osewalrus (osewalrus) wrote,

Disclaimers and Lincoln/Obama Amusement

First, the rather obvious disclaimer that I am only vaguely tuning in, as well as writing my final exam and grading my previous class project. Blech.

Meanwhile, below the cut, some amusing parallels between this election season and the election of 1860.

I've been reading Doris Godwin's Team of Rivals and was struck by some interesting similarities between the election of 1860 and the current Obama/Clinton fracas.

1) Lincoln's chief rival was New York Senator William Seward. Indeed, Seward's nomination by the Republicans -- and ultimate election against the dispirited Democrats that held the White House -- was considered by all to be "inevitable." Seward's chief political manager, Thurlow Weed, worried more about Seward screwing things up with inflammatory oratory (Seward was the one who coined the phrase "irrepressible conflict" to describe the difference between North and South on slavery, and opined that slavery violated a "higher law" than the Constitution). Weed therefore encouraged Seward to engage in a process of restricting press access and what we would now call "triangulation." First, Seward spent much of 1859 abroad in Europe and the Middle East, where his status as "the next President of the United States" was assumed by royalty and diplomats who greeted him with the deference and ceremony shown a head of state. Second, when Seward returned, he made a conciliatory speech for his opening speech in the Senate. Seward clarified (abolitionists would say "reversed himself") that he never intended to remove slavery from those states where it was established, and that the Constitution recognized the legality of the institution. He only opposed to effort to extend slavery to territories beyond the dimensions set by the Missouri Compromise.

Then, as now, these strategies backfired. Godwin argues that Seward's overconfidence proved his undoing. His political manager, Weed, made little effort to meet the challenge of the other rivals and assumed that the chief challenge would be selling Seward in the "battleground states" bordered the slave states. As a result, Weed (and Seward) ignored the threat by Horace Greely (the "go west, young man" journalist) to wage war against Seward for their failure to reward Greely with politica ofice in exchange for previous support. Weed also neglected to secure the critical "battleground" state of Pennsylvania, apparently unaware that its long-standing political boss was facing a significant internal challenge. While Weed secured "oceans of money" for the campaign from supporters, they seemed to have little idea how to spend it before the general election.

2) Seward also failed to appreciate that he had "high negatives" not only among his party opponents, but also within his own party. Democrats and pro-slavery whigs long regarded Seward as the leader of the "black Republicans." To them, no matter what Seward may say or how he might "clarify," Seward would remain a fire-eating abolitionist worthy of tar and feathers. But Seward's effort to tack to the center angered and offended the Abolitionists and caused consternation among his natural base. Finally, a core group of anti-Catolics and anti-immigrants (the remnants of the "Know Nothings") hated Seward for his open support of Catholics and immigrants as Governor of NY.

This had two effects. First, there was a substantial "anyone but Seward" wing of the Republican party. For many, Seward was either too radical or not radical enough. Second, the question of "electability" became a considerable topic among Republicans and Republican delegates. Many (including the influential Greely) argued that Seward was "unelectable" because he would unite the otherwise fractured Democratic opposition and would be unable alienate Republicans in critical battlegrond states where issues other than slavery dominated.

OTOH, Seward's supporters were equally firm that Seward must win the nomination. Not only was Seward most qualified, they argued, but Seward was almost 60. If he lost this opportunity, his supporters argued, Seward would never have another chance to run for President.

3) By contrast, Godwin argues, Lincoln took a commanding hand in his campaign and positioned himself strategically as the best "second choice" candidate for those committed to Seward or the other two candidates (Edward Bates of Missouri and Samuel Chase of OH). Lincoln worked hard to secure overwhelming support in Midwestern states where he was known, while using speaking opportunities and new technologies -- such as the telegraph and the national railway -- to break out of his regional base and secure national recognition.

Already famed as an orator for his debates with Douglas, which were reprinted in newspapers around the country, Lincoln also went on speaking tours and published a campaign biography emphasizing his humble beginnings and "everyman" nature. At the same time, however, he took great care to avoid delving into specificities which might cause arouse the opposition or provide a chance for the press to attack him. As a result, he could use his comparative lack of fame and lack of experience as an asset. For the anti-Sewards, he was the most agreeable alternative. Chase was "notorious" for supporting not merely the abolition of slavery, but the abolition of "black laws" that prevented free blacks in most states (including the North) from voting or otherwise enjoying anything approaching equal status with whites. Bates, on the other hand, was actually a slave holder, whose candidacy was advanced primarily by Southern Republicans hoping to sidestep the slavery issue and run on an economic platform. This left Lincoln, the great unknown, as the ideal "compromise candidate" around whom the anti-Sewards could coalesce.

4) But while intimately involved, Lincoln took great care to make sure the actual details were handled by others, as custom demanded at the time. Amusingly, in an analog to internet organization, Lincoln encouraged (but did not join) "Lincoln clubs" in the states, whose members communicated by post and by telegraph.

5) Lincoln's crowning political trick was to secure the location of the convention in Chicago. Seward was indifferent, while the Bates supporters -- who favored St. Louis -- were outnumbered. Lincoln was also able to make inroads with rival factions in Pennsylvania, and to secure support from the Abolitionists in New England if Seward did not receive the nomination on the first ballot.

Lincoln's strategy in Chicago could be summed up in two phrases: "get out the vote" and "survive the first ballot." Lincoln's supporters swarmed the "Wigwam", the convention center where the convention took place. In the lead up to the nomination, Lincoln's supporters had positioned themselves to provide an overwhelming show of support and had promises from delegations around the country from delegates to vote for Lincoln after the first ballot. While the initial shift came from the Chase and Bates delegates (as it became clear after the first ballot that neither man had a chance), Lincoln gradually won over delegates from New England and -- perhaps most critically -- from Pennsylvania.

Winning Pennsylvania helped the Lincoln supporters argue that only Lincoln could carry the "big states" for the Republicans (outside New York, which was solidly Seward). As a result, the "dark horse" Lincoln won a victory considered inconceivable a year before.

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