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.
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.
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 Cadets 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.
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.
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.