SAN JOSE, Calif., Feb. 12, 2016 – Today is the day the nation used to honor Abraham Lincoln’s birth on Feb. 12, 1809. This acknowledgement of Lincoln’s birthday existed throughout America, but its value was sincerely diminished in the South.
Many Americans may consider his birth in a shabby log cabin in the backwoods of Kentucky as quaint, but they ignore that Lincoln was essentially born into poverty. Such humble roots and Lincoln’s life experiences hardly shaped him to appear as “presidential material.”
The reality concerning Abraham Lincoln is that he did not just appear on the scene one day robed in greatness, as described by Carl Sandburg who likened him to a character out of a Russian fairy tale. Although fabled memories of Lincoln’s birth and early life are somewhat important today, they were of little importance to Lincoln. Understandably, Lincoln was not proud of his roots or most of his early life experience, and he was certainly not proud of his impoverished education.
As he rose in prominence in the new Republican Party, his roots were more an embarrassment than an asset. It became a more serious issue as his name was submitted to receive the Republican nomination for president of the United States in 1860.
Lincoln was not the primary candidate of choice of the Republican Party that year. While many Americans view Lincoln as the great president he ultimately became, they often neglect the meager past he had to overcome to become the top candidate of the Republican Party in the 1860 presidential election. When responding to inquiries regarding the possibility of Lincoln’s running for president, the eventual candidate replied that he “was not fit to be president.” Yet four years earlier, as the Republican Party was forming in Illinois, Lincoln stood out as a leader.
The Republican Party was formed in 1854 by a coalition of abolitionist activists, former Free Soil supporters and ex-northern Whig Party adherents. It was organized in Illinois at a convention held in Bloomington in 1856 where Abraham Lincoln apparently gave one of the greatest speeches of his life. Lincoln spoke without any manuscript, and it is recorded that the news reporters present were “so absorbed and so entranced” that they did not take substantial notes. That speech is known as Lincoln’s “Lost Speech” because of the lack of written record, yet it established Lincoln as the Republican leader in Illinois. In 1858, the party nominated Mr. Lincoln to run for the Senate seat for Illinois against Democrat Stephen Douglas. Lincoln lost.
During the winter of 1858-59, discussion arose regarding the possibility of Abraham Lincoln as a presidential candidate. But, even as late as the spring of 1859, Lincoln dismissed such ideas. In October, however, Lincoln went out on a speaking tour of Ohio and spoke in December in Kansas. That October, he had received an invitation to also speak in New York, and he agreed to go. By that time, many were already organizing for Lincoln to be nominated to run for president at the Republican National Convention to be held in Chicago in May 1860. On Feb. 27, 1860, Mr. Lincoln delivered his famous speech at New York’s Cooper Union Institute. Many historians agree that speech secured the nomination.
Harold Holzer in his book, “Lincoln at Cooper Union,” says, “it is entirely possible that had he not triumphed before the sophisticated and demanding audience he faced at New York’s Cooper Union… Lincoln would never have been nominated, much less elected to the presidency that November.” Indeed, Lincoln had to present a very powerful speech to the New York audience to impress them, and he did not disappoint. He understood that he was treading into the territory of William H. Seward, who was the more obvious choice for the Republican nomination. Seward had helped in creating the Republican Party. He was a former governor and the U.S. senator from New York at the time.
William Henry Seward was an extremely strong opponent of slavery. Southerners hated him, but New Yorkers re-elected him to the Senate in 1855, and he joined the young Republican Party soon after its formation. Five years later, Seward was undeniably the leading candidate for the Republican nomination, and posed a great challenge to the “railsplitter” from the West. Beyond Seward, there was only one other truly prominent Republican who sought his party’s nomination in 1860. Salmon Chase had been serving as governor of Ohio since 1855.
Chase was one of the most prominent Republicans in 1860, elected to the U.S. Senate in 1849 as a Free Soil candidate. He had served in the Senate for a full six-year term before being elected the first Republican governor of Ohio in 1855. Chase supported women’s rights, public education and prison reform, and he spoke out more against slavery than any other Republican contender. He had also helped to establish the Republican Party. The course Chase pursued was essentially the reverse of Seward’s, and both men had much longer resumes than the lightweight from Illinois.
There were five candidates for the Republican nomination in 1860: Seward, Gov. Chase, former U.S. Representative Lincoln, U. S. Sen. Simon Cameron of Pennsylvania and Edward Bates, a frontier lawyer and businessman who had the support of Horace Greeley, the editor of the New York Tribune. The field of candidates was formidable for someone like Lincoln, who had less experience and seemingly less support than the others. Yet, when the Republican National Convention met in mid-May of 1860, it was held in a two-story convention center in Chicago – in Lincoln’s territory.
The two primary contenders were Seward, who had the largest following, and Abraham Lincoln, who had the strongest reputation of any of the Republicans in the West. On the first ballot, Seward had 173 ½ votes; Lincoln, 102. Chase, with 49 votes, found he had little support outside of Ohio. The other contenders trailed the leaders. While Lincoln did not attend the convention, he had instructed his campaign managers: “I authorize no bargains and will be bound by none.” They freely made deals with the leaders of several other state delegations and promised cabinet posts to the other agreeable managers. Finally, on May 18, 1860, Lincoln managed to secure the party’s nomination on the third ballot.
As Abraham Lincoln entered the national presidential race, he faced a fragmented field of opposition that proved advantageous to him. The 1860 presidential campaign essentially contorted into two races – one in the north that was between Lincoln and Douglas, and one in the South that developed between then current Vice President John C. Breckenridge of Kentucky and former Whig Sen. John Bell of Tennessee. Bell represented a newly formed third party called the Constitutional Union Party, primarily made up of the Southern Whig Party and the remnants of the Know Nothing Party.
The Democrats had split between Douglas and President James Buchanan of Pennsylvania; it represented a northern-southern split, and Lincoln felt so confident that he would have victory that he stayed in Springfield during most of the campaign. He explained that, prior to 1860, “people saw candidates in the flesh less often than they saw a perfect rainbow,” and followed the long-standing “tradition” of former presidential candidates and offered no new speeches.
And, despite the fact that South Carolina warned that their state would secede from the Union if Lincoln were elected, their worst nightmare came true when Lincoln was elected the 16th president of the United States with 180 electoral votes vs. 123 combined votes for his three opponents.
When Lincoln decided to run for president, he was requested to provide a brief account of his early years. He wrote a “little sketch” as it was described, and sent it to Jesse W. Fell on Dec. 20, 1859. Lincoln wrote a brief introduction to the sketch and stated, “There is not much of it, for the reason, I suppose, that there is not much of me…” This autobiographical sketch was combined with other facts related to Lincoln’s legislative and political career and forwarded by Fell to Joseph H. Lewis. Lewis used the material to prepare a more extensive narrative, which was provided to many newspapers of the day and which essentially helped supportive delegates prepare for Lincoln’s nomination in Chicago.
Lincoln’s “little sketch” was one of the most extensive accounts he committed to paper regarding the events of his own life. The first paragraph dealt primarily with his Lincoln family heritage. Other than such brief references, Lincoln did not like to talk much about his early experiences due to the dismal circumstances.
The remarkable part of his story is that the boy eventually grew to manhood, and along the way he made up for limitations and deficiencies as best as he could. In the end, struggling with poverty, loss and adversity only helped prepare Lincoln to become a decent and humble man and a great president.