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Andrew Smith Dr. Lloyd Benson FYW-Civil War. “The Most Amazing Upset”.

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Andrew Smith

Dr. Lloyd Benson

FYW-Civil War

“The Most Amazing Upset”

Although William Seward is little talked about today by either historians or the modern public, nevertheless, if it had not been for what historian Clarence Macartney called the “most amazing upset in the history of American politics,” the accomplished, talented, and popular Seward would have likely won the Republican nomination and the White House . The obscure and nationally insignificant Abraham Lincoln would have likely remained so. Somehow, though, this dramatic upset occurred and changed the course of history. What happened at the Republican Convention on May 16-18, 1860 to bring about such a shocking outcome?

Leading Up to Chicago


which he used to launch his nation-wide speaking tour.

The country was mesmerized by the “Rail-Splitter’s” biography and was blown away by his public speaking. People were drawn to his “honest, simple” style and had tremendous respect for his conviction on issues, even though he was more moderate than the Republican base.

Though he was still not considered a serious contender for the nomination, Lincoln’s speaking tour had raised his national profile and given himself a solid reputation among Republicans nationally, setting himself up to be a possible Plan B.


How Unlikely was Lincoln Stealing the Nomination From Seward?

There did exist, however, a committed Not-Seward coalition that was jealous and resented his long-time reign of the Republican and Whig Parties, questioned his electability in Pennsylvania and other states with a strong anti-immigrant bent , and had heard rumors of Seward and his top operative, Thurlow Weed, pursuing cronyistic policies in New York. Even this group, though, had no doubt that Seward would be nominated at the Convention.

Norman Judd

The Lincoln adviser pulled off a major coup in bringing the Republican Convention to Chicago. Judd convinced the other candidates’ strategists that Lincoln would not run and was no threat and that Chicago would be “good neutral ground where everyone where everyone would have a chance (Jones).” When Lincoln announced he would pursue the nomination, he did so with “home-court advantage” already secured.

William Henry Seward

Not only was Seward extremely qualified for the Presidency, having served as Governor of the Union’s biggest state (New York), as a prominent senator, and as a founder of the Republican Party, he was also an extremely talented speaker and was praised by abolitionists for his bold stands against slavery. Virtually everyone expected Seward to be the nominee.

Abraham Lincoln

The self-made frontiersman had proved to be a somewhat unsuccessful politician at this point in his career, losing two Senate campaigns after serving just one term in the House. The one bright spot from his loss to Douglas 1858, though, was that the Lincoln-Douglas Debates brought Lincoln into the national spotlight,

Horace Greeley

As editor of the New York Tribune, Greeley got to know Seward and Weed well, but a personal feud developed between them. Greeley began writing nasty editorials about Seward and advocating the party go a different direction. Weed, however, didn’t see him as a serious threat and didn’t find a way to cool Greeley in the time leading up to the Convention. Greeley would play a huge role in Chicago.

Simon Cameron

This highly influential Pennsylvanian was one of Weed’s most critical mistakes embodied. Weed felt comfortable that Cameron would deliver the PA delegation to Seward on the second ballot and did not meet with him before the convention. The PA delegation would prove very significant at the convention.

This headline, originally run in the Chicago Democrat on May 1 and then republished in the Milwaukee Sentinel, expresses disgust at the collapse of the Democratic Convention in Charleston just weeks ahead of the Republican Convention. The inability of Northern and Southern Democrats to come to any agreement without disbanding the Convention exemplified and fueled the increasing tensions. All could feel the country moving toward the precipice of the “irrepressible conflict.”

This chart compares the number of times each of the candidates who made it to the third ballot were mentioned in the newspapers contained in the Infotrac 19th century database in the year leading up to the Convention. The overwhelming amount of attention given to Seward speaks to his popularity, relevance, and near celebrity status. All of the other candidates, especially Lincoln, were no-names competing against a superstar.

Ballot by Ballot Results

Ballot 1

May 16-18. Chicago, Ill

A Tale of Two Teams

Seward’s supporters, led by Thurlow Weed, could not have felt more confident as the convention approached, and as Denton tells the story, arrived in Illinois in a “train with plenty of money to pass around and an unlimited amount of liquor.” Team Seward was not just partying on the train either; on the night before balloting was to begin, the New York delegation helped themselves to three hundred bottles of champagne in their nice hotel rooms. In the meantime, Team Lincoln and the bitter and determined Horace Greeley bargained and schemed throughout the night just to try to even get a second ballot. Team Lincoln’s strategy was two-pronged: sell him as a solid second choice the whole party could compromise on and go negative on Seward. For the first part, the Lincoln camp relied on a positive image generated by his speaking tour, a short, untainted public record, and playing nice with the other campaigns. To accomplish the second part, Greeley and the pro-Lincoln operatives were telling every delegate that would listen that Seward was too radical to win and his pro-immigrant positions would keep him from carrying Pennsylvania in the general. This ground work laid by the Lincoln campaign combined with the home-court advantage and the failure of the Seward campaign to do what they needed to do set the stage for the upset.


