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7 1 The Political Organizer Abraham Lincoln’s 1860 Campaign Michael S. Green “Seward will be first on the ballot, Chase next—then Bates or Cameron. . . . My policy has been to keep down my name everywhere as a candidate for the first office. . . . Seward’s friends generally prefer me after himself,” and “I think without doubt Chase’s friends will go for me after himself.” This was the optimistic analysis of the 1860 Republican convention that one of the presidential candidates, Cassius Marcellus Clay, a Kentucky abolitionist , shared with Caleb B. Smith, a longtime Indiana Whig who had become a far more conservative Republican than Clay would ever be. Clay was hopeful, as most candidates tend to be, and more so than he had reason to be. Given their desire to carry border slave states and appeal to moderates and conservatives, Republicans would gain little support by nominating a candidate who was radically antislavery. But Clay’s strategy for winning the Republican presidential nomination made sense. Indeed, it worked perfectly—for Abraham Lincoln.1 Like almost every aspect of his life, how Lincoln won the nomination and then the presidency has been the subject of analysis, myth, and debate. One of the problems with understanding his role in the 1860 election lies in the history of his story. Because he was, as his law partner William Herndon observed ,“themostsecretive—reticent—shut-mouthedmanthateverexisted,” much about him remains shrouded in mystery: his existing correspondence is limited, and he controlled how much he revealed to those around him. That has freed us to see Lincoln as we wish: as the self-made man, the Great Emancipator, the working man, “Honest Abe,” and even as the humorous yet melancholy man who becomes a martyr to a higher cause.2 Fuller text.indb 7 1/15/13 2:55 PM 8 · The Election of 1860 Reconsidered At times, those images diverge from the many examples of Lincoln as the crafty backwoods-turned-urban but never entirely urbane lawyer. Yet many of us prefer not to replace one word that too many associate with evil—lawyer—with another similarly and wrongly abused word involving trickery: politician. If the law became Lincoln’s occupation, politics always remained his preoccupation, from organizing Whigs for campaigns every other year to nearly fighting a duel with a Democratic opponent over an exchange in the press. That preoccupation with politics was evident when he sought the presidency. In 1860, many deserved credit for the political organization and plotting that made Lincoln the nominee and likely victor, but none deserved more credit than Lincoln.3 Fig. 2. Hon. Abraham Lincoln : Republican candidate for sixteenth president of the United States. (Library of Congress ) Fuller text.indb 8 1/15/13 2:55 PM The Political Organizer · 9 The views of two Lincoln biographers, divergent in their approaches and times but deeply connected, are important to understanding why he deserved the credit—and, perhaps, why he has received less of it than he should. One is by William Herndon, who referred to Lincoln’s ambition as “a little engine that knew no rest.” The other is by David Herbert Donald, who published biographies of Herndon and Lincoln nearly half a century apart.4 Both of these authors focused on a crucial aspect of Lincoln’s life and personality: his friendships, how he dealt with others. “Those who knew him best came to realize that behind the mask of affability, behind the façade of his endless humorous anecdotes, Lincoln maintained an inviolable reserve,” Donald wrote. Yet he also echoed Herndon’s point, which suffered from what Donald called “only a little exaggeration,” that “no man ever had an easier time of it in his early days—in . . . his young struggles than Lincoln had. He always had influential and financial friends to help him; they almost fought each other for the privilege of assisting Lincoln.” And so it remained for much of Lincoln’s life, at least in Illinois, until he won a job that placed him above all of those old friends. Many seemed to consider themselves his close friends when they were not. At times they seemed divided mainly over which of them loved Lincoln more or could accomplish more for him. How he dealt with these friends, close friends, and acquaintances—the temptation is to say that he handled them, and that word may be more appropriate—proved crucial to his political future.5 Donald and Herndon described the same man in...


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