The Best Second Choice – Abraham Lincoln for President
Was Abraham Lincoln Republicans’ shoe-in for their party’s nomination in 1860. Not exactly. But he certainly made a great second choice. A favorite among Republican party hopefuls was New Yorker William H. Seward. A former Whig and dominant figure in the Republican party from its outset, Seward seemed like the obvious choice. But his abolitionist leanings cast him as a dangerous character were he to head the ticket in a general election. Even many who admired the career politician thought him too radical. and perceived radicalism would count Salmon P. Chase out as well. Like Seward, Chase was also a former Whig and prominent Republican, and like Seward, he was closely aligned with abolitionist sentiment (he also had issues with the Republicans’ protective tariff plank). Edward Bates had the opposite problem – many thought this conservative former Whig was far too conservative to lead the Republican Party to victory in the fall.
Enter Abraham Lincoln. Not too radical…not too conservative. And he had great management. Lincoln had won national acclaim after a series of lectures in 1859 and 1860 – most notably the Cooper Union address. He was no longer the little known lawyer from Illinois, but a national figure….and it seems, a great second choice. He opposed the extension of slavery, but vowed not to touch it where it existed. Lincoln personally despised slavery, but was not an abolitionist. When it came time for the Republican nominating convention in May 1860, those who handled his campaign promoted him thus: if your candidate does not get the nod…cast your vote for Lincoln. And that is exactly what happened.
Lincoln himself did not seem particularly bothered by the second choice strategy. In March 1860, Lincoln wrote from Chicago, “If I have any chance, it consists mainly in the face that the whole opposition would vote for me if nominated (I don’t mean to include the pro-slavery opposition of the South, of course). My name is new in the field, and I suppose I am not the first choice of a very great many. Our policy, then, is to give no offense to others – leave them in a mood to come to us, if they shall be compelled to give up their first love.”