Few expected him to run for president; even fewer expected he would win.
The headlines seemed uncannily familiar: Inexperienced underdog from Illinois upsets more experienced New York senator to earn his party’s presidential nomination, wins fall election and appoints a “team of rivals” to his cabinet. He takes a triumphant train ride to Washington for his inaugural, and swears his oath of office on Chief Justice Roger B. Taney’s Bible.
They say history repeats itself. But seldom has it echoed more evocatively than in the case of Barack Obama’s surprise 2008 election to the presidency. Its parallels to Abraham Lincoln’s equally unexpected victory 148 years earlier were unmistakable.
Yet precedent-shattering as his election was, a Lincoln student as astute as President Obama would be the first to acknowledge that his hero’s earlier triumph was far more unlikely, dramatic and in the end more threatening to many Americans than even his own. It may be fair to say, in fact, that there has never been a race quite like the campaign of 1860—which is perhaps a good thing. Few elections were ever as bitterly contested yet as characterized by non-communication. And of course, no other election ever inspired such a violent aftermath: the very breakup of the country and the horrific civil war that followed.
Since the era was characterized by politicians’ routine pronouncements of modesty about personal success, it is difficult to know precisely when the campaign really began—or when its most famous character first harbored dreams of victory. “I have never professed an indifference to the honors of official station,” Lincoln allowed himself to admit as early as 1858, “and were I to do so now, I should only make myself ridiculous.” That was perhaps the greatest understatement of this ambitious man’s career.
That year, this antislavery Republican launched a campaign not for the White House, but for the next available “official station”: the U.S. senator from Illinois.
Lincoln easily garnered his party’s nomination—itself unusual in an age when such nominations were rare—to oppose two-term Senator Stephen A. Douglas. The incumbent Democrat was the proud author of the controversial new national policy known as “popular sovereignty,” which empowered white settlers in new territories to vote for themselves whether to admit slavery. Rejecting the notion that slavery expansion was acceptable under any circumstances, Lincoln had built his recent political comeback on intractable opposition to the Douglas doctrine. After memorably warning “a house, divided against itself, cannot stand,” Lincoln challenged the senator to a series of campaign debates that were not only well attended by Illinoisans, but publicized nationwide.
Lincoln sincerely yearned for the Senate seat that year, and did not view the race merely as a stepping-stone to a future presidential bid, as some have argued. Yet when his candidacy fell short, Lincoln—suddenly a national figure thanks to widespread reprints of the debates—was the first to assure a disappointed supporter, “Another explosion will come.” Democrats, he believed, had united behind Douglas specifically to “uphold the slave interest.” And “[n]o ingenuity,” he insisted, “can keep those antagonistic elements in harmony long.” The Democrats were destined to split. The Republicans’ day would come. And Lincoln intended to be central to whatever explosion lay in the future.
But as 1858 yielded to 1859, the one-term congressman from Springfield remained a dark, dark horse indeed. As he well knew, the Republican Party boasted luminaries like William H. Seward of New York and Salmon P. Chase of Ohio, political veterans with far greater claim to the nomination. No matter which candidate emerged to head the ticket, victory was by no means assured. Recently elected presidents had been doughface Northerners—Democrats favoring Southern interests—like Franklin Pierce of New Hampshire and James Buchanan of Pennsylvania. The nation’s entrenched political infrastructure stubbornly protected not only the Democratic executive establishment, but also the government’s pro-slavery legislative and judicial dominance. No upstart party would enjoy an easy path to victory in 1860.
For Lincoln, the 1860 campaign really began in 1859. That year, he resumed his “debates” with Stephen Douglas without the inconvenience of facing the formidable “Little Giant” face to face. Instead, Lincoln followed the senator into Iowa in August and Ohio in September, and then proceeded to Wisconsin and Kansas to carry on his argument against the alleged evils of popular sovereignty. Wherever he went, often a day or two behind Douglas, Lincoln accused Democrats of perverting the founders’ commitment to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness for all, black as well as white.
Lincoln’s name appeared on no ballots that year, but his speaking tour proved a political and personal triumph. He charmed audiences in states beyond Illinois and attracted widespread, positive press coverage. When Republican candidates in major statewide elections triumphed across the country, Lincoln earned much credit for his work in the party’s behalf—work, of course, that ultimately advanced his own cause as well. Lincoln remained focused on the next chance, and on his likely future opponent.
