Skip to main content

How We Got Lincoln

June 2024
25min read

Every presidential election is exciting when it happens. Then the passing of time usually makes the outcome seem less than crucial. But after more than a century and a quarter, the election of 1860 retains its terrible urgency.

In the crowded months between the beginning of the 1860 presidential campaign and the attack on Fort Sumter, it is easy now to see the emergence of Abraham Lincoln as something preordained, as though the issues had manufactured a figure commensurate with their importance. Or at the least, one might imagine a dramatic, hard-fought campaign with Northern and Southern states rallying around their respective candidates. But that’s not quite how it happened.

There is drama enough in the 1860 campaign, but most of it does not spring from the election itself. The moment Lincoln was nominated, the issue was settled: He would become the President; he would be faced with the dissolution of the federal Union. The crucial steps on Lincoln’s road to the White House came earlier, during the most important party convention in our history—a convention that seemed, at the time, certain to nominate William Henry Seward as Republican party candidate for President of the United States.

The senator from New York cut an odd, slight figure. Spare and angular, Seward looked, one newspaper said, like “a jay bird with a sparrow hawk’s bill.” His unprepossessing appearance aside, Seward seemed like a man very much in control of his political life as he marched down the Republican side of the Senate chamber on May 7, 1860. Taking his seat, Seward produced a large quantity of snuff and a yellow handkerchief that he waved expansively as he amused his fellow Republicans with a joke or two. There were few things in life Seward enjoyed more than being the focus of attention. The senators who watched him perform understood that they were looking at the next President of the United States. And no one in the chamber was more certain of this than Seward himself.

Four days earlier the Democratic party convention in Charleston had done an extraordinary thing. Deliberately, the delegates had thrown away the forthcoming presidential election. They had met to confirm Sen. Stephen A. Douglas of Illinois, the only Democrat who could have reached out beyond the slaveholding South and gathered up enough electoral votes from the border states to win. But insurrection had been in the air at Charleston. The smooth-talking Democrat from Alabama, William Yancey, who took pride in being known as “the Prince of the Fire-Eaters,” had his mind not on success within the political system but on secession from the Union. With Yancey calling the shots, the convention turned away from Douglas and refused to nominate anybody. The party would eventually put up two candidates, Douglas and Vice-President John Breckinridge, while a hastily formed splinter group calling itself the Constitutional Union party nominated John Bell of Tennessee.

Yancey had what he wanted. The fragmented Democrats would most likely lose to a Republican committed to abolition. The South would have no choice but to secede.

So the way was left open for the Republicans. A political organization that had been stitched together five years earlier by grafting snippets of Free-Soilers, Know-Nothings, Abolitionists, and runaway Democrats onto the carcass of the old, moribund Whig party had the Presidency within its grasp for the first time. In 1856, with no reasonable chance of victory, the Republicans had nominated the romantic adventurer John Frémont, and lost. Now it was time for a seasoned man of politics. That man was Seward.

The senator had every right to be confident. He was a traditional politician of the day and had played the political game in the traditional manner. He had spoken out on the questions Republicans wanted addressed. He had led them where they wanted to go. Seward had paid his dues, and now it was time to collect.

He had the credentials. An early organizer of the party, Seward led the antislavery forces in Congress despite his uninspiring public-speaking style. Indeed, he frequently gave the impression of talking to himself. The great orators such as Daniel Webster and John C. Calhoun had ignored his speeches. But Seward had a keen mind and once, in a moment of inspiration, he described the issue between slave and free as an “irrepressible conflict.” The phrase went into the political language of the day, and Seward’s followers liked to call themselves “the Irrepressibles.”

He had the following. No American politician of the time could claim more devoted supporters. To a party based on opposition to slavery, Seward was more than simply a leader. He was, as the contemporary journalist Isaac Bromley put it, “the central figure of the whole movement, its prophet, priest, and oracle.” A presidential election without Seward, Bromley concluded, “would be the play without Hamlet.”

He had the money. With a war chest full of dollars culled from New York State political organizations, Seward’s campaign manager, Thurlow Weed, had been able to collar Republican leaders by promising “oceans of money” to underwrite not only Seward’s campaign but theirs as well.

