Before he became the national icon, Lincoln was a shrewd candidate

A campaign poster for Abraham Lincoln, Republican candidate for president in 1860.
A campaign poster for Abraham Lincoln, Republican candidate for president in 1860. (Library Of Congress)
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By Sally Jenkins
Sunday, November 7, 2010

T he candidate stood uneasily on the rostrum, his black suit still creased from the valise he had carried on the three-day train trip from Springfield, Ill. As Abraham Lincoln began the speech intended to launch his presidential campaign, his voice was strained and piercing, his accent backwoods. "Mister Cheerman," he said, in a scratchy high timbre. It sounded like a chair leg being dragged across the floor.

Many of the 1,500 members of Northern elite who packed the Cooper Union in New York on Feb. 27, 1860, were shocked by the "involuntary comical awkwardness" of the speaker, as the New York Herald put it. Was this the political phenomenon they had heard so much about? He was a shambling figure of 6-foot-4 with a concave chest and thin neck. His sleeves were too short, one leg of his trousers rode up, and the left side of his collar had a tendency to flap. His black hair was disheveled, his gray eyes melancholy.

Lincoln was visibly nervous under the gas chandeliers. This was his crucial test as a presidential aspirant. In the glittering audience was every important Republican "wire puller" and political operative in the Northeast, including William Cullen Bryant, editor of the New York Evening Post, and Horace Greeley, editor of the New York Tribune and a founder of the young party, which was barely five years old. The Republican nominating convention would be held in Chicago in just 10 weeks, and Lincoln's ability to challenge the polished front-runner, William H. Seward, depended on the impression he made.

First, Lincoln had to convince his listeners that he was "a finished statesman" like the New Yorker Seward, despite what publisher George H. Putnam called Lincoln's "weird, rough and uncultivated" appearance. That proved the easiest challenge. As Lincoln warmed to his subject, it was apparent he was no rube. He might be informal, and say "reckon," but any man who mistook him for simple "would very soon wake up with his back in a ditch," said Lincoln's friend Leonard Swett. Lincoln had given his powerful Illinois rival Stephen A. Douglas the political fight of his life in the 1858 Senate election. Douglas won, but their debates over slavery had vaulted Lincoln to national prominence and brought about his invitation to New York. Whoever won the Republican nomination would have to face Douglas, known as the Little Giant because he combined diminutive stature with great political clout and oratorical ability. Douglas was the author of the nation's most controversial compromises on slavery and the presumptive Democratic presidential candidate.

Slavery was the "living issue of the day," as Lincoln put it, and the political landscape was splintering because of it. Every current event seemed to further fracture political parties and push men to one side or another; the Supreme Court's Dred Scott decision appalled slavery's opponents, while John Brown's 1859 raid on Harpers Ferry, Va., incensed its supporters and frightened its apologists.

The new Republican Party had been founded on antislavery principles in 1854 as a direct response to the Kansas-Nebraska Act. Devised by Douglas that same year, the act allowed settlers in the new territories to vote whether to permit slavery within their borders. Now some Republicans wondered if the party should de-emphasize its antislavery values in an effort to attract voters. Not Lincoln. Though he was a comparative moderate who would not abolish slavery where it already existed, Lincoln believed the Republicans must have a man "who does not hesitate to declare slavery a wrong; nor to deal with it as such; who believes in the power and duty of Congress to prevent the spread of it."

The stakes were high. Slaves constituted a larger piece of the American economy in terms of capital than even the railroads or manufacturing. The richest town per capita in the nation was Natchez, Miss. There were 4 million American slaves, the vast majority of them in the South, and a single field hand was worth anywhere from $1,100 to $1,500 -- roughly $75,000 to $135,000 in today's money. Small wonder Southern barons were so vociferous in defense of the "peculiar institution."

Northerners, on the other hand, were proud to be free laborers, and mass producers. The two cultures were so different that the Charleston Mercury said in 1858 that "the North and South . . . are not only two peoples, but they are rival, hostile Peoples."

For Lincoln, the issue was not cultural or economic but constitutional. He ticked off facts to his Cooper Union audience: 23 of the 39 men who signed the Constitution registered votes reflecting their belief that slavery should be federally regulated, and eventually extinct. George Washington himself said, "There is no man living who wishes more sincerely than I do to see a plan adopted for the abolition of it." In seeking to contain the spread of slavery, Lincoln implied, he was simply following the path laid down by the Founders.

His voice mellowed and his eyes brightened. When he made an important point, he jabbed a long finger in the air, as if to "dot his ideas on the minds of his hearers." He mocked Douglas and rebuked those Southerners who would "rule or ruin" through their threats to secede. In a soaring conclusion, Lincoln contended that if slavery was wrong, no expediency could justify its spread. "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!"

Applause broke over him. New York's largest papers all carried the full text of his words -- Lincoln made sure they had copies. In just 90 minutes, he had made himself a formidable candidate.

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