Grove Press
Atlantic Monthly Press
Atlantic Monthly Press

The Lincoln Miracle

Inside the Republican Convention That Changed History

by Ed Achorn

The vivid, behind-the-scenes story of perhaps the most consequential political moment in American history—Abraham Lincoln’s history-changing nomination to lead the Republican Party in the 1860 presidential election

  • Imprint Grove Paperback
  • Page Count 528
  • Publication Date February 06, 2024
  • ISBN-13 978-0-8021-6268-7
  • Dimensions 6" x 9"
  • US List Price $20.00
  • Imprint Atlantic Monthly Press
  • Page Count 528
  • Publication Date February 14, 2023
  • ISBN-13 978-0-8021-6062-1
  • Dimensions 6" x 9"
  • US List Price $30.00
  • Imprint Atlantic Monthly Press
  • Publication Date February 14, 2023
  • ISBN-13 978-0-8021-6063-8
  • US List Price $30.00

Illinois lawyer Abraham Lincoln had a record of political failure. In 1858, he had lost a celebrated Senate bid against incumbent Stephen Douglas, his second failed Senate run, and had not held public office since one term in Congress a decade earlier. As the Republican National Convention opened in mid-May 1860 in Chicago, powerful New York Senator William Seward was the overwhelming favorite for the presidential nomination, with notables like Salmon Chase and Edward Bates in the running. Few thought Lincoln stood a chance—though stubborn Illinois circuit Judge David Davis had come to fight for his friend anyway.

Such was the political landscape as Edward Achorn’s The Lincoln Miracle opens on Saturday, May 12, 1860. Chronicling the tense political drama as it unfolded over the next six days, Achorn explores the genius of Lincoln’s quiet strategy, the vicious partisanship tearing apart America, the fierce battles raging over racism and slavery, and booming Chicago as a symbol of the modernization transforming the nation. Closely following the shrewd insiders on hand, from Seward power broker Thurlow Weed to editor Horace Greeley — bent on stopping his former friend, Seward—Achorn brings alive arguably the most consequential political story in America’s history.

From smoky hotel rooms to night marches by the Wide Awakes, the new Republican youth organization, to fiery speeches on the floor of the giant convention center called The Wigwam, Achorn portrays a political climate way more contentious than our own today, out of which the seemingly impossible long shot prevailed, to the nation’s everlasting benefit. As atmospheric and original as Achorn’s previous Every Drop of BloodThe Lincoln Miracle is essential reading for any Lincoln aficionado as it is for anyone who cares about our nation’s history.

Praise for The Lincoln Miracle:

Winner of the Lincoln Institute Book Prize
Winner of the Harold Holzer Lincoln Forum Book Prize
Winner of the Lincoln Group of New York Award of Achievement

“A great book. You just feel like you’re there in Chicago in 1860, which was an interesting place and an unbelievably interesting event. I highly recommend it.”—David Axelrod

“It is hard to imagine that any aspect of Abraham Lincoln’s life is understudied, but Edward Achorn has found one. The Lincoln Miracle offers a gripping account of the critical days in May 1860 when the underdog Lincoln snatched the Republican presidential nomination and ascended to the verge of national power . . . A provocative addition to the canon.”—Roger Lowenstein, Wall Street Journal

“An in-depth examination of Abraham Lincoln’s successful quest for the Republican presidential nomination at the convention of 1860 . . . Beautifully written, filled with vivid and easily digested prose . . . Achorn deftly lays out the personas, demographics and rivalries that shaped the nominating contest and the 1860 election . . . More than 150 years after Lincoln’s assassination, the embers of civil war still glow. The Lincoln Miracle is relevant reading indeed.”—Lloyd Green, Guardian

“For fans of political wheeling and dealing, who find brokered conventions, Electoral College forecasts, and the down-ticket impacts of state voting trends engrossing, this is a grand book documenting a milestone in the formation of the Grand Old Party. Achorn’s brisk, 400-page account is replete with all the bribery, patronage, rumors, back-stabbing, whiskey, cigars, and political calculus that went into the most consequential Presidential nomination in our history.”—National Book Review