He had the votes. To secure the nomination, Seward would need 233 delegates. He had 170 in his pocket as he sat in the Senate. If there had been a national primary at the time, Seward would certainly have won it. The Republicans held a number of straw votes before the convention showing him an easy winner. One from Michigan gave him 210 votes and all other candidates 30, while another from the Northwest showed him with 127 and 44 for the rest.

Always meticulous in such matters, Seward started working on a draft of the resignation speech he would give to the Senate upon receiving the nomination. But the smooth senator from New York found himself heading into some very rough territory.


In a neat piece of symbolism for the emerging importance of the party’s Western reach, the Republican convention was set for Chicago. It was not much of a city. Writing in the mid-1850s, the historian James Parton said that of all American prairie towns, Chicago “was the most repulsive to every human sense.” Cattle still crowded the sidewalks, and stables were routinely emptied into Lake Michigan, which provided the city’s drinking water. Consumption, cholera, and smallpox were commonplace; Chicago had the highest death rate in the nation. But it was an energetic place. When engineers decided the city streets had to be raised twelve feet to bring them safely above river level, every building in town was jacked up and twelve hundred acres were filled in.

By 1860 Chicago had made itself into a convention city of fifty-seven hotels, eight of them considered deluxe by the town’s relaxed standards. And just for the Republicans the city had erected the first building in America specifically constructed to hold a political convention: an immense two-story wooden structure called the Wigwam and billed as “the largest audience room in the United States.” Completed only four days before the convention opened, the eighteen-thousand-square-foot Wigwam could accommodate somewhere between six and fifteen thousand people. With more than twenty thousand Republicans coming to town, it was going to be a tight fit.

Chicago was a good town in which to practice a little political bushwhacking, and Seward, although he carried the cachet that goes with being the front-runner, made an appealing target. He was so confident of the righteousness of his causes that he seemed indifferent to the intensity of the resentment he aroused.

Once when Senator Douglas, exasperated during an all-night Senate session, used the word nigger, Seward snapped, “Douglas, no man who spells Negro with two gs will ever be elected President of the United States.” The line played well back home, but it made Seward enemies. Although there was no evidence to support the charge, many suspected Seward, among other Northern Republicans, of complicity in John Brown’s raid on Harpers Ferry the year before. One Richmond newspaper carried an advertisement offering fifty thousand dollars for the head of the “traitor” William Seward.

Several highly placed Republicans disliked the senator as well, and all of them were coming to Chicago. If Seward was to be stopped, the Wigwam was the place where it could be done.

The Republicans began streaming into Chicago in crowds that made the railroad depots “beat like great hearts with their living tide,” according to one correspondent. They came in such numbers that some 130 of them had to sleep on pool tables in hotel billiard rooms. They were a rough, contentious group who smelled victory and started their celebrating early. The New York Republicans in particular, said one witness, “can drink as much whiskey, swear as loud and long, sing as bad songs, and ‘get up and howl’ as ferociously as any crowd of Democrats....”


The imperious Thurlow Weed, nicknamed “Lord Thurlow,” led the pack. He set up headquarters at the Richmond House with an abundant supply of good cigars and champagne, and a willingness to promise anything required to secure the remaining 60 votes Seward needed. To back him up with muscle and yelling power for marching in parades and shouting in floor demonstrations, Weed had brought in a gang of roughnecks, among them the former American heavyweight champion Tom Hyer (who in fact was considered by many to be the best-mannered man at the convention).

There were other candidates in the contest besides Seward, but Weed discounted them. Salmon Chase of Ohio yearned to be President, but he seemed too proud to campaign actively for it. Judge Edward Bates of St. Louis, backed by powerful forces within the party, had been tainted by his association with the Know-Nothings and their chauvinistic policies against the foreign-born and Roman Catholics, two important voting blocs with long memories. Simon Cameron, the party boss of Pennsylvania, had presidential ambitions, but Cameron was essentially a deal-maker who could be made content as long as he got something for himself out of the convention. The field was filled out with favorite-son candidates such as William Dayton of New Jersey and Abraham Lincoln of Illinois.

Surveying it all, Weed calculated that although Lincoln was a marginal candidate, he would require scrutiny. In an attempt to give some regional balance to the campaign, Weed offered him second place on the ticket. The offer was tempting, but Lincoln and his advisers refused. They were after bigger game.

