Illinois is the Land of Lincoln, but Abraham Lincoln owes as much to Illinois as Illinois owes to Lincoln. If Lincoln hadn’t been from Illinois, he would never have won the Republican nomination for president in 1860, and then the presidency. Lincoln’s birthday is a good time to look at why.

Lincoln was the perfect leader to guide the nation through the Civil War, and toward the abolition of slavery. He was not, however, an indispensable man, nor was his presidency inevitable. In the spring of 1860, Lincoln was simply the right man from the right place. He won the Republican nomination both because of who he wasn’t — William Seward, the New York abolitionist considered too radical by Midwestern Republicans — and where he was from: Central Illinois, the swing region of a swing state. Illinois had voted for Democrat James Buchanan in 1856. The Republicans needed to flip the “Sucker State” to win in 1860, along with New Jersey, Pennsylvania, and Indiana. 

Seward was the party’s presumptive nominee, but his talk of an “irrepressible conflict” between freedom and slavery was alarming to Republicans whose states bordered on slave territory and contained Southern-sympathizing populations. Andrew G. Curtin and Henry S. Lane, the Republican candidates for governor in Pennsylvania and Indiana, insisted they would lose with Seward at the top of the ticket. Lane threatened not to run if Seward was nominated. 

Seward was from Auburn, New York, in the heart of the state’s Burned-Over District, a crucible of religiously motivated crusades, and one of the most fervently antislavery regions in the nation. In 1848, Seward delivered a speech in Cleveland against Ohio’s Black Codes, which prohibited Blacks from voting, sitting on juries, or holding office. Seward’s maiden speech in the Senate had condemned two planks of the Compromise of 1850: he opposed the Fugitive Slave Law, and he wanted to go beyond abolishing the slave trade in the District of Columbia by abolishing slavery itself. “[A] higher law than the Constitution” demanded resistance to slavery, he said. 

Lincoln was not an abolitionist. He was anti-slavery. He opposed the expansion of slavery into the territories, but professed no intention to interfere with slavery where it existed. If slavery were confined to its current limits, he believed, it would eventually die a natural death. When he was presented with a petition to repeal the Illinois Black Law, which made it difficult for Blacks to settle in the state, he refused to sign it. He considered the Fugitive Slave Law a constitutional promise to the South. These positions were all popular in Central Illinois, whose residents did not want slaves or free Blacks in their midst, because they would have driven down wages for free white labor. Central Illinoisans were opposed to abolitionists and slaveholders who wanted to expand their institution nationwide. Both were threats to national unity.

Long before the convention, Lincoln’s Illinois allies recognized that his political career in half-Yankee, half-Southern Springfield, where he had been required to find a middle ground between abolitionists and slavery sympathizers, would make him the perfect compromise candidate for the presidency. Jesse Fell, a friend from Bloomington who helped conceive the Lincoln-Douglas Debates, explained to Lincoln that his moderate reputation would enable him to defeat Seward, Chase, and Bates for the Republican nomination. Lincoln was skeptical.

“Oh, Fell, what’s the use of talking of me for the presidency, whilst we have such men as Seward and Chase and others who are so much better known to the people, and whose names are so intimately associated with the Republican Party?” Lincoln bemoaned to his friend.

“The men you allude to, occupying more prominent positions, have undoubtedly rendered a larger service in the Republican cause than you here; but the truth is, they have rendered too much service to be available candidates,” Fell reassured Lincoln. “Seward and Chase have both made long records on the slavery question, and have said some very radical things which, however just and true in themselves, and however much these men may challenge our admiration for their courage and devotion to unpopular truths, would seriously damage them in the contest, if nominated. What the Republican Party wants, to ensure 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 to repel votes from parties hitherto adverse.”

If Seward was not to be the Republican nominee, was there any reason to believe, as the presidential election year opened, that it would be Lincoln? Whatever his interest in the office, Lincoln knew he was a dark horse, and had not presumed to declare himself a candidate. However, his friends were maneuvering to improve his chances. When the Republican National

Committee met at New York’s Astor House on December 21, 1859, to choose a convention site, Norman Judd suggested Chicago as “good neutral ground where everyone would have an even chance.” Moreso than Buffalo, in Seward’s home state; Cleveland, in Salmon P. Chase’s; St. Louis, in Edward Bates’s; or Harrisburg, in Pennsylvania senator Simon Cameron’s. The committee did not take Lincoln seriously enough to consider that Chicago might help his chances, so Illinois’s largest city prevailed over St. Louis by a single vote — a vote that may have delivered the nomination, and the presidency, to Lincoln.

Lincoln’s friends used their home state advantage to cram the convention site, the Wigwam, with his supporters. Norman Judd dispatched telegrams to every little prairie town with a rail depot, offering special train fares that he hoped would entice Lincoln’s supporters to converge on Chicago. To ensure Lincoln men would gain admission to the Wigwam once they arrived, Ward Hill Lamon visited a print shop, where he ordered counterfeit tickets, on which

he forged the signatures of convention officials. Once the nomination came up for a vote, they would have to match the Sewardites roar for roar inside the Wigwam. When Judd placed Lincoln’s name in nomination, “five thousand people at once leaped to their seats, women not wanting in the number, and the wild yell made soft vesper breathings of all that had preceded. A thousand steam whistles, ten acres of hotel gongs, a tribe of Comanches, headed by a choice vanguard from pandemonium, might have mingled in the scene unnoticed.”

“Abe Lincoln has it by the sound now,” a voice called from the floor; “Let us ballot.”

Seward led Lincoln on the first ballot, 173½ to 102. On the second ballot, many states abandoned their favorite son candidates, and turned to Lincoln as their second choice, allowing him to close the gap to 184½ to 181. When Lincoln was nominated on the third ballot, a cannon boomed atop the Wigwam, signaling the results to crowds in the streets of Chicago. It couldn’t have happened in any other city.