On this day in 1860, the Republican Party nominates Abraham Lincoln for President. The Party was then brand new! It had been born from the ashes of the Whig Party just a few years earlier.
Yes, you read that right. America has a strong two-party system, but it’s not unprecedented for one party to die and be replaced with another.
The 1860 election was a bit of a mess. The country was divided and on the verge of war. Modern Americans are used to elections with two major party candidates, but the 1860 election saw *four* candidates making serious pushes for the presidency.
Can you imagine if both the Republican and the Democratic parties saw third-party challenges to their nominees in 2024? That’s more or less what happened in 1860.
Both parties were divided, although the Democrats seemed to have the worst of it.
In fact, when the Democratic Party tried to hold its convention in April 1860, a bunch of southern Democrats ended up walking out! Eventually, the northern Democrats nominated Stephen A. Douglas. The southern Democrats held their own convention and nominated John C. Breckinridge.
In the meantime, the remnants of the Whig Party were having similar issues, although the division wasn’t nearly as extreme. Some of the old Whigs had formed the Constitutional Union Party and nominated John Bell as their candidate. But more of the old Whigs were supporting the newly formed Republican Party.
The Republicans met in Chicago in May 1860. As the convention opened, William Seward of New York was believed to be only a handful of delegates shy of the 233 votes needed for the nomination. His frontrunner status was helped, at least in part, by the fact that those opposed to Seward couldn’t seem to agree on an alternative.
One of those in the “stop Seward” movement was Horace Greeley. As he visited the state delegations, he urged delegates: “I suppose they are telling you that Seward is the be all and the end all of our existence as a party . . . our pillar of cloud by day, our pillar of fire by night, but I want to tell you boys that in spite of all this you couldn’t elect Seward if you could nominate him.”
Greeley convinced delegates that Seward could not win a few states that would be critical in the general election. As the convention progressed, opposition to Seward’s nomination grew.
In the meantime, Lincoln’s supporters had been carefully working behind the scenes. Lincoln wasn’t really anyone’s first choice, but could they plant the idea of Lincoln as most people’s second choice?
As balloting opened on May 18, Seward supporters remained confident, although some later noted the “tremendous applause” when Lincoln’s name was placed into contention. Seward opened strong on the first ballot: 173.5 votes, compared to Lincoln’s 102. Three other men had about 50 votes.
The second ballot swung in Lincoln’s favor, leaving Seward and Lincoln just a few votes apart. On the third ballot, Lincoln finally obtained a majority—and the Republican nomination.
As you know, he went on to become the first Republican elected to the White House.
Doris Kearns Goodwin, Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln (2005)
Lawrence M. Denton, William Henry Seward and the Secession Crisis: The Effort to Prevent Civil War (2009)
Paul F. Boller Jr., Presidential Campaigns: From George Washington to George W. Bush (rev. ed. 2004)
Perley Orman Ray, The Convention that Nominated Lincoln: An Address Delivered Before the Chicago Historical Society on May 18, 1916, the Fifty-sixth Anniversary of Lincoln's Nomination for the Presidency (1916)
Robert Allen Rutland, The Republicans: From Lincoln to Bush (1996)
Robert C. Williams, Horace Greeley: Champion of American Freedom (2006)
Stefan Lorant, The Life of Abraham Lincoln (1955)
The Centennial of the State of Illinois: Report of the Centennial Commission (Illinois Centennial Commission; 1920)