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Historically Speaking

Historically Speaking: A Contested GOP National Convention

By Tom Morrow

While the current discussion of having a “contested” GOP National Convention this year swirls in the news, it is of some interest to note it won’t be the first time. The first time it happened was in 1860, which barely led to the election of Abraham Lincoln as President.

The 1860 GOP Convention nominated former U.S. Rep. Abraham Lincoln of Illinois and Senator Hannibal Hamlin of Maine for Vice President, but it took three ballots.
Lincoln’s nomination was a surprise, as the favorite before the convention had been U.S. Sen. William H. Seward, Lincoln’s campaign manager.

Lincoln and Hamlin went on to defeat three other major tickets including Democratic nominee Stephen A. Douglas, U.S. Senator, also from Illinois.

While the 1856 GOP effort on behalf of U.S. Army Col. John C. Frémont met with failure, GOP Party gains were made throughout the Northern United States as the sectional crisis over slavery intensified. Lincoln’s election triggered the secession of most of the southern states, resulting in the Civil War.

The Convention was the object of the interest and attention of a multitude of curious citizens who crowded the “Wigwam” Convention Center to the rafters. Delegations seated by state and were virtually devoid of Southern participation, with no delegations attending from the slave states of North Carolina, South Carolina, Tennessee, Arkansas, Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana, and Florida.

The 1860 Republican platform consisted of 17 declarations of principle, of which 10 dealt directly with the issues of free soil (anti-slavery) principles, slavery, the Fugitive Slave Act, and the preservation of the Union, while the remaining seven dealt with other issues.

Other candidates seeking the nomination at the convention included Lincoln, Ohio Governor Salmon P. Chase, former U.S. Representative Edward Bates of Missouri, and U.S. Senator Simon Cameron of Pennsylvania.

As the convention developed, however, it was revealed that Seward, Chase, and Bates had each alienated factions of the Republican Party. Delegates were concerned that Seward was too closely identified with the radical wing of the party, and his moves toward the center had alienated the radicals. (Does that sound familiar?)

Chase, a former Democrat, was opposed by many of the former Whigs who had become Republicans, was thought to be too radical on slavery, had opposed tariffs wanted by Pennsylvania manufacturing interests, and critically, had opposition in his own delegation from Ohio. Bates outlined his positions on extension of slavery into the territories and equal constitutional rights for all citizens, positions that alienated his supporters in the border states and southern conservatives. German-Americans in the party opposed Bates because of his past association with the Know-Nothings party.

It was essential to carry the West (today would be the Middle West), and Lincoln was a prominent “Westerner.” He had a national reputation from his debates and speeches in which he eloquently opposed slavery while avoiding any of the radical positions that could alienate moderate voters. He had the support of the Illinois and Indiana delegations before the convention, and was the strongest candidate other than Seward. Nonetheless, Seward’s prestige appeared likely to carry him to the nomination.

On May 18, when voting for the nomination began, Seward led on the first ballot with Lincoln a distant second. But on the second ballot, the Pennsylvania delegation switched to Lincoln, putting him in a near-tie with Seward. On the third ballot many additional delegates switched to Lincoln, and he won the GOP nomination.

In the 1860 General Election, Lincoln won with 39.8 percent of the popular vote; Stephen Douglas, 29.46 percent; John C. Breckinridge, 18.10 percent, and John Bell, 12.61 percent.
It’s easy to visualize how the 2016 General Election might end as it did 1860


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