Bancroft, Frederic. The Life of William H. Seward. Gloucester: Peter Smith, 1967.

Denton, Lawrence. William Henry Seward and the Secession Crisis: The Effort to Prevent Civil War. Jefferson: McFarland & CO, 2009.

Goodwin, Doris. Team of Rivals. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2005.

Jones, Archie. “The 1860 Republican Convention.” transcript of Chicago station WAAF radio broadcast, May 16, 1960, Chicago Historical Society, Chicago, Ill.

Macartney, Clarence. Men Who Missed It: Great Americans Who Missed the White House. Freeport: Books for Libraries Press, 1970.

"Procedings of the National Republican Convention" The Chicago Tribune. May 17,1860.

West, Richard. Gideon Welles: Lincoln's Navy Department. The Bobbs-Merrill Company, 1943.

Delegate Count (233 needed to win): 1. Seward-173.5

2. Lincoln-102 3. Cameron- 50.5 *Nobody else above 50

Ballot 2

Thurlow Weed

Despite having one of the best political minds of his generation, Weed did not succeed in his goal nearly thirty years in the making, making William Seward president. Nobody, not even Seward himself, took the loss harder than Weed, a normally stoic character who “gave way to angry words and tears (Bancroft 540).” The nomination of his friend and advisee of almost thirty years had just slipped through his fingers, and to a large degree, it appeared to be his fault: the overconfidence, the failure to meet with Cameron, and the miscalculation of Greeley. There is some disagreement among scholars as to how much Weed is to blame; Doris Goodwin blames his arrogance, but Lawrence Denton defends him by citing bad luck as the reason the meeting with Cameron never materialized. Though, it still seems understandable that Weed was devastated.

The Wigwam

The Wigwam was built specifically to house the Convention, and for the first time, the public was allowed to attend “wholesale.” The 10,000-seat convention center provided a much bigger home-court advantage to Lincoln than just being in his home state. The Lincoln campaign organized their young supporters , gave them counterfeit tickets, and sent them into the Wigwam early to take almost all of the seats. These “fans” created an electric atmosphere, and when Pennsylvania swung to Lincoln on the second ballot, the crowd roared and created the momentum and pressure on the delegates to get on board with Lincoln. The Wigwam was also beneficial to the Lincoln campaign because, with Norman Judd as floor manager, the entire setup of the Convention favored Lincoln. Knowing how pivotal the Pennsylvania delegation would be, Judd placed New York and Pennsylvania on opposite ends of the floor. When Pennsylvania went for Lincoln, an irate Weed was unable to get his messengers to the Pennsylvania people because of all the traffic between them and the deafening crowd noise.

Headline, Chicago Tribune,

May 19, 1860


Butler, Preston. “Abraham Lincoln, August 13, 1860.” Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division.

Hesler. “The Wigwam.” Ray, Orman, P. The Convention That Nominated Lincoln: An Address. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 1916.

“Horace Greeley.” Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division. Horace Greeley Biographical Collection, Library of Congress.

“Inside the Wigwam.” Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress. Harper’s Weekly. May 19, 1860, pp. 312-313.

“Judd, Norman Buel.” Nicolay, John. Abraham Lincoln; A History. Century Magazine. 1886.

“Simon Cameron.” Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division. Civil War Glass Negative Collection, Library of Congress.

“The Democratic Party Gone to Smash.” Milwaukee Sentinel. May 2, 1860.

“Thurlow Weed, detail.” Weed, Thurlow, and Harriet Weed. Life of Thurlow Weed including his autobiography and a memoir. Boston: Houghton Mifflin and Co., 1883.

“William Henry Seward, circa 1860.” Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress.

Delegate Count (233 needed to win): 1. Seward- 184.5

2. Lincoln- 181 *Nobody else above 50

Ballot 3

Delegate Count (233 needed to win): 1. Lincoln- 349

2. Seward-111.5 LINCOLN WINS!

Maps created at