“What will Douglas do now?” he scribbled in a memo he shared with no one. “He does not quite know himself. Like a skilful [sic] gambler he will play for all the chances. His first wish is to be the nominee of the…convention, without any new test.” Speaking for Northern voters, he added, “I hope they will not swallow it.” But the real question was what would Lincoln do now, aside from waiting for Douglas’ next move?
Returning home to Springfield after a legal case, Lincoln literally found the answer waiting for him. From faraway New York, an organization of young Republicans opposed to the presidential aspirations of their own Senator Seward—believing the party needed a Westerner, not an Easterner, to unite all factions—invited Lincoln to speak at Henry Ward Beecher’s abolition-minded Plymouth Church in Brooklyn. The region seemed so alien to Springfielders that the local telegraph operator could not even correctly spell the venue—he wrote it down as “Broolyn”—but Lincoln had no trouble deciphering the significance of the summons. Here was a chance to deliver his maiden political speech in the media center of the nation, home to 175 daily, weekly and monthly newspapers, not to mention photographers and picture publishers galore.
Fate seemed to be riding on Lincoln’s shoulder that season. For purely personal reasons (he chose to delay his visit so his eldest son might accumulate a full semester of New England prep school before enduring a visit from his father) he asked if he could come four months later, at the end of February 1860. Unbeknownst to him, the Plymouth Church lecture series meanwhile concluded, and organizers transferred Lincoln’s speech from Brooklyn to Manhattan—to a new college called Cooper Union. There, the spotlight would shine even more brightly.
Nor did Lincoln have difficulty finding the perfect topic for his speech. That fall, Douglas published a provocative article called “The Dividing Line” in the influential Harper’s Magazine. In it, the senator argued that the Constitution—and its authors—had barred the federal government from ever limiting the spread of slavery. The founders, Douglas insisted, had left that decision with the states—in perpetuity.
That proved Lincoln’s inspiration. Though he remained busy with his flourishing law practice, actively engaged in trying to mediate a messy political feud in his home state, and working aggressively to get the influential Chicago Tribune to endorse his still-nascent presidential aspirations as Illinois’ native son, Lincoln somehow found time to conduct exhaustive research to respond to Douglas’ article. He diligently read the original records of the Constitutional Convention, the papers of the founding fathers and volume after volume of the Congressional Record. Slowly and meticulously, he amassed grounds for rebuttal: evidence that a large majority of the Constitution’s signers had shown, by subsequent opinions and votes, that they believed the federal government indeed held power thereafter to regulate slavery.
With no ghostwriters or aides to help, Lincoln transformed his copious notes into a 7,700-word, handwritten “political lecture,” and bought a brand-new suit for his New York debut. On Washington’s Birthday in 1860, as his hometown gathered for its annual parade in honor of the first president, the future 16th president quietly boarded a train to begin his long trip to New York City. It was a journey, he well knew, that would make or break his White House dreams, which, legends of modesty notwithstanding, were surely much on his mind that wintry morning.
Not all his neighbors believed he was destined for greatness. That very morning, Springfield’s Democratic newspaper both acknowledged and mocked Abraham Lincoln’s national ambitions by publishing this tongue-in-cheek notice:
SIGNIFICANT—The Honorable Abraham Lincoln departs today for Brooklyn under an engagement to deliver a lecture before the Young Men’s Association of that city, in Beecher’s Church. Subject, not known. Consideration, $200 and expenses. Object, presidential capital. Effect, disappointment.
Of course, we know that is hardly what happened. Lincoln’s Cooper Union address on February 27 was skillfully delivered and triumphantly received, reprinted the following morning in no fewer than five New York newspapers, then quickly republished as a pamphlet and hailed by local Republicans. “No man,” declared the New York Tribune, “ever made such an impression on his first appeal to a New-York audience.”
It is difficult to imagine an era in which one major speech—delivered before the days of 24-hour television coverage, the Internet or the blogosphere we take for granted today—could influence so many for so long. To fully appreciate its impact, one must conjure up a bygone age in which the public was passionately interested in politics, thronged to rallies, debates and orations, eagerly read reprints of political speeches and voted in mass numbers: more than 80 percent of eligible white males in 1860. The walls of American homes featured pictures not of the religious icons of old—or the sports heroes and entertainers of the future—but of politicians.
Of particular significance, Lincoln not only visited Cooper Union while in New York, but also the studio of master photographer Mathew Brady. There, the man, the moment and the technology all collided in perfect unison.