“An exhaustively researched and detailed narrative of the ‘Lincoln Miracle’ . . . The Lincoln Miracle should stand as the definitive account of this epochal political moment in American history.”—Shelf Awareness (starred review)

“Comprehensive and often riveting . . . Offers sharp assessments of Lincoln’s rivals for the nomination . . . A dramatic and well-informed study of political sausage-making.”—Publishers Weekly (starred review)

“In 1860, long before American political conventions became quadrennial television spectacles with carefully orchestrated foregone conclusions designed largely to whip up enthusiasm among party faithful, the nascent Republican Party convened in Chicago’s Wigwam convention center with real business to conduct. Achorn follows the drama of that convention day by day, from May 12 through May 19, building on suspense as state delegations wavered back and forth . . . Achorn’s deep and energetic reconstruction of this momentous convention helps put in perspective the present political struggles over the nation’s future.”—Booklist (starred review)

“Historian Achorn details the raucous, exciting convention and the behind-the-scenes dealings that exemplified 19th-century conventions . . . This detailed account of the convention takes the boisterous proceedings day-by-day, giving readers an in-depth look at the convention that nominated Lincoln. This finely grained and well-written account will appeal to readers interested in Lincoln or American presidential and political history.”—Library Journal

“What a good book The Lincoln Miracle is. It is by far the best account of that convention I have ever read, especially in featuring the collapse of William H. Seward’s ‘inevitable’ nomination, and showing what a feat that was. The Lincoln Miracle projects an excitement that is rare in scholarly narrative.”—Douglas L. Wilson, two-time Lincoln Prize winner, author of Lincoln’s Sword and Honor’s Voice

“Our greatest president, Abraham Lincoln, would remain unknown to Americans if not for the Republican convention of 1860, and a roller-coaster week that changed the course of history.  The Lincoln Miracle tells the inside story with precision and panache.”—Ted Widmer, author of Lincoln on the Verge: Thirteen Days to Washington

“A wonderful story! Anyone interested in the intricacies and ironies and the deal-making and horse-trading of American politics will love this book. Although Senator William Seward of New York was the overwhelming favorite to become the Republican Party’s presidential nominee at the Chicago convention in May 1860, Lincoln eventually prevailed. Edward Achorn rightly calls this the Lincoln Miracle, because, as he shows in rich and lucid prose, it was not just Lincoln’s shrewd and crafty operatives but also Lincoln himself, masterful politician that he was, who brought about that miracle. Although we all know the results of the Republican Party’s presidential nominating convention in 1860, Edward Achorn nevertheless has the uncanny knack of keeping us in suspense throughout all the days of the convention. With his prose rich and breathless in detail, Achorn truly makes Lincoln’s nomination seem to be a miracle.”—Gordon S. Wood, Pulitzer Prize-winning author of Empire of Liberty

“Ed Achorn’s The Lincoln Miracle is a worthy bookend to his memorable earlier study, Every Drop of Blood: The Momentous Second Inauguration of Abraham Lincoln. While the latter focused on Lincoln toward the end of his presidency, the former tells the story of the 1860 Republican national convention in Chicago that made his election possible and thereby changed the course of world history. Chockablock with colorful depictions of the dramatic events and deft character sketches of the leading players, Achorn’s highly readable book reaches sound conclusions based on thorough research and is thus a most welcome addition to the Lincoln literature.”—Michael Burlingame, author of Abraham Lincoln: A Life and president of the Abraham Lincoln Association

Praise for Every Drop of Blood:

“Richly detailed . . . In elegant, episodic detail, Mr. Achorn captures both the immediate experiences of those who attended the inaugural and the recent memories that colored everything they saw and felt, heard and said.”—Adam Rowe, Wall Street Journal

