Remember 1860: Abraham Lincoln and the Birth of Contemporary US Politics

Remember 1860: Abraham Lincoln and the Birth of Contemporary US Politics
8 min read

If US politics as we know it - made up of advertising spots, complex campaign strategies and armies of staffers - were to find a year of birth, we would most likely point to 1860 and the electoral campaign that led to Abraham Lincoln's victory. This presidency has certainly marked the history of the country in many areas: the secession of the states of the South and the consequent civil war, the industrial transformation of the country that started with the North-East, the XIII amendment, a milestone of civil rights. But the Lincoln presidency also changed the very functioning of politics.

Before Lincoln

Before Lincoln, presidential elections had always been the prerogative of local notables, with few people and little organization. The electoral campaigns moved across the country on the famous electoral trains aimed at gathering the "yes" or "no" of local potentates. A candidate at that time did not have to harangue crowds, much less  represent values ​​or have their own narrative. Promises were the main electoral weapons and internal monopolies and transit and trade rights were the commodities to be given or taken away, looking at the electoral map to understand which voters were needed and which were not.

A geography game: this was the US election rounds at the time and this also affected the presidency offices. The parties were not developed and were mainly divided along the interests of the social classes: the Democrats at that time represented the slave and agrarian interests of the South, while the Republicans the industrial interests of the North. Slavery was a central theme and even within the factions themselves the issue was divisive. The Lincoln Republicans were divided between more or less in favor of abolition, with the conservative factions closest to the demands of the South and the more radical factions also open to the right to vote for the black population.

This should be remembered because it highlights that none of the parties were remotely close to the capabilities and staffing typical of present-day US parties. When presidents came to the White House they often brought their own territorial groups into the administration. Exemplary in this sense was the case of Martin Van Buren , a native of New York, elected president of the White House in 1846. Although he had been vice president of Andrew Jackson - who had surrounded himself by men from Tennessee - Van Buren changed all members of the his cabinet with his New York faithful. Political groups and geography characterized US politics before Lincoln.

A change of mentality

The 1860 was instead the sign of a change of mentality, of a Copernican revolution of US politics brought about by the genius of Abraham Lincoln. The future president, as Doris Kearns Goodwin recounts well in her Team of Rivals , arrived in the Republican primary as a nobody. An Illinois congressman with two unsuccessful attempts to get himself elected senator of his state, he showed up in the race among the purebred stallions of US politics: Edward Bates, Salmon P. Chase and William H. Seward.

All three in the primary started widely favorites over Lincoln. Seward was the closest representative to Lincoln's positions, but enjoyed twice the popularity of the latter. He had important connections, was a well-known man in Washington salons, and had the ability to speak to crowds, which Lincoln would have learned from him. Seward knew how to build a narrative about himself despite the fact that he was not a man of the people, but above all he enjoyed a formidable political intelligence. His weakness was his popularity: loved so much by some, but so opposed by everyone else. In an age when subterfuges and exchanges of favors were fundamental, being opposed was an insurmountable limit.Instead, Chase was the man of the radicals. He was a staunch abolitionist, a position that made him disliked by many liberals and especially by conservatives, who wanted it to be abolished, but gradually. Last was Bates, representative of the conservatives, a strong but at the same time divisive profile, never able to garner the support of those in favor of immediate abolitionism.

The first personal team

In this context Abraham Lincoln was inserted who, thanks to a profound political innovation, managed to win the convention . In fact, the candidates used to not attend the convention in person, which was held in Chicago in 1860. Here Lincoln drew his first weapon:  a staff . Usually the candidates were represented by friends or proteges, close people but without particular skills. Abraham Lincoln instead took advantage of his human resources management and situation analysis skills and sent his collaborators Leonard Swett, Ward Hill Lamon and David Davis. All three were skilled negotiators, known to the other candidates and press sources, who they managed with much more skill than the other representatives. In many ways Lincoln, entrusting the three specific tasks, without knowing it created three professional figures: the spokesperson, the press officer and the chief of staff.

The three were able to wreak havoc on the convention and managed to implement a perfect divide-and-conquer strategy. Chase was the first to allow himself to be wooed by Lincoln's men, later agreeing to support him in exchange for a toilet seat. Convincing Bates was more difficult given Lincoln's abolitionist views, but he had to give up when he realized that the future president was preferable to Seward in his interests. The end of Seward's hopes was marked by Bates' passage under Lincoln's wing.

The cabinet of rivals

If his personal team earned him the nomination , it was thanks to his vetting and attraction that formed the first political cabinet in the history of the United States. The rule should have been to put faithful from Illinois in his cabinet, but Lincoln realized that the moment was crucial: he needed the best men to overcome the challenges he knew would come. He realized that the right people had raced against him for the nomination and thanks to his team he was able to add them to his cause.

Seward was pinned to the post of secretary of state , setting rules for the role that are still followed as a model to this day. With his great ability to build relationships, he guaranteed the North throughout the war excellent relations with European countries, managing to limit the external influences that could have brought the supplies necessary for the victory of the war to the South. To remember the contribution of him to find the fateful votes that allowed the entry into force of the XIII amendment.

Bates , despite his opposition to the cause of the abolition, was appointed by Lincoln  Attorney General  and played a crucial role in the legitimacy of the president in the era of the civil war. He renewed the American courts and rebuilt them by laying the foundations for the egalitarian model that still exists in the United States today.

Chase was appointed Secretary of War . In addition to contributing in a fundamental way to the cause of abolition - even through one of his most trusted men, Thaddeus Stevens - he created a system of financing the conflict that allowed the North to defeat the South. A system that will then be exploited by his successor Edwin McMasters Stanton to bring war to the Southern States by annihilating General Lee's armies.

The personal team and his cabinet of rivals effectively changed the face of US politics, but Lincoln also brought other great innovations through his immeasurable political and strategic prowess. For the first time he built a narrative about himself and with his oratorical art transformed the figure of the politician from an orator of salons to harangue of crowds and armies : in this sense the speech delivered in Gettysburg in 1863 is memorable. his decisions have affected the course of history, his genius has changed US politics .

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