Launching Abraham Lincoln's Campaign for the Presidency
The story of how West Chester produced Abraham Lincoln's first biography that helped send him to the White House
by Malcolm Johnstone
"Among the distinguished men who, by their patriotism and eloquence, have assisted to create and sustain the party of constitutional freedom which now predominates in most of the free States, there is no one who has a firmer hold on the confidence and affections of the people of the Great West, or is more an object of their enthusiastic admiration, than Abraham Lincoln of Springfield, Illinois." -- The opening sentence of ABRAHAM LINCOLN, published February 11, 1860, on the front page of the Chester County Times, a Republican newspaper that operated in what is now known as the Lincoln Building at 28 West Market Street in West Chester, Pennsylvania.
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If the nation was conceived by the ideas of the founders, it was preserved by the words of Abraham Lincoln. More than any other president, his writing and speeches are celebrated by the generations that have followed him. More important, his legacy continues to inspire and guide countless leaders. It is with a fair amount of irony, then, that the words used to launch Lincoln's quest for the presidency were written by another person a thousand miles from Lincoln's doorstep. But it laid a bedrock of success through a combination of location and timing coupled with no small portion of good luck.
new Republican Party
To fully understand the role that the biography played, one must go back to June 1856 when the new Republican Party had its first presidential primary in Philadelphia. The party's nominee for president was John C. Fremont, a former California senator famous for his military exploits during the Mexican-American War. Up for grabs was the vice-presidency with some 15 contenders. Leading the pack was former New Jersey Senator William L. Dayton. But the Illinois delegation, wanting to have their voice heard, nominated a relatively unknown politician named Abraham Lincoln. Questions immediately arose as to who this man was and what he stood for. Despite the delegation's support for Lincoln, he was only able to garner 110 votes to Dayton's 259 on the informal ballot. When the formal ballot was taken, Lincoln received just 20 votes and his name was withdrawn.
Attending the convention were two delegates from the small, suburban community of West Chester, just a short train ride from Philadelphia. One was Washington Townsend, a member of a local influential family who seemed to enjoy dabbling in politics; the other was Joseph J. Lewis, a prominent West Chester attorney, writer, and politician who had strong abolitionist leanings that found kinship with the emerging Republican Party and its anti-slavery platform.
an ideal place
In 1856, West Chester was an ideal place to be involved with American politics. It was a thriving factory town and agricultural marketplace located in Chester County, one of the original three counties established by William Penn in 1681. In the early 1700s, European settlers began to arrive into the Brandywine Valley, the heart of Chester County, named after the creek that flowed into the Delaware River. Welsh Quakers were soon attracted to the fertile watershed area that was promoted as the Land of Goshen. By 1763, a tavern called Turks Head opened at the crossroads intersection that connected Lancaster to Philadelphia and Pottstown to Wilmington, DE. Livery stables, blacksmith shops, a school, and a smattering of shops followed. In 1784, efforts began to have the Chester County Courthouse relocated from the City of Chester in the eastern part of the county to the more centrally located community simply known at that time as Turks Head, after the tavern. The village grew quickly and by 1788, a downtown street grid had been laid out, the current borough boundaries established, and the name West Chester applied. In 1799, the Pennsylvania Assembly officially chartered West Chester as a borough creating its own municipal government separate from the Township of Goshen from which it was carved.
With the establishment of West Chester as the county seat, it saw attorney offices, hotels, restaurants and bars grow and flourish. In the early 1800s, West Chester became a financial center as banks began to open. It also developed a strong culture of education and science with the creation of an academy in 1812 that would eventually grow into West Chester University. An example of the strength of the educational culture is found at the creation of Marshall Square Park as a horticultural testing ground and community garden that predates Central Park in New York City by several years.
