Tag Archives: Election of 1860

“A base forgery”

Right now Americans have presidential politics on the brain. On this date in 1860, Abraham Lincoln was thinking about the same thing.

Having been selected as the Republican nominee, he had just discovered, via a letter from Anson G. Chester, that a Chicago newspaper had printed a speech purporting to be Lincoln’s own work.  The remarks criticized Thomas Jefferson as a “repulsive” character who profited from the bondage of his own illegitimate children.  Lincoln responded to Chester as follows:

The extract upon a newspaper slip which you sent, and which I herewith return, is a base forgery, so far as its authorship is imputed to me. I never said anything like it, at any time or place. I do not recognize it as anything I have ever seen before, emanating from any source. I wish my name not to be used; but my friends will be entirely safe in denouncing the thing as a forgery, so far as it is ascribed to me.

On September 6, the Illinois State Journal denounced the anti-Jefferson speech as a “bold and deliberate forgery,” claiming that “Mr. Lincoln has ever spoken of Mr. Jefferson in the most kindly and respectful manner, holding him up as one of the ablest statesmen of his own or any other age, and constantly referring to him as one of the greatest apostles of freedom and free labor.”

That wasn’t the end of Lincoln’s Jefferson problem; a few weeks later, he had to issue another denial.  His law partner William H. Herndon claimed that Lincoln did indeed have a low opinion of Jefferson, but in 1859 Lincoln praised the author of the Declaration of Independence:

All honor to Jefferson—to the man who, in the concrete pressure of a struggle for national independence by a single people, had the coolness, forecast, and capacity to introduce into a merely revolutionary document, an abstract truth, applicable to all men and all times, and so to embalm it there, that to-day, and in all coming days, it shall be a rebuke and a stumbling-block to the very harbingers of re-appearing tyrany and oppression.

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Nominating Lincoln

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.

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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.

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