Fifty-one years old, Abraham Lincoln was a made-over Whig with considerable local experience and some small national distinction. Born in Kentucky, and raised in Indiana and Illinois, he had worked as a land surveyor and won election as a captain of militia during the Black Hawk War before turning to law. He served for eight years in the Illinois legislature as a Clay Whig and generally could be relied upon to vote down the line with his party. Elected to Congress in 1846, he was turned out after one term, largely because of his opposition to the Mexican War, and afterward returned to Springfield to practice law.

No American politician of the time could claim more supporters than William Henry Seward. He was more than simply a leader.

Lincoln attained national recognition ten years later when he ran for the Senate against Douglas. His opening speech declared, famously, that “a house divided against itself cannot stand.” It became part of the national conscience, but it cost Lincoln the election. Douglas used the phrase to paint Lincoln as an abolitionist, and Leonard Swett, one of Lincoln’s closest advisers, later commented that Lincoln had defeated himself in the first sentence of his first speech. During his famous series of debates with Douglas, Lincoln attempted to backpedal. “I am favor of making voters or jurors of Negroes,” he said in Charleston, Illinois, “nor of qualifying them to hold office....” But the political damage had been done.

Nevertheless, Lincoln made his national mark. He carried the antislavery issue about as far as most Republicans wished it taken and he had emerged as the leading Republican in Illinois.

Lincoln was woven of genuine homespun—he said “jist” for “just” and “sich” for “such”—but he was no political naif. He had toiled hard for the party and done the scut work of driving Frémont’s campaign wagons in 1854. He knew the names of hundreds of precinct and county workers and was careful to keep in contact with them. Lincoln was fiercely ambitious for political advancement. His long-time legal associate, Henry C. Whitney, said Lincoln picked his companions for what they could do for him. Noting that Lincoln used to play billiards with a somewhat disreputable Illinois attorney from time to time, Whitney remarked that “it was the only non-utilitarian thing” he ever saw Lincoln do.

Lincoln and Seward never confronted each other. The struggle was fought out by their supporters in Chicago. Lincoln awaited word of the results in Springfield, while the senator remained in his hometown of Auburn, New York. In a letter to Lincoln marked “Profoundly private,” Dr. Charles Ray, editor of the Chicago Tribune, laid it out simply enough: “You need a few trusty friends here to say words for you that may be necessary to be said....A pledge or two may be necessary when the pinch comes.”

The trusty friends behind Lincoln were solid, practical men of good sense and considerable diligence. Judge David Davis, who had known the candidate since they had both been circuit-riding lawyers in Illinois, served as Lincoln’s campaign manager. Weighing close to three hundred pounds, Davis gave the appearance of a sleepy mountain, but he was quick-witted and possessed of a nice political judgment. Charles Ray and his fellow editor Joseph Medill were ready to put the Tribune at Lincoln’s disposal. The state auditor Jesse Dubois was in Lincoln’s camp, as were Judge Stephen Logan, who had once been Lincoln’s law partner, and Norman Judd, a prominent railroad attorney who had been instrumental in setting up the Douglas debates.

They compared their man with Seward and were not unhappy. On the principal issue, Lincoln’s record was as good. And for a national campaign he was considered less radical.

Seward’s ringing “irrepressible conflict” had become something of an embarrassment to someone who hoped to win a national election without goading the South into insurrection. Seward admitted to a Washington hostess that if the Lord forgave him this time, he would never again put together two such high-sounding words. Lincoln had said almost as much in his “House Divided” speech, but coming from a minor Illinois politician its implications did not fall as stridently upon the ear as they did from a powerful New York senator.

If Lincoln did not have the public record of Seward, that meant also that he did not have as much to defend. There is nothing like being a political front-runner to find out who really doesn’t like you, and the more Judge Davis poked around Seward’s record, the more possible roadblocks to Seward’s nomination he found. Former Democrats, new to the Republican party, were unhappy with Seward’s contention that blacks should have the vote. Then there were the Know-Nothings, whom Seward had consistently mocked. They were particularly powerful in states such as New Jersey, where the Republicans had no real organization of their own. Indiana and Pennsylvania were also strong Know-Nothing country. The big Northern businessmen, usually a source of strength for Seward, were getting shy about his prominence as a lightning rod for Southern hatred ever since Harpers Ferry and were beginning to worry about their commercial trade with the South. And, oddly for such a moral man, Seward had a hint of corruption about him. Weed had not always been scrupulous about how he raised money for Seward, sometimes resorting to little more than shakedowns from Republican officeholders and the promoters of New York City street railways who relied on Weed to guide their franchises through the legislature. Horace Greeley’s New York Tribune said that when Seward was governor, the New York legislature was “not merely corrupt but shameless.”


