Bad Hats: A Look at CNN’s Take on the Election of 1860

MV5BMjQ1MTcxNzUwOV5BMl5BanBnXkFtZTgwODA0MzMxODE@._V1_UY1200_CR90,0,630,1200_AL_I could hardly wait for it! One of my favorite historical happenings was getting its own hour in prime time on CNN’s The Race To the White House, and I thought, “About time, too!” There is simply no more interesting, funny, dishonest, altruistic, and thoroughly political event in my opinion than Abraham Lincoln’s first election to the Presidency.

No one could ever get all the nuances of that remarkable series of events into one hour. I already knew that. Thurlow Weed himself (who actually ought to be the star of Lucifer) is bigger than a mere 60 minutes, with commercials. But . . . I did want to see who made the cut. Would my guys–Hay, Nicolay, & Ellsworth–be part of it all, as they were “in real life?” Alas, no. The phony convention passes for hired Lincoln supporters were made much of, but Judge David Davis edged out Ward Hill Lamon, who came up with the entire dastardly plan, just as he has been in most historical accountings.

Thurlow "Lucifer" Weed
Thurlow “Lucifer” Weed

A couple of great quotes were not used. Davis was never allowed to utter his famous phrase, “Lincoln ain’t here!” on television to those who questioned the promises made to folks concerning plum pieces of the political pie–including cabinet seats! Ah well. Neither did Lincoln get to go home to Mary and tell her he won the Presidency with, “There’s a little lady at home who might be interested in this information.” If memory serves, they all met up at an ice cream parlor in the middle of the night to celebrate and watch the Springfield fireworks.

I could go on and on about what was NOT there. What was there, however, needs to be mentioned, and mentioned a lot. The importance of Lincoln’s Cooper-Union Speech was well presented. Several people with whom I work mentioned not ever hearing about it before. CNN did a good job of tying the Lincoln-Douglas debates into the rise of Lincoln’s image nationally. The telegraph (t-mail!) and the printing press got news out so quickly by the late 1850s that, for the first time in history, people could talk over what had happened the day before at the water cooler. Or down at the store. Or at the bar. Or church. The awareness of Lincoln as a viable political figure owed a lot to the press.6104467_orig

Stephen Douglas came off well, although his death, soon after the 1860 Inauguration, was not mentioned. His awful race baiting was atoned for by having food thrown at him as he descended a train somewhere in the southern climes. When Douglas took Lincoln’s hat so Lincoln could handle his notes at the Inauguration was a very nice moment, although the hats were just awful. They were a century behind, and were, I think, the same ones used for the Jackson/Adams episodes. Oh well.

Best of all was the introduction of the “brokered” Chicago convention at the Wigwam. CNN chose to ignore the other candidates, so there was no mention of Salmon Chase, Edward Bates, William Dayton, John McLean, Jacob Collamer, Ben Wade, John Reed, Charles Sumner, John C. Fremont, Cassius Clay, or Simon Cameron. It looked like a two-man race between Lincoln and New Yorker William H. Seward. It was not. Lincoln needed every favorite son and bought-and-paid-for vote he could get to beat Seward, and his team, led by Judge David Davis, knew it. While Elmer Ellsworth’s Chicago Zouave CadetsĀ held the stage late on the night of May 17-18, Davis, Ward Hill Lamon, and Leonard Swett did everything possible to get those votes.al0051_enlarge

Promises and mischief were made. Davis & Company did not “broker” for the votes on the first ballot, but on the second and third ballots. There were enough votes promised to others so that Seward would not be elected on the first ballot. They fell away from lesser men as Pennsylvania led the way to a Lincoln nomination. Lincoln was in a near-tie with Seward on the second ballot. By the third ballot, everyone got in line behind Judge Davis, with prodding by Swett and, of course, Lamon. Lincoln beat Seward, “and the crowd went wild,” with the exception of Thurlow Weed.8655235

With the lack of graciousness the 2016 presidential campaign seems to be engendering, one might think that, until this year, America had been a polite debating society. Nothing could be further from the truth. Politics is both repellent and alluring, I think. It has always been so. Brokered conventions are not a new phenomenon, although they are little understood. CNN introduced one of the most famous brokered conventions to America, perhaps snapping a little ice in case the Republicans have to have another one. The one in 1860 gave us Abraham Lincoln. I am not so sure what we will get this time around.160304183338-lincoln-douglas-heavyweight-orig-00000710-large-169


5 Responses to Bad Hats: A Look at CNN’s Take on the Election of 1860

  1. Thank you. I was interested in the 1860 convention lately, as I was curious about the role that NY state politics played (if any) in Seward’s failed nomination. I came across an online pamphlet from the 1890s, but in some instances the author made references to Lincoln’s (and others’) “friends” which I took as a lack of candor so I wasn’t sure how much to make of it.

    For current politics, I am somewhat amused by what I see as a lack of interest by media in how a convention might actually work. Primary ballots are really “beauty contests” (or maybe more politely, “polls”). How convention delegates are actually selected and what their influencers are seem to be significant questions that need to be explored. Likewise the relationships between elected politicians and candidates on one hand, and state party apparatus on the other.

    1. Do you have a link to that pamphlet? The 1860 election will be one of the most important themes in the new Ellsworth book. I’d appreciate it, and thanks.

  2. Meg:

    I missed the CNN presentation. From your excellent review, I surmise that I didn’t miss much. As you wrote, the CNN episode hopefully will enlighten viewers about the passion and vitriol that was common in many 19th-century political contests.

    As you indicate, today’s newspaper writers and TV commentators too often mislead voters into thinking our recent presidential campaigns are the most contentious ever. Actually, recent campaigns – including this year’s – are pretty mild in comparison. Somehow, our country survived. And I predict our ever-resilient nation will survive this year’s mud-slinging, too.

  3. I enjoyed reading your post. I could read your “voice” with your comment about “t-mail”, very cute. I dont want to name our new cat Thurlow, since you refer to him as Lucifer. I think Sherman is a far greater name for a cat. Im listening to Iron Butterfly while reading your post and writing my response. It makes it more entertaining. Emerge that. lol

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