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Introduction Bloomington, Illinois: December 1858
Abraham Lincoln stepped out of the court house and into a biting prairie wind that raced across the town square, a slap in the face to remind him how close he had come to living a dream. Lincoln had to swallow the jagged fact that he was serving a life sentence on the Eighth Judicial Circuit of Illinois, a prisoner of his profession who would rather be somewhere else and doing something else. Two months shy of his fiftieth birthday, Lincoln had just completed his twenty-second year as a circuit-riding attorney. Over that time he had made more than fifty trips to Bloomington, a town he knew as well as any in Illinois save for his home of Springfield. He enjoyed the town; he had many friends here. But he had prepared, hoped, and expected to give up the circuit and enter a national phase of his career—in essence, a new life. Now, based on what had transpired over the previous autumn, Lincoln well knew that he would frequent Bloomington again and again, year after year, and perhaps for the rest of his life.1
If Lincoln took the time to size up his year, he would have deemed it more bitter than sweet. He was still smarting over the 1858 Senate campaign, one in which he stood toe-to-toe with "the Little Giant"—Stephen A. Douglas—for seven debates. As a result of that campaign more Republican votes were tallied than Democratic ones in the November elections in the state. But U.S. senators were not elected directly by the vote of the people, as were U.S. representatives. The Founding Fathers had determined that Senate elections would be an example of a "republican democracy"; that is, the voting public directly elected state legislators, who would in turn vote for the U.S. senator. Despite the Republican majority in the popular vote in Illinois in November 1858, more assemblymen were elected from the Democratic Party than from the Republican Party. (The votes were closer in districts where Douglas-supporting legislators prevailed, and there were more holdover Democratic state senators not up for reelection.) So unless a huge surprise was in the offing, in the first week of January the General Assembly was destined to officially award Stephen A. Douglas his third six-year term as United States senator from the state of Illinois.
Lincoln had worked hard to stay stoic and upbeat in the face of his inevitable defeat—his second in four years as a U.S. Senate candidate. "The fight must go on" was his rally cry. "Let no one falter," Lincoln had urged a supporter after the November election; "we shall [have] fun again." Lincoln later claimed he developed this positive attitude while walking home that rainy night in November after learning the disheartening election returns that showed the Democrats maintained control of the legislature. "The path had been worn hog-backed and was slippery," recalled Lincoln. "My foot slipped from under me, knocking the other one out of the way; but I recovered myself & lit square: and I said to myself, ‘It’s a slip and not a fall.’"2
But Lincoln had indeed fallen in the month that had passed since encouraging Republican Party loyalists. Witnesses testified that even in crowded rooms Lincoln somehow looked alone, "as if he had lost all his friends." He would not conceal his melancholy; when asked the reason for his sadness, he responded by linking his Senate defeat with his approaching fiftieth birthday, an age that reflected most of a man’s productive life in the nineteenth century.3
One of Lincoln’s Bloomington friends, Jesse Fell, was passing along the south side of the town square at the same time Lincoln exited the courthouse. "I espied the tall form of Mr. Lincoln emerging from the courthouse door," recalled Fell de cades later. "I stopped until he came across the street." The two exchanged friendly greetings, and Fell likely saw his comrade in this usual state of dejection. Few men could pick Lincoln up from these depths. Jesse Fell, however, was one capable of grand successes. Fell and Lincoln had been friends and political allies for a quarter of a century, since their earliest days together in the state legislature when it met in Vandalia in the mid-1830s. Fell had founded Bloomington’s Republican newspaper, the Pantagraph; had been so steeped in Republican politics as to be recognized as a "founding father" of the state party in Illinois; and was an original supporter of Lincoln for the Senate seat in 1858.
Lincoln’s gloominess likely steered Fell to act in his friend’s favor. He escorted Lincoln to his brother’s law office, where they could discuss a matter Fell deemed deeply important. Having traveled extensively in all the eastern states except Maine, as well as in Indiana, Michigan, and Ohio, Fell assured Lincoln that he felt the pulse of the voters in those states. He saw firsthand how Lincoln had risen from obscurity in those states to national name recognition as a result of the press coverage of his debates with Senator Douglas. "I have a decided impression," declared Fell to Lincoln, "that if your popular history and efforts on the slavery question can be sufficiently brought before the people, you can be made a formidable, if not a successful, candidate for the Presidency."