Greeley’s animosity was difficult to understand. By rights, the two New Yorkers should have been political allies, but they had fallen out somewhere along the line over a matter of political patronage, and now Greeley remained implacable in his opposition to Seward’s candidacy.

And then there was the image question. In many ways, Seward, a wealthy corporation lawyer, was in the classic old Whig mold of a well-born moralist telling the people what was good for them whether they wanted to hear it or not. These Whigs had a poor record in winning the White House. The only two Presidents they had been able to elect were dusted-off generals, Harrison and Taylor, who had run on their war records while the Whig leadership made fools of themselves wearing coonskin caps and drinking hard cider, trying to look like men of the people.

But with Lincoln, the Republicans could have a man who really was from humble origins and looked comfortable in the part. Lincoln carefully cultivated his populist appeal. During the Douglas debates, when Douglas and his party arrived in a line of carriages, Lincoln trailed behind in a wagon hauled by oxen. His rail-splitter image was an inspired piece of political Hackery conjured up by his supporters. When Lincoln secured the presidential pledge from the state convention on May 9, a group of men dressed as farmers carried in a pair of rails supposedly split by the candidate in 1830. Lincoln went along with the gag—up to a point. “I cannot say whether I made those rails or not, but I am quite sure I have made a great many as good,” he said amid applause so great that part of the canvas roof covering the meeting hall collapsed.

Lincoln would do nicely if they could put him over. And that was a question of mathematics. Could Seward be stopped short of 230 delegates and could Lincoln then pick them up before the convention rallied to someone else?

Lincoln had already demonstrated one quality vital to a presidential candidate: he was lucky. Chicago had been chosen as a compromise site before Lincoln was considered a serious candidate. If he had been seen as a contender, the city would have been unacceptable to Seward’s people; and if any other place had been chosen, it is unlikely Lincoln’s Illinois team could have swung the nomination.

Months before, Lincoln had astutely indicated the basic strategy to be taken. Writing to a delegate from Ohio to thank him for his support, Lincoln said, “If I have any chance, it consists mainly in the fact that the whole opposition would vote for me, if, nominated. (I don’t mean to include the pro-slavery opposition of the South, of course.) My name is new in the field, and I suppose I am not the first choice of a very great many. Our policy, then, is to give no offense to others —leave them in a mood to come to us if they shall be compelled to give up their first love....”

Davis, having established Lincoln’s campaign headquarters in a two-room suite at the Tremont House, had three immediate jobs to do:

First, Seward had to be stopped from winning on the first ballot. Everything depended on that. As far as Davis was concerned, anyone who wouldn’t vote for Seward was a Lincoln man. At least for one round.

Second, Lincoln had to be built into something more than a favorite-son candidate. Favorite sons would be blown away by the second ballot. Lincoln needed votes from outside Illinois to demonstrate his depth. Davis had hoped for a solid second-place finish from Lincoln on the first ballot—no easy task, because Chase, Cameron, and Bates were all coming to Chicago with more delegates than Lincoln.

Welles was undecided about which way to jump until Lincoln’s people talked to him about a cabinet position.

Finally, Davis had to play a waiting game and secure as many second-ballot pledges for Lincoln as possible. Once Seward was stalled, it was imperative that Lincoln forge ahead before the convention could gather around someone else.

Davis dispatched his men to meet the various conventioneers as they arrived. Samuel Parks, who was born in Vermont, went to that delegation and Swett went to see his old friends from Maine. Every delegation Davis could get to was visited by Lincoln’s men. They carried with them a pair of powerful messages from Davis.

Although they were careful not to disparage Seward, they drove home the point that he was not as solid as he looked. With only New England firmly in the Republican column, the national election would be won or lost in New Jersey, Indiana, Illinois, and Pennsylvania, where Know-Nothing sentiment remained high. The Republicans had to win three of those four doubtful states or lose it all. And these were precisely the four marginal states where Seward was weakest.

