Woke up this AM to the strangest dream--I was standing around at a cocktail party with Barack Obama and George Bush, making small talk. Although we were indoors, Barack wore the trench coat he's been wearing in his Olympic commercials. George wore a Mr. Rogers-esque cardigan sweater. They both asked me what I was doing today and I told them I would be playing pool--I don't play pool, so the answer surprised even me. My reply caused George to let out a barking laugh and clap me on the back. Barack merely smiled and shook his head, whether at my folly or George's, I wasn't sure....
Anyway, shaking that off--and it's taken several cups of strong coffee--here is the latest in my mini-series of great national convention moments in the past. This is from 1860, one of our most important election years ever.
When the Republicans met in Chicago—at the “Wigwam” hall constructed especially for this convention in one month's time, out of pine planks—they knew that whoever they picked for President would almost certainly win that high office, because of the disarray among the Democrats. Going into the convention, the chief contender was William Seward, former governor of New York and powerful antislavery speaker, who had the backing of New York City Boss Thurlow Weed and his Tammany machinery. So sure were Seward’s supporters of victory that a cannon had been set up on Seward’s lawn in Albany, ready to blast a celebratory shot at the right time.
But a funny thing happened on the way to the convention….a guy named Abraham Lincoln appeared. Actually, Lincoln had been there all along. Former Congressman, senatorial candidate against Douglas in 1858 (Lincoln had lost, but made his bones in their celebrated debates), Lincoln was the more moderate candidate that many of the delegates were seeking. As the nomination battle heated up, dirty tricks abounded. Thurlow Weed promised the Indiana and Illinois delegations, which supported Lincoln, 100,000 dollars if they threw their votes to Seward. No deal. In return, Lincoln backers waited until Seward’s delegates were outside marching in demonstration around the convention hall, then distributed counterfeit tickets to Lincoln backers. When Seward’s men came back, they found they could not get into the Wigwam to vote.
The Wigwam was set for a rocking, rolling, reeling ride such as would not be seen again in Chicago until 1968. When the voting began, there 10,000 people inside the hall, twenty thousand screaming and chanting on the streets. One observer described the noise inside the place: “Imagine all the hogs ever slaughtered in Cincinnati giving their death squeals together, plus a score of steam whistles going.” After four rounds of balloting, the vote went to Abraham Lincoln. Lincoln, waiting anxiously in Springfield, was informed by telegram of his victory but advised not to come to Chicago—Seward backers, many of them weeping profusely, were in such a state that it was not advisable for the new Presidential nominee to meet with them. The party’s judicious choice for Lincoln’s vice-president would be Hannibal Hamlin, Senator from Maine and a friend of the defeated Seward’s.
Lincoln would go on to defeat Stephen A. Douglas and become president--and just when we needed him.