This likely was not the first time Lincoln had heard this through a confidant; nor was it the first time his performance against Douglas had people consider him presidential timber. Newspapers in Illinois and Ohio tied Lincoln’s name with the presidency; others as far away as Reading, Pennsylvania, confirmed Fell’s appraisal of Lincoln as a first-class statesman for his debate performance, implying that he was qualified to handle the highest political office in the land.
But Fell’s blockbuster of an idea failed to shake the blues from his friend. "Oh Fell, what’s the use of talking of me for the presidency," Lincoln responded, noting that New York senator William H. Seward and Ohio governor Salmon P. Chase were power houses and better-known representatives of the Republican Party. Fell claimed that these supposed giants were in fact flawed candidates, with past proclamations and current positions that painted them as radicals. Fell maintained that both of these front-runners could be upset by a rising star like Lincoln, whose consistent, middle-ground politics appeared attractive to a general electorate, in contrast to the extreme views of Seward, Chase, Senator Simon Cameron of Pennsylvania, and other nationally prominent Republicans. All Fell needed from Lincoln was for him to prepare an autobiographical sketch that Fell could circulate in his native state of Pennsylvania and elsewhere, "and thus help in manufacturing sentiment in your favor."4
Lincoln refused to bite; in fact, his melancholy deepened after he was asked to provide the story of his life and career. Lincoln needed only to compare his story to that of the early presidential front-runners in the Republican Party to depress him further. His career was a story of forward and reverse steps. According to his friend and junior law partner, William Herndon, Lincoln first dreamed of destiny in 1840. Back then he was an active and rising Whig, running state party functions and events during the presidential campaign in Illinois. He honed his skills as a debater—several times matching skills against a young Stephen A. Douglas. Lincoln’s political star shone brightly during the campaign to elect William Henry Harrison as the first Whig to occupy the White House. By the end of the campaign, Lincoln was known statewide and was even mentioned as a gubernatorial candidate.
But all of Lincoln’s gains made in 1840 seemed to disappear during the winter of 1840–41. His political philosophy at the time collapsed with the state’s financial health. He was completing his fourth consecutive term in the Illinois General Assembly, but he and his fellow Whigs were blamed for causing the state’s financial crisis, by overextending monetary resources for internal improvements. Lincoln also broke his engagement with Mary Todd that winter, believing he was in love with another woman, a teenager named Matilda Edwards, who infatuated the thirty-one-year-old Lincoln although she never reciprocated his crush on her. His mental and physical health drastically declined, and several months were necessary for him to make a full recovery. He subsequently rekindled his relationship with Miss Todd and married her in 1842. His social stability perhaps helped his political recovery. Lincoln ascended the political ranks enough to win election to the U.S. House of Representatives in 1846.
He served one term, an unfortunate term for him due to his opposition to the United States’ involvement in the war with Mexico. For calling upon a resolution to identify the spot where Mexico invaded U.S. soil, Lincoln was castigated for opposing President James K. Polk, a successful president and commander in chief during a popular war. Lincoln returned to Illinois with the unsavory moniker "Spotty Lincoln." It stuck to him like a barnacle. Lincoln believed his political career was over and had settled his mind to live the rest of his life as a circuit-riding attorney. "When Lincoln returned home from Congress in 1849, he was a politically dead and buried man," insisted Billy Herndon.5
Lincoln experienced a political resurrection five years later in 1854. Senator Douglas rammed through Congress the Kansas-Nebraska Act, a law that repealed the Missouri Compromise of 1820 and opened territories and future states west of the Mississippi River to slavery, reversing a thirty-five-year-old ban in the northern segments of the Louisiana Purchase. Douglas predicted that the Kansas-Nebraska Act would cause a "hell of a storm." It certainly did. It fractionated political parties into pro-and anti-Nebraska segments, eventually driving the Whig Party into extinction. But the death of the Whigs led to the birth of the Republican Party, a fusion of "anti-Nebraska" Whigs, Democrats, and other smaller political factions.