West Chester even had a visible connection with Washington, DC. Thomas U. Walter, the eminent American architect, had gained prominence as the designer of the dome of the Capital Building, considered America's greatest built landmark. As a young architect he garnered a number of commissions in West Chester in the first half of the 19th century that would be among the most elegant structures in the Borough. These include the First Presbyterian Church in 1833 (Miner & Darlington), the Chester County Bank Building in 1838 (17 North High St), the Chester County Courthouse in 1846 (High & Market), and Horticultural Hall in 1848 (225 North High St) which was Walter's last West Chester commission and built as a community hall holding events, performances, and political gatherings. Some of those were significant: the first Women's Rights Convention in Pennsylvania, and only the second in the nation, was held in 1852; Frederick Douglass spoke there often to gain support for abolition and, during the Civil War, to recruit African-Americans and white sympathizers to join the Union Army. Many former slaves were also recruited to join the 54th Regiment Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry, the Union Army's famous regiment made up of African-American soldiers. Over a hundred of those Civil War veterans are buried in the local African-American cemeteries.
Pennsylvania, although divided on the slavery issue, had a strong abolitionist community where fugitive slaves seeking freedom could use the Underground Railroad--a network of mostly farm houses used as "railroad stops,"--to take them as far as Canada. Chester County, which borders the Mason-Dixon Line, became a gateway for slaves seeking to shed their shackles. For a time, it had the largest population of freed slaves in the country.
By 1859 two political factions had developed in-line with the rest of the country: the conservative, pro-slavery Democrats and the new, anti-slavery Republicans. The primary medium for reporting the activities of each were newspapers which were enjoying a booming trade due to the efficiency of the newly developed rotating cylinder press plus postal legislation that allowed newspapers to be delivered for 1-cent within a hundred miles. In West Chester, the political parties were supported by two local newspapers each. The Democrats had the moderate Village Record and the radical Jeffersonian. Republican sympathizers were found at the Chester County Times and the American Republican. The four newspapers had a combined circulation of about 8,000 delivering local and national news along with their political discourses. Within this environment, Joseph Lewis had become a champion of abolition and continued to seek candidates that reflected his values.
While Joseph was well-anchored in West Chester, he had a younger brother, Edward J. Lewis, who had migrated to Bloomington, Illinois. He was part of a small band of migrants from Chester County that had moved to Bloomington hoping to take advantage of the growing state. Most were well-educated in law and able to establish practices as lawyers, politicians and educators. This provided an important connection for Lewis in West Chester. At the time, he knew just a bit more than Abraham Lincoln's name. But given the right circumstances, he would become a supporter.
Such circumstances occurred when Lincoln decided to run for the U.S. Senate against incumbent Democratic Senator Stephen Douglas in 1858. In those days, U.S. Senators were selected by state legislators rather than the popular vote. This resulted in a campaign centered around getting voters to support a political party rather than a candidate. The strategy Lincoln used was to meet Douglas in a grueling set of debates in seven districts throughout Illinois. These were arranged by Jesse W. Fell, a political advisor to Lincoln. By the end of the debates, Lincoln had taken his message and speaking style to new levels, gaining recognition--at least in states surrounding Illinois. In November of 1858, Lincoln won the popular vote when the Republicans garnered 125,430 votes to the Democrats 121,609 votes. But the joint session of the Illinois Legislature would not convene until January and Lincoln had to wait patiently for the outcome of their selection process.
a viable candidate
It was within this backdrop that the seeds of the biography were planted on a chilly evening in Bloomington. Needing a break from his campaign, Lincoln visited his friend Judge David Davis at the McLean County Courthouse. As evening approached, he stepped outside where he had a chance encounter with Jesse Fell. Lincoln and Fell first met in 1834 when Lincoln was a member of the Illinois state legislature and Fell was a lobbyist for local interests. They were the same age, shared similar political values, and would become life-long friends. Fell had moved to Illinois from Chester County where he was born in Toughkenamon, a rural farming village in New Garden Township near West Chester. Although transplanted to Illinois with his brother Kersey and friend Edward Lewis, he maintained close contact to West Chester where he had been educated.
