Nomination for the Presidency

Shortly after his defeat in the 1858 campaign for the U.S. Senate, Mr. Lincoln wrote law partner William H. Herndon, Mr. Lincoln “began gradually to lose his interest in the law and to trim his political sails at the same time. His recent success had stimulated his self-confidence to unwonted proportions. He wrote to influential party workers everywhere. I know the idea prevails that Lincoln sat still in his chair in Springfield, and that one of those unlooked-for tides in human affairs came along and cast the nomination into his lap; but any man who has had experience in such things knows that great political prizes are not obtained in that way.” The truth is, Lincoln was as vigilant as he was ambitious, and there is no denying the fact that he understood the situation perfectly from the start.”1 Indeed, Mr. Lincoln was always ambitious – but he was never vain.

In early February 1860, Mr. Lincoln agreed with a small group of Republican politicians – including Jesse K. Dubois, Ozias M. Hatch, Norman B. Judd, Jackson Grimshaw, Leonard Swett, Ebenezer Peck, and Ward Hill Lamon – to put his name in play for the Republican presidential nomination. Don C. Seitz wrote in Lincoln the Politician: “Lincoln’s formal entrance into the presidential contest was the result of a meeting of his friends in the office of O.M. Hatch, Secretary of State, at Springfield in early spring of 1859. Jackson Grimshaw, one of the company which included Norman B. Judd, chairman of the Republican State committee, Hatch, Ebenezer Peck and a few others said: ‘We all expressed a personal preference for Mr. Lincoln as the Illinois candidate for the Presidency, and asked him if his name might be used at once in connection with the nomination and election. With his characteristic modesty he doubted whether he could get the nomination even if he wished it, and asked until the next morning to answer as to whether his name might be announced. Late the next day he authorized us, if we thought proper to do so, to place him in the field.'”2

The Lincoln group quickly expanded. According to Lincoln writer Albert A. Woldman, “Soon Judd, Orville H Browning, Gustave Koerner, Judge David Davis, Judge Logan, and Oliver L. Davis, who were to become delegates to the Chicago Convention, joined forces with Swett, Lawrence Weldon, John M. Palmer, former Democrat who was to become a pro-Lincoln elector in 1860, Richard Oglesby, Samuel C. Parks, [Ward Hill] Lamon, Herndon, J. W. Somers, a Republican organizer in Champaign County, [Henry C.] Whitney, Joseph Gillespie, who presided at the Decatur Convention, Archibald Williams, who was temporary chairman at Bloomington, James Conkling, delegate to the Bloomington Convention, John Rosett, lawyer who also edited the Springfield Republican, and a number of other faithful circuit associates, and all quietly and persistently set about to create ‘Lincoln for President’ sentiment. They knew him well, believed him, loved him as a friend and companion, admired his sterling qualities, and had faith in his fitness for the highest office in the land.”3

Mr. Lincoln’s debates with Stephen Douglas had raised his political profile in the East and earned him an invitation to speak in New York in late February 1860. Biographer Benjamin Thomas wrote: “When Lincoln returned to Springfield after this dazzling Eastern trip [for the Cooper Institute speech] , Milton Hay, addressing him on behalf of the local Republican Club, declared that ‘No inconsiderable portion of your fellow citizens in various portions of the county have expressed their preference for you as the candidate of the Republican party for the next Presidency….There are those around you sir who have watched with manly interest and pride your upward march from obscurity to distinction. There are those here who know something of the obstacles which have lain in your pathway. Our history is prolific in examples of what may be achieved by ability, persevereance [sic] and integrity…but in the long list of those who have thus from humblest beginnings won their way worthily to proud distinction there is not one can take precedence of the name of Abraham Lincoln.”4