“A lively guided tour of Washington during the 24 hours or so around Lincoln’s swearing-in . . . Achorn has a journalist’s gift for finding just the right quotation. He deftly fishes memorable descriptions—often less-than-flattering ones—out of 19th-century newspapers and diaries, especially as he introduces the most distinguished residents of the nation’s capital.”—Adam Goodheart, Washington Post

“A fascinating account of an address which entered the national consciousness . . . Achorn has done Lincoln justice, distilling the essence of the speech in a reflection Lincoln would have understood.”—John S. Gardner, Guardian

“Achorn, a noted editor and author, does a splendid job of recreating the atmosphere and experience of being in Washington on the day before and the day of Lincoln’s second inauguration. He has a gift for evocative, elaborate detail, and his descriptions of Washington—from a canal of stinking sewage to the new Capitol dome to the brothels and the various social functions—give readers a full flavor of the good and the plentifully ugly.”—Steve Forbes, Forbes

“An exemplary account of this critical moment in Lincoln’s presidency . . . Achorn’s innate ability to weave memorable stories and personalities together in Every Drop of Blood creates an intimate tale for readers. More impressively, it leads to a new chapter in this great president’s life that will stand the test of time.”—Washington Times

“A masterful narrative of the day, weaving together a cast of characters and events in a compelling work that reads like hands-on reportage from a writer who was on the scene . . . Achorn’s work is as epic as the topic deserves. His research is remarkable, telling the wider story through minute details and moments of deep meaning . . . A welcome addition to the voluminous canon of Lincoln books. Through these pages Achorn transforms readers into spectators of history as it unfolds.”—New York Journal of Books

“Achorn analyzes the speech as an artifact of its time and author. He tracks its imagery and explores how and why Lincoln chose the words he used . . . A good read in our own era, reminding us that no matter how badly divided we feel now, as a nation we’ve been through worse.”—Providence Journal

“Its strength lies less in the events themselves than in the elaborate detail and rich historical context that he musters . . . By the end, as well as mourning Lincoln’s fate, American readers might wish for another chance at politics without malice and with charity to all.”—Economist

“Drawing on historical wizardry—diaries, accounts, and memoirs—Achorn has assembled a prismatic portrait of that fateful day which reads like one long rolling dolly shot of history.”—Literary Hub

“[Achorn] skillfully plumbs his sources for colorful details and draws memorable character sketches. History buffs will savor this evocative narrative.”—Publishers Weekly

“The author provides rich description of a wide cast of people, including politicians, poets, soldiers, and nurses . . . A solid history that will allow readers to feel as if they are in the moment.”—Library Journal

“A vigorous, fresh look at a critical time in American history.”—Kirkus Reviews

“Achorn provides a rich, heavily psychological portrait [of Lincoln] . . . A moving chronicle of the country on the eve of assassination.”—Booklist

“It is hard to imagine anyone saying anything new about Abraham Lincoln, the most written-about figure in American history. But Edward Achorn has done it. No one has ever placed Lincoln’s Second Inaugural in such a full and rich context as he has. Achorn recreates the sights, sounds, smells, and the feel of everything, and his Lincoln was never more real. This is the work of a superb imaginative historian.”—Gordon S. Wood, Pulitzer Prize-winning author of Empire of Liberty

“This richly detailed account of the events surrounding Lincoln’s second inaugural address focuses on the many notable and obscure personalities present in Washington as the Civil War neared its end, including such opposites as Frederick Douglass and John Wilkes Booth, whose lives intersected with Lincoln’s in dramatically contrasting ways.”—James M. McPherson, Pulitzer Prize-winning author of Battle Cry of Freedom

“A lively, highly readable account of the people, events—and threats—surrounding Lincoln’s second inauguration.”—Joanne Freeman, author of The Field of Blood: Violence in Congress and the Road to Civil War

“Prize-worthy. Achorn is erudite and empathetic, and the book is chock-full of information and telling insights. Achorn sets the scene for the greatest inaugural address in American history.”—Frank J. Williams, founder of The Lincoln Forum and author of Judging Lincoln

“A magisterial analysis not only of Lincoln’s second inaugural but of the context in which it was given. Achorn’s keen eye for the meaningful detail reveals new layers of meaning to both a familiar speech and the divided nation that received them. His gift for telling a good story makes it a must read for historians and general readers alike.”—Maury Klein, author of Days of Defiance and A Call to Arms


Excerpted from The Lincoln Miracle © 2023 by Edward Achorn. Reprinted with the permission of the publisher, Atlantic Monthly Press, an imprint of Grove Atlantic, Inc. All rights reserved.

