A. Lincoln, Conventioneer

A. Lincoln, Conventioneer

Abraham Lincoln was a diehard politico and devoted partisan, but he only attended one national party convention, a Whig gathering that took place in Philadelphia in 1848. He was not even an official delegate to that big event, but just elbowed his way in among thousands of attendees. Yet, like always, the determined future president made the most of his experience.

Abraham Lincoln in 1846. Image courtesy of the House Divided Project and Library of Congress.
Abraham Lincoln in 1846. Image courtesy of the House Divided Project and Library of Congress.

By that point in his career, Lincoln, age 39, was by no means an outsider. He was then a first-term congressman, the only Whig member of the seven-man Illinois House delegation. That made him a reasonably prominent figure, at least within his caucus on Capitol Hill. Democrats controlled Illinois almost from top to bottom, but the state was part of a fast-growing “Western” bloc, and thus represented a prime target for national campaigns of that era. Illinois was especially important to the prospects for General Zachary Taylor, the leading contender for the 1848 Whig nomination, and the man whose fate had driven Lincoln to show up in the City of Brotherly Love.

It was rough elbows more than fraternity, however, that motivated the Illinois politician. “In my anxiety for the result,” Lincoln admitted, “I was led to attend the Philadelphia convention.”[1]  The congressman was anxious because his party was so bitterly divided. The issues were much different than today, but the open and widespread discontent offers some curious echoes to the grumpy partisan situation in 2016. Taylor and his ruthless forces were busy hijacking the Whig Party, trying to wrench the organization out of the hands of its beloved (but aging) standard-bearer Henry Clay. Despite his long-standing admiration for the Whig Party founder, Lincoln was very much a part of this coup. He had been one of Taylor’s earliest and most effective supporters in Washington.

It had been an ugly nomination fight, conducted mostly behind-the-scenes during the first six months of 1848. Yet the cagey 71-year-old Clay, known as the “Sage of Ashland,” and some of his key media allies, like powerful New York Tribune editor Horace Greeley, were still battling fiercely throughout early June for control of the party and its platform. Lincoln feared for the results.

“The Assassination of the Sage of Ashland,” an 1848 political cartoon depicting supporters of Zachary Taylor plotting to attack Henry Clay. Image courtesy of the Library of Congress.

The boisterous Whig convention opened on Wednesday morning, June 7th at a large exhibition hall on the corner of Ninth and Sansom streets, known locally as the “Chinese Museum,” because it had once housed a rare collection of Asian artifacts. Greeley’s Tribune described the scene in Philadelphia as a madhouse, claiming, “No city was ever so much crowded as this one is at present.” Out-of-towners were apparently trying to sleep together in groups, “even ten” to a room, according to the Tribune’s bemused correspondent. Adding to the mayhem was the presence of former U.S. senator Lewis Cass (D-MI), just recently nominated as the Democratic nominee for president, along with throngs of his own energized supporters. As the convention week unfolded, there were multiple fights as the two sides clashed in the city’s streets, sometimes with knives drawn, and after plenty of late-night drinking, singing and shouting.[2]

The Chinese Museum, the site of the 1848 Whig Convention. Courtesy of the Free Library of Philadelphia.

Congressman Lincoln did not drink alcohol, nor was he much for street brawling, but he proved quite busy that week in Philadelphia, working the convention hall and the various social gatherings on behalf of the Taylor campaign. Lincoln wrote about some of those conversations shortly afterwards in ways that now help illustrate his maturing political style.

He observed to his wife Mary, for example, that although he felt lost at first, among the “multitude of strange faces,” he still managed to find his way. He told her how he had met up with a delegate from Arkansas named Thomas W. Newton, who actually knew Mary since his local law partner (Robert Crittenden) was the son of a prominent Kentucky family (like the Todds). Lincoln joked that the loose convention rules had allowed Newton to cast three ballots on behalf of his missing state delegation, making the former southern congressman, “a sort of Trinity.”[3]

 This was also the moment when Lincoln first encountered the ever-memorable Thaddeus Stevens. At the time, the cantankerous future Radical leader was merely a shrewd attorney from Lancaster, Pennsylvania struggling, like Lincoln, to make the social rounds. Yet somehow these two rising nineteenth-century political titans found each other, and Lincoln later made sure that they stayed in contact. “You may possibly remember seeing me at the Philadelphia Convention,” wrote the Illinois networker in early September, “introduced to you as the lone whig star of Illinois.” Still anxious about the fate of Taylor’s chances (now as the party’s formal nominee), Lincoln claimed he was looking for the “undisguised opinion of some experienced and sagacious Pennsylvania politician” on how the Keystone State would turn out in the fall. “In casting about for such a man,” Lincoln wrote smoothly, “I have settled upon you.” Stevens proved equally charming in reply, offering guarded optimism about Pennsylvania, though only if the Whigs managed to co-opt the state’s powerful anti-immigrant “natives” (a force apparently still to be reckoned with). Stevens also asked Lincoln for insight about the perennial swing states of Ohio and Indiana, since “your means of information are much better than mine.”[4]

Thaddeus Stevens. Image courtesy of the Library of Congress and the House Divided Project.
Thaddeus Stevens. Image courtesy of the Library of Congress and the House Divided Project.