Mr. Lincoln was careful to guard his status. He used a technique similar to the one he had used on Elihu Washburne in 1858 to warn Senator Lyman Trumbull back into line at a time in 1860 when it seemed possible that Trumbull might assert his own presidential ambitions. He raised the specter of old animosities from Trumbull’s 1855 Senate victory coming back to haunt the Senator. Almost exactly two years after he wrote Washburne, Mr. Lincoln wrote Trumbull about the prospects of various candidates in Illinois. He revealed the extent to which he viewed “friends” as a political asset and potential weapon. He concluded with a word of strong advice: “You better write no letters which can possibly be distorted into opposition, or quasi opposition to me. There are men on the constant watch for such things out of which to prejudice my peculiar friends against you. While I have no more suspicion of you than I have of my best friend living, I am kept in a constant struggle against suggestions of this sort. I have hesitated some to write this paragraph, lest you should suspect I do it for my own benefit, and not for yours; but on reflection I conclude you will not suspect.” Mr. Lincoln closed the letter: “Your friend as ever.”5

Trumbull fell into line – because it was in his interest to do so. What was remarkable under the circumstances was how Mr. Lincoln’s friends came together to engineer his presidential nomination. They did so despite the reluctance of two of Mr. Lincoln’s most prominent Republican allies – Trumbull who coveted the nomination for himself or failing that, for Supreme Court Justice John McLean, and Orville Browning, who preferred Missouri attorney Edward Bates as a more electable nominee. Even Governor William Bissell, who had been elected to his post with Mr. Lincoln’s strong support in 1856, wrote Ohio Senator Salmon P. Chase that he was his first choice for President but that he could not seem “ungracious” to Mr. Lincoln. “Still, I do not suppose that many of our friends seriously expect to secure his nomination….”6

Mr. Lincoln’s nomination was given a big boost at the Illinois Republican State Convention where cousin John Hanks introduced rails that he and Mr. Lincoln had both split. The legend of the “Railsplitter” was born – and the delegation to the national convention was selected. “Our delegation was instructed for him, but of the twenty-two votes in it, by incautiously selected the men, there were eight who would gladly have gone for Seward. The reason of this is in this fact: The northern counties of this State are more overwhelmingly Republican than any other portion of the continent. I could pick twenty-five contiguous counties giving larger Republican majorities than any other adjacent counties in any States. The result is many people there are for Seward, and such men crept upon the delegation. They intended in good faith to go for Lincoln, but talked despondingly and really wanted and expected finally to vote as I have indicated,” wrote Leonard Swett, who was one of Mr. Lincoln’s key organizers and a fellow lawyer on the Eighth Circuit.

More than perhaps at any other time in his life, Mr. Lincoln’s friends effectively rallied on his behalf in Chicago. “The lawyers of our circuit went there determined to leave no stone unturned, and really they, aided by some of our State officers and a half dozen men from various portions of the State, were the only tireless, sleepless, unwavering, and ever-vigilant friends he had,” wrote Swett. “The first thing after getting our headquarters was to have the delegation proper invite the cooperation of outsiders as though they were delegates.”7

One key friend of Mr. Lincoln was aboard neither the Seward nor the Lincoln bandwagons. Browning biographer Maurice Baxter wrote: “On February 8 [1860] Browning attended a meeting of the Republican State Central Committee at Springfield. In the evening Richard Yates, David L. Phillips, and Lincoln [gathered] in Browning’s room. Browning (in somewhat bad taste, to say the least) began extolling Bates’s qualities. Lincoln took the incident in stride and even agreed with him that Bates might get votes in Sangamon County that he himself could not get. According to Browning’s record of the conversation, Lincoln conceded that when the national convention assembled he might find ‘that the very best thing that could be done will be to nominate Mr Bates.'”8 Biographer Ralph J. Roske wrote that Senator Lyman Trumbull similarly “refused to take the tall Illinoisan seriously as a presidential candidate. Many Republicans politicians in the North and the border states considered Trumbull to be of a sufficiently conservative anti-slavery hue and offered him support for the presidency.”9

Characteristically, Mr. Lincoln used his friends to best advantage. He had insisted the Browning be part of the Illinois delegation to the Republican National Convention. (The committee that chose the delegates “and other personal friends of Lincoln among whom were Judd, David Davis, Swift, [Burton C.] Cook, and others, retired from the [state] convention, and, in a grove near by, lay down upon the grass and revised the list of delegates, which they reported to, and which were appointed by, the convention,” wrote friend and biographer Isaac Arnold.10 Browning was still for Bates in Chicago where Judge Davis convinced Browning that Bates had no chance. “Browning turned in and went for Lincoln heartily,” reported Davis.11

