You Are There: Season 3, Episode 10

The Nomination of Abraham Lincoln (31 Oct. 1954)

TV Episode  -   -  Drama | History
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31 October 1954 (USA)  »

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The Second Republican Presidential Convention of 1860
19 October 2007 | by (United States) – See all my reviews

Again I don't know what the episode was like as I never saw it, but I can tell you something of the background.

The election of 1860 was one of the most critical in the history of the U.S. After eight years of worsening relations between the North and South over slavery, state's rights, the western territories, and tariffs, the Southern states were threatening secession - they were aware that they had lost control of Congress since California entered the Union alone as a free state, and that the two pro-South Democratic administrations of Pierce and Buchanan were unpopular failures. The last blow was the 1859 attempt by abolitionist John Brown to seize the Federal Arsenal at Harper's Ferry, and arm the slaves of the South for a general uprising. Southern "fire eaters" discounted the fact that Federal forces under Col. Robert E. Lee defeated Brown and his men, and that Brown was tried for treason, found guilty and hanged. They just saw Brown as "typical" of the attitude of the North.

But it was not certain that the Republicans, the party that was more anti-slave of the two major parties, would win. The actual front runner before the 1860 convention was Senator William Seward of New York, who was an outspoken critic of slavery. His closest rival was Senator (and former Governor) Salmon Chase of Ohio, who was also an outspoken critic of slavery. But there were other candidates, such as Edward Bates of Missouri, who was a well regarded lawyer and a milder type of reformer. Finally there was Abraham Lincoln of Illinois - who Southern Democrats were not too thrilled with either.

Lincoln's political career was mostly in Illinois, where he was in the state legislature. In 1846 he got elected to his only term in Congress

  • a two year term in the House of Representatives, where he


distinguished himself by offering a resolution to impeach President James Knox Polk for lying regarding the beginnings of the Mexican War. Since then Lincoln had risen to being a prominent railroad attorney in Illinois (he was chief counsel for the Illinois Central Railroad, and was at loggerheads with it's President, George B. McClellan). Lincoln had been a leading speaker at the 1856 Republican Presidential Convention (it's first) which nominated Senator John C. Fremont of California. Lincoln had been suggested for the Vice Presidential nomination, but it went to William Dayton of New Jersey. Two years later Lincoln was the Republican nominee for the U.S. Senate against incumbent Stephen Douglas. Their debates became a nationally followed event as they clearly articulated Lincoln's anti-slavery point of view ("A house divided against itself cannot stand") as well as Douglas' Squatter Sovereignty view about the right of settlers in the new western territories to choose their governments. Douglas beat Lincoln, but the exposure of that series of debates made Lincoln a national figure of importance.

The Republicans fought out the selection of their 1860 candidate over several ballots - Seward was leading for a few, but gradually Lincoln's manager David Davis made a series of deals that got Abe the nomination. The deals included promising cabinet seats to several questionable types (most notably the corrupt Simon Cameron of Pennsylvania - he ended up being Lincoln's Secretary of War for nearly eight months in 1861; and the really obscure Caleb Smith of Indiana, who was Lincoln's Secretary of the Interior until 1864). Eventually Bates would be Lincoln's Attorney General, Chase his Secretary of the Treasury, and Seward his Secretary of State. But all these selections were based on his being elected President.

That election was in question from the start - but fortunately the Democrats self-destructed. Senator Douglas got nominated at Baltimore by the bulk of the party, but the southern states bolted, met at Charleston, and nominated Vice President John C. Breckenridge. Douglas realized this would doom the Democrats to defeat - he urged both Breckenridge and himself should resign, a new convention be held, and a new single candidate be chosen. The southerners refused to listen, and the result of the four party race (a party called the Constitution Party ran John Bell of Tennessee and Edward Everett of Massachusetts on a platform of ignoring the slavery issue entirely) was that the Democrats of the South had more electoral votes than those that went to Douglas (who had more popular votes than Breckenridge), but that allowed Lincoln to win a weak plurality vote and the election.

So it was not a sure thing at all. Douglas did not stop trying to prevent the threat of secession by the South, and heroically (at tremendous risk to himself) traveled in that region warning them to reconsider their threat. It did not stop them. By inauguration day, March 4, 1861, Douglas was seated next to his friend and rival Lincoln at the inauguration, holding his stovepipe hat - and assuring him that the bulk of the Northern Democrats would support Lincoln's election and his decision to save the Union.


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