As Seward’s team waxed confident, the Lincoln men were “working like tigers to secure the scattering votes,” wrote editor Washburn. While Davis and his associates could not afford to throw champagne dinners or send out marching bands, they maximized their meager resources. Their key challenge was winning delegates, but they also sought some way to break Thurlow Weed’s control of the crowd’s emotions. Earlier that day, the mobs of his roaring men in the Wigwam, including loud roughs headed by boxing champion Tom Hyer, had threatened to set off a stampede of support for Seward’s nomination. The delay in balloting had given the Lincoln men a welcome chance to regroup. Fortunately for Lincoln, the two Illinois fellows with “stentorian voices” who had been sent for Wednesday arrived at the Tremont House Thursday evening. Lincoln delegate Burton C. Cook devised a plan for Friday’s session of the convention. The two lead shouters, backed by crowds of Lincoln supporters, would set up on opposite sides of the Wigwam. When Cook, up on the platform with the delegates, “took out his handkerchief, they were to cheer, and not to cease until he returned it to his pocket.” The stereophonic cheers for Lincoln would envelope the delegates and crowd, creating the illusion of universal support. There were now plenty of people in Chicago who could be mobilized for the effort. Leonard Swett noted that, while Seward men had poured in from the East early that week, “we were aided” later in the week “by the arrival of at least 10,000 people from Indiana and Central Illinois.” Of course, the Wigwam had been packed Wednesday and Thursday with Seward enthusiasts bearing visitors’ tickets courtesy of the party’s pro-Seward leaders. Getting hundreds of Lincoln screamers into the crowded building was another thorny problem that would have to be solved that night. 

As if the team’s tasks were not challenging enough, Illinois State Journal editor Edward L. Baker appeared at the Tremont House with his annotated copy of the Missouri Democrat. The men struggling to secure the nomination were none too happy to receive Lincoln’s imperious and impractical dictate: “Make no contracts that will bind me.” They loved Lincoln for his intelligence, his courage, and his moral integrity. But if they adhered to such a demand, they would be effectively disarmed in the crucial final hours of negotiations in Chicago. Henry Clay Whitney recalled that Lincoln’s order infuriated the exhausted team. “Everybody was mad, of course. Here were men working night and day to place him on the highest mountain peak of fame, and he pulling back all he knew how,” Whitney wrote, wondering, “What was to be done?” Jesse Dubois barked, “Damn Lincoln!” The more polished Leonard Swett said, “I am very sure if Lincoln was aware of the necessities—” Lincoln’s former law partner Stephen T. Logan began arguing with his current one, William H. Herndon. Finally, David Davis “cut the Gordian knot.” The big judge who had led Lincoln across a swollen river on the prairie would not give up now. He simply brushed aside Lincoln’s order. “Lincoln ain’t here, and don’t know what we have to meet, so we will go ahead as if we hadn’t heard from him, and he must ratify it.” If Davis had no authorization from Lincoln to sell offices, he would lie to delegates that he did.

Davis knew that deals had to be made, above all, with two vital states. Indiana, which had no favorite-son candidate but was dead set against Seward, had pursued two goals in Chicago since Saturday: finding an electable alternative to the New Yorker and securing ample patronage in the next administration. Some in its delegation wanted the promise of a cabinet seat—secretary of the interior—for former congressman Caleb B. Smith. Delegate-at-large Judge William T. Otto later told a friend that Smith secured the post on spurious grounds, exploiting the desperation of the Lincoln team at a moment when it “was pledging everything in sight to insure Mr. Lincoln’s nomination.” The bargain was unnecessary, Otto claimed, because “none of us cared for Smith.” Once “we got to Chicago and looked over the ground all were for Lincoln.” As William Butler had informed Lincoln, Indiana delegates had been leaning toward him since at least Tuesday. But Smith was the chairman of the delegation, and the pledge of a cabinet position for Indiana surely helped solidify its support.