Jealousy of Mr. Lincoln’s sudden prominence was clearly not unknown among Mr. Lincoln’s friends and political associates. Illinois newspaper editor Thomas J. Pickett recalled: “On the morning the convention met, I asked Hon. O.H. Browning, of Quincy, his opinion of the result. He replied: “Oh, if Lincoln would withdraw, as he should do, we could nominate that great statesman, Edward Bates, of Missouri. But as it is, of course Seward will be nominated.’ Great leaders like Trumbull and Browning could not bear the thought of choosing him, but others who did not claim to be great leaders, like David Davis and R. J. Oglesby, backed by the Republican people, went manfully into the fight and success crowned their labors.”12 Later, Browning worked to get Bates to campaign for Mr. Lincoln.

“No men ever worked as our boys did,” wrote Swett at the time. “I did not, the whole week I was there, sleep two hours a night. The nomination saves us. We will sweep the whole Northwest. The nomination is from the people, and not the politicians. No pledges have been made, no mortgages, executed, but Lincoln enters the field a free man.”13 Historian Paul N. Angle noted that Lincoln might not have won the nomination “if Lincoln’s interests had not been entrusted to as shrewd a group of manipulators as existed anywhere in the United States. Norman B. Judd, David Davis, Leonard Swett, O.H. Browning, Stephen T. Logan, Ward H. Lamon – these were the men who, with skill seldom equaled, struck just the right balance of forces to make inevitable the selection of the Springfield lawyer.”14

This balancing act was not easy. “The conservative FreeSoilers reviled the rabid Abolitionists; the large foreign-born German group glared at the former Know-Nothings; the old-line Whigs scorned the Democrats who had lately become Republicans,” wrote David Davis biographer Willard King. Mr. Lincoln’s success in this effort constituted one of the most brilliant achievements of his career and gave him undisputed leadership of his party in Illinois.”15

The victory of Mr. Lincoln’s friends came despite the personal and political splits among them. Many old Whigs harbored grievances toward State Republican Chairman Norman B. Judd and his conduct of the 1858 race. Even Mr. Lincoln’s law partner, William Herndon, engaged in gossip about financial irregularities supposedly committed by Judd. In response to Judd’s complaints, Mr. Lincoln wrote: “A day or so before you wrote about Mr. Herndon, [Jesse] Dubois told me that he, H, had been talking to William Jayne in the way you indicate. At first sight afterwards, I mentioned it to him, he rather denied the charge, and I did not press him about the past; but got his solemn pledge to say nothing of the sort in the future. I had done this before I received your letter. I impressed upon him as well as I could, first that such, was untrue, and unjust to you, and second, that I would be held responsible for what he said.”16

Friendship caused Mr. Lincoln other problems that year. Among the friends seeking the 1860 Republican gubernatorial nomination were Richard Yates, Norman Judd, and Leonard Swett. Judd represented Chicago and former Democrats. Yates presented Springfield Whigs and Swett was a member of the Bloomfield clique of lawyers with whom Mr. Lincoln had traveled Eighth Circuit. Mr. Lincoln needed their help – and a Republican victory in Illinois. And he needed to keep the Republican Party from dissolving from the acid of jealousy. Rumors swirled about past infidelities to Mr. Lincoln and lawsuits developed about current insults.