The result did nothing less than transform and nationalize the Lincoln image. Brady’s Lincoln portrait looked nothing like the primitive images taken at local Illinois studios in earlier days—partly because of the magic of the retoucher’s tools, which softened the harsh lines in the face. But the New York pose was a masterpiece for other reasons, and it took a genius like Brady to arrange it. It boasted such suggestive props as a pillar of state to signify leadership and a pile of books to represent wisdom. The distance of the camera was also perfect: close enough to give a good impression of Lincoln’s strong features, yet distant enough to hide its imperfections and highlight his great height and powerful frame.
Brady made sure, too, that Lincoln’s so-called “wild Republican hair” was patted down smoothly, and then, in an inspiration, the photographer “asked him if I might not arrange his collar, and with that he began to pull it up.”
“Ah,” said Lincoln, “I see you want to shorten my neck.”
“That’s just it,” Brady recalled, “and we both laughed.”
That long, withered neck—visible like a dark totem in earlier pictures—had often made Lincoln look like an uncouth laborer dressed for Sunday. Brady’s pose transformed him into a gentleman. The picture captured Lincoln in all his Western vigor, yet refracted by a new and convincing dignity. No wonder Lincoln later said, “Brady and the Cooper Institute made me President.”
Widely reproduced, the portrait proved especially crucial because it came to represent Lincoln in the months that followed. For except for a quick post-Cooper Union trip into Rhode Island, New Hampshire and Connecticut for reiterations of his New York oration, Lincoln’s entire 1860 presidential campaign began in February and ended in March. After his Eastern tour, Lincoln stayed home and kept silent. He wrote no new speeches and issued no new public letters. His “campaign,” such as it evolved, was conducted at rallies, parades and meetings by surrogates and supporters. Lincoln himself remained mute and invisible.
Six weeks after visiting New York, with Republicans yet to choose their nominee, Lincoln took pains to position himself above the fray. When one ally wrote to suggest he was the right man for the Republican nod, he clumsily feigned indifference. “Remembering that when not a very great man begins to be mentioned for a very great position, his head is very likely to be a little turned,” Lincoln wrote almost tortuously, “I concluded I am not the fittest person to answer the questions you asked.” He was far more frank to Illinois Senator Lyman Trumbull on the eve of the convention: “The taste is in my mouth a little.”
When Republican delegates finally gaveled to order in May in Chicago, Lincoln forces unexpectedly triumphed, turning back William H. Seward’s early lead and taking their man over the top after the third ballot. To the shock of Easterners who had dismissed him as a longshot even after his recent visit, Abraham Lincoln emerged the standard-bearer of the nation’s Republicans.
Democrats had far more trouble unifying behind a candidate of their own. The party fractured during its convention in Charleston, S.C.—with longtime favorite Stephen Douglas unable to secure the two-thirds vote then required for the nomination after 57 deadlocked ballots. The convention adjourned without consensus, then named Douglas on the second ballot when most delegates met again at Baltimore in June. In a portent of the national cleavage to come, Southern Democrats refused to accept the result. The very legislation that made Douglas anathema to the anti-slavery North made him equally unacceptable to the proslavery South—for popular sovereignty meant not only that voters could welcome slavery to the territories, but alternatively that they could bar it. Splitting from Douglas, Southern Democrats held their own convention and nominated Vice President John C. Breckinridge of Kentucky to run on a platform calling expressly for federal protection of slavery.
To complicate the contest even further, former Speaker of the House John Bell of Tennessee was nominated by yet another new political party. Calling themselves Constitutional Unionists, these conservative former Whigs, unwilling to join the Republicans, advocated saving the Union at all costs. Now the field was set. But historians who have contended that Lincoln’s election was there after a foregone conclusion have failed to acknowledge the uncertainties the candidate himself harbored, not to mention the drama of the next six months.
The campaign was characterized by frenzied excitement, bitter newspaper editorials, ominous warnings of disunion and war, mass participation (among white males, that is) and yet an abiding reverence for politicians expressed in banners, broad- sides, pamphlets, posters, prints and photographic pins. True to prevailing tradition, the candidates stayed home— except for Douglas, who took a trip to New England, ostensibly to visit his ailing mother, but delivering political speeches along the way. The visit, designed to rally whatever support he could wring from the hostile South, resulted instead in mockery.