It was during this respite that Jesse Fell and Abraham Lincoln began chatting on the sidewalks of Bloomington. After a few minutes, Fell invited Lincoln to his brother Kersey's nearby law office to discuss Lincoln's prospects for the presidential election in 1860. Fell had recently visited several eastern states where he met Republicans who had become aware of a western politician who was gaining a reputation as a political force. But beyond his name they knew little of him. If Lincoln were given some exposure in the northeast part of the country, thought Fell, he may possibly receive the support needed to be a viable candidate.
"Won't you do it?"
Some time later, Jesse Fell wrote an account of their conversation that evening in Bloomington. In it Fell stated that he was convinced "that by judicious efforts Lincoln could be made the Republican candidate for the presidency in 1860." Lincoln, however, insisted there were men such as William Seward and Salmon Chase that were far better known who would seek the presidency. Fell countered that voters "will be repelled by the radical utterances and votes of such men as Seward and Chase." He went on to argue that "what the Republican party wants, to insure success in 1860, is a man of popular origin, of acknowledged ability, committed against slavery aggressions, who has no record to defend and no radicalism of an offensive character."
This was an important point. The young Republican party was beginning to fracture as it sought to develop an agenda that would not only attract political supporters but also get enough candidates elected to move their agenda along. By 1858, splinter parties with names like the Union Party, the Know-Nothings, and the Wide-Awakes often attracted radicals from all sides of an issue. It was clear to Fell that only a candidate with a moderate tone would have the broadbase appeal needed to win a national election. He pressed on and laid out a strategy for a presidential campaign, telling Lincoln: "Through an eminent jurist and essayist of my native county in Pennsylvania, favorably known throughout the State, I want to get up a well-considered, well-written newspaper article telling the people who you are and what you have done, that it may be circulated, not only in that State, but elsewhere, and thus help in manufacturing sentiment in your favor." Fell explains that while he knew about the politics of Lincoln, he knew nothing of his origins or education. "I want you to give me these," he pleaded. "Won't you do it?"
Lincoln did not hesitate to answer. "I admit that I am ambitious and would like to be President," he said. "But there is no such good luck in store for me as the presidency of these United States." That ended the conversation as far as he was concerned.
But the political winds blew against Lincoln in January of 1859 when the Illinois State Senate, with a democratic majority despite a favorable Republican showing, voted 54 to 46 to send Douglas back to the U.S. Senate. Upon hearing this news, Lincoln politely conceded while Douglas couldn't help but do some political grandstanding. "Let the voice of the people rule!" he declared in a statement that was as flamboyant as it was inaccurate. (In 1913, the Seventeenth Amendment, after ratification in 1912, changed the U.S. Constitution to have senators elected by popular vote.)
"make a fine poll"
The "eminent jurist and essayist" Fell had mentioned was, of course, 58-year-old Joseph Lewis. Back in West Chester, he had taken notice of Lincoln's stand against slavery and his apparently powerful speaking style. This was gaining him a reputation as a statesman and potential leader of the new Republican party. Lewis became certain that if he could get personal information about Lincoln, he could have it distributed to potential supporters on the already sympathetic East Coast. It is then no wonder that Jesse Fell was confident that a biographical article written on Abraham Lincoln could have a major influence on his candidacy.
The break for such a quest--and Lincoln certainly would have recognized it--came on October 12, 1859, when he was telegraphed an invitation to speak at the Plymouth Church in Brooklyn where Henry Ward Beecher had become renowned as an abolitionist preacher. Lincoln accepted the invitation and scheduled it to take place at the end of February 1860 for a fee of $200 plus expenses. He then spent the intervening months carefully preparing for the speech by reviewing scores of constitutional documents to support his position against slavery. He even began to reconsider a presidential run. If such an opportunity took place, Lincoln wanted to be ready for it. He had photographs taken of himself and with the continued persistence of Jesse Fell, on December 20, 1859, Lincoln came up with a three-page, handwritten note that described his upbringing, education, and a bare outline of his professional and political accomplishments. It became the first autobiographical notes Lincoln wrote and were soon delivered to Joseph Lewis.
