- Aug 2010
On this day in 1860, at their National Convention in Chicago, the Republican Party, a party that was barely four years old at this time, nominated Abraham Lincoln as their candidate for the Presidency. The result of the convention would not have been expected by anyone in the eastern press a year previously. William Seward, Senator of New York, and Salmon Chase, Governor of Ohio, were the expected Republican frontrunners. But Lincoln's campaign and debates against renown Illinois Democrat Stephen Douglas in 1858, along with a number of speeches he gave in the east, such as the Cooper Union speech, made him a national figure in 1860. Lincoln's oratory and moral clarity kept his audiences spellbound, and along with his longstanding status as the leading Republican of Illinois, he became a known factor and an acceptable choice to the Republicans of the east. Little did they know their second-choice would be the man who had to guide the nation through its greatest challenge and darkest hours.
Lincoln was chosen in large part because he was acceptable to all of the odd conglomerate of factions that made up the Republican Party at the time; former members of the Whig Party, anti-slavery former Democrats, northern abolitionists, and former members of the anti-Catholic, anti-immigrant Know-Nothing movement. Increasingly, the German-American population which tended towards abolitionist and radical views, was a constituency the Republicans were interested in as well. Lincoln was a former Whig himself, and had proven able and willing to aid former Democrats now operating under the Republican banner in the past, such as his efforts to deliver the Illinois Senate election of 1856 to Lyman Trumbull. Lincoln, who had never publicly pandered to the nativist tendencies that had previously kept German-Americans in the mid-West leery of the Republican Party, was also well-liked in that quarter, due to his friendly relations with key leaders in the community such as Carl Schurz. While on the more radical side of the scale in the Republican Party, German-Americans had more presence in the Midwest, in states that the Republicans needed to win. Lincoln crucially hailed from the key state of Illinois as well, also the home of his expected Democratic rival Stephen Douglas.
Lincoln's relatively conservative position on slavery, that slavery should be absolutely restricted to where it already existed and his gift for linking anti-slavery thought to the traditions of the nation's founding and framing it in a common-sense, conservative manner,, made him popular in Illinois and other lower-North states that the Republicans had to win. The distinction between anti-slavery and abolitionist should be noted here; while abolitionist was associated with radicalism and ending slavery where it already existed, anti-slavery, in the context of the day, was a position that otherwise conservative men of former Whig, Democrat, or Know-Nothing allegiances could hold, and typically referred to the end of the expansion of slavery, and varying degrees of opposition to the Fugitive Slave Act.
Lincoln took the position that slavery absolutely should not expand any further, and that the Fugitive Slave Act should be adjusted, but obeyed as long as it was in force. While he was more conservative than some northerners and radicals would have preferred, they appreciated the clarity with which he described the evils of slavery and made plain his opposition to it. While he had just fallen short against Douglas in their previous contest, Lincoln had proven ably to shrewdly and sharply cut through Douglas' attempts to obfuscate and muddy the waters on the slavery issue in their debates. Lincoln, while he detested anti-immigrant nativism personally, had no public clashes with the Know-Nothing movement in the past, and was thus able to rally support from them against their pro-Catholic, pro-slavery Democratic opponents without needing to pander to their bigotry. Uniting all of the factions within the Republican Party would be crucial; the first Republican nominee, John C. Fremont, had been perceived as too radical in order to do so, and had lost in 1856.
No other Republican could command an appeal as broad as Lincoln's, and no other Republican would have won the election of 1860. Chase, a former Democrat on the more radical end of the scale on slavery, was not broadly popular even within his own party. Seward had factional opponents at home, would be perceived as a northern radical by some in the lower North states, and he had alienated Know-Nothings in the past. Edward Bates, a Missourian, appealed to the more conservative end of the spectrum but his nativist ties alienated German-Americans, he lacked the national stature of Lincoln, and excited few in the North. Simon Cameron of Pennsylvania had well-known corruption problems and attracted no support outside his own state. Ultimately, Pennsylvania's allegiance to the Republicans was won in part thanks to Lincoln 's support of the old Whig protective tariff in any case. Unlike most of these men, Lincoln had the respect and support of the entire party within his own state, and he had also made few enemies outside it.
The choice of Lincoln in some respects would then seem a natural choice; however, as he was not the first choice of many prominent Republicans outside of Illinois and Indiana, this was not necessarily the case. William Seward, while he had distinct faults, had more of a national reputation than any of his opponents and it was generally thought his prestige would deliver him victory in the convention. However, after the first ballot, anyone who did not want Seward rapidly switched their support towards Lincoln, and Chase's Ohio supporters, bound to vote for him on the first ballot, were quite willing to back Lincoln, as in many cases they were hardly fond of Chase himself either. Once Seward failed to secure victory on the first ballot, Lincoln predicted his own victory, and he was correct.
The choice of Lincoln as the Republican nominee was a choice of political expediency for many of the man who made him the candidate. This choice would, unforeseen by most who backed him, also be a brilliant choice for the future of the nation as the next President faced the nation's greatest existential crisis. Lincoln's combination of flexibility and iron determination would ultimately help save the nation and deliver a new birth of freedom. When the moment arrived, the right man was in the right place to meet it.