As Americans watch the presidential politics of the modern era play out, it is interesting to note the resurrection of a successful strategy this year that was in play in 1860, the year the newly formed Republican Party eventually nominated Abraham Lincoln as its candidate.
As the convention in Chicago neared, presumptive nominee New York Gov. William Seward prepared to receive his party’s vote of confidence and, with great fanfare, sent his political manager Thurlow Weed his state’s delegates westward on a great train ride. There they were prepared to vote for Seward in the newly constructed convention hall called the “Wigwam.”
As was the custom of the day, it was considered in poor taste for the candidates themselves to attend the convention. Seward then waited for his anointment.
But Abraham Lincoln had other plans. He had arranged for the entire Illinois delegation to vote for him in a block on the first ballot. Though New York was expected to go for Seward and since New York made up a third of the needed 233 delegates for Seward to win, Lincoln concluded that if he could prevent a Seward win on the first ballot that he stood a chance on the second.
Lincoln had his men cut a number of deals with delegates who agreed to vote for Lincoln on the second ballot if Seward didn’t win the nomination on the first. Lincoln’s plan was to show increasing strength in the hope he could win on the third or later ballots.
Lincoln’s men pulled out all the stops. They seated Seward’s New York delegates far from other delegations with whom they might collaborate. They had hundreds of counterfeit tickets printed and distributed them to Lincoln supporters instructing them to show up early, thereby scattering Seward’s supporters.
Lincoln’s men spent the early part of the convention lining up “anti-Seward” delegates who were glad to learn that someone was going to represent their views at the convention and happily committed to Lincoln on the second ballot.
On the third day of the convention, Seward’s men headed for the hall, confident that the event was a virtual coronation of their governor as the party nominee. They marched behind a big brass band, filled with pride and anticipation. But when they arrived at the convention they were surprised to find that they could not get in. All of Lincoln’s men, with counterfeit tickets, had filled their seats.
When the first vote was taken, Seward got a huge ovation from the crowd. But by strategically placing his people around the Wigwam and making certain that louder voices were present, Lincoln’s ovation was equal to Seward’s, if not more boisterous. It was clear to the people at the convention that these two men were the frontrunners.
Once it was clear that Seward did not have enough votes on the first ballot to win, a second was called for. As previously arranged a number of state delegations switched their votes to Lincoln. Seward’s people fell silent in awe. They did not anticipate this and could hardly believe that only three votes separated their man from Lincoln on the second ballot.
A third ballot was called and when it was counted, Lincoln was short of the nomination by less than two votes. They say a hush fell over the Wigwam as the chairman of the Ohio delegation rose to his feet and stuttered the announcement; there was a change of four votes from Ohio favorite son Salmon P. Chase to Abraham Lincoln. A moment more of silence in the hall was then broken by the eruption of loud cheering and pandemonium inside. It is said that the noise was so deafening that the only way those in attendance knew canons were being fired was from the balls of smoke coming from their barrels.
This year, in one of those odd Lincoln coincidences that make for great urban legends, there is a story playing out which is worth our notice.
Across the nation as the Republicans have struggled to find just the right man to run for president under the party banner, an outsider of sorts, Ron Paul, has been going around the state conventions and caucuses gathering up delegates. In addition to the delegates he has won, he has also persuaded a number of other delegates, mostly “anti-Romney” delegates to switch over to Paul, if not on the first ballot, then on the second.
Paul has said that his strategy is to prevent Romney from going to the convention with enough delegates to win. So far Paul has succeeded.
In addition, Paul has clearly made a move to take over the state parties in a number of places, thus ensuring that a boisterous crowd will be on hand to cheer his name and make it appear that he and Romney are the two frontrunners.
And, with a bit of a twist of irony, one of Paul’s top spokesmen is a man named Weed, just as was Seward’s. What appears to be in play in 2012 has enough similarities to 1860 that watching how it all comes out could be the best political theater in decades when the convention in August rolls around.
Tomorrow I will talk about how the bitterness that resulted in the Civil War remained after the last shot was fired and how the political climate of reconstruction set the agenda of the two major parties for nearly the next century. And I will expose a few little known secrets of how the parties keep their power, even today, as we continue to remember the history of American politics in advance of the May 22nd primary.
Marcus Carey is a Northern Kentucky lawyer with 32 years experience. He is also a farmer, talk radio host and public speaker who loves history and politics. He is a prolific and accomplished writer whose blog, BluegrassBulletin.com is “dedicated to honest and respectful comment on the political and cultural issues of our time.” He writes a regular commentary for KyForward.