He was not impressed. "The facts in Mr. Lincoln's statement are exceedingly meager and few," he writes to Fell on January 30, 1860. "I want more. I want to know when he first began to speak. What was the success of the first efforts? Is he a good shot with a rifle? A good horseman? Fond of the hunt? Genial in manners? Entertaining in conversation?" Despite these gaps of Lincoln's persona, he is convinced that "Mr. Lincoln is popular in Chester County and would make a fine poll with our people."
Joseph Lewis knew what he was talking about. Having followed the Republican Party from its inception, he had become familiar with its political machinery and knew what issues were important. Slavery continued to fester as the issue centered around whether territories, when they eventually sought statehood, would have the right to allow slavery or not. Lincoln gave a voice to the growing anti-slavery movement in Pennsylvania. He also supported the tariff laws that protected Pennsylvania manufacturing from cheaper Southern imports, an issue dear to the hearts and wallets of powerful factory owners.
It was a scramble for Lewis to gather whatever information he could for what he would later refer to as Lincoln's memoir. He traded telegraph messages with Fell in Illinois while reviewing Lincoln's speeches and quotes from his debates with Douglas. At the same time he made arrangements to publish the biography with Samuel Downing, owner of the Chester County Times, a weekly Republican newspaper that operated between 1857 and 1863 in what is now known as the Lincoln Building at 28 West Market Street in West Chester, where lewis also had an office. The Federalist-style building was impressive in its day. It was designed by William Strickland and built in 1833 by William Everhart (1785-1868), a Congressman, philanthropist and the wealthiest resident in West Chester. Today, the Lincoln Building is regarded as one of the outstanding second-period structures within the more than 4,200 West Chester structures listed in the National Register of Historic Places.
On Saturday, February 11, 1860, Lincoln's first biography was published with the simple title of ABRAHAM LINCOLN on the front page. It had no byline nor any other sign of authorship, although Lewis refers to himself using a first-person pronoun. About 2,000 copies were printed and distributed. The only known copy of the original edition now survives at the Chester County Historical Society, 225 North High Street, West Chester.
needed to prevail
Although West Chester had a population of fewer than 4,800, its proximity to the eastern metropolitan areas allowed it to wield enough political clout to help launch Lincoln's first presidential campaign. Carefully written as much a political tract as an exposition, Lewis ensured that Lincoln was presented in as positive a light as possible. Concerning slavery, Lewis had Lincoln summon "to his side the friends of law, order, and humanity." Lincoln gave speeches "of surprising power and eloquence" where he "employs as the vehicle of his thoughts a style of singular clearness and simplicity." The final sentence of the biography paints a personal picture of Lincoln: "In private life Mr. Lincoln is a strictly moral and temperate man, of frank and engaging manners, of kind and genial nature, unaffectedly modest, social in disposition, ready in conversation, and passing easily from grave to gay and from gay to grave, according to the humor of the hour or the requirements of the occasion, a firm friend and yet not implacable to an enemy, a consistent politician, a good citizen and an honest patriot."
