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History's Headlines: Honest Abe and Pennsylvania

Published On: Jan 30 2013 03:48:39 PM EST   Updated On: Jan 14 2013 05:34:10 PM EST

There is an anecdote about Abraham Lincoln and politics that does not make it into the current Hollywood movie “Lincoln” - a film that has drawn both critical praise and large crowds - but it might well have.


There is an anecdote about Abraham Lincoln and politics that does not make it into the current Hollywood movie "Lincoln" - a film that has drawn both critical praise and large crowds - but it might well have.

The year is 1873. In the Illinois mansion of Judge David Davis, Lincoln’s campaign manager in 1860 and by then a U.S. Supreme Court justice, a small crowd of men has gathered after a long dinner. 

Davis, a noted storyteller, is sharing with his friends memories of the Chicago Convention of 1860 that got Lincoln the Republican presidential nomination. As the brandy and cigars are passed around the judge recalled the many promises they had made to many- particularly the Pennsylvania delegation- in order to get their support. Some of those promises were kept, others were not.   


Among those present was someone not included in the judge’s usual circle of friends, a young man who was studying to become a Methodist clergyman. A deep admirer of Lincoln, he was said to have been shocked by hearing how much political horse-trading went on. Finally he felt he had to speak up.

“Judge Davis,” he said, looking at his host. “It sounds to me like you prevaricated a bit, sir.” Davis responded with a roar. “Prevaricated sir? Hell, sir, we lied, sir, lied like hell, sir!”

lincoln_wheeling_and_dealing It is this type of political wheeling and dealing according to “Lincoln” that went on in 1865 in order to get enough votes in the House of Representatives for approval for the 13th Amendment to abolish slavery. Everything from trafficking in political offices to outright bribery was done to make bad means lead to a good end.

But it was not just something that came out of the blue in 1865. Political life in 19th century America has been defined by one historian as “a game without rules.”  Bosses and wire pullers tended to operate with ready cash and job offers in hand.

And even a politician as lofty as Massachusetts Senator Daniel Webster found nothing odd about working as a lobbyist for the Bank of the United States while in office. “I believe my retainer has not been renewed or refreshed as usual,” he wrote to bank president Nicolas Biddle on December 21, 1833.

pa_map On the eve of the 1860 campaign season Pennsylvania and the Lehigh Valley reflected a changing political landscape. The state and the region had been Democratic since the election of Jefferson in 1800. Pennsylvania’s "Keystone State" nickname comes from a speech by a Democratic politician, who hailed it in 1810 as “the keystone in the Democratic arch” of victory. But things started to change, beginning in 1840 with opening of the country’s first commercially successful anthracite coal powered iron furnace in Catasauqua by David Thomas.

By 1860 many people locally were working in the iron trade. And both workers and iron furnace owners were leaning toward supporting the pro-business Whig Party. One of their major issues was to protect America’s “infant industries” with a high tariff or tax on imported foreign iron. Lincoln had run as a staunch Whig in heavily Democratic Illinois, and in his one term as a Congressman in the 1840s had supported their policies.

lincoln_family_Berks_home But the Whig party collapsed in the 1850s and the Republican Party was just starting to emerge. At first it was seen as so radical that it could not even appear on a ballot under that name and called itself the Washington Party. Davis knew to get Pennsylvania he had to work through its local state party if he wanted to get delegates to vote for Lincoln at the Chicago convention. He played on the fact that in the 18th century Lincoln’s family had lived in Berks County and had fought Indians on the frontier before moving west. But he needed a “go to guy” with connections, and that meant Simon Cameron.

Cameron’s willingness to switch parties (he had started as a Democrat, became a Whig and was now a Republican) made him distrusted even in his own party. Senator Thaddeus Stevens of Pennsylvania, played in “Lincoln” by Tommy Lee Jones, once said the only thing Cameron wouldn’t steal was “a red hot stove.”  But that made him popular with Davis. Here was a man he could work with.

Lincoln according to the tradition of the day did not attend the convention.  His chief opponent was New York Senator William H. Seward. A polished college graduate and a skilled attorney with a national reputation he was assumed to be anointed for the nomination. But after several votes it was clear that it was not going to be an easy path for Seward or any candidate. And it had boiled down to the Pennsylvania delegates. Among them was Mark Young of Allentown whose family was deeply involved with the iron trade.

cameron Their major demand was that the tariff be kept high. It was one that Davis had little trouble with since Lincoln was a high tariff man. But to reassure the vote Cameron wanted a high level cabinet post for himself. When Davis telegraphed Lincoln about this arrangement he was wired back to make no deals. Davis was not happy. But he told his delegation that “Lincoln ain’t here…so we will go ahead, as if we haven’t heard from him, and he must ratify it.”

What followed next was somewhat murky. According to Doris Kearns Goodwin’s book “Team of Rivals,” Davis never promised a cabinet post to Cameron- only that the Illinois delegation would “recommend” him for a cabinet post. It was the Pennsylvania delegation that simply assumed this was a pledge. As a result, Kearns notes, Davis “had achieved what many considered impossible”- Lincoln’s nomination.

In 1862 Cameron proved a failure as Secretary of War and was replaced by the skilled Edwin Stanton. But without a Simon Cameron and Pennsylvania’s delegation there would never have been a President Lincoln.