By Michael Lynch
If there is any uncertainty surrounding this week’s Republican National Convention, it involves the threat of severe weather rather than the outcome. Mitt Romney’s nomination is essentially a foregone conclusion. Party conventions used to be more suspenseful, as was the case in 1860 when the Republicans put forth their second candidate for the presidency.
Presidential nominating conventions of this sort, while not exactly novel, were nonetheless a fairly recent phenomenon at that time. Before the 1830’s, congressional party caucuses picked presidential candidates. The nominating convention was an innovation (and possibly the only lasting historical contribution) of the Anti-Masonic Party, which met to select William Wirt for the election of 1832, and other parties took up the practice not long afterward. Nineteenth-century conventions were consequential affairs, contingent on wheeling and dealing among delegates rather than ordained by the results of primaries. These meetings were thus not the coronation ceremonies they would eventually become, but crucibles of destiny that could make or break a man’s political career.
The Republican National Convention of 1860, which took place in a Chicago structure called the Wigwam (a two-story, wooden meeting hall with a capacity of about 10,000 people) was particularly momentous, because it selected the party’s first successful candidate for the White House and the man who presided over the worst crisis in the nation’s history. How did a man like Abraham Lincoln, who had enjoyed success as a legislator in his home state but whose national record was rather undistinguished, become his party’s pick for the highest office in America?
Problems with the other contenders helped him along. New York’s William Seward, the front-runner, had earned for himself a reputation for radicalism, while his attempts to conciliate moderates in the run-up to the convention served only to alienate those radicals who had supported him earlier. Simon Cameron had served in the Senate, but proved willing to bow out in exchange for a cabinet post. Salmon P. Chase was a former Democrat whose opposition to tariffs made him distasteful to many of the ex-Whigs who had built the Republican Party in the 1850’s. Edward Bates had ties to the anti-immigrant Know-Nothings, and had therefore alienated himself from the German voters courted by the Republicans. (Each of these men would end up in the cabinet of the eventual nominee.)
That left Lincoln, who had three things working in his favor. He seemed moderate enough to appeal to a large number of voters. He had a body of speeches, debates, and published remarks which proved that he had a mind to reckon with. And he had allies at the Wigwam who knew how to work the delegates. Lincoln came in second to Seward on the convention’s first ballot; on the third, he captured the nomination, thanks to able maneuvering by his friend David Davis and support from a group of Ohio delegates at a crucial point.
This combination of handicapped Republican competitors, adroit supporters, and a moderate record, along with a sectionally fractured Democratic opposition, sent Lincoln to Washington, D.C. The election of this ostensibly moderate westerner drove the Deep South out of the Union. Ironically, the exigencies of the ensuing war caused this man, nominated for office because his rivals were too radical, to undertake measures that were downright revolutionary. All of it was contingent on what happened in Chicago, in an age when presidential nominating conventions offered up more uncertainty and excitement than they do now.
—Michael Lynch graduated from LMU with a degree in history, worked at the Abraham Lincoln Library and Museum as an assistant curator, and now teaches survey-level history courses on campus. He holds an M.A. in history from the University of Tennessee and blogs about historical topics at pastinthepresent.wordpress.com.