These words would sit well with Pennsylvanians. Lewis had an understanding of what was needed to mold Lincoln into the candidate he thought would be most successful in connecting with the electorate. And as long as Lincoln received no negative feedback, he was happy to let influential others do his politicing, particularly in regions unfamiliar but needed to prevail.
stage now being set
As February arrived, the Young Men's Republican Union in New York City learned that Lincoln had been invited to speak in Brooklyn. As they spread the word, interest began to outgrow the church's capacity. So they managed to get the venue changed to the Cooper Union in New York City based solely on the reputation of his recent "celebrated contest with Judge Douglas." Lincoln was delighted. The Douglas Democrats, of course, were cool to the news and predicted that the outcome of Lincoln's speech would be, in a word, "disappointment." To most of those who would attend, Abraham Lincoln was still an unknown person, but one who shared similar political views. As the date of the event neared, the vacuum of information began to be filled as copies of the Chester County Times biography drifted into New York. The New York Tribune quickly took advantage and when it announced Lincoln's upcoming speech, it borrowed, if not the exact words, certainly the spirit and quality of Joseph Lewis' biography in describing Lincoln. The stage now being set, more than 1,500 attended.
As Lincoln nervously began speaking, the mood changed from curiosity towards the lanky politician to cautious interest. Lincoln's preparation of the speech began to pay off and he warmed up to the crowd. As applause turned to cheers, the mood grew into fervent support. Lincoln had seized the moment.
Soon after his success at the Cooper Union, Lincoln had an extraordinary stroke of good luck. His biggest opponent for the Republican nomination was William Seward, a New York politician with experience as the governor and a congressman. He was considered a shoe-in for the republican nomination and was confident he would get it. Perhaps a little too confident. In a decision that has been heralded as possibly the worst anyone could make, Seward took an extended trip to Europe in the months before the Chicago convention rendering him out-of-touch, out-of-sight, and, it would seem, out-of-mind. This allowed Lincoln to fill the void as a viable candidate.
fellow Pennsylvania delegates
As regional interest began to grow for Lincoln, the Republican organizational machine set into gear every opportunity to provide Lincoln with political advantage. Previously, Norman Judd, a supporter of Lincoln even before Lincoln thought he had supporters, was present at the Republican National Committee meeting in New York City in December 1859 to decide the location of the upcoming National Republican Convention. When the choice narrowed down to either St. Louis or Chicago, Judd successfully argued that Chicago would be best since the young city now had all the modern trappings needed for a successful event. He gave no hint of the potential favorite son advantage that would be given to then un-declared candidate Lincoln. Chicago got it by just one vote.
In West Chester, Joseph Lewis and Washington Townsend, both of whom would again be delegates at the National Republican Convention in May 1860, began to lobby fellow Pennsylvania delegates in hopes of swinging the nomination to Lincoln, who would not be attending the convention as was the custom of the day. The strategy was to lead with then Governor Simon Cameron as a favorite son candidate and, after the first vote, should a nominee not be selected, have the Pennsylvania delegation switch their support to Lincoln in return for certain favors, which Lincoln abhorred. "Make no promises that will bind me" were his orders, promptly ignored.
As the convention got underway, politics got heavy. On the first day of voting, Seward received the most votes with Lincoln a distant second. But it was not enough to give Seward the nomination so the delegates adjourned until the next day allowing the Lincoln supporters to ramp up their efforts to get sympathetic supporters to change their vote to Lincoln. When the morning arrived, counterfeit tickets were given to eager supporters who filled the hall, shutting out their opposition. The Pennsylvania delegation shifted their vote and Lincoln secured the presidential nomination on the third ballot.
"blessings of untold millions"
With Lincoln now the presidential candidate, the biography became a source of information throughout the Northeast for various other biographies and pamphlets which were said to exceed over a million copies. It even made its way back to Illinois where John Locke Scripps, a writer for the Chicago Tribune, used portions of the piece for his own biographical sketch of Lincoln. He published 250 copies that were distributed to attendees at the Republican Convention to be used in the national election.
Lincoln was elected president in November 1860 in a 4-way race that included John Breckinridge, a Southern Democrat; Stephen Douglas, a Northern Democrat who had defeated Lincoln in the 1858 senatorial race; and John Bell of the newly formed Constitutional Union Party. Although Lincoln won the electoral vote, he received the smallest popular vote (not quite 40-percent) in presidential history.