For his part, Lincoln remained in Springfield. The skillful writer let his correspondence ebb to a trickle, taking pains to mark his few interesting letters “private” or “confidential” to prevent their publication. His one concession was to hire a private secretary to help him with his increased workload. Policy statements Lincoln eschewed altogether, maintaining “it would be both imprudent, and contrary to the reasonable expectation of friends…” and adding a bit grandiosely, “Justice and fairness to all, is the utmost I have said, or will say.”
Always a remarkably astute numbers cruncher, Lincoln kept a watchful eye on political developments throughout the nation— often encouraging harder work and increased vigilance. To Senator James Simmons he expressed concern because “I had not heard a word from Rhode Island” while Douglas was reported pouring money into the state. To New York State Republican leader Thurlow Weed, Lincoln warned Democrats might use John Bell to divide his support there. And his own running mate, Hannibal Hamlin, received an angry complaint after the Maine senator predicted local election losses in his home state. He warned Hamlin a bad early result in Maine would “put us on the down-hill track, lose us the state elections in Pennsylvania and Indiana, and probably ruin us on the main turn in November. You must not allow it.”
Still, Lincoln would not go public. “Those who will not read, or heed, what I have already publicly said, would not read or heed, a repetition of it,” he insisted. “‘If they hear not Moses and the prophets, neither will they be persuaded though one rose from the dead.’”
In this atmosphere of prudent reticence, Republicans stressed not potentially divisive issues, but their personal admiration for their exemplary candidate. The frenzied activity in his behalf typically emphasized Lincoln’s heartwarming rise from poverty and self-education, avoiding controversial subjects—especially slavery—that might repel potential supporters. Placing emphasis on Lincoln’s inspiring life story was the surest way for the Republican Party to maintain enthusiasm and unity in this, only its second race for the White House—especially with Lincoln himself in seclusion.
With little new to feed the frenzy for campaign literature, the Lincoln-Douglas debates, newly published in book form, emerged as a national bestseller (another credit Lincoln shares with Obama), with 30,000 copies sold in 1860. A glossy reprint of the Cooper Union address, complete with footnotes, reinforced the image of Lincoln as a scholar-statesman, and sold 28,000 copies more. Pictures of the candidate proliferated widely. At one point, several painters worked on his portrait simultaneously as he read mail at his new office inside the Statehouse at Springfield.
It should not be forgotten that, to the consternation of many Southerners, the Lincoln campaign also took on a somewhat provocative military flavor: Pro-Republican “Wide-Awakes” wore uniforms and carried torches. “Lincoln Battalions” marched in many Northern cities to drum up votes for their candidate. Election Day began in Springfield with the explosion of a cannon. Such aggressiveness alarmed many of his wary opponents.
Was the final result inevitable? The late historian William E. Gienapp once examined precinct-by-precinct election figures and argued Lincoln would have won a two-way race as decisively as he prevailed in the four-man contest. But such calculations bypass the mercurial dynamics of political campaigns, which often unfold unpredictably. Lincoln finished with just 39 percent of the popular vote in the four-way contest, yet 59 percent of the electoral vote. It is hard to imagine his amassing precisely the same totals in a race solely against Douglas, who ran a strong second in the popular balloting, but finished dismally last in the electoral count.
In fact, the 1860 election was not a foregone conclusion—as Lincoln’s worried letters to his political operatives suggest. Nor was he alone in his concerns. Late in the race, Frederick Douglass warned that “the efforts and appliances resorted to by the enemies of the Republican party could not fail to cause doubt and anxiety in the minds of the most sanguine.” And as late as November 1, Horace Greeley fretted that “a fusion [Democratic] triumph was not an impossibility” in New York. That same week, Cooper Union, scene of Lincoln’s greatest triumph, hosted a rally of business leaders, half of whom declared that Lincoln would never be president, most others predicting that the House of Representatives would ultimately be entrusted with the final decision.
But Lincoln won election by carrying every Northern state save New Jersey. No candidate had ever before taken the presidency with such an exclusively regional vote. He amassed 180 electoral votes in all—comfortably more than the 152 required for an absolute majority. And in the raw count, Lincoln could take comfort from the fact that the nation awarded him more popular votes than any man who had ever run for president—1,866,452 in all, 28,000 more than Buchanan earned four years earlier.
But Lincoln’s totals hardly amounted to a popular majority. His raw vote was the second-lowest share ever collected by a White House victor. Nor did the national vote tell the full story of the dangers lurking behind the numbers. Testifying to the deep rift between North and South was the anemic support Lincoln garnered in those Southern states where his name was allowed on the ballot at all. In Virginia, the Lincoln ticket received just 1,929 votes out of 167,223 cast statewide—barely 1 percent. The result was even worse in Kentucky, where only 1,364 of 146,216 voters cast their ballots for the Republicans—less than 1 percent.
Moreover, most of the 26,000 or so total votes Lincoln received in all five slave-holding states where he was allowed to compete came from a single state—Missouri—whose biggest city, St. Louis, included many pro-Republican German-Americans. With Missouri’s vote subtracted from his regional total, Lincoln received fewer than 10,000 votes in the entire slave-holding South.
Lincoln took some solace in the fact that both of these Upper South states, along with Missouri, went for the moderate John Bell, rather than Southern Democrat Breckinridge. When news of the Virginia vote reached him, Lincoln hoped it “represented a sentiment of love for the Union which would destroy the hopes of the ultra secessionists.” In that opinion, he was soon proven wrong.
Lincoln’s victory, just as Southern foes warned, proved entirely sectional (an outcome all but guaranteed when most Southern states refused to place Lincoln’s name on their ballots). Analyzed geographically, the total result gave Lincoln 54 percent, a decisive majority, in the North and West, but just 2 percent in the South. Lincoln’s triumph in the North was just as surely guaranteed by the presence of 3.4 million foreign-born voters. New York alone boasted more than 997,000 foreign-born residents, Pennsylvania 430,000. Lincoln’s deft simultaneous courtship of foreigners and Nativists helped Republicans construct unofficial fusion victories in key states where these groups dwelled in uneasy proximity.
Historian William Freehling believes the 1860 election was closer than previously appreciated, noting that the switch of only 18,000 votes from Lincoln to Douglas in California, Oregon, Illinois and Indiana would have thrown the election into the House of Representatives. In fact, the very same shift in outcome would have occurred had Douglas Democrats constructed fusion victories in New York and Pennsylvania. But neither result took place—which was good news for Lincoln, since the lame duck House, voting state by state, would likely have rejected his claim to the presidency. Yet, to pro-slavery Southerners waking up on November 7 to news that Lincoln had triumphed, the Republican’s razor-thin victories in some Northern states mattered less
than Lincoln’s clean sweep of what they perceived to be an incurably hostile region.
Looked at another way, refusal of most Southerners even to consider Lincoln’s candidacy should have provided a grave warning that the region would not accept the result—placing the future of
the Union in jeopardy.
“[W]e will get votes in your section this very year,” Lincoln had boldly predicted to Southerners in his Cooper Union address nine months earlier. The Republican Party would then “cease to be sectional.” But no such thing had happened. By Lincoln’s own reasoning, his disastrous showing in the South had made his party seem more sectional than ever.
Such details did not matter in Lincoln’s hometown on that unforgettable Election Day. According to a visiting journalist, the tireless city remained “alive and animated throughout the night.” According to one account, Lincoln did not leave the local telegraph office until at least 1:30 a.m.
More than one eyewitness immediately detected the change that overtook the new president-elect’s mood. His secretary watched as the “pleasure and pride at the completeness of his success” melted suddenly into melancholy. The “momentary glow” of triumph seemed to yield to “the appalling shadow of his mighty task and responsibility. It seemed as if he suddenly bore the whole world upon his shoulders, and could not shake it off.”
Lincoln donned his overcoat, thanked his friends, and asked for a copy of the wire that had brought the final results from New York, which he stuffed inside his pocket as a souvenir. It was about time, he solemnly announced, that he “went home and told the news to a tired woman who was sitting up for him.”
Lincoln arrived home to find his wife instead fast asleep. He “gently touched her shoulder” and whispered her name, “to which she gave no answer.” Then, as Lincoln later recounted: “I spoke again, a little louder, saying ‘Mary, Mary! we are elected!’”
But the final words his friends heard him utter that night were, “God help me, God help me.”
Harold Holzer, author of the award-winning Lincoln President Elect (Simon & Schuster), is co-chairman of the U.S. Lincoln Bicentennial Commission and chief historian of the current New-York Historical Society exhibition, Lincoln and New York.
Originally published in the March 2010 issue of America’s Civil War. To subscribe, click here.