Abraham Lincoln was on a losing streak. He wasn’t the party’s favorite. But he made history nevertheless.
By guest author Roger Lowenstein from the Wall Street Journal. Mr. Lowenstein is the author of “Ways and Means: Lincoln and His Cabinet and the Financing of the Civil War.”
Feb. 17, 2023
It is hard to imagine that any aspect of Abraham Lincoln’s life is understudied, but Edward Achorn has found one. “The Lincoln Miracle” offers a gripping account of the critical days in May 1860 when the underdog Lincoln snatched the Republican presidential nomination and ascended to the verge of national power.
The Miracle Abraham Lincoln
Mr. Achorn, the author of a previous book on Lincoln’s second inaugural (“Every Drop of Blood”), reminds us that Lincoln wasn’t considered the likely choice in the Republican sweepstakes. The favorite was William H. Seward, New York’s nationally prominent senator, and several well-positioned candidates were waiting in the wings if Seward faltered. Although Lincoln wanted the job—“the taste is in my mouth a little,” he confided—he shrewdly declined to confront his rivals. “Our policy,” he said privately, is “to give no offence to others” and to hope that in a divided convention he would emerge as an acceptable alternative.
But Lincoln had not held public office in 11 years—and, as Mr. Achorn spells out, his career before 1860 was mostly an extended losing streak. As a leader of the Whig Party in the Illinois house, he had failed to capture the speaker’s seat. After loyally working to elect Zachary Taylor to the presidency in 1848, he failed to get the expected reward of a patronage plum.
In 1854 he was nominated to return to the Illinois state legislature, but Mary, his difficult wife (elsewhere seen smacking Lincoln, and drawing blood, when he purchased the wrong cut of meat), insisted the job was beneath him. Then came two Senate tries, including a narrow loss to Stephen A. Douglas in 1858. During one especially blue stretch, Lincoln confessed: “I am now the most miserable man living.” Many observers believed his career was over. A newspaper in Urbana deemed Lincoln “undoubtedly the most unfortunate politician that has ever attempted to rise in Illinois.”
In 1860, with the country racked by the slavery crisis, Seward’s nomination seemed assured. A former governor and two-term senator from America’s biggest state, Seward had long been an outspoken foe of slavery. During the Senate debate on the Compromise of 1850, which reinforced slavery’s legal status, Seward had defiantly asserted that Christian morality constituted a “higher law” than the Constitution. In October 1858, he told a crowd in Rochester, N.Y., that slave and nonslave societies were headed toward an “irrepressible conflict.” As Mr. Achorn notes, “there was no doubt where Seward stood on the great moral question of his age.” The New Yorker also had a prodigious war chest.
His close friend and political manager, Thurlow Weed, had worried that Seward’s fiery language would hurt his chances for national office. Nonetheless, Weed was perhaps too confident as 1860 dawned. Thinking that Illinois didn’t have a viable contender, he acquiesced to Chicago as the Republican Convention’s host city: a mistake. The local press favoured its own.
The “Wigwam,” a gaslit wooden firetrap of an arena, was stuffed with thousands of partisans, onlookers and party hacks in addition to 465 delegates. Lincoln’s team exploited the home-field edge by installing raucous supporters in seats allocated to Seward. The New York contingent was further disadvantaged by being situated far from wavering delegations it hoped to influence. Much of the action occurred off-site. As Mr. Achorn vividly describes, the delegates were consumed with backroom dealings, whiskey-drinking and brothels.
Republicans were deeply divided on whether to soften their pitch to appeal to moderate voters. And John Brown’s violent insurrection, only months earlier, had put the “radicals” on the defensive. One key figure was Horace Greeley, editor of the New-York Tribune. Greeley was convinced that Seward was too extreme to be elected. (Greeley was also sore at Weed for having refused to promote his own candidacy for New York’s governorship.)
The famous journalist spent the days before the balloting “poisoning” minds against Seward and promoting the candidacy of Edward Bates, a white-bearded judge from Missouri, a slave state. But Bates was arguably too moderate for the party, and his support for a nativist candidate in 1856 had alienated German-Americans, an important bloc.
This left a narrow path for Lincoln. Recognizing that he was not the favorite, he aspired to be every state’s second choice. He spoke ill of no other candidate and avoided being drawn into contentious side issues, such as immigration and the tariff.
Lincoln’s antislavery position was well-known and not so different from Seward’s. His 1858 “House Divided” speech predated Seward’s “irrepressible conflict” address. While Lincoln spoke of a “crisis” rather than the more incendiary “conflict,” both said that the nation could not endure part slave, part free. And Lincoln, not mincing words, wanted slavery placed “in the course of ultimate extinction.” (Mr. Achorn cites the remark while recounting Lincoln’s 1860 address at the Cooper Institute in New York; Lincoln said it in Illinois in 1858.)
But Lincoln was perceived as more moderate. He made a point of reminding his floor managers that he did not endorse Seward’s “higher law” doctrine—a key distinction. Indeed, the judicious Lincoln had always been careful to ground his antislavery positions within the law.
Since candidates didn’t attend conventions in those days, Lincoln’s hopes rested with a band of cronies from his law practice and Illinois politics. This group was remarkably loyal. As Jesse Dubois, a legislator friend from southern Illinois, said: “We recognized him as our leader.” Judge David Davis, who had presided over scores of cases that Lincoln had argued on the Eighth Judicial Circuit (the two also shared hotel rooms), assumed the part of campaign manager, directing supporters to lobby and cajole as needed. Such pals knew the caliber of the man, and they were persuasive. Lincoln’s humility appealed to delegates from moderate states such as Pennsylvania and Indiana, where Republicans feared they couldn’t win local races if Seward headed the ticket.
Lincoln demonstrated his wisdom by picking a lawyer chum, Orville Browning, as an at-large delegate even though, for tactical reasons, Browning favored Bates. Browning delivered by charmingly selling Lincoln to the Maine delegation. As Mr. Achorn notes, “there was something compelling about Lincoln’s story” when his friends were telling it.
Worried about all the backroom dealing and patronage trading in Chicago, Lincoln told his team: “Make no contracts that will bind me.” Judge Davis ignored him. Mr. Achorn suggests that Simon Cameron, a corrupt politico and favorite son from Pennsylvania, was promised a cabinet seat, although he wafflingly adds that historians “debate” the point. Cameron was appointed secretary of war. And to heal party wounds, Lincoln tapped three other rivals: Seward, Bates and Ohio’s Salmon Chase.
When the convention voted, Seward led on the first ballot, but as delegates moved to second choices Lincoln seized the prize. Even some supporters feared that he was merely “a stump orator” boasting an attractive personal story and little else. After the convention, a committee of party leaders (most of whom had not met the nominee) hurried to Lincoln’s home, in Springfield, Ill., to formally notify Lincoln—and reassure themselves that they had not made a dreadful mistake.
It turned out that the qualities Lincoln had called on to win were exactly those the country would need to sustain a terrible war and ultimately to extinguish slavery. I wish that Mr. Achorn had not devoted nearly 100 pages to convention postmortems—journalistic reactions, Seward’s pique at being passed over, a description of the character of Lincoln’s vice president (“pleasant and genial”), and other anticlimactic details. But he has written a provocative addition to the canon.
Lincoln’s “miracle” will lead some to question the wisdom of the modern primary system. Today, with each party captive to its extreme, would a 21st-century Lincoln stand a chance?
Appeared in the February 18, 2023, print edition.