Something Seward had said in 1852 now returned to haunt him. When the Whigs of his state wanted to give the venerable Henry Clay a third chance for the Presidency, Seward had written a New York congressman saying, “it is not a question of who we should prefer but whom can we elect.” Now the same hard political judgment was to be used against Seward. Even if he was the best man, his party could not elect him.

The second message was the Davis counter to Weed’s “oceans of money.” Davis had hardly any money at all. He later calculated the total expense of nominating Lincoln, including everything from band music to railroad tickets for delegates, at less than seven hundred dollars. With no cash, Davis did the next best thing he could think of. In effect he established a futures market in Lincoln’s cabinet and sold it off chair by chair.

He had to start by securing his own Illinois delegation. Not all of the 22 delegates were solid for Lincoln. Men from the northern part of the state, about a third of the state delegates, were for Seward. Davis handled that by binding the state to vote as a unit.

Lincoln swiftly won Indiana’s 26 delegates. Dr. Ray checked in with Medill at the Tremont House to tell him the news that Indiana was committed to Lincoln down the line. Asked how this was done, Ray replied, “By the Lord, we promised them everything they asked.” After the election Indiana’s Caleb Smith was appointed Secretary of the Interior and William Dole was given the post of Commissioner of Indian Affairs, where the hours were good and the money excellent.

As Chicago filled up with Republicans, and with the balloting only two days away, Lincoln still trailed Seward by as many as 90 votes, but Davis was happy. Lincoln’s cause was moving forward, and he would likely have the solid secondplace finish Davis wanted for his man.

The convention took over the city. Seward’s men, led by a brass band with bright white and scarlet feathers in their hats, trooped up and down the streets playing the Seward campaign song, “Oh Isn’t He a Darling?,” as if the election was already over. Inside the hotels the delegates talked politics. As Murat Halstead of the Cincinnati Commercial described the scene, “Men gather in little groups, and with their arms about each other, and chatter and whisper as if the fate of the country depended upon their immediate delivery of the mighty political secrets with which their imaginations are big....There are now at least a thousand men packed together in the halls of the Tremont House, crushing each other’s ribs, tramping each other’s toes, and titillating each other with the gossip of the day; and the probability is, not one is possessed of a single political fact not known to the whole, which is of the slightest consequence to any human being.”

It was an insistent crowd that surged up to the Wigwam on Wednesday, May 16, for the opening of the convention. One man, a Mr. Johns, delegate-at-large from Iowa, described as “a plain, homespun western farmer, but sound to the core,” had walked 150 miles to get to the railroad that would bring him to Chicago. The doors opened and the flood of delegates, newsmen, and spectators poured in. The press tables had the latest in telegraphic equipment but only sixty seats for nine hundred applicants. The standing-roomonly delegate floor for forty-five hundred was filled within five minutes. The galleries, which would accommodate gentlemen only in the company of ladies, caused considerable problems for the all-male convention. Schoolgirls were offered a quarter for their company, and one woman, who was offered a half-dollar, refused because she had already accompanied six gentlemen inside and was afraid the police would object if she came in a seventh time. One enterprising Republican attempted to bring in an Indian woman who was selling moccasins on the street but was rebuffed by the guards, who held that an Indian woman could not be a lady.


The first day of the convention was given over to forming committees and listening to prayers and speeches blessing various Republican endeavors. David Wilmot gave a stem-winder of an antislavery speech and there was a small flap over the seating of Horace Greeley. Shut out from the New York delegation by Seward, Greeley had managed to get himself seated as a delegate from Oregon. No one seemed to mind very much. There would always be room for Horace Greeley at a Republican convention, although some wag played a joke on the editor by pinning a Seward campaign badge on the back of his coat. George Ashmun of Massachusetts was named president of the convention and presented with a gavel made of wood from Com. Oliver Hazard Perry’s flagship Lawrence. Knowing a cue when he saw one, Ashmun told the convention, “I have only to say today that all the auguries are that we shall meet the enemy and they shall be ours.”

The most spirited debate was whether or not to accept the Chicago Board of Trade’s invitation to take a boat ride on Lake Michigan later in the day. After some discussion it was agreed to go, and the convention adjourned until the next day, when the platform was to be adopted and the candidates voted upon.

