A look back at the Democratic and Republican National Conventions in 1860 - Colorado Politics

A look back at the Democratic and Republican National Conventions in 1860

Author: Patrick Teegarden - April 14, 2012 - Updated: April 14, 2012


Well folks, ‘tis the season for Presidential-year Political Conventions!

Ah yes — more political games and trickery! Smoke filled rooms, counterfeit admission tickets, well-heeled East Coast financiers trying to strong arm western voters, organized and paid shouters and cheerleaders, rumor-mongering, threats of party defections, promises of cabinet posts and other patronage in exchange for support, the raising of absurd sums of money for political action, etc, etc.

Specifically, I’m referring to the 1860 Republican and Democratic national conventions. And perhaps surprisingly for some readers, perhaps the most ambitious, crafty, and hard-nosed politician vying for the Republican nomination that year was none other than Illinois trial lawyer and Republican-party-organizer/operative Abraham Lincoln.

Of course, it’s impossible to reflect on the political upheaval of the 1860 Presidential elections without also contemplating the struggle for America’s future soul as either a free or enslaved society, and mourning the horrendous loss of life and other human suffering which lay in our nation’s immediate future.

But always at our national core, whether our civic and public policy challenges are profound or trite, America’s electoral politics, and intra-party as well as inter-party squabbling and machinations among and between Republicans and Democrats are part of America’s fabric and psyche, and that was as true in 1860 as it is today.

Since the convention season is upon us in Colorado, this week I’m momentarily suspending contemplation of what was at stake in the 1860 election, and instead reveling in the humor, angst, and gamesmanship of raw political maneuvering by notable figures from our history, including our greatest President himself and his future Secretary of State and confidante, William H. Seward.

We often forget that Lincoln was, first and foremost, a politician — perhaps the most skilled and effective “Pol” this nation has ever known. In the decade of the 1850s, as a longtime “Henry Clay” Whig, Lincoln was at first reluctant to abandon his loyalty to that withering and increasingly irrelevant party. But upon deciding to cast his lot with the nascent Republican Party in 1856, he immediately and enthusiastically applied his unmatched skills to electing Republicans throughout the country, with an eye toward establishing relationships and IOUs, which would help with his own personal ambitions as well.

I cannot begin to do justice in this column to the multitude of entertaining antics which comprised the 1860 conventions, but hopefully I can identify enough of them to encourage further research and reading by like-minded political junkies.

Lincoln’s campaign manager was his longtime friend and colleague, Judge David Davis, who would eventually parlay his loyalty and friendship into a seat on the U.S. Supreme Court. Together with other political and economic development/tourism leaders in Illinois, their first step was to engineer the choice of Chicago as the site of the 1860 Republican Convention.

The Team Lincoln strategy going into the convention in May 1860 was to make sure that Abe was “everyone’s second choice.” In fact, Seward had long been considered the heir apparent for the nomination, having risen to national stature as a longtime anti slavery candidate who has served as Governor of New York and as a U.S. Senator.

But Seward’s campaign manager, New York newspaper mogul and machine politician Thurlow Weed, would turn out to be major weakness for him as Republicans from across the country looked first for moderation, honesty, and electability. With reference to Weed’s reputation for underhanded dealings bordering on outright corruption, one delegate made the comment of Seward’s candidacy, “We owe Mr. Seward everything; he founded the party, and built it up to greatness; our debt to him is incalculable, but we wont pay it in hard cash to Thurlow Weed.”

Enter Davis and Lincoln’s sizeable local contingent of friends with a design to “spin” their man as “Honest Abe, the Railsplitter,” (“He knows how to split rails and maul Democrats”), complete with local and imported out of state cheering sections into the “Wigwam,” a cavernous wooden echo chamber built expressly for the Convention.

It had been Seward’s to lose, and that’s precisely what he did. In addition to Weed’s shady reputation, Seward’s national electability was questioned because of his relatively extreme anti-slavery views, fiscal spendthrift tendencies, previous outreach to Catholics and other “not from around here” immigrants, which upset the Know-Nothing Nativists of the former American Party. So the Republican Party rejected Seward, not necessarily because any of those traits or views were frowned upon, but rather because, true to partisan political calculations, others were concerned they made Seward un-electable in the general election.

The other hopeful candidates whose hopes were dashed in Chicago by the “Railsplitter” included Salmon P. Chase, Edward Bates, and Simon Cameron, all of whom became members of Lincoln’s Cabinet. Chase was never able to get over his bitterness at having lost due to the defection of many within his home state delegation from Ohio, would remain a thorn in Lincoln’s side for the next several years, but pick up Team of Rivals to see how masterfully (and humbly) Lincoln controlled that situation for the good of the nation.

Of course, we should never lose sight of Lincoln’s greatest political gift — his innate humanity, brilliance, and vision. His natural and cultivated attributes included uncanny political intuition, deep and heartfelt empathy for others, an engaging and magnetic personality that allowed him to make countless lifelong and loyal friends and very few enemies, and of course a profound and unequalled intellect and ability to write, speak, and otherwise communicate effectively.

As pointed out by Doris Kearns Goodwin in her well known 2005 work, Team of Rivals, contrasting Lincoln with Seward, Chase, Bates and Cameron, “(Lincoln) did not allow his quest for office to consume the kindness and openheartedness with which he treated supporters and rivals alike, nor alter his steady commitment to the antislavery cause.”

The Democrats, on the other hand? Well, that must be the year that gave rise to Will Rogers’ classic comment that he was never a member of any organized political party — instead he was a Democrat.

In April they convened in Charleston, South Carolina (a mere eight months before SC seceded from the Union), as a show of good faith to the South that they were the party of both sections and committed to compromise, included the extension of slavery and support for the Dred Scott decision and other thoughtful and visionary public policy initiatives under the guise of “popular sovereignty.” But the only thing that geographically and intellectually fractured crew seemed able to agree on was that the “Black Republicans,” as they were mockingly called in recognition of their anti-slavery platform, would be disastrous for the slave-based wealth of America’s status quo.

Unfortunately for the presumed nominee, Stephen Douglas, Southern Fire Eaters had no intention of allowing his nomination to move forward. Instead, they had concocted their own alternative strategy, which effectively translated into “burnin’ down the house!”

From April 23 through May 3, the convention remained deadlocked, and northern Democrats reported a palpable feeling of contempt and hatred toward them in Charleston. Forced to adjourn, the Dems agreed to reconvene in June in Baltimore, MD. Eventually, Douglas was chosen as the Democratic Presidential nominee. But this was at best a Pyrrhic victory. Then U.S. Vice President (and soon to be Confederate General) John C. Breckinridge accepted the “Southern” Democratic nomination, and elder statesmen John Bell of Tennessee and Edward Everett of Massachusetts were chosen by their aging and fading peers to head up the Constitutional Union Party ticket, which was essentially thrown together on the song and a prayer of preserving the status quo, compromised Union in its entirety (in the 20th century, this strategy would become known as “rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic.”)

Enjoy the Colorado State Conventions this week, and the National Conventions later this summer. What a fascinating and never boring process we’ve concocted.

Patrick Teegarden, an award-winning columnist for The Colorado Statesman, has been writing about the Civil War for our readers. The history buff also shares a love for politics, and this week’s article combines the two. Teegarden, a legislative liaison for a state government department, received the second place award for his column writing in the Colorado Press Association’s Better Newspaper Contest in 2011.

Patrick Teegarden

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