Sunday, May 16, 2010

May 16, 1860: The Republican Convention

On Wednesday, May 16, 1860, the Republican National Convention was called to order in Chicago, Illinois.  They met in the Wigwam, a hastily built auditorium at Lake Street and Market (now Wacker Drive).  In The Coming Fury, Bruce Catton describes it as...
"a sprawling two-story affair of lumber...measuring 180 feet along one side and 100 feet along the other...Nobody really knew how many people could be jammed into the place; estimates ranged from 6000 to more than double that number.  Pillars were decorated with tinder-dry evergreen boughs, red, white, and blue steamers ran everywhere, and the hall was brilliantly lighted by flaring gas jets; all in all, the Wigwam must have been one of the most dangerous fire traps ever built in America."

This was the second convention in the new party's history and delegates were cautiously optimistic about their chances in the November election, especially since the Democrats seemed so hopelessly divided.  But the Republicans could not hope to win any Southern states.  In fact, they would not even appear on the ballot in most of them.  They had to sweep almost all of the Northern states to win.  If not, the election could be thrown to the House of Representatives, where anything could happen.  Complicating their hopes was a third party, the Constitutional Union Party.  At their convention earlier in the month, they had nominated John Bell of Tennessee as their candidate for president.

Going into the convention, William Seward of New York was the frontrunner for the Republican nomination, but while the Democrats had been concerned with their candidates' ideology, the pragmatic Republicans were more concerned with their nominee's electability.  Seward had strong support throughout the Northeast, but the Republicans could count on winning that section no matter who their nominee was.  The main concern was the Northwestern states, especially Illinois and Indiana -- the very area where Seward was weakest.

Seward was seen as something of a radical.  In 1850, in his "maiden" speech in the Senate, Seward immediately established himself as a prominent antislavery leader.  He called the speech "Freedom in the New Territories," but it quickly became known as his "Higher Law" speech.  Southerners declared that the Constitution provided for the extension of slavery into the territories.  Seward declared, "There is a higher law than the Constitution."  According to Seward, slavery was doomed and secession was futile.  A few years later, in 1858, Seward had spoken of "an irresistible conflict between opposing and enduring forces."  Seward had not said anything that Lincoln had not said in his "House Divided" speech, but he had somehow angered many more people.  He attempted to moderate his image after that, but mostly just alienated his more radical supporters.  He would not win many votes from disaffected Democrats and could not expect to win many border states.

The other major candidates were Salmon P. Chase of Ohio, Simon Cameron of Pennsylvania, Edward Bates of Missouri, and Abraham Lincoln of Illinois.  From The Coming Storm,
"Chase was a famous anti-slavery leader:  a little too much so, perhaps, for a new party that was going to have to draw some support from the Northern Democrats.  Chase had lofty hopes, and yet he was not quite making a campaign of it; he was merely standing off stage, full of dignity and rectitude, willing to receive whatever might be given to him, but not equipped with the guides and beaters needed by a man who hoped to penetrate a jungle like this one at the Wigwam.  Bates had the important backing of the famous Blair family and he came from a border state, which was in his favor.  If the convention should try to placate the South (which was somewhat unlikely), Bates would be a very likely choice.  He had, however, presided over the national convention of the Know-Nothings in 1856 and he would be a loser in any state where the German or other foreign-born vote was essential.  Cameron was a typical political boss who could hardly hope to carry anything except his own state of Pennsylvania."

Lincoln was the logical anti-Seward candidate, and his handlers, led by Judge David Davis, worked tirelessly behind the scenes to point out Lincoln's strengths to the delegates.  From James M. McPherson's Battle Cry of the Republic,
He was a former antislavery Whig in a party made up mostly of former antislavery Whigs.  But despite his house divided speech, he had a reputation as a moderate...Lincoln had opposed the Know Nothings, which would help him with the German vote, but not so conspicuously as to drive away former American (Party) voters who would refuse to support Seward.  Already known popularly as Honest Abe, Lincoln had a reputation for integrity that compared favorably with the dubious image of Thurlow Weed's New York machine.  Of humble origins, Lincoln personified the free-labor ideology of equal opportunity and upward mobility.  He had been born in a log cabin...Lincoln the railsplitter became the symbol of frontier, farm, opportunity, hard work, rags to riches, and other components of the American dream embodied in the Republican self-image.  Finally, Lincoln was from a state and region crucial to Republican chances, particularly if Douglas as expected became the nominee of northern Democrats.  Except for William Henry Harrison, who died after a month in office, no president had been elected from the Old Northwest.  The fastest-growing part of the country, this region believed that its turn had come.  The selection of Chicago as the convention site incalculably strengthened Lincoln's candidacy.  Huge, enthusiastic crowds composed mostly of Illinoisians turned up at the large hall...Counterfeit tickets enabled thousands of leather-lunged Lincoln men to pack the galleries."
The opening day of the convention was mostly devoted to the business of organization, naming committees, installing a president -- George Ashmun of Massachusetts -- and listening to speeches.  The second day was devoted to the party's platform.  A Seward delegate moved that the nomination of a candidate should begin, but the convention secretary announced that the tally sheets weren't ready.  Rather than wait a few minutes, the convention adjourned for the day.  By the time balloting began on the third day, Lincoln's men were ready.  They had the Indiana delegation on their side from the first ballot, and, after voting for Cameron on the first ballot, the Pennsylvania delegation was ready to support Lincoln on the second ballot.  Lincoln had written Davis, "Make no contracts that will bind me," but Lincoln was not here and Cameron wanted to be Secretary of the Treasury.  Davis is supposed to have said, "Lincoln ain't here and don't know what we have to meet, so we must go ahead as if we hadn't heard from him and he must ratify it."  However it was done, Cameron was placated and the Pennsylvania delegation made the switch.

On the first ballot, Seward led with 173 1/2 votes.  Lincoln got 102, Cameron 50 1/2, Bates 48.  On the second ballot, the trend was clear:  Seward 184 1/2, Lincoln 181.  The third ballot had Lincoln with 231 1/2 votes, just 1 1/2 votes away from the nomination.  Seward was down to 180.  Before the fourth vote could be taken, D. K. Cartter of Ohio got the attention of the chair and announced "the change of four votes of Ohio from Mr. Chase to Mr. Lincoln."  After a wild uproar in which several other delegations attempted to change their vote totals, William Evarts, chairman of the New York delegation, came to the dais.  He expressed disappointment that Seward had not been nominated, but moved that Lincoln's nomination be made unanimous.  The convention passed the motion.

Cassius Clay of Kentucky received over 100 votes on the first ballot for vice president and seemed to be the favorite of the crowd in the Wigwam, but the professional politicians quashed that notion.  Clay was a true antislavery radical, a Westerner, and a former Whig.  They wanted Hannibal Hamlin -- a moderate, an Easterner, and a former Democrat -- to give the ticket balance.  Hamlin was nominated on the second ballot.

After choosing a committee to go to Springfield and formally tell Lincoln of his nomination, the convention adjourned.  Interestingly, President Lincoln would later name all the major candidates for the Republican nomination -- Seward, Chase, Cameron and Bates -- to his cabinet.

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