The Day Lincoln Took the Reins of the Republican Party

Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.

“The party of Lincoln” wasn’t always so. In 1856, at the first-ever Republican National Convention, party leaders passed up Abraham Lincoln for vice president. But second time’s a charm, right? On May 18, 1860, the 51-year-old congressman from Illinois, having raised his national stature during the Lincoln-Douglas debates two years earlier, secured his party’s nomination for president. The Chicago Tribune’s Kenan Heise described the scene at the convention for the book Chicago Days: 150 Defining Moments in the Life of a Great City:

The eloquent, self-assured [William] Seward, a U.S. senator from New York, was widely thought to have the nomination wrapped up; many deals had been cut, one of which put Chicago Mayor “Long John” Wentworth in the Seward camp. … Fortunately for [Lincoln], Chicago, which was hosting its first national political convention, was the heart of Lincoln country.

To make sure a friendly crowd was on hand to out-shout the competition, batches of admission tickets were printed at the last moment and handed out to Lincoln supporters, who were told to show up early at the Wigwam, a rickety hall that held 10,000 people. And, for good measure, Illinois delegation chairman Norman Judd and Joseph Medill of the Chicago Daily Press and Tribune placed the New York delegates off to one side, far from key swing states such as Pennsylvania.

Drawing of the Wigwam, a building specially constructed for the convention (Wikimedia)

No candidate had a majority after two ballots. During the third ballot, with Lincoln tantalizingly close to winning the nomination, Medill sat close to the chairman of the Ohio delegation, which had backed its favorite son, Salmon P. Chase. Swing your votes to Lincoln, Medill whispered, and your boy can have anything he wants. The Ohio chairman shot out of his chair and changed the state’s votes.

After a moment of stunned silence, the flimsy Wigwam began to shake with the stomping of feet and the shouting of the Lincoln backers who packed the hall and blocked the streets outside. A cannon on the roof fired off a round, and boats on the Chicago River tooted in reply. … The Republicans had a candidate.

The Atlantic, founded as an abolitionist magazine just three years earlier, threw its weight behind Lincoln but expressed some initial disappointment over Seward’s loss (the New York senator was a more forceful opponent of slavery than the moderate Lincoln). Here’s our founding editor, James Russell Lowell, on “The Election in November”:

We are of those who at first regretted that another candidate was not nominated at Chicago; but we confess that we have ceased to regret it, for the magnanimity of Mr. Seward since the result of the Convention was known has been a greater ornament to him and a greater honor to his party than his election to the Presidency would have been. … [Seward], more than any other man, combined in himself the moralist’s oppugnancy to Slavery as a fact, the thinker’s resentment of it as a theory, and the statist’s distrust of it as a policy,—thus summing up the three efficient causes that have chiefly aroused and concentrated the antagonism of the Free States.

After sizing up the national schisms over slavery, Lowell turns to Lincoln:

The first portrait of Lincoln as nominee (May 20, 1860)

We are persuaded that the election of Mr. Lincoln will do more than anything else to appease the excitement of the country. He has proved both his ability and his integrity; he has had experience enough in public affairs to make him a statesman, and not enough to make him a politician. That he has not had more will be no objection to him in the eyes of those who have seen the administration of the experienced public functionary whose term of office is just drawing to a close. He represents a party who know that true policy is gradual in its advances, that it is conditional and not absolute, that it must deal with fact and not with sentiments, but who know also that it is wiser to stamp out evil in the spark than to wait till there is no help but in fighting fire with fire.

Read the whole editorial here.

The 1860 general election brought one of the highest voter turnout rates in presidential history. And, of course, “Honest Abe” walked away the winner and went on to issue the Emancipation Proclamation and then orchestrate the passage of the 13th Amendment, abolishing slavery for good. As Lowell wrote with great prescience, “We believe that this election is a turning-point in our history; for, although there are four candidates, there are really, as everybody knows, but two parties, and a single question that divides them.”