Mr. Lincoln wrote Yates, who was seeking the Republican nomination, a certificate of good conduct: “Yours of yesterday is just received. On Saturday last, I think it was, I received the contemplated letter from Mr. Waughop, and immediately answered it, supposing you would be in Chicago, when my letter would reach there. I did not keep a copy, & hence can not repeat the exact language I used; but I know it conformed to the language of Mr. Waughop’s letter, and substantially was that I never suspected, and did not now suspect you of any want of sympathy, or of any dereliction [sic] in supporting me, and our cause in that contest; and that you now have my entire confidence as an honorable man. I added that, if called upon, I would say the same for Mr. Swett, as I had previously done for Mr. Judd. I hope and believe you will be entirely satisfied with my letter to Mr. Wauhop, when you come to see it.”17

In addition to the Illinois gubernatorial dispute, there was a legal dispute between Norman Judd and Chicago Mayor John Wentworth in the state’s Republican stronghold. Mr. Lincoln wrote Wentworth in early February 1860:

Yours of the 7th. was not received till this morning. You seem to mistake, somewhat, the object of my last letter to you. I wished you here for no object but to try to settle the difficulty between you & Judd, which I thought there would be a better chance of doing if I could have you both near me at the same time. I selected the meeting of the Committee because that would bring Judd here at any rate, and would furnish an outside reason for your being here; and not because I wished, or expected you to interfere with the business of the Committee in any way. I repeat, I am anxious to have that difficulty settled, so that both you and he can prove square in the cause and not be expending your strength in fighting one another. In your paper of December 10th you said what ought to almost, if not quite satisfy Judd, if it were said distinctly from everything else, and placed upon the record. I propose the following: you write, sign and place on the files of the court the following –“I have made no reflections upon Mr. Judd, morally, socially, pecuniarily, professionally, and in no other way, save” politically; and if I have used language capable of different construction, I have not intended it, and now retract it.
Upon which, Judd, to continue the suit till after the Presidential election, at which time I [suggest] to dismiss the suit, if, in my judgment, both you and he have, in the mean time, in good faith, let one another alone. I mean you are to let him alone, both in and out of your paper; and that he is to let you alone, both in and out of the Press & Tribune. Let the papers, as such contend with one another on measures of policy as much as they like; but John Wentworth and N.B. Judd to be absolutely let alone in both of them.
Write me what you think of it. I think both you and he ought to do it. I have not time now to say more about a nomination on the National ticket; than that I thank you for your kind suggestions and expressions; and that I will try to write you a letter more fully about it soon.18

Meanwhile, former Democrat Judd had solicited from Mr. Lincoln a letter in defense of his conduct in the 1858 Senate race that could be distributed to his Whig critics. Mr. Lincoln supplied the letter and wrote Judd:

I have just reached home from Kansas and found your long letter of the 1st. inst. It has a tone of blame towards myself which I think is not quite just; but I will not stand upon that, but will consider a day or two, and put something in the best shape I can, and sent it to you. A great difficulty is that they make no distinct charge against you, which I can contradict. You did vote for Trumbull against me; and, although I think, and have said a thousand times, that was no injustice to me, I cannot change the fact, nor compel people to cease speaking of it. Ever since that matter occurred, I have constantly labored, as I believe you know, to have all recollection of it dropped.
The vague charge that you played me false last year, I believe to be false and outrageous; but, it seems, I can make no impression by expressing that belief. I made a special job of trying to impress that upon Baker, Bridges and Wilson, here last winter. They all well know that I believe no such charge against you. But they choose to insist that they know better about it than I do.
As to the charge of your intriguing for Trumbull against me, I believe as little of that as any other charge. If Trumbull and I were candidates for the same office, you would have a right to prefer him, and I should not blame you for it; but all my acquaintance with you induces me to believe you would not pretend to be for me while really for him. But I do not understand Trumbull & myself to be rivals. You know I am pledged to not enter a struggle with him for the seat in the Senate now occupied by him; and yet I would rather have a full term in the Senate than in the Presidency.19

Mr. Lincoln needed the help of all his friends – but especially Judd’s – for both the gubernatorial race and Mr. Lincoln’s own presidential race. The day after the February conference where Mr. Lincoln agreed to be a candidate, he wrote Judd: “I am not in a position where it would hurt much for me to not be nominated on the nation ticket; but I am where it would hurt some for me to not get the Illinois delegates. What I expected when I expected when I wrote the letter to Messrs Dole and others is now happening. Your discomfited assailants are most bitter against me; and they will, for revenge upon me, lay to the Bates egg in the South, and to the Seward egg in the North, and go far toward squeezing me out in the middle with nothing. Can you not help me a little in this matter, in your end of the vineyard?”20 Judd had helped – he had arranged for the Republican National Convention to be held in Chicago in Mr. Lincoln’s home state.

