Editor’s note: Flashback, which has been permanently renamed Vintage Chicago Tribune, will highlight stories about the Chicago Tribune for the next six weeks as part of the newspaper’s 175th anniversary.
On the run-up to the 1860 Republican Convention, Abraham Lincoln got cold feet. The Chicago Tribune was tirelessly touting him as the party’s choice for president. But Lincoln was juggling his law practice and candidacy. In March, he fought and won a tough, 11-day courtroom battle in Chicago.
So he confessed his misgivings to the newspaper’s editor. “See, here, you Tribune boys got me up a peg too high,” he told Joseph Medill, the paper’s editor. “How about the vice presidency? Won’t that do?”
Medill wouldn’t have it. He’d worked too hard persuading the Republicans to hold their convention in Chicago and getting the city to build a hall to hold it in.
“We’re not playing second in this dance to any musician. It’s president or nothing. Else you can count the Tribune out. We’re not fooling away our time and science on the vice presidency.”
Medill’s insistence on going full-bore for the presidency established Chicago, which is now making a bid to host the 2024 Democratic Convention, as the go-to town for political conventions.
Between 1860 and 1996, Chicago hosted 25 Republican and Democratic conventions. No other city has hosted nearly as many, with the runner-up, Baltimore, claiming 10, followed by Philadelphia, with 9.
Add to that total the founding of the Prohibition Party at an 1869 convention in Chicago’s Farwell Hall. Plus Theodore Roosevelt’s Progressive Party, founded in 1912 as a breakaway from the Republican Party that also met in Chicago that same year.
Several major party conventions marked historical turning points. William Jennings Bryan’s electrifying “Cross of Gold” speech at the 1896 Democratic Party’s Chicago convention made Democrats the champion of the underdog — beginning with hard-pressed farmers who were losing their land to foreclosure.
In 1932, the Democrats chose Franklin Roosevelt as the savior of the “Forgotten Man” of the Great Depression, and in 1940, the party nominated FDR for an unprecedented third term. Word War II was on the horizon when, thanks to a Chicago ward boss yelling into a hidden microphone, the Chicago Stadium was rocked with the sound of: “Labor wants Roosevelt! Women want Roosevelt!
Cops and anti-war protesters battled on Chicago’s streets during the 1968 Democratic Convention that nominated Hubert Humphrey. Declared a “police riot” by a federal investigation, those televised scenes prefaced Richard Nixon’s winning the White House.
But never were the stakes as high as in 1860. “A house divided against itself, cannot stand,” Lincoln had said two years earlier in a speech accepting the Republican nomination to U.S. senator. The Whig Party, his previous affiliation, had been torn apart by the issue of slavery.
Slavery had been abolished in the North but white Southerners considered it a birthright. It was enshrined in a Constitution that doled out seats in the House of Representatives by each state’s population of free people, and three-fifths of “all other persons,” a euphemism for enslaved people.
For Medill, ending slavery was a moral imperative. He helped to found the “Underground Road,” an organization that sent weapons to the militant abolitionist John Brown, who was waging a shooting war with proslavery forces in Kansas. But Brown was hanged in 1859 after a raid at Harpers Ferry, Virginia. Intended to provoke a slave revolt, it threatened to cost the anti-slavery movement its moderate supporters.
Fortunately Medill had identified a moderate standard-bearer at the 1856 founding of Illinois’ Republican Party.
“He came forward with a giraffe-like swing (he never walked straight like other men did) and stood in front of the pulpit,” Medill recalled. But after a few sentences, the delegates shouted to him to get up into the pulpit. He did so and there finished his “Demosthenian speech” — a reference to a noted statesman of ancient Athens.
Everyone in the church was standing or climbing on tables, and cheering. Medill and other reporters were so moved they forgot to take notes on what became known as “Lincoln’s Lost Speech.”