The other big prize, Pennsylvania, remained elusive. Senator Simon Cameron controlled most of its delegation, using his power to launch his candidacy for president, but many inside and outside Pennsylvania considered the political boss essentially dishonest. Years earlier, Cameron had served as a commissioner to settle claims of the Winnebago Indians, and the charge that he had cheated them earned him the unwelcome monikers of “Old Winnebago” and “the Great Winnebago Chief.” Pennsylvania lawyer and Republican activist Thomas M. Marshall regarded the politician as disgustingly corrupt, asserting that he could “go through a dark alley at midnight, and the first man I caught would make a better President than Simon Cameron.” The sardonic congressman Thaddeus Stevens later discussed his fellow Pennsylvanian’s moral probity with Lincoln. “I don’t think he would steal a red-hot stove,” Stevens observed. Lincoln himself reportedly commented that Cameron’s “very name stinks in the nostrils of the people for his corruption.” The Pennsylvanian’s whole presidential campaign, Illinois lawyer Ward Hill Lamon contended, was “a mere sham, got up to enable Cameron to make a bargain with some real candidate, and secure for himself the lion’s share of the spoils in the event of a victory at the polls.” No one could dispute that Old Winnebago was a smart political operator proficient at obtaining power. It would hardly be out of character for him to use the delegation as his tool to secure a patronage-laden cabinet post.

In truth, Cameron did have enthusiastic supporters who believed that the shrewd, successful banker and businessman might burst through the borders of Pennsylvania and attract wider support for the presidency. They “had been fed upon meat,” Halstead quipped—filled with confidence and strength, certain that Pennsylvania was vital to the party’s victory in November, and that other delegates would thus have to bow to their wishes in Chicago. Their sales pitch for “Sim” Cameron, as they familiarly called him, was simple: “He was the only man, they a thousand times said, who would certainly carry Pennsylvania.” But his men had been unable to persuade other swing states to accept Cameron, despite offers to their candidates of a place on the ticket— Lincoln, most notably.

Weed had gone into the convention believing that Cameron was soundly in his camp and that the Pennsylvania delegates would ultimately swing behind Seward. “Seward had a good tariff record”—the all-important issue to Pennsylvania—“and his friends would spend money enough in the State to carry it against any Democratic candidate who was a possibility,” Halstead noted. “The flood of Seward money promised for Pennsylvania was not without efficacy.” Pennsylvanians spread the word that Seward “would spend oceans of money.”

But, while the delegation overwhelmingly backed Cameron, it proved unwilling to invest in Seward. For one thing, these men did not represent Republicans alone but, rather, the People’s Party, an amalgamation that included Seward-averse nativists. Cameron, as a former Democrat and Know-Nothing, reflected its tendencies. But even those without nativist leanings believed a ticket with Seward at the top, tinged with radicalism, would prove electoral poison in Pennsylvania. Gubernatorial candidate Andrew G. Curtin, like his counterpart Henry S. Lane in Indiana, was certain the New Yorker would inescapably drag him down to defeat, and he spread that warning throughout the convention. Some in the delegation were plotting to get behind the moderate candidates Edward Bates or John McLean as soon as Cameron was out of the picture. On the night before the balloting, Pennsylvania was still weighing its options.

After all, the delegates in Chicago “were not free from selfish ambitions nor unfamiliar with the arts by which these ambitions are promoted,” Connecticut journalist Isaac H. Bromley observed. “They were altogether human; and whoever believes, on account of what followed their work, that they were saints or even unselfish philanthropists, that they pursued no devious ways, resorted to no intrigues, and drove no sharp bargains, makes a mistake.”