Abraham Lincoln's election to the presidency demonstrates how different the selection of the president in 1860 was to how it is today. To begin with, ballot access was quite different. Political parties printed their own ballots and distributed them to voters. Consequently, any number of candidates could receive votes. In 1860, divisions among the political elite led to four main candidates in the general election: Lincoln, Stephen A. Douglas, John C. Breckenridge, and John Bell. All of Lincoln's opponents in the general election supported policies that would permit the extension of slavery into the territories. Consequently, they divided the "pro-slavery" vote and Lincoln won with a plurality.
But prior to the general election, Lincoln's nomination was even more doubtful. As a little known politician, Lincoln's chance of defeating William Seward was tiny. Seward's standing the Republican Party made him so confident of his nomination that he spent much of the year leading up to the Party's convention traveling through Europe; however, Seward's "negatives" were high enough to promote what today might be called an "anyone but Seward" movement. But again, Lincoln was only one of many alternatives to Seward. Most prominent among them were Pennsylvania U.S. Senator Simon Cameron, Ohio Governor Salmon P. Chase, and the former Missouri U.S. Representative Edward Bates, but also former New Jersey U.S. Senator William Drayton, Supreme Court Judge John McLean, and Vermont U.S. Senator Jacob Collamer, among others.
The opposition to Seward was based primarily on the belief that he would not be able to carry the "battleground states" of Illinois, Indiana, Pennsylvania, and New Jersey. The Republicans had swept the northern states except for these in 1956. Winning them would give the Republican candidate a majority of the electoral college votes in 1860. On the second day of the convention, a long debate broke out over including words from the Declaration of Independence in the party platform, thus preventing a vote that would have nominated Seward. A night of intense negotiations followed, in which representatives from the four battleground states gathered to settle on a candidate who could best win those states. By morning, the representatives agreed to recommend Lincoln to their state delegations, but they could not guarantee the votes. That morning, The New York Times remained confident of a Seward victory.
When the first ballot of the convention was cast, the Indiana delegation voted unanimously for Lincoln, an omen that Seward's nomination was not certain. Indeed, he failed to achieve a majority. Furthermore, Lincoln held a commanding lead over Seward's rivals. On the second ballot, Vermont (the most Republican state of all) cast all of its ten votes for Lincoln. Other anti-Seward delegates began to rally around Lincoln, giving him 181 votes to Seward's 184 and a half. Two hundred and thirty-three were needed for victory. On the third ballot, Lincoln's support increased to 231 and a half, but before the vote could be announced, four delegates changed their votes to Lincoln, giving him a majority and the nomination.
Timothy S. Good's short work, Lincoln for President recounts this drama in compelling detail. Instead of a long drawn out primary season conducted under the glare of national media, Lincoln's nomination was engineered in the legendary smoke-filled rooms of the convention city's hotels, and it was done so at the eleventh hour without any certainty of success, even as the votes were being counted.
Good's account of Lincoln's path to the nomination, however, also provides the back story to the convention, following Lincoln's campaign in the Midwest, New York, and New England. According to Good, Lincoln's recent defeat at the hands of Stephen A. Douglas for U.S. Senate led Lincoln to think his political career was over, but as the anti-Seward forces sought alternative candidates, Lincoln's notoriety from the Lincoln-Douglas debates brought him to consideration.
During his campaign, Lincoln abandoned his occasional remarks in favor of second class citizenship for blacks and he instead embraced the ringing phrase of the Declaration of Independence that "all men are created equal." Central to his campaign was his opposition to the extension of slavery and a commitment not to interfere with slavery where it existed. These positions were no different from Seward's. Furthermore, Seward's most notorious assertion that the country was heading for an "irrepressible conflict" was mirrored in Lincoln's assertion that the government could not "endure permanently, half slave and half free; that a house divided against itself cannot stand." Indeed, Lincoln defended Seward's "irrepressible conflict" position while campaigning in New England.
According to Good, Lincoln's success as a candidate, both for the nomination and in the general election, could be attributed to his even, genial temper and his unwillingness to personally attack his opponents, both inside and outside the Party. This may, indeed, have been a significant factor, but given the deep divisions within the country and within the Democratic Party, Lincoln appears to have been the beneficiary of numerous circumstance beyond his control, so many so that one might add his name to the list of accidental presidents.