To make sure that didn’t happen again, the Tribune sent a stenographer along when Lincoln debated Steven Douglas during their 1858 race for the U.S. Senate. Lincoln’s arguments were to form the basis for the campaign literature of his presidential run.
At their Freeport debate, William “Deacon” Bross, a co-owner of the Tribune, briefly held things up, saying‚ “Hold on Lincoln, you can’t speak yet,” because he couldn’t find the paper’s stenographer. Bross yelled out for the man, who raised his hand from the rear and was carried over the crowd’s heads to the platform where he could record the ensuing speech.
Though the 1858 election was won by Douglas, a forthright defender of slavery, it made Lincoln, whose political resume was limited to a seat in the Illinois legislature almost two decades earlier, more widely known.
He was still a long shot when the Republican Convention opened in May 1860, in the Wigwam, at the corner of Lake and Market streets.
Gov. William Seward of New York seemed likely to leave the Wigwam with the Republican nomination. Previously a senator, he vehemently opposed slavery.
Being a well-known abolitionist cut both ways, since calling for an end to slavery could scare off moderate voters. Lincoln advocated only stopping the practice’s spread in states being carved out of America’s Western territories.
But that argument would go for naught unless Seward could be stopped from winning on the first ballot. That was less likely to be accomplished with lofty words than through backroom horse-trading and a touch of dirty politics.
Medill, using his position on the Illinois State Central Committee, had New York’s delegates placed at one end of the vast hall, so their cries of “Seward! Seward!” might be muffled. As insurance, Medill filled the galleries with Lincoln die-hards.
“It was the meanest trick I ever did in my life,” Medill later said.
Pennsylvania’s delegation, the most important cache of uncommitted votes, was seated at the other end of the Wigwam. In the middle, distancing New York’s contingent from Pennsylvania’s, was a bastion of Lincoln loyalists: the Illinois, Indiana, and New Jersey delegations.
A reporter from the Cincinnati Commercial described the scene as nominations were made and seconded. First, Seward’s:
“Looking from the stage over the vast amphitheater nothing was to be seen below but thousands of hats — a black, mighty swarm of hats — flying with the velocity of hornets over a mass of human heads, most of the mouths of which as appeared were open.”
Then Lincoln’s delegates got their chance to whoop and howl:
“Imagine all the hogs ever slaughtered in Cincinnati giving their death squeals together, a score of big steam whistles going together (steam at 160 pounds per inch) and you conceive something of the same nature.”
The night before, Seward’s supporters, expecting a quick victory, consumed 300 bottles of Champagne.
But the roll call of the states was sobering. Maine thought to be solidly for Seward gave six votes to Lincoln. New Hampshire’s vote was even more shocking: one for Seward, seven for Lincoln.
During the third round, Medill sat with the Ohio delegation, which was backing a favorite-son candidate, Salmon P. Chase. Swing your vote to Lincoln, and your guy can have anything he wants, Medill told the delegation’s chairman, Davis Carter.
“How do you know that?” Carter asked. “I know and wouldn’t promise if I didn’t,” Medill responded
Carter stood up and said: “I rise, Mr. Chairman, to announce the change of four votes to Ohio from Mr. Chase to Mr. Lincoln.”
One of the secretaries with the tally sheet in his hand shouted: “Fire the salute! Abe Lincoln is nominated!” the Cincinnati reporter wrote.
He joined a wild celebration on Chicago’s streets that went on for hours. Exhausted, he and the Ohio delegation boarded a homeward-bound train but didn’t get much sleep.
As the train passed through village after village, the passengers were awakened by cannons, drums and “the whooping of the boys who were delighted with the idea of a candidate for the presidency who 30 years ago split rails on the Sangamon River — classic stream now and forevermore — whose neighbors named him ‘honest.’ ”
Sign up to receive the Vintage Chicago Tribune newsletter at chicagotribune.com/newsletters for more photos and stories from the Tribune’s archives.
May 22, 2022 at 08:37AM