The following February Lincoln was packed to leave for Washington and prepare for his inauguration in March. Just before he left, Fell wrote a farewell message to him. "I would gladly call and bid you good-bye," he said, and then adds for unexplained reasons, "but I shall not probably see you again." He goes on to write about the great principles of the Republican Party for which Lincoln is now responsible. He ends "the blessings of untold millions will rest upon you."
Once Lincoln became president, both Fell and Lewis were given credit for helping Lincoln get elected. Fell was rewarded with a non-lethal position in the Union Army as a paymaster, and Lewis, who had at one point been recommended for a cabinet post over Simon Cameron, was instead nominated as the director of Internal Revenue (the precursor of the IRS), the largest bureaucracy in the government up to that time.
Today, West Chester recognizes the contribution its notable citizens made to this extraordinary part of history with the telling and re-telling of the biography and its story. Curiously, while more biographical words have been written on Lincoln than any other American, the first biography has been read by very few contemporary authors, if any. Eventually, that will change as the interest in Lincoln and his life promises that these hidden words will eventually come back to life.
Lincoln's autobiographical notes
The hand-written note that Lincoln gave to Fell is sparse in political rhetoric. Perhaps he felt a sense of futility in pursuing the presidency or maybe he was considering a strategy he had witnessed four years earlier. It was then that without the benefit of an active campaign he had nearly been nominated as vice president for John Fremont when a small but fervent group insisted that Lincoln was their man. More likely, however, he may simply have been curious with how the electorate would respond.
Whatever the case, Lincoln's notes provide interesting insight into his personality. He was known to have a sense of humor that was marked by a theatrical style. His notes attempt to emulate this style and at one point, when writing about his early education, he scratches out the phrase "reading, writing, and Arithmetic" and replaces it, in quotes, with "readin, writin, and cipherin." One can imagine that Lincoln, when telling this tidbit, slips into a mock rural Kentuckian drawl. The note ends with his physical description and the final words "no other marks or brands recollected." It's a phrase that was commonly used when describing lost livestock. No doubt he used this and similar phrases to get a chuckle from an audience and make a connection with common folk.
In the letter that was sent with the notes to Jesse Fell, Lincoln admits that "there is not much of it, for the reason, I suppose, that there is not much of me." It sounds self-deprecating, but for a man who towered nearly seven-feet when he wore his famous stovepipe top hat and who was gaining a reputation as a leading politician and orator, such a remark draws even more attention to himself.
Fell had made no arrangements to get Lincoln's notes back from Joseph Lewis, although soon after Lincoln's assassination in 1865 he must have recognized their growing value. Fell did eventually retrieve the notes and in 1872 had them authenticated. He then had a poster created with a facsimile of Lincoln's notes, Fell's own hand-written notes quoting Lincoln's most famous remarks, and a picture of Lincoln. A copy of that poster can be seen at The Lincoln Room or the Chester County Community Foundation.
The original notes from Lincoln were kept with the descendants of Jesse Fell until 1952 when they were acquired by the Library of Congress for $2,000 at auction.
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Contact Malcolm Johnstone
Updated November 17, 2013
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- The First Lincoln Campaign by Reinhard H. Luthin, Harvard University Press; 1944
- How Lincoln Became President by Sherman Day Wakefield; Wilson-Erikson, NY; 1936
- West Chester to 1865: that elegant & notorious place by Douglas R. Harper; Chester County Historical Society, West Chester; 1999
- The Lincoln Building, a brochure produced by, and available at, the Chester County Community Foundation.
- Lincoln Speaks to Pennsylvania: A Selection of Abraham Lincoln's Speeches and Writings to Pennsylvanians, compiled by the Pennsylvania Abraham Lincoln Bicentennial Commission and available at State Senator Andy Dinniman's office, 1 North Church Street, West Chester.
- In Lincoln's Hand -- His Original Manuscripts, edited by Harold Holzer and Joshua Wolf Shenk, Bantam Books, 2009