Lincoln became the most vocal spokesman of the new party even before it assumed its new name. As an anti-Nebraska Whig, Lincoln returned to the stump in the autumn of 1854, debating Douglas and delivering his biggest speech ever, a well-researched and impeccably delivered stem-winder opposing Douglas and his bill. His speech was so successful, and Lincoln was so pleased with the reaction to it, that he became convinced he was a viable U.S. Senate candidate after anti-Nebraska assemblymen surprisingly won the majority of statewide elections in 1854. On the first ballot Lincoln fell five votes short of winning the February 1855 election in the Eighteenth General Assembly. Unable to pick up votes ten ballots later, he conceded his loss by shifting his support to anti-Nebraska Democrat Lyman Trumbull (who became a Republican later in the 1850s).
Despite the election defeat, Lincoln was back in politics to stay, embracing the new Republican Party. Briefly talked up as a vice-presidential candidate in 1856, Lincoln made his greatest mark in 1858 by challenging Douglas for the Senate. The election and incumbency of predominantly pro-Douglas legislators in November had sealed Lincoln’s fate, scheduled to be official on January 5, 1859. Although he was considered a strong Republican, Lincoln could hardly look at that political career—one controversial term in the House of Representatives and two failed attempts at the U.S. Senate—and deem worth summarizing in a biographical sketch for Jesse Fell to circulate. By contrast, William Henry Seward in New York, Salmon P. Chase of Ohio, and Simon Cameron of Pennsylvania were all successful political figures with national stature. Lincoln’s biography could not compete with theirs. On top of that, Seward had the backing of Thurlow Weed, the head of New York’s and the nation’s most formidable political machine, while Chase was backed by powerful Republicans in Ohio, as was Senator Cameron by Pennsylvania Republicans. It was no surprise that these prominent Republicans hailed from the three states that would contribute the most delegates at the national convention that would nominate the party’s candidate in the spring of 1860.
Lincoln could hardly consider himself an attractive candidate during the waning days of 1858. He was a self-taught attorney, less-than-happily married, with three surviving children. Lincoln considered his father so insignificant that he had decided not to travel to attend the old man’s funeral back in the winter of 1851. (Indeed, his father died without ever seeing his daughter-in-law and grandchildren, despite living within two days’ ride of them for the last twenty years of his life.) Lincoln’s mother had died when he was eight years old; throughout his adult life Lincoln believed she was a product of an illegitimate union, a scandal that could never be refuted. His humble upbringing in Kentucky and Indiana was politically attractive, especially to the antiaristocratic segments of society, but Lincoln was about to enter his thirtieth year as a resident of Illinois. Neither his profession nor his political history had convinced him that he could turn his handicapped childhood and unremarkable adulthood into a great American story for Fell to market outside of Illinois.
Fell’s enthusiasm about the 1860 presidential election failed to lift Lincoln from his dark mood. Lincoln turned to him and explained, "Fell, I admit the force of much that you say, and admit that I am ambitious, and would like to be President." He then shot down Fell’s suggestion by claiming that "there is no such good luck for me as the Presidency." As for marketing his biography, Lincoln declined again: "There is nothing in my early history that would interest you or anybody else." He curtly ended the conversation with his friend, bade him a good night, wrapped himself in a shawl to shield his clean-shaven face and upper body from the brutal winter winds, exited the building, and walked away.6
"And thus ended, for the time being, my pet scheme of helping to make Lincoln President," said Jesse Fell in recounting the December evening encounter. But he refused to let Lincoln have the last word that night. As Lincoln’s six-foot-four-inch, shawl-wrapped frame disappeared in the darkness, Fell shouted out to him that this was not the last of it. Although Lincoln must have heard him as he walked toward his hotel, he ignored his friend. As far as he was concerned, this was the last of it. The General Assembly vote on January 5 would pound the nails into the Lincoln-for-President coffin and turn away even Jesse Fell, seemingly the only pallbearer to carry that coffin.
Little did Lincoln realize that what he thought would be the upcoming day of his political death, January 5, would also spur his resurrection, and imbue him with determination and passion to buttress his ever-glowing ambition to counter every argument he placed in front of Jesse Fell. It would set the stage for a dazzling political comeback, an unprecedented sixteen-and-a-half-month surge that carried Lincoln from the depths of despair to the exhilaration of claiming his party’s most cherished prize.
Excerpted from The Great Comeback by Gary Ecelbarger
Copyright © 2008 by Gary Ecelbarger
Published in 2008 by St. Martin’s Press
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