All of this suggests some revealing ways that Lincoln was starting to emerge as a major national partisan figure, a full decade before the Lincoln-Douglas debates. Yet perhaps no bit of evidence from the Philadelphia convention evokes as much about Lincoln’s future as a recently discovered fragment from the very moment of Taylor’s nomination.

The Whigs nominated Taylor on Friday morning, June 9th at about 10:30 a.m., after four hotly contested ballots. Lincoln was thrilled and soon rushed out of the Chinese Museum, in order to share the news with his fellow party activists back in Illinois. He drafted a message for a nearby telegraph operator that was to be sent to his hometown Whig newspaper, the Illinois Journal. “General TAYLOR has received the nomination of the Convention for President of the U. States. A. Lincoln,” read his urgent dispatch, sent at exactly 11:15 a.m. and received in Springfield by noon.[5] It was only 17 words, but this marks the first known example of Lincoln actually using the telegraph. That telling milestone, however, slipped out of general notice and has only just recently been rediscovered and posted online by the Papers of Abraham Lincoln project.

The telegraph was a new phenomenon back then, unveiled only four years earlier, by Samuel F. B. Morse, during the 1844 Democratic National Convention in Baltimore. By the time of the Whig convention in Philadelphia, American newspapers had only just started to rely on telegraphic correspondence for their national political reporting. This explains the birth at that time of the Associated Press. It also helps explain Lincoln’s haste. He was not merely excited about the results of the balloting or the prospect of using the newfangled technology. Lincoln was also clearly intent on helping out his close friends and allies Simeon Francis and Alfred T. Bledsoe, Whig editors of the Illinois Journal, who had been touting their telegraphic access for months to skeptical prairie readers. This was presumably a break out moment for their big investment.

Page image of Lincoln's first telegram, announcing Zachary Taylor's nomination. Image courtesy of the Papers of Abraham Lincoln.
Page image of Lincoln’s first telegram, announcing Zachary Taylor’s nomination. Image courtesy of the Papers of Abraham Lincoln.

It was also a breakout moment for Abraham Lincoln. He followed up on his first national convention with his first national speaking tour, delivering pro-Taylor campaign speeches as far North as Massachusetts. He soon established himself as the leader of the Illinois Whig Party. But, of course, the Whigs were a dying movement, and Taylor proved to be a short-lived occupant of the White House. Lincoln would need to reinvent himself in the 1850s as a Republican and reconnect with Eastern contacts in order to gain his own nomination for president from the 1860 Chicago convention. That was a happy result, by the way that he heard on the streets of Springfield, reported to him from the nation’s now-ubiquitous telegraph wire.


[1] Abraham Lincoln Richard S. Thomas, June 13, 1848, Collected Works, 1: 477-8.

[2] New-York Daily Tribune, “The Convention –Arrival of General Cass –Loco-Foco Disturbances,” June 8, 1848, p. 2: 1.

[3] Abraham Lincoln to Mary Todd Lincoln, July 2, 1848, Collected Works, 1: 495.

[4] Abraham Lincoln to Thaddeus Stevens, September 3, 1848, Collected Works, 2: 1 (via Lincoln’s Writings: The Multi-Media Edition). Thaddeus Stevens to Abraham Lincoln, September 7, 1848, in Beverly Wilson Palmer and Holly Byers Ochoa, eds., The Selected Papers of Thaddeus Stevens: Volume 1, January 1814 – March 1865 (Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 1997), 1: 102-3.

[5] Abraham Lincoln to Simeon Francis, June 9, 1848, in (Springfield) Illinois Journal, June 15, 1848, p. 2:4, Papers of Abraham Lincoln.

Matthew Pinsker

Matthew Pinsker holds the Brian Pohanka Chair for Civil War History at Dickinson College in Carlisle, Pennsylvania, where he also serves as director of the House Divided Project, a multi-media effort designed to provide engaging instructional resources on the Civil War era for K-12 and undergraduate classrooms. He has written widely about Abraham Lincoln, the Civil War era and the history of American politics. His next book, tentatively entitled, Boss Lincoln: Understanding Abraham Lincoln’s Partisan Leadership is forthcoming from W.W. Norton & Co.

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