Davis did not go on the boat ride. Nor did Weed. Both men worked furiously on the Kansas delegation. First the Kansans went over to see Weed for a smoke and a glass of champagne and a spot of politics. Weed surprised and delighted them by knowing most of their names and pouring the wine’ with a generous hand. As he told them how Seward was unbeatable, one Kansan said the expansive host reminded him of Byron’s Corsair—“The mildest mannered man that ever scuttled a ship or cut a throat.”

Arriving back at their hotel, the Kansans were greeted by a beatific Horace Greeley all pink and sleek, “looking like a well-to-do farmer fresh from his clover field.” Greeley came quickly to the point: couldn’t elect Seward if you could nominate name Seward, is to invite defeat. He cannot carry New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Indiana, or Iowa, and I will bring to you representative men from each of these states who will confirm what I say.”

If Greeley had been fronting for Lincoln’s men, which he was not (he still had hopes for Bates), he would have been hard put to define their position more clearly. Davis manipulated him masterfully. “We let Greeley run his Bates machine,” Swett wrote later, “but got most of them for a second choice.”

And for harder cases, Davis had stronger methods.

Gideon Welles, with a Santa Claus beard and an ill-fitting wig, came to Chicago heading up a badly split Connecticut delegation. He was not particularly well disposed toward Seward but was undecided about which way to jump until Lincoln’s people talked to him about a cabinet position. Welles went to work and was later named Secretary of the Navy.

At some point Davis got to the influential Blair family of Maryland, which had been politically prominent since the days of Andrew Jackson. With the promise of Maryland’s votes on the second ballot, Montgomery Blair was ticketed to be Postmaster General.

Thursday the seventeenth was largely given over to adopting the party platform, and had it not been for the excitement in the air of selecting the next President of the United States, a dreary day’s work it would have been. The platform promised something for everyone except, perhaps, the slaveholding Southerners. There was a protective tariff to keep Greeley and Pennsylvania happy. There was a homestead law for the farmers and a Pacific railroad for the West. But there was little fire in the document. The 1856 platform had been given over almost entirely to the question of slavery. The 1860 platform included the issue as one of many before the voters, and not necessarily the most important one. The homestead and tariff planks received more cheers than the plank calling for the limiting of slavery.

So timid were the framers on the question of slavery that they turned down a proposed amendment by Joshua Giddings, an old campaigner in the abolitionist struggle, to reaffirm the line from the Declaration of Independence that “all men are created equal.” Giddings, feeling “everything lost, even honor,” stormed off the floor. His departure, however, was an empty gesture, for he was back a few minutes later when the New York delegation had the phrase inserted into the platform. As Giddings came back to his seat, William Evarts, Seward’s floor manager from New York, commented, “Well, at least we saved the Declaration of Independence.”

Greeley said, “You couldn’t elect Seward if you could nominate him.…to name Seward, is to invite defeat.”

Unaware of the extent of the headway Davis was making off the convention floor, Seward’s people were riding high. The delegates called to start the balloting, and if it had proceeded, Seward, still the leading candidate, would probably have been the party’s nominee. But fate and Judge Davis intervened. The convention clerks said the tally sheets were prepared but, for some reason, were not at hand. After some desultory debate, the convention agreed to go to supper and reconvene in the morning.

Davis, “nearly dead from fatigue,” would have one more night.

There was a great deal to do, and Davis was the sort of man who had a good eye for the detail as well as the big picture. To ensure that Lincoln was well represented on the floor with demonstrators, a large number of counterfeit tickets were printed and several Lincoln men stayed up all night forging signatures on them. And if Seward was going to have some shouters on the floor, so would Lincoln. Davis rounded up a group of strong-lunged men, including one Dr. Ames, reportedly possessed of lungs so hearty he could be heard across Lake Michigan, and even a stray Democrat who apparently had nothing better to do the next day.

Nobody slept very much that night. Seward’s band serenaded the streets as politicians crisscrossed the city. Weed reportedly uncorked three hundred bottles of champagne, and Halstead saw Henry Lane of Indiana, “pale and haggard, with cane under his arm, walking as if for a wager,” going from one caucus to another trying to bring it home for Lincoln.

Greeley was making the rounds as well. His Bates boom had fizzled and at 11:40 P.M. Greeley telegraphed the New York Tribune, saying, “My conclusion, from all that I can gather to-night is, that, the opposition to Gov. Seward cannot concentrate on any candidate, and that he will be nominated.”

