If Lincoln’s humility, in running for the presidency, was a bedrock characteristic, it was in part because he understood how it might seem he had so little to be boastful about. At fifty, without family tradition or wealth or even much schooling; without ever having held an administrative office; without a public position for over a decade – and that, a scant term in the Congress; without influential friends in the electorally crucial East: he was certainly the least favored, or likely, candidate. Facing him, straight off, in the contest for the Republican nomination, were a field of better known, and better qualified, leaders. There was the former governor and senator from New York, the adroit William Seward; the “Czar” of Pennsylvania, Senator Simon Cameron; Ohio’s ambitious ex-governor now Senator, Salmon P. Chase; and Missouri’s elder statesman, and Greeley favorite, Edward Bates. A second tier, too, rose up against Lincoln. The defeated 1856 nominee, John C. Fremont, was running, and his running mate, too; radical Ben Wade of Ohio tried to rival Chase; and the fiery abolitionist, Cassius Clay of Kentucky, to whom Lincoln writes here, believed his chances good. Yet it was Lincoln, surprisingly, who won the prize – and here, less than a week after receiving the nomination, he reaches out to his former, better-known rival, to secure it.
Yours of the 21st. is received, and for which I sincerely thank you - The humblest of all whose names were before the convention.
I shall, in the canvass, and especially afterwards, if the result shall devolve the administration upon me, need the support of all the talent, popularity, and courage, North and South, which is in the party; and it is with sincere gratification that I receive this early indication of your unwavering purpose to stand for the right.
Clay held out the hope that, for his support, Lincoln would reward him with a cabinet position, and duly lobbied (see Lincoln to Mrs. Chase, August 29, 1860) – but Lincoln knew better. Clay was a troublemaker, and he sent as far away as possible: to Russia, as Minister. He caused trouble there, and came back, and caused trouble at home, and went back, and caused trouble again, but remained in St. Petersburg, ultimately, until 1869. Clay, Lincoln remarked in 1862, always had “great deal of conceit and very little sense.”
Autograph Letter Signed (“A. Lincoln”), 1 page, octavo, Springfield, May 26, 1860. To Cassius Marcellus Clay. Used with the permission of Shapell legacy partnership.