Most collectors have a mental “wish list” of items they are looking for. More often than not, there is one piece that heads the list. It may be something that resides in a museum. It may be something that another collector owns, or it may be something that nobody owns, but we know for a fact was produced. This latter situation is the case for a ticket to the Wigwam Convention of 1860, held in Chicago. The earliest convention ticket known was issued for the visitor’s gallery at the Whig Convention held in Baltimore in 1852. There are tickets known for each presidential election since that time but, for some reason, tickets issued prior to 1868 are very rare. We know of one Republican ticket from 1856, one Democratic ticket from 1860 and one Democratic ticket from 1864, in addition to the aforementioned Scott example from 1852.
No one knew what the 1860 Republican ticket even looked like. Despite efforts by collectors since Lincoln’s time to acquire one, they have eluded “capture”. With no published images, no one knew if the tickets had the location, the date (May 16-18, 1860) or the name of the facility.
Some ephemera from the Wigwam Convention has surfaced now-and-again. The most prominent find was a group of items collected by a convention attendee that was sold at a New England country auction in the early 1970s and acquired by New Canaan, Connecticut antique dealers Jan & Larry Malis. The group was offered at a Stamford antique show and included tally sheets, rosters of delegates, perhaps eight or ten cotton flags each one with the name of a state imprinted and two Lincoln & Hamlin name flags. The state flags were likely displayed at the convention hall, or placed adjacent to the delegation named on the flag. The Lincoln & Hamlin flags may have been hastily printed in Chicago when the nomination process was complete, or simply added to the collection during the ensuing campaign. Most of these items were acquired by dealers and resold in due course; however, we cannot recall seeing a Wigwam ticket in the grouping.
Another “close call” occurred recently when we were contacted by an individual whose great-great grandfather had been a Wisconsin delegate to the convention. The contact person had a “Wisconsin for Seward” ribbon which he sold to a dealer for $800. When questioned, he claimed he had a ticket for the convention stashed away somewhere but, despite repeated follow-up calls, he could never confirm its existence so we finally had to “sever ties” and let it drop.
The Republican Convention of 1860 remains the most important convention in American electoral history, just as the campaign of 1860 remains the most pivotal and consequential presidential election. For those unfamiliar with the event, some background information is in order. No nominating convention had, until this time, ever been held further west than Cincinnati (Chicago now holds the record for the most political conventions with fourteen Republican and eleven Democratic conclaves to its credit). Approval for the Republican National Convention to be hosted in Chicago was granted, despite the fact that no facilitates existed that could accommodate the large number of people expected to attend. Conventions were typically held in music or concert halls, theaters or opera houses. Republicans and local merchants raised $5,000 for the purpose of building a hall which was completed just four days before the scheduled start of the convention. It was a two-story wood frame structure measuring 100′ x 180′ located at Lake & Market Streets, dubbed the Republican “Wigwam”. Political convention halls were given this generic name of Native American derivation which translates to “temporary structure”. The usage predated the 1860 Chicago convention and persisted for several decades thereafter. Native American terminology was part of the popular vernacular. Members of Tammany Hall were known as “braves” or “sachems”. In fact, Chicago itself was derived from the Potawatomi word “chicagou” meaning “land of stinking weeds”.
Ironically, Abraham Lincoln had previously opposed the use of national nominating conventions. Prior to 1831, presidential candidates were chosen by Congressional party caucuses. Despite misgivings, Lincoln decided he could not buck the trend and changed his position on the subject.
There were 466 delegates in attendance when the convention convened on May 16th. They represented 24 states, the territories of Kansas and Nebraska, and the District of Columbia. Using Horace Greeley’s “Proceedings of the First Three Republican National Conventions 1856, 1860 and 1864” as a guide, we determined that the only Southern states that attended were Virginia and Texas, along with border states Kentucky, Maryland and Missouri. These delegates were seated on the ground floor, above them to one side the speaker’s platform, representatives of the press, a group of landings that could accommodate 8,000 spectators and a gallery where 1,000 guests could be seated. All-in-all, the hall was large enough for 10,000 people. Any overflow was directed to the outside grounds. The acoustics were excellent and all in attendance could readily hear the speakers under normal circumstances.