Mr. Lincoln wrote Senator Trumbull in early April 1860: “I am trying to keep out of the contest among our friends for the Gubernatorial nomination, but from what I hear, the result is in considerable doubt.”21 According to unsuccessful hopeful Leonard Swett: “The largest vote was for Norman B. Judd, of Chicago, his strength in the main being the northern part of the State. I was next in order of strength, and Richard Yates the third, but the divisions were not materially unequal. The result was Yates was nominated, his strength being about Springfield and Jacksonville, extending to Quincy on the west, and mine was at Bloomington and vicinity and south and southeast.”22 Rather than let former Democrat Judd be nominated, Swett combined his forces to nominate Yates. These factions may have united behind Mr. Lincoln at the May 1860 national Republican convention in Chicago, but the factions themselves never united. “These divisions were kept up awhile after Mr. Lincoln’s election, and were considered in the distribution of Federal patronage” by President Lincoln, noted Swett.


  1. William H. Herndon and Jesse W. Weik, Herndon’s Life of Abraham Lincoln, p. 369-370.
  2. Don C. Seitz, Lincoln the Politician, p. 144.
  3. Albert A. Woldman, Lawyer Lincoln, p. 275-276.
  4. Benjamin P. Thomas, Abraham Lincoln, p. 205.
  5. Roy P. Basler, editor, The Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln, Volume IV, p. 45-46 (Letter to Lyman Trumbull, April 29, l860).
  6. Don E. Fehrenbacher, Prelude to Greatness: Lincoln in the 1850s, p. 153-154.
  7. Rufus Rockwell Wilson, editor, Intimate Memories of Lincoln, p. 294 (Letter from Leonard Swett to Josiah H. Drummond, May 27, 1860).
  8. Maurice G. Baxter, Orville H. Browning: Lincoln’s Friend and Critic, p. 97.
  9. Ralph J. Roske, His Own Counsel: The Life and Times of Lyman Trumbull, p. 55.
  10. Isaac N. Arnold, The Life of Abraham Lincoln, p. 163.
  11. Douglas L. Wilson and Rodney O. Davis, editor, Herndon’s Informants, p. 348 (William H. Herndon interview with David Davis, September 20,1866).
  12. Rufus Rockwell Wilson, editor, Intimate Memories of Lincoln, p. 194 (Thomas J. Pickett, Lincoln Nebraska Daily State Journal, April 12, 1881).
  13. Rufus Rockwell Wilson, editor, Intimate Memories of Lincoln, p. 296 (Letter from Leonard Swett to Josiah H. Drummond, May 27, 1860).
  14. Paul M. Angle, “Here I Have Lived,” A History of Lincoln’s Springfield, p. 238.
  15. Willard L. King, Lincoln’s Manager, David Davis, p. 127.
  16. Roy P. Basler, editor, The Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln, Volume III, p. 516 (Letter to Norman B. Judd, February 5, 1860).
  17. Roy P. Basler, editor, The Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln, First Supplement, p. 52 (Letter to Richard Yates, April 26, 1860).
  18. Roy P. Basler, editor, The Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln, Second Supplement, p. 18-19 (Letter to John Wentworth, February 9, 1860).
  19. Roy P. Basler, editor, The Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln, Volume III, p. 505 (Letter to Norman B. Judd, December 9, 1859).
  20. Roy P. Basler, editor, The Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln, Volume II, p. 517 (Letter to Norman B. Judd, February 9, 1860).
  21. Roy P. Basler, editor, The Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln, Volume IV, p. 40 (Letter to Lyman Trumbull, April 6, 1860).
  22. Douglas L. Wilson and Rodney O. Davis, editor, Herndon’s Informants, p. 709 (Letter from Leonard Swett to William H. Herndon, August 29, 1887).