NEW SUMMER BOOK: Abraham Lincoln’s Convention: Chicago 1860

Scene in the Chicago convention hall at it prepared to nominate Abe Lincoln for president, from Harper’s Weekly, May 1860.

Every president is shaped by his nominating convention. Lincoln’s in 1860 not only was one of the most important, but also the most exciting in America up to that point. In a three day, three-ballot carnival of music, fireworks, and politics drawing some 40,000 people, Lincoln and his friends outwitted the leading celebrities of their party, capturing the prize with nerve, ambition, and brass tacks. They played the kind of hardball politics that usually made reformers cringe. Still, it gave us one of the best presidents in American History.

Joe Howard Jr. of the New-York Times, who wrote the article below, was one of the most flomboyant newsmen of the era.  His dogged Civil War reporting sometimes crossed ethical lines even by Nineteenth Century standards.  Still, it was first rate, earning him a national following and a rare by-line.

From Abraham Lincoln’s Convention: Chicago 1860:

1. Headline: They nominated who?

The New-York Times, Saturday, May 19, 1860.
By Joe Howard, Jr.


Abram Lincoln, of Illinois, Nominated
For President.
The Late Senatorial Contest in Illinois to be Re-
Fought on a Wider Field.
Disappointment of the Friends of
Mr. Seward

Special Dispatch to the New-York Times
Chicago, Friday, May 18

The work of the Convention is ended. The youngster who, with raged trousers, used barefoot to drive his father’s oxen and spend his days in splitting rails, has risen to high eminence, and ABRAM LINCOLN, of Illinois, is declared its candidate for President by the National Republican Party.

The result was effected by the change of votes in the Pennsylvania, New-Jersey, Vermont, and Massachusetts delegations.

Mr. SEWARD’s friends assert indignantly, and with a great deal of feeling, that they were grossly deceived and betrayed. The recusanis endeavored to mollify New-York by offering her the Vice-Presidency, and agreeing to support any man she might name, but they declined the position, though they remain firm in the ranks, having moved to make Lincoln’s nomination unanimous. Mr. Seward’s friends feel greatly chagrined and disappointed. [Recunasi is an old word referring to English Roman Catholics in the 1600s who refused allegiance to the Church of England, a crime back then.]
Abraham Lincoln in 1860.

Western pride is gratified by the nomination, which plainly indicated the departure of political supremacy from the Atlantic States. …

Immense enthusiasm exists, and everything here would seem to indicate a spirited and successful canvass. The city is alive with processions, meetings, music, and noisy demonstrations. One hundred guns were fired this evening.

The Convention was the most enthusiastic ever known in the country, and if one were to judge from appearances here, the ticket will sweep the country

Great inquiry has been made this afternoon into the history of Mr. Lincoln. The only evidence that he has a history as yet discovered, is that he had a stump canvass with Mr. Douglas, in which he was beaten. [U.S. Senator Stephen A. Douglas from Illinois was the likely Democratic nominee and Lincoln’s likely chief opponent for President. Lincoln actually had won the popular vote in his 1858 Senate contest against Douglas, but the Democratic Illinois legislature nevertheless awarded the seat to Douglas.] He is not very strong at the west, but is unassailable in his private character.

Many of the delegates went home this evening by the 9 o’clock train. Others leave in the morning…..

Massachusetts delegates, with their brass band, are parading the streets, calling at the various headquarters of the other delegations, serenading and bidding them farewell. “Hurrah for Lincoln and Hamlin – Illinois and Maine!!” is the universal shout, and the sympathy for the bottom dog is the all-pervading sentiment.

The “Wide-Awakes,” numbering about two thousand men, accompanied by thousands of citizens, have a grand torch-light procession. The German Republican Club has another. The office of the Press and Tribune [today’s Chicago Tribune] is brilliantly illuminated, and has a large transparency over the door saying “For President, Honest Old Abe.” A bonfire thirty feet in circumference burns in front of the Tremont House, where thirty-three guns were fired from the top, and illumines the city for miles around. The city is one blaze of illumination. Hotels, stores and private residences, shining with hundreds of patriotic dips. Enough.


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In Abraham Lincoln’s Convention: Chicago 1860, we tell the story of Lincoln’s convention primarily through the eyes of newspaper writers, giving it the immediacy of the moment, with annotations, background, and updated formatting.