The nomination was supposed to be a shoo-in.
The senator from New York was the early, odds-on favorite and, in a large field of candidates, no one was really even close. Some of the senator’s opponents were nationally known, but were not seen as a viable threat to the nomination. There would be no incumbent to beat in the general election — the sitting president was not running for office. The opposing party was badly divided between a conservative branch and a liberal branch, and a reconciliation between the two seemed doubtful.
The major issues revolved around an unpopular war, immigration, trade, race and regionalism. Yes, indeed, the senator from New York was on the road to a sure nomination and the strategists were already beginning to plan the battle for the election of president of the United States.
And then things began to change.
A relatively unknown candidate from Illinois began to make a name for himself and started to gain the attention of the party leaders and the general electorate. His statewide reputation in Illinois as a great speaker was becoming recognized at the national level as people flocked to his speeches and the media sang his praises. The senator from New York was in trouble. There would be a viable challenge and the senator was not prepared.
Had overconfidence derailed the train? Poor strategy? Some even began to doubt the senator’s ability to win a national election. Criticisms arose as to the senator’s connection to the “old guard,” the “same old, same old” politics in Washington, the absence of a new spirit, the lack of a unifying agenda. Indeed, the nomination would go all the way to the party convention and victory would not be assured until the agonizing vote on the convention floor.
The election of 2008?
No, it’s the election of 1860.
I don’t know that history repeats itself, but the similarities between the two elections are remarkable and interesting to ponder. The political party in question was the Republican Party. The senator from New York was William Seward, a highly regarded and popular senator in the North, especially among the anti-slavery wing of the party.
The candidate from Illinois was Abraham Lincoln, a relative newcomer to the national political scene, although he had gained a reputation as a great orator from his speeches during the Lincoln-Douglas debates while running for senator from Illinois. He lost that election, but it gained him popular recognition and enhanced his chances as a candidate for president.
The sitting president was James Buchanan (1857-1861), who was very unpopular and had no interest in running again, even though he had only served one term. He is considered by many historians as ranking in the bottom five of all presidents in popularity and ability.
The issues were extraordinarily similar to today’s. The unpopular war was the Mexican War (1846-1848). While long since over, it was similar to Iraq in that many people had criticized it as a war of imperialism, unjust and even unconstitutional, with the hidden agenda of extending slavery beyond our territory. And Lincoln had publicly opposed it on the floor of Congress as a representative from the state of Illinois. Immigration was such a controversial issue that an entire party, the Know Nothings, had been formed to oppose the admission of Irish, Germans, Catholics and “Romans” to the country.
People weren’t worried about immigration from Mexico then. In fact, half of the country had just been annexed into the United States. Trade was a major issue, pitting “free-traders” against those who supported economic protection through tariffs (think NAFTA). Race was a major issue, as was regionalism, but in somewhat different manifestations than we see today. The opposing party, the Democratic Party, was so divided between its conservative and liberal wings that it could not even survive a convention and split into two branches, eventually nominating two separate candidates: Douglas (Northern Democrats) and Breckinridge (Southern Democrats) virtually assuring the Republican nominee the election (Huckabee and McCain were smart not to take the rivalry to that extent!)
And what of the other major candidates in this narrative? Hillary Clinton has been criticized as completely underestimating the potential of Barack Obama, as Seward did Lincoln. Seward, in fact, spent six months before the election touring Europe.
In her book “Team of Rivals,” Doris Kearns Goodwin notes that “Lincoln had developed a keen sense of what people felt, thought, needed, and wanted. Seward, too, had an instinctive feeling for people, but too many years in Washington had dulled those instincts.” Indeed, when Chicago was selected as the site for the Republican convention, even Seward thought it was a good idea, ignoring the fact that it was in Lincoln’s home state and the chairman of the Republican National Committee, Edwin Morgan, was the governor of New York.
Lincoln’s most famous speech during the campaign, the Cooper-Union Speech, was given in February of 1860 in Brooklyn, N.Y. It was noted then by Gideon Welles, editor of the Hartford Evening Press, that Lincoln was “an effective speaker because he is earnest, strong, honest, simple in style, and clear as crystal in his logic.”
Seward, who was born in Florida, N.Y., and attended Union College, was still certain of the nomination the day before the vote in Chicago. He contentedly and confidently waited for the results of the vote at his home in Auburn.
I don’t know if this year’s selection of a Democratic Party nominee will go all the way to the convention, nor do I mean to compare Obama to Lincoln or Clinton to Seward in ability or potential. But the historical similarities and ironies are just too rich not to take note.
You already know the end of one of the story lines: Lincoln won the nomination on the third ballot and went on to win the general election with 59 percent of the electoral vote out of a field of four candidates.
For Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama, the story is still unfolding. It is interesting to note that, in his ever-astonishing wisdom, Lincoln went on to appoint all of his major Republican opponents to positions in his cabinet. Seward had proven his loyalty by campaigning mightily for the future president and had thrown himself earnestly and devotedly into his election. He became a trusted adviser and personal friend in his capacity as secretary of state.
And what of the possibility of one final irony? Could the hand of history reach into our century and unite these two one-time underdogs in one final way, establishing a link between the “Great Emancipator” and our first African-American president?
Anthony Frank lives in Schenectady and is a regular contributor to the Sunday Opinion section.