I regard Lincoln as very widely misunderstood in one of the most important attributes of his character.
Alexander McClure, Republican leader from Pennsylvania
On Saturday, May 18, 1860, George Ashmun, a congressman from Massachusetts, colleague and friend of Lincoln since the 1840s, and president of the National Republican Convention, arrived in Springfield with the committee of exhausted delegates who were there to perform their official function. As they worked their way through the Springfield crowd that had assembled in front of the modest two-story house, the moment weighed on the men in a manner that was in stark contrast to the raucous day before, which had culminated, once the ballot that put Lincoln over the top had been tallied, with cheers and the stomping of feet, boisterous demonstrations and blasting cannons. The committee members now showed no sign of the celebration they had left behind in Chicago, for the gravity of what they were about to witness cast a reverential pall over all of them. Lincoln’s sober demeanor set the tone. Not even Lincoln’s playful sons, Tad and Willie, brought much levity to the moment.
After the delegates crowded into the “large north parlor,” which was plainly though tastefully furnished, there was a moment of awkward confusion and embarrassment as they looked at Lincoln and he at them. Standing at the rear of the back parlor bowing in jerks, pale, with compressed lips, he seemed an ordinary man. The delegates shifted uneasily and nervously looked around for Ashmun, who was urged forward to make the official notification. Lincoln heard him with folded hands and inclined head, his eyes so deep they might have been closed. Then he stepped forward, accepted the nomination, shook each by hand, and hearkened to each name, all with an attentive ease and grace that surprised some of them, his face conveying to those who then for the first time met him, “an impression,” as contemporary David Brainerd Williamson sentimentally wrote, “of that sincere, loving nature which those who had known him long and well had learned in some measure to comprehend and revere.”
Morton Wilkinson, a member of the delegation whose presence was intended to symbolize party unity—he, like all of the other Minnesota Republicans, was initially a Seward man—likely did not share these impressions. But his reservations were not founded on malice. Quite the contrary. He had known Lincoln for years through his brothers, who knew him from political circles in Illinois. Through their prompting, Lincoln had endorsed Wilkinson’s St. Paul law practice in 1850. And even though the presidential candidate had not yet declared his support for the abolition of slavery—virtually the entire political career of William Seward, a fellow New Yorker, included his advocacy for emancipation—the reservation of the radical Wilkinson toward the moderate Lincoln was more tactically cautious: he had instructed his men to “keep cool under all conditions” and not offend the Minnesotans who he knew belonged to Seward. As recently as the day before, the candidate had sent a note to his men at the convention commenting on the position of his chief rival on the issue of slavery: “I agree with Seward in his ‘Irrepressible Conflict,’ but I do not endorse his ‘Higher Law’ doctrine. Make no contracts that will bind me.” Nonetheless, Wilkinson understood that it was in the nature of coalition politics to have to settle, if one was lucky, for the second choice. But not even this got to the source of Wilkinson’s reservation. As long as he had known the candidate, the Illinoisan, despite his folksy manner, somehow remained inaccessible. Now, in these uncertain times, it was unnerving to be led by a man one did not really know, whose moderation could easily be viewed as weakness to the detriment of the nation.
Most Republican leaders in Minnesota never took to Lincoln wholeheartedly as one of their own, for he was not really like them at all: he was a westerner, and by virtue of their residency, they were as well. But they were Eastern-born men who had moved to Minnesota to claim and secure the land for freedom and opportunity. They arrived with skills or professions that could be plied to transform the savage wilderness into an enlightened civilization as well as launch them into a lifestyle that afforded them relative comfort, social standing, and the sensibility to pursue high-minded goals. For the most part they were not men who had struggled with the hand-to-mouth drudgery of the desperately poor and illiterate. They embraced reform, education, temperance, and the abiding belief that all men deserved just treatment from their fellows. Above all they believed in a society in which a man willing to work hard enough and show industry and sober comportment could move beyond his desperate origins. In this, Lincoln, with his rough-hewn, rugged-individual persona who would lead the nation as its president, embodied their greatest ideals. And yet, it was perhaps this early life experience—self-made, self-taught, self-counseled—that imbued Lincoln’s deportment, a character trait that somehow rendered him inaccessible, enigmatic.
“A well-controlled and intensely private man,” observes historian Eric Foner, “he seldom disclosed his innermost thoughts, even to close friends.” David Davis, who knew Lincoln well, described him as “the most reticent, secretive man I ever saw or expect to see.” Hardly the heroic and dashing figure one imagined to lead a crusade against the tyranny of Southern slavocracy. Yet, Lincoln was now their standard bearer, this distant, cunning, genial but awkward man against whom they voted in Chicago on the first, second, and third ballots. It would take a leap of faith for loyal party members to accept that the national leaders best understood the calculus for political victory, the reward being keeping free soil free, and, purely on a provincial level, the prospect of acquiring wealth and power through patronage. Beyond this few could anticipate the full extent to which the America that he would lead, then leave because of the assassin’s bullet, would be transformed.
Reflecting on how deeply the Minnesotans had been committed to Seward, and how the New Yorker’s speech on that rainy day in St. Paul later on September 18—intended to be part of a canvass for Abraham Lincoln—instead amplified their disappointment that Seward would not lead them in the fall elections, one could not help thinking of the challenge Lincoln faced in marshaling his party with different loyalties, divergent interests, and a general but fundamental skepticism of him, his vision, and his ability to lead, in the best of times. The challenge, of course, would seem insurmountable in a period of national crisis, especially if the cause for war was slavery, as Wilkinson felt it should be. Though Republicans were determined to prohibit the spread of that institution onto free soil and into the territories, they—including Minnesota Republicans as a whole—were mixed on the issues of absolute emancipation, black political equality, black military service, black resettlement to Northern states, and colonization. Lincoln understood this about his amorphous Northern constituency. Indeed, many of their prejudices were his. Nonetheless, his political calculations were often checked by an acute pragmatism that monitored just how far it was prudent for him to go. Though it would always anger the radicals, Lincoln’s political North Star would always be holding the nation together by maintaining solid footing with most of his party. In those uncertain times, the politics of the candidate, Wilkinson understood, would be one of compromise.
Concluding the formalities of the evening, Lincoln said, “Mrs. Lincoln will be pleased to see you in the other room, gentlemen. You must be thirsty after your journey.” They passed into the library and met Mrs. Lincoln, who, offering light refreshments, as one delegate mentioned, was “a distinguished ornament of the White House.” Earlier friends had delivered hampers of wine and liquors so that Lincoln could extend “the usually expected hospitality.” But the teetotaler Lincoln had returned the gifts, and instead made ready for the reception according to his own ideas of hospitality. No one said a word when the only drink offered was water. Wilkinson, a temperance man, was at least pleased with this gesture. By midnight, after many speeches and a brilliant fireworks display in the sky over Springfield, the committee members boarded the cars for Chicago.