Review of “The Great Comeback: How Abraham Lincoln Beat the Odds to Win the 1860 Republican Nomination” by Gary Ecelbarger

In 1860, William Seward of New York was considered a shoo-in for the nomination of the Republican Party in Chicago. His campaign manager, Thurlow Weed, was “arguably the ablest political tactician in the country.” The team he assembled was overflowing with money and supporters. The Lincoln team, by contrast, had perhaps 35 total operatives to Seward’s thousands. So how did Lincoln do it? How did he win the nomination?

This book tries to answer that question by delving into the nitty-gritty of local and national Republican politics in the year before the nominating convention. The author details the strategies and tactics employed not only by Lincoln but also by his two campaign managers, Norman Judd and Judge David Davis. A large part of the story concerns the Illinois rivalry between the gubernatorial aspirant Norman Judd and Chicago Mayor “Long” John Wentworth. Unfortunately, both tried to use Lincoln as a foil against the other so their infighting had the potential to make all three men losers. Lincoln was relatively successful at staying above the fray, however.

Lincoln spent much of the year of 1859 speaking on behalf of the Republican Party, as a putative “statesman” of the party rather than a candidate. This was all part of the Illinois team’s strategy, to keep Lincoln’s profile low and to keep the Seward team off-guard.

Norman B. Judd

Norman B. Judd

Ecelbarger generally gives more play to journalistic coverage of Lincoln than to Lincoln’s words, but this seems like an appropriate approach for his narrow topic. He makes a point of recounting the initial reactions of many reporters to Lincoln’s unkempt, spindly, gawky appearance and high, squeaky voice. These same journalists almost uniformly recorded that they soon forgot all of Lincoln’s unattractive qualities “as the message superseded the messenger.” Rather, they became impressed by Lincoln’s clarity, his simplicity, his earnestness, and his eloquence.

Although Lincoln’s speeches aren’t covered in much depth (with the exception of his speech in Cincinnati in September of 1959 and at Cooper Union in February of 1860), Ecelbarger does a decent job on his quick summaries of Lincoln’s positions. Most importantly, he shows how Lincoln avoided the more radical abolitionist stance of rivals Seward and Salmon Chase, hoping to convince party members he would be more electable than they as a middle-of-the-road candidate.

From the outset, the strategy of the Lincoln team at the Chicago nominating convention was not to win on the first ballot. This was the time for states to put forth names of favorite sons, and for all delegates to test the waters. Still, they also needed to keep Seward from winning on the first ballot; then it would be all over. Lincoln also had to get a minimum of 100 votes to be considered the only viable contender against Seward.

William Seward

William Seward

The strategy of Lincoln and his team to keep Lincoln’s profile low paid off at the nominating convention. Indeed, Judd managed to score a number of coups in terms of strategic placement of delegates and packing the house with Illinoisans, mostly because the Seward team discounted Lincoln as a serious candidate. (Judd even had the “best shouters” in the state brought in to attend the convention!)

In the final analysis, however, Davis, working the backrooms outside of the convention hall, saw that Lincoln could not win without Pennsylvania, and Pennsylvania would not budge without a quid pro quo. To that end, Davis promised the Pennsylvania delegation’s favorite son candidate, Simon Cameron, would be named to Lincoln’s cabinet. Even though Lincoln had telegraphed Davis to “make no contracts that bind me,” Davis paid no attention. He considered Lincoln naïve, and he was probably right on the issue of Pennsylvania. Davis knew that once the mighty Pennsylvania delegation fell to Lincoln, other states would fall in behind it.

Judge David Davis

Judge David Davis

There are some interesting parallels to recent elections evoked by Lincoln’s driving ambition; his determination not to settle for a number two position; the last minute shenanigans in Chicago that threatened to unsettle his campaign; the powerful competition from New York; and the importance of the key swing state of Pennsylvania. When the final balloting begins at the “Wigwam” convention center in Chicago, you find yourself sitting on the edge of your chair, even though you know the outcome!

This is definitely a “niche” book – not for those seeking a general history of Lincoln and definitely not for those interested in his presidency since the book ends with the nomination. It has some omissions (how, for example, did Judd get to be Lincoln’s campaign manager in the first place?) and some sloppy editing errors. But overall, it is a welcome addition to Lincolniana.

Published by Thomas Dunne Books, 2008

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