The Power of the Press
Have you ever wondered just how the man most widely perceived as our best US President, managed to triumph in a field of four candidates? Such odds would be considered suicidal today.
Lincoln won the 1860 presidential election because the Lincoln-Douglas debates were closely followed by reporters, who transcribed them and distributed them throughout the country via the new technology of the telegraph. The debates of course, were for the 1858 Illinois Senate seat, which Douglas ultimately won, but in a day with far slower information streams, the effect of those hours-long debates were not fully felt until two years later. I’m inclined to believe that people had longer memories than they do today. Can you imagine today’s populace retaining information from two years ago when casting their election ballots!
But that pivotal election was the first time in history that verbatim transcripts of political speeches were so widely accessible to the voting public. Coupled with the intense political factions tearing the country apart (hence: candidates from four different parties vying for the presidency), the people (albeit male only and lily white) were perhaps the best informed electorate in history.
This far-reaching impact was made possible by technology (the telegraph) – a technology that Lincoln himself would fully utilize during his presidency to keep track of troop movements and news from the front. Again: for the first time in history.
The what-if game grows more fascinating, and the consequences more dire, when the stakes are so high.
Lincoln was a relative unknown in 1858, while Douglas was a widely-admired Senator with many years in the public eye, and a long Senate voting record at the core of his resume. The other two candidates (John C. Breckinridge and John Bell) were also well-known public figures.
Most people know that Lincoln won the Presidency with only a quarter of the vote. But did you know that his name was not even on the ballot in half the country! Yet Lincoln managed to capture the prize. And here’s how:
Lincoln followed up the widely popular debates with a momentous appearance at New York’s Cooper Union on February 27, 1860, which conveniently occurred just prior to the nominating convention. Once again the overflow audience included national newspaper correspondents who recorded and disseminated every word. On that same trip our soon-to-be-sixteenth president ambled around the corner to have his picture “made” by a promising young photographer named Matthew Brady. Both Lincoln and post-election pundits considered that speech to be the deciding factor in the election.
As a historian it is pretty hard to explain how a country bumpkin whose personal appearance more often than not resembled an unmade bed, actually overcame such odds, I’m inclined to think somebody up there was watching out for us.
In today’s political climate, it is good to have something to hold on to!