Honest Abe: Rail Splitter, Crowd Surfer!

Vote For Abe Lincoln!

As 1860 dawned, Abraham Lincoln was still not a candidate for President. He proceeded cautiously, talking to Norman Judd and David Davis about the likelihood of getting the nod from the Illinois Republican State Committee. Then a biography of Lincoln was leaked, courtesy of Jesse Fell, to a Pennsylvania newspaper. The biography grew legs.

Jesse Fell, an early practitioner of the arcane art of politics

Because of this stealth attack, Lincoln was invited to speak in New York. Initially, he was asked to speak at Henry Ward Beecher’s church in Brooklyn, but by the time February 1860 arrived, the Lincoln buzz had grown to where the speeches were now to be held at the Cooper Union, in Manhattan. Lincoln’s reception and his speech finally brought him to national attention, and the word candidate began to be used in close proximity to Lincoln’s name.


Richard Oglesby, a FOL

On May 9-10, in Decatur, Illinois the Republican Party held its state delegate convention a week before the Chicago Convention. Lincoln’s friends (FOL?) began their planning in earnest. Political operative Richard J. Oglesby’s job was to find some way to tie Lincoln to the “common man.” He made contact with a Lincoln cousin, John Hanks, who told him about young Lincoln’s prowess at splitting a tree into serviceable rails for building fences.

Oglesby and FOL Ward Hill Lamon sprang into action! Two

Ward Hill Lamon, who could have worked for Nixon!

nights before the convention was to begin, Lamon and Oglesby, along with Hanks, drove a buggy into the farmland around Decatur, looking for some fence rails. When Hanks pointed out a fence that looked likely, Lamon and Oglesby snatched a couple of rails, hid them under blankets in the buggy, and drove back to town. The rails were hidden in Oglesby’s barn.

John Hanks, another Railsplitter

The first day of the convention, a little after lunch, Lincoln’s name was put forward as the Illinois party’s choice for president. He truly had no competition, but candidate Lincoln had kept out of sight in Decatur until the right psychological moment.

That moment had come! The nomination was made, the motion was seconded enthusiastically, and just then, Lincoln appeared at the doorway of the Decatur Wigwam. The temporary building was packed with supporters, and Lincoln was far from the stage. Richard Oglesby, (also the presiding officer of the convention, heh, heh, heh) called for Lincoln to have a seat on the platform stage. How to get him there?

Spontaneously, Abraham Lincoln, 6′ 4″ tall, in black frock coat and stovepipe hat, was CROWD SURFED over the heads of the conventioneers, “seized and lifted over the spectators,” to the stand amid cheers and loud applause. I kid you not!


The momentum continued to build, and as soon as Abe was standing upright, the doors opened again. On cue, John Hanks, assisted by Ward Lamon, marched through the crowd carrying the two purloined fence rails, now emblazoned with a sign:


The Rail Candidate

For President in 1860

Two rails from a lot of 3,000 made in 1830 by

John Hanks and Abe Lincoln, whose father

was the first pioneer of Macon County

 When the rails had been carried around the floor of the convention and the noise had subsided somewhat, Lincoln responded:

 Gentlemen, I suppose you want to know something about those things (pointing to John Hanks and the rails). Well, the truth is, John Hanks and I did make rails in the Sangamon Bottom. I don’t know whether we made these rails or not; the fact is, I don’t think they are a credit to the makers (laughing as he spoke). But I do know this: I made rails then, and I think I could make better ones than these now.

. . . and the crowd went wild.

Immortalized in Decatur






Recommended Sources


Lincoln’s First Nomination: Champagne Deals & Dirty Tricks, by Jay Miner.


3 Responses to Honest Abe: Rail Splitter, Crowd Surfer!

  1. Excellent post and pictures, Meg. I didn’t know there was a sculpture in Decatur memorializing Lincoln crowd surfing at the Republican convention.
    Please check out our “Saving Lincoln” Twitter feed this week: Ward Hill Lamon will be talking about some of his sneaky hijinks at the 1860 convention (including printing fake tickets to instantly create more Lincoln men….)

  2. I certainly am looking forward to more Ward Hill Lamon! He is one of my favorites–next to Colonel Ellsworth, of course. Both EE and WHL will be making “guest appearances” in the next 3 posts. And everyone–check our Mr. Lamon #Saving Lincoln on twitter.

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