The pre-convention favorite was Senator William H. Seward, former Governor of New York. His campaign manager was Thurlow Weed, with editor Horace Greeley never far away. Lincoln’s campaign manager was David Davis, a fellow lawyer who rode with Lincoln on the Illinois 8th Judicial Circuit. Davis was ably assisted by Norman B. Judd, Leonard Swett, Jesse DuBois, Joseph Medill & Charles H. Ray of the Chicago “Press & Tribune”. Colorful commentary was supplied by reporter Murat Halstead of the Cincinnati Gazette. The Seward camp was expecting the first ballot to be called during the second session, but tally sheets were unavailable, so the balloting did not begin until the third day, May 18th. This respite gave Davis & his crew the chance they needed, They “wheeled and dealed” behind the scenes, trying to persuade delegates to switch to Lincoln or, at the very least, commit to Lincoln as a second choice should Seward fail to secure the nomination after the first ballot. Despite Lincoln’s telegram directing them not to make any promises that he was bound to honor, the Lincoln team offered cabinet posts and other Federal patronage in order to secure the votes of the key Indiana and Pennsylvania delegations.
The nominations and balloting came in due course. After Lincoln’s nomination, according to Halstead, every “plank and pillar” in the Wigwam quivered. He noted, rather colorfully: “Imagine all the hogs ever slaughtered in Cincinnati giving their death squeals together, a score of big steam whistles going (steam at 160 lbs. per inch), and you conceive something of the same nature.” After the first ballot, Seward lead the field, but was well short of the 233 vote majority needed for a nomination. Lincoln was 70 votes behind in second place. That hurdle dispensed with, the delegates were free to disavow their “commitment” and vote as they pleased in the second ballot. Lincoln gained strength and came within 4 votes of Seward who seemed to stall. A third ballot found Lincoln in the lead, just a few votes shy of the nomination. Cartter of Ohio rose and, “given the floor”, announced that Ohio was switching 4 of its votes to Lincoln, thus putting him over the top. A large photograph of Lincoln was carried into the hall, prompting wild cheers. A friend of Lincoln in attendance wired the news to the nominee: “Abe, we did it. Glory to God!” In the balloting for Vice President, Hannibal Hamlin of Maine, a former Democrat, easily beat out his closest rival, Cassius M. Clay of Kentucky. The delegates had judiciously chosen two “conservative” candidates, Lincoln & Hamlin, in contrast to abolitionists Seward & Clay, though few took notice of the distinction.
The convention is described in detail in Stefan Lorant’s 1951 tome “The Glorious Burden”. The chapter on the election of 1860 seems to be the basis for the “legend” that Lincoln’s handlers printed up counterfeit admission tickets and “packed the seats” with Lincoln partisans. The Seward supporters “overshot” a parade and, returning to the Wigwam, found themselves “shut out” of the gallery seats and forced to mill about outside the hall. We find this story highly suspect. It assumes, number one, that tickets for the gallery seats were issued and, number two, that it was possible to identify 1,000 Lincoln supporters, give them bogus tickets, assemble them all in one place at a chosen time, and get them all seated prior to the arrival of the Seward men. It doesn’t make sense. They had enough on their minds without having to dream up and implement a political “dirty trick” of this type.
One “strange but true” aspect of Lincoln’s nomination is the similarity with the political career of John F. Kennedy. In 1856, Lincoln lost the Vice Presidential nomination to William Dayton of New Jersey. He rebounded from this loss to the win the Presidential nomination in 1860. One hundred years later, in 1956, JFK lost the Vice Presidential nomination to Estes Kefauver of Tennessee, but rebounded to win the Presidential nomination in 1960. Both were assassinated and succeeded in office by Southern Senators named Johnson, each of whom were highly unpopular and controversial.
Returning to the here-and-now, we do not know how many tickets were issued for the Wigwam Convention. Typically, tickets were printed for the delegates, members of the press and guests or visitors. We assume that 500 tickets delegate tickets were issued, or perhaps a few more to accommodate Southern delegates who, as it turns out, were non-existent or boycotted the proceedings. Tickets to the press gallery may have been issued. Given the size of the facility, it seems unlikely that any guest tickets were issued. Delegate tickets were printed on rather flimsy coated stock which may have resulted in a high rate of attrition.
The ticket we acquired descended in the family of Albert Van Kleek. His entry in the “Political Graveyard” web site simply says he was a delegate to the Republican National Convention in 1860 and served as Postmaster of Poughkeepsie from 1861 to 1866 (likely a patronage job awarded for his efforts in the 1860 election). New York Governor Edwin D. Morgan was Chairman of the Republican National Committee in 1856, 1860 and 1864. The ticket, along with some assorted political and patriotic badges descended in his family who recently consigned them to auction. There was no one in the family who had any interest in retaining the ticket, nor was there anything particularly interesting in the balance of the consignment, It would probably have been discarded long ago, but an inscription on the back side mentioning Abraham Lincoln likely saved it from the ash heap of history. It joins the Cooper Union ticket and the Ford’s Theatre ticket as icons of Lincolniana. Now that the “top spot” from my wish list has been vacated, a substitute entry must be found. There are many possible candidates for this “honor”, so we need to think hard and long. In the meantime, search we must.
– Don Ackerman