President Who?

You say nothing beats experience?  Then how do you explain the fact that this week (Nov. 6) in 1860 Abraham Lincoln was elected president?

After all, one candidate vying against Lincoln for the Republican nomination that year was William Seward, the revered former governor and current senator of the nation’s most important state, New York.  Salmon Chase, another serious contender, also had been a United States senator and was a popular two-term governor of Ohio.

Simon Cameron, a wealthy businessman, former newspaper editor, adjutant general and senator from Pennsylvania also wanted the Republican nomination that year, as did John McLean of the U.S. Supreme Court, who, in 1856, had lost that nomination to John C. Fremont, another former senator (from California), a seasoned military leader, and one of the most famous pioneer explorers in America.  In 1860, Fremont too wanted another shot at the presidency.

On the Democratic side, the leading candidate was Stephen Douglas — known as the “Little Giant” — and among the most famous and powerful men ever to serve in the United States Senate.  Another Democratic candidate was John Breckenridge, the sitting vice president of the United States.

Bringing up the rear of this crowded field was Abe Lincoln.  To assess his chances of winning his party’s nomination, let alone the presidency, it would be easier to describe what Lincoln was not.  He was not, nor had he ever been, a United States senator, a governor, a celebrated military commander or Supreme Court justice.  He had never even won a statewide election, let alone a national one. He had no widespread fame, as did Fremont, nor national following, as did Douglas. The historian William Lee Miller once wrote that by most measures Lincoln “was the least qualified man ever elected, perhaps ever nominated, by a major party.”

He was also, by extension, the least known of the candidates, which was one reason be became president.  In the polarizing political atmosphere of the times, Lincoln was so unknown he had far fewer negatives than the other candidates had.

Which leads to a second irony.  Soon after becoming president, he found himself the commander-in-chief of a nation plunged into civil war against a rebellious confederacy of southern states.  Facing President Lincoln — whose only military experience was as captain of a frontier army regiment that never once saw combat — was Confederate President Jefferson Davis, who had been both a congressman and senator, was a graduate of West Point, was a hero of the Mexican War, and had served as secretary of war under President Franklin Pierce.

You say nothing beats experience? Then how do you explain the fact that Lincoln, not Davis, led his side to victory in the Civil War?