They'll never be Abe

Since Lincoln is my favorite president, I was happy to see a C-Span survey the other day of 58 historians, from across the political spectrum, who had picked the "railsplitter" from Illinois as America's No. 1 president.

These historians ranked Lincoln first for his crisis leadership, administrative skills, vision, pursuit of justice, and "performance within the context of the times." He was followed by Franklin D. Roosevelt, George Washington, Theodore Roosevelt, and Harry S. Truman.

In the midst of the current highly contentious battling among presidential hopefuls, I got to wondering how Lincoln won the nomination of the newly formed Republican Party. So I turned to my favorite Lincoln biographer, Carl Sandburg.

Of course, there were no primaries back in those days. The Lincoln-Douglas debates of 1858 had thrust Lincoln's name forward as a man of presidential caliber. He became a popular speaker, and in 1859 he traveled 4,000 miles to deliver 23 speeches.

But it was Lincoln's Cooper Union speech, delivered in New York City on Feb. 27, 1860, that made him prominent nationally. Here it was that he addressed the slavery question with words like these: "Thinking it [slavery] wrong, as we do, can we yield to them [the South]?" And he finished: "Let us have faith that right makes might, and in that faith let us, to the end, dare to do our duty as we understand it."

As Lincoln took his seat handkerchiefs waved over a thunderous applause.

Later that year both this speech and the Lincoln-Douglas debates were put into pamphlets that were distributed to millions of people. Soon the Lincoln-for-president movement took wing. People around the country began to "talk Lincoln." As months went on, Lincoln certainly let powerful politicians know that he was interested in running. Indeed, he wrote one delegate that "the taste is in my mouth."

But Lincoln did no open battle with the favorite for the nomination, William H. Seward, and two others who held substantial public support, Salmon P. Chase and John McLean. The real struggle took place at the GOP National Convention at the Wigwam in Chicago in May. There, Lincoln supporters worked day and night to persuade delegates to pick Lincoln as a "second choice" should their first choice fall short of nomination. On the first ballot Seward had 173-1/2 votes, Lincoln 102. Seward kept a narrowing lead on the second ballot but by the third ballot Lincoln got 231 1/2 while Seward dropped to 180. And on the fourth ballot, Lincoln was selected as the candidate.

And that's how our greatest president won the nomination. And his victory in the fall was made relatively easy by the split of the Democrats into two parties.

Yet it is interesting to note that Sangamon County, Ill., (where Lincoln resided in Springfield) gave Douglas (one of the Democratic nominees) 3,598 votes and Lincoln 3,556, while in Springfield it was 1,395 for Lincoln and 1,326 for Douglas.

Then, nationally, in a total of some 4,700,000 votes, the other candidates had nearly a million more votes, combined, than Lincoln. Lincoln, however, won easily in the Electoral College.

On Feb. 12, 1959, Carl Sandburg addressed a joint session of Congress which was commemorating the 150th anniversary of Lincoln's birth. To me, Sandburg, in his opening words, told us poetically why this humble man achieved his greatness:

"Not often in the story of mankind does a man arrive on earth who is both steel and velvet, who is as hard as rock and soft as drifting fog, who holds in his heart and mind the paradox of terrible storm and peace unspeakable and perfect."

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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