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Odd Wisconsin Archive

Political Conventions, 1860-style

We're deluged at the moment by media coverage of the major parties' national conventions. Like everything else, these rituals possess a rich and colorful heritage. For an example, let's go back almost a century and half to the convention that nominated Abraham Lincoln – a meeting whose political chicanery we don't usually associate with "Honest Abe."

Lincoln was a dark horse. William Seward of New York was the Republican Party champion and his campaign was being managed by party boss Thurlow Weed, a master of political intrigue. But as they say in real estate, "location is everything," and the convention was being held in Chicago, Lincoln's home turf. A special edifice called the "Wigwam" was constructed to hold the thousands of delegates and spectators, including Platteville editor Martin Rindlaub.

"Shortly after the convention was called to order," Rindlaub recalled, "John Hanks, a cousin of Abraham Lincoln, carried two weather-beaten fence rails which Lincoln had split onto the platform, where they were received with tremendous enthusiasm. Lincoln thereupon became the 'rail-splitter' candidate..."

When the voting began, Seward topped the first ballot, but without enough votes to secure the nomination. Before the next day's balloting, Lincoln supporters persuaded many delegates to abandon fringe candidates and support the hometown favorite instead. When the roll was called on the second day, Lincoln had nearly caught up to Seward but neither man possessed the necessary 233 delegates to win the nomination.

According to Lincoln biographer Carl Sandburg, on the morning of the third day 1,000 Seward supporters marched through Chicago streets to drum up momentum for their candidate. But when they arrived at the Wigwam, they couldn't get in -- all the spectator seats and standing-room galleries were already occupied by Lincoln sympathizers admitted on counterfeit tickets (Lincoln, it should be noted, had no knowledge of these machinations). By packing the house with vocal Lincoln supporters, his organization hoped to channel the emotional momentum inside the convention hall to the Rail-splitter.

A delegation from Wisconsin was among those stuck outside. "The states were voting," recalled LaCrosse resident Leonard Lottridge, "and as fast as they were announced, a man on the roof of the Wigwam would shout it down to the crowd. It was a scene never to be forgotten – the instant hush when the man on the roof held up his hand, the tumultuous uproar when Lincoln's votes were announced." Even Seward supporters like Lottridge could feel the tide turning. When teh roof-top announcer reported that the Ohio delegation had put Lincoln over the top, "We never heard just what he said… The air was full of hats. Men threw their arms about each other, weeping, yelling, jumping up and down, half crazy."

Media coverage of open primary elections (pioneered in Wisconsin) have made such vicious floor fights rare at presidential nominating conventions, though they are still possible. Gone forever, though, is the ability to sway a vote by packing the house with cheering spectators; today candidates hire advertising agencies to sway the electorate's emotions. As the election unfolds this fall, Odd Wisconsin will shed light on the history of that process, drawing from the Society's rich manuscript collections documenting the public relations and mass communications industries. Stay tuned.

:: Posted in Curiosities on September 3, 2008

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