Which presidential election would you consider the most significant and controversial in US history and why? Would it be the 1932 election in which FDR routed Herbert Hoover, which led to the New Deal and the eventual end to the Great Depression? Perhaps, you would select the 1876 election in which Rutherford B. Hayes defeated Samuel Tilden? (For you non-history buffs, on Election Day, Tilden, the Dem, won the popular vote and captured 184 electoral votes to 165 for Hayes, the Republican, with 20 electors in dispute. After much negotiation, in order to avoid a constitutional crisis the powers that be agreed to a controversial compromise deal in which all 20 electoral votes were awarded to Hayes making him president. In return, the GOP agreed to withdraw all Federal troops from the former Confederate States ending the controversial Reconstruction period.) Or, perhaps, you would favor the 2000 (“hanging chad”) election in which the dispute was eventually resolved by the Supreme Court, along straight political lines, in favor of Bush 43 over Al Gore? Or, is it this year’s election with all the twists and turns that have and may still occur?
In my opinion, it is none of those. The nod goes to the 1860 election won by Abraham Lincoln. Here’s why:
- The country was sharply divided over slavery, not only North vs. South, but also in some of the newly settled territories, such as Kansas and Texas. The slavery issue had been dividing the country since colonial days, percolating like a simmering volcano ready to explode. Politicians, as is their wont, had been loath to make the hard choices necessary to resolve it. Instead they had delayed decisive action repeatedly. By 1860 the issue had come to a head as several southern states were threatening to secede from the union over it. Secession, if allowed to stand, would have destroyed the nation, perhaps, even enabling the European powers to gobble up the pieces. The next president would have no choice but to deal with it once and for all.
- The political situation in the country was in disarray. The nominations and general election were wide open. The Democratic Party had difficulty settling on a nominee. Finally, it nominated Stephen A. Douglas. Douglas was unacceptable to southern Dems, so they nominated Vice President John Breckenridge, of Kentucky. The Union Party nominated former Tennessee senator John Bell. The fledgling GOP was unable to agree on a candidate prior to the convention. The major contenders were William Seward, a veteran politician who had held several political offices, notably Governor of NY, Ohio Governor Salmon Chase, former Missouri congressman Edward Bates, and a little known, relatively inexperienced former congressman from Illinois named Abraham Lincoln.
- There were no primaries in 1860, so the GOP convention was wide open. Seward was the front runner, but he had a lot of enemies. (Sound familiar)? One that you may have heard of was the prominent publisher Horace Greeley (“Go West, young man. Go West.”). They spread the word that Seward, who was not without controversy, was anathema to many people, especially in the key states of Illinois, Indiana, Pennsylvania and New Jersey. Since Breckenridge was the consensus heavy favorite in all the southern states, the GOP felt it had to win virtually all of the northern ones. Therefore, there were doubts concerning Seward’s electability. Consequently, his appeal waned.
- As Seward began to fade, more and more delegates turned to Lincoln. Lincoln had not been considered a major candidate prior to the convention, and in most years probably would have been ignored. But, this was not a normal year. The country was on the brink of civil war, and the GOP was desperate to win the presidency. Lincoln’s only hope had been to bide his time and hope for an open convention in which he could become a compromise candidate. His strategy worked as he became perceived as a compromise moderate candidate who could carry the above key states.
- He was nominated on the third ballot.
- Here’s a lesson for today’s fractured GOP. Seward, though spurned by the Party hierarchy at the convention he had entered as the front-runner, still campaigned vigorously for Lincoln. His support, especially in NY, was crucial to Lincoln’s narrow victory.
- As we know, historians generally rank Lincoln as one of three or four greatest presidents. Ironically, if not for the confluence of various unlikely events and circumstances as noted above, he would never have been elected or even nominated. His greatest achievement, what I believe to be the greatest achievement of any of our presidents, was to preserve the Union by winning the Civil War. Freeing the slaves was a very significant by-product, but Lincoln always said his main objective was to keep the union intact. Freeing the slaves was a means to that end and not universally popular at the time, even in the North. In fact, it was one of the main factors that led to his assassination.