Davis, however, was far from finished. After Greeley left, he met with members of the New Jersey and Pennsylvania delegations and produced a tabulation showing Lincoln a solid second with many more votes than any other candidate except Seward. Both states said they would caucus and get back to Davis. New Jersey agreed to go along that night, but Pennsylvania would let him know in the morning.

A few hours before the convention was to reconvene on Friday, Judge Joseph Casey from Harrisburg arrived with the deal. Simon Cameron would deliver Pennsylvania on the second ballot if he could be named Secretary of the Treasury. A wire went off to Lincoln saying things looked good if Cameron could be accommodated. Lincoln sent back a startling telegram: “I authorize no bargains and will be bound by none.” The wording was simple enough, but what did Lincoln mean by it? He knew Davis was in Chicago making deals for him. That’s why Davis was there in the first place. Besides, Lincoln also had said earlier that he wanted that “big Pennsylvania foot” to come down on the scale for him. Surely he did not mean to back off just because the going was getting a little rough. The most likely explanation is that Lincoln expected Davis to continue dealing in his name while he covered himself for the record. The “Rail Splitter” was developing the long view.

As his agents discussed the telegram, Davis cut in sharply, “Lincoln ain’t here.” The candidate, he went on, “don’t know what we have to meet, so we will go ahead, as if we hadn’t heard from him, and he must ratify it.” Dr. Ray agreed. “We are after a bigger thing than that; we want the Presidency and the Treasury is not a great stake to pay for it.”

The extent of just how much Davis actually committed in Lincoln’s name has been the subject of debate ever since. When Davis and his team later presented Lincoln with the due bill for political services rendered in Chicago, he responded, “Well, gentlemen, where do I come in? You seem to have given everything away.”

The results, however, are certain. Pennsylvania dutifully swung over to Lincoln on the second ballot, and its leader was awarded a seat in Lincoln’s cabinet. The sticky-fingered Cameron didn’t get the Treasury, however. That went to Salmon Chase of Ohio. Cameron was named Secretary of War and after one inept and corrupt year in office was shipped off to Moscow as the U.S. ambassador to Russia.

On Friday morning the Seward people received their first setback at the door. When Seward’s brass band arrived with a thousand supporters, they found they couldn’t get in. Their places had been taken by Lincoln men with forged tickets.

The nomination of the candidates was swiftly done with, and it was obvious that only Seward and Lincoln had any clear vocal support. When Seward’s name was seconded, his depleted backers gave a good account of themselves. Trying to describe it stretched Halstead to the journalistic limit. He wrote: “The effect was startling. Hundreds of persons stopped their ears in pain. The shouting was absolutely frantic, shrill and wild. No Camanches, no panthers ever struck a higher note, or gave screams with more infernal intensity.”


Then it was Lincoln’s turn. “Imagine all the hogs ever slaughtered in Cincinnati giving their death squeals together, a score of big steam whistles going,” Halstead wrote, “and you conceive something of the same nature. I thought the Seward yell could not be surpassed; but the Lincoln boys were clearly ahead....”

When the shouting finally petered out, it was time to begin the balloting, and things began to unravel quickly for Seward. Maine, voting first, gave Seward 10 and Lincoln 6. Abolitionist New England, which was supposed to be solid for Seward, was starting to crack. New Hampshire cast one wistful vote for Frémont, one for Chase, one for Seward, and 7 for Lincoln. As Evarts tallied up the New England bloc, it showed 32 for Seward, 19 for Lincoln, and the remaining 30 spread out among the field. A lead, but not the kind to start parades for.

When New York was called, its 70 votes gave Seward a tally of 102 to only 19 for Lincoln. But then the senator ran into trouble. New Jersey held its 14 votes for Dayton and Pennsylvania gave Seward 1½ and Lincoln 4, and kept 47½ for Cameron. Virginia, which Seward had counted on, gave him only 8 and Lincoln 14. Henry Lane’s eyes glittered when Indiana threw all 26 for Lincoin. By the end of the first ballot Seward led with 173½, some 60 votes shy of the 233 needed to win; Lincoln held a surprisingly strong 102. It was now the two-man fight Davis had wanted, and the victory would go to the one who gained more on the second ballot.

