How To Win An Election: Look Beyond Your Nose, Says Lincoln

By Benjamin Shapell, Sara Willen | May 3, 2016

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Talk of unity is in – and on – the air this week. Donald Trump, despite having effectively sewn up the Republican presidential nomination, finds himself mired in mortal combat – against, that is, his own party. Neither of the two previous Republican presidents, the previous Republican presidential nominee, or the current Republican Speaker of the House, have endorsed Trump – as Hillary Clinton, meanwhile, tries to pick up the support of disaffected Republicans… How unity is to be achieved is murky. The Republican establishment might be wise to look back, then, all the way to 1860. In that election – the most momentous presidential contest in American history – a frontier lawyer named Lincoln outmaneuvered a plethora of established, factionalized and deeply contentious candidates and carried the new Republican party to victory. How he did it was, in one sense, simple: he looked, he said, beyond his nose, and urged his supporters to do the same. That is the story told here…

“In every locality we should look beyond our noses; and at least say nothing on points where it is probable we shall disagree.” – Abraham Lincoln to Schuyler Colfax, July 6, 1859

The most audacious rise from obscurity to political prominence in American history was the result not of a victory, but a loss. Having been defeated by Stephen A. Douglas for Senator in Illinois in 1858, after a blazing series of closely-followed