing space between the aisles was already full. And every person inside and outside had a ticket. .
The man responsible for this feat of legerdemain was Lincoln's hard drinking Virginian troubadour,.Ward Lamon (above). He had printed up several thousand counterfeit tickets for the Wigwam, and the Lincoln supporters had presented their forgeries at 9 a.m., flooding the building an hour before the Tom Hyer's men had arrived. The Seward forces made desperate calls for the Sargent-at-arms to check spectator tickets, but given that the day before Judge Davis had charged the Seward forces with handing out counterfeits, and that the building was crammed almost to bursting, the functionaries decided not to get involved in the infighting. Besides, the real battle was on the stage, among the delegates.
When Lincoln's name was placed in Nomination, the screaming was so loud the Wigwam’s windows trembled “as if they had been pelted with hail.” Said Swettt, “Five thousand people leaped to their seats, women not wanting...A thousand steam whistles, ten acres of hotel gongs, a tribe of Comanches might have mingled in the scene unnoticed.” On the first ballot, Seward (being thrown overboard) led as expected,. with 173 votes. But Lincoln (at the stern) was second with 102 votes. Cameron got 50 of Pennsylvania’s 54 votes, just ahead of Ohio's Salomen Chase's 49 votes. The best that Horace Greeley's (right of Lincoln) candidate Edward Bates (right of Greeley) could collect was 48, with 8 other favorite sons getting less than 14 each.
Immediately Lincoln's men moved for a second ballot, before Thurlow Weed (above) could get the attention of the chairman, or could reach out to sway delegates. At the same time Judge Davis managed to solidify a deal with the the sleazy Simon Cameron of Pennsylvania, agreeing to make him Lincoln's Secretary of War. In fact the Pennsylvania delegates had already agreed to bolt for Lincoln, and on the second ballot Weed gained 11 votes for Seward, but Lincoln gained 79, most of those coming at the expense of Cameron and Bates.
Seward's fate was sealed on the third ballot. He lost 4 votes. Lincoln gained another 50 votes, most coming from Maryland, Kentucky and Virginia. The Rail Splitter was now just one vote away from the nomination. The Wigwam erupted in shouting, cheering and cursing, until the chairman of the Ohio delegation, David Cartter, got the chairman's attention, and stuttered, “I-I arise, Mr. Chairman, to a-announce the ch-change of four votes, from Mr. Chase to Abraham Lincoln!” .
Writer Bromley observed the pandemonium as delegation after delegation clamored for the Chairman's attention to shift their votes to Lincoln “On the platform near me...the Indiana men generally were smashing hats and hugging each other; the Illinois men did everything except stand on their heads; hands were flying wildly in the air, everybody’s mouth was open, and bedlam seemed loose. The din of it was terrific. Seen from the stage it seemed to be twenty thousand mouths in full blast…” The final count for the official third ballot gave Lincoln 364 votes. Lincoln had won.
Buckeye newspaperman Murate Halsted disagreed. “The fact of the Convention was the defeat of Seward rather than the nomination of Lincoln.” That may have been true in May of 1860, perhaps even in March of 1861 when Lincoln took the oath of office as President.
But on January 1st, 1863, when the Emancipation Proclamation became law, Lincoln became more than a mere politician, more than a mere victor. He achieved the potential that diverse group of men from the 8th Circuit Court had seen in Lincoln, the reason they had sacrificed and worked,to make him president, not because he could be, but because they knew he should be.
On that Friday evening, some of the delegates who had just voted to nominate Abraham Lincoln, were lining up out side of McVicker's Theater, to see Tom Taylor's two year old play, “Our American Cousin” (above). In one month short of five years, Abraham Lincoln would finally see the play, at Ford's Theater in Washington, the night he was murdered. And in 1869 the Wigwam burned down