Again it began badly for Seward. Lincoln picked up 2 more votes from New Hampshire, and Vermont abandoned its favorite son and cast all 10 for Lincoln. “This was a blighting blow upon the Seward interest,” Halstead wrote. “The New Yorkers started as if an Orsini bomb had exploded.” Welles never did deliver Connecticut entirely to Lincoln, but the state stayed out of the Seward column, giving 4 to Lincoln and spreading its other 8 among Bates, Chase, and Cassius Clay, the old war-horse from Kentucky. But when Pennsylvania weighed in with 48 for Lincoln, the rout was on. The results of the second ballot showed Seward hanging on with 184½ and Lincoln with 181.

The third ballot was carried out “amid excitement that tested the nerves.” Lincoln crept forward. Massachusetts took 4 of its Seward votes and gave them to Lincoln. Lincoln picked up a 3-vote lead from New Jersey and 4 more from Pennsylvania. Ohio came in with 29 for Lincoln, a gain of 15. He picked up 4 more when Oregon deserted Bates. Up and down the line it was almost all Lincoln. But would it be enough to put him over on this ballot? As the people in the hall tallied up the results, one newspaperman wrote, “a profound stillness suddenly fell upon the Wigwam; the men ceased to talk and the ladies to flutter their fans; one could distinctly hear the scratching of pencils and the ticking of telegraph instruments on the reporters’ tables.”

Upon the nomination, said a reporter, “the shouting was absolutely frantic, shrill and wild. No Camanches, no panthers ever struck a higher note....”

The tally showed Seward sagging to 181 and Lincoln at 231½. Another vote and a half would do it.

It was time for one last squeeze. Sometime during the first ballot Medill had wormed his way into the Ohio delegation and sat next to its floor leader, D. K. Cartter. Medill whispered to Cartter that Salmon Chase had only to come to Lincoln and he “can have anything he wants.” When the suspicious Cartter asked how he could be certain, Medill assured him by saying, “I know and you know I wouldn’t promise if I didn’t know.”

Cartter, pockmarked and stammering, stood up on a chair and called for attention. “I-I a-a-rise, Mr. Chairman, to a-a-nounce the chchange of f-four votes, from Mr. Chase to Abraham Lincoln.”

It was done.

There was a moment’s silence,” Halstead noted. “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.”

One of the secretaries with a tally sheet in his hand shouted over the crowd what they already knew, “Fire the Salute Abe Lincoln is nominated!” With tears on his cheeks, Evarts, as Seward’s floor manager, moved to have the nomination made unanimous. A huge charcoal portrait of Lincoln was brought in for the convention to admire, and one exulting group of his supporters tried to seize the New York banner as a trophy but was fought off.

The Seward crusade was over. It was left to Austin Blair of Michigan to make, in elegiac tones, the speech of the day: “Michigan, from first to last, has cast her vote for the great Statesman of New York. She has nothing to take back. She has not sent me forward to worship the rising sun, but she has put me forward to say that, at your behests here to-day, she lays down her first, best loved candidate to take up yours…she does not fear that the fame of Seward will suffer, for she knows that his fame is a portion of the history of the American Union; it will be written, and read, and beloved long after the temporary excitement of this day has passed away, and when Presidents themselves are forgotten in the oblivion which comes over all temporal things. We stand by him still....” Other Seward supporters wanted to eulogize their man, but the convention was in a mood to celebrate and cut them off.

Back home, each candidate received the word by telegram. Always the pessimist, Lincoln had assumed he would lose and that the convention, after failing to nominate Seward on the first ballot, would turn to either Bates or Chase. When the wire arrived telling him of his victory, Lincoln accepted congratulations from his friends and said, “There is a lady over yonder on Eighth Street who is deeply interested in this news; I will carry it to her.”

In Auburn, Seward read the telegram: “Lincoln nominated third ballot.” There was no change of expression on his face. “Well,” he said, “Mr. Lincoln will be elected and has some of the qualities to make a good President.”

Earlier that evening Seward’s friends had dragged a cannon up near his house to be used when the good news arrived. Quietly the sixpounder was wheeled away, and a few hours later, still primed with Seward shot and powder, it fired a salute to Abraham Lincoln, the next President of the United States.


Enjoy our work? Help us keep going.

Now in its 75th year, American Heritage relies on contributions from readers like you to survive. You can support this magazine of trusted historical writing and the volunteers that sustain it by donating today.