The Whig Party was dead. With the passing of Senators Henry Clay and Daniel Webster, and victory of Democrat Franklin Pierce over General Winfield Scott in 1852, the nails in the coffin constructed by the Compromise of 1850 were hammered in. By 1854 the party that succeeded in electing two presidents in its 19-year history collapsed, unable to answer the dominate questions of its age, as the issues of slavery and nativism dominated the national debate. In the South the remaining Whigs would join the Know Nothing Movement, while in the North they would merge with members of short lived anti-Slavery Free Soil Party to form the Republican Party.
In 1856 the new Party would nominate Colonel John C. Fremont, hero of American Westward Expansion, and son-in-law of Senator Thomas Hart Benton, the powerful Missouri Democrat who had nearly been shot on the floor of the Senate by fellow Democrat Henry Stuart Foote during the debates over the Compromise of 1850. Colonel Fremont did well, carrying 33% of the vote and 11 states to secure 114 Electoral College Votes. It wasn’t enough to win though, and James Buchannan, with his long resume of over 50 years of political service would take 45% of the Popular Vote, 19 states and 174 Electors to secure the Presidency.
Now, four years later, the young Party would once more have its eyes set on the White House.
Between May 16th and 18th, 1860 the Republicans met at the Wigwam Convention Center in Chicago, Illinois, the “largest audience room in the United States”, a building constructed for the occasion. The atmosphere was vastly different than it had been 4 years prior. Whereas room for 2,000 might have sufficed at that point, now over 10,000 crowded the hall, having lined the streets seeking admittance. It would become the largest group assembled under a single roof in American history to that point.
It had seemed like William Seward would emerge as the victor. He was the early favorite and he had credibility, having served as Governor of New York and now its Senator. More than that though, a third of the delegates needed to secure the nomination would come from his state. It was the largest holder of votes at that convention. He had seen off the train of 70 delegates and over 400 supporters lead by his campaign manager Thurlow Weed just a short time prior, and as the voting started, he had received word from Congressman Eldridge Spaulding, “Your friends are firm and confident that you will be nominated after a few ballots.”
Why wouldn’t he be confident though? The road map to victory was clear. In every other strong state for the Republicans the vote was dividing between the different candidates, and his only real competition, Pennsylvania Senator Simon Cameron, didn’t have much support outside of his home state. Perhaps had he had more of a name former Congressman Abraham Lincoln would have been more than a blip on the radar to Seward. Regardless he had only recently gained any sort of national presence with the Lincoln-Douglass Debates when he challenged Senator Stephen Douglas in his re-election bid. Between that election and his Cooper Union Speech, he established himself as a leading voice of the anti-slavery movement but that wasn’t enough to establish himself as the party’s choice. He wasn’t a serious contender, not one to really take note of, not with the Democratic Convention poised to nominate Douglas when it re-convened in Baltimore. Nominating one candidate from Illinois to challenge the state’s favorite son who had just defeated him in a Statewide election a short time before seemed foolhardy. Yes, he might have the adoration of the local Chicago Tribune, and was a Westerner as the West took on increasing importance in the election, but Illinois only had 22 delegates. Even if he was a threat it would be with his support of another candidate. He would gone by the second ballot, he would drop, leaving Congressman Edward Bates and Governor Salmon Chase, both of Ohio, nipping at his heels, splitting their state. They would be little trouble Seward would offered Lincoln the Vice Presidency for his support and would sail to victory.
As some had expected the first ballot nomination would seem to go off without a hitch. As the nominations began to be called it was New York for Seward, Pennsylvania for Cameron, Illinois for Lincoln, New Jersey would declare for its Senator, William Dayton, who had served as Fremont’s Vice Presidential pick 4 years prior. It wasn’t until Indiana that the convention started to reflect a slightly different mood than people expected, as the state that had become crucial after it swung Democrat in the last election, seconded Lincoln. The hall would erupt in applause, as former Congressman Henry S. Lane of Indiana, now a candidate for Governor, would jump on the table and start swinging his cane. As the crowd eventually subsided, Ohio would begin to split between its three candidates, taking itself out of contention.
The Seward camp would still look to a first ballot win, a power play to take the nomination before his opponents could mount a serious strike against him. Lincoln’s people, on the other hand, would have a different goal: hold on.
As the ballots would begin to come in, it would become apparent that Seward was not in the position of power, that position of strength that he had hoped he was in. Where he had hoped that the Eastern States would give him the momentum moving into the West, it appeared it was going to be a fight and a fight to the finish after all.
Maine would be the first to split with 10 to the New York Senator and 6 to Lincoln, while New Hampshire would offer 7 to Lincoln and three split between Seward, Chase and Fremont. It wasn’t until Vermont that normalcy would return as the state offered its delegates to its Senator, Jacob Collamer. Massachusetts would swing 20 delegates to Seward and 4 to Lincoln. Regardless the votes were splitting, and in some cases shifting. Whatever relief he had from Massachusetts it was gone as the votes from Virginia started to come in. Long considered a Seward stronghold it shifted as it gave 14 of its delegates to Lincoln and only 8 to the New York Senator that thought it would be an easy pick for him.
When the dust settled Seward had the lead with 173.5 delegates, but it wouldn’t be the knockout blow that he needed as Lincoln came up behind him with 102. Henry Lane’s bet that it was to be a race between Lincoln and Seward was right, and by delivering Indiana’s delegates to his neighboring state’s candidate he had secured Lincoln’s place in the race.
Now as they headed into the next round it was apparent that Cameron’s chances were collapsing and Pennsylvania would be key, and Lincoln’s representatives knew it. While Seward’s people had been busy wining and dining delegates, the Lincoln camp had been steadily building a Stop Seward movement. It wouldn’t be too hard. They had begun building the coalition before the convention had started, and to many delegates outside of New York Seward was considered too radical for their tastes. More than that though the Lincoln camp utilized its home state advantage and had already separated the New York Delegation on the floor from other states they might conspire and collaborate with, but now they needed to win the support of delegates. The details of the deal with Pennsylvania aren’t necessarily known. Cameron and his people wanted a Cabinet position for the Senator and control of all federal patronage in Pennsylvania should Lincoln win, but from Springfield Lincoln would telegraph his supporter David Davis, “I authorize no bargains and will be bound by none.” It was perhaps be because of the corruption many had accused Cameron of, corruption he and many had heard of even before the convention, corruption that would eventually lead to his resignation as Lincoln’s Secretary of War two years later. Whatever the case, 48 of Pennsylvania’s delegates would swing.
By the end of the second ballot Seward would pick up a mere 11 delegates, Lincoln 79. The gap of 71.5 delegates had suddenly narrowed to three.
On the third vote Lincoln would gain, the momentum clearly on the side of the Dark Horse from Illinois, while Seward’s support began to collapse. The Seward camp had no idea until it was too late, as William Evarts telegraphed Seward heading into the third ballot “All right. Everything indicates your nomination today sure.”
When the dust had settled though it was a different picture, and the dream of the New York Senator faded quickly. 231.5, three and a half votes shy of the nomination, would go to Lincoln. Slowly a delegate from Ohio, former Congressman David Kellogg Cartter, rose with a shaky voice, “I arise, Mr. Chairman, to announce the change of four votes, from Mr. Chase to Abraham Lincoln.” It would be all that would be needed. Abraham Lincoln would be the Republican nominee for President in 1860 as the voting of May 18th drew to an end.
Now, even as the cannons erupted and the smoke filled the air outside the hall, the jubilation now palpable in the air, it would be time to rebuild and bring the party back together for an election that would become a turning point in American history. It would not be an easy path or an easy road for any of them. Even as they exited the convention Seward’s supporters were now declaring the nomination stolen as they proclaimed, “Let those who nominated Lincoln elect him. We are against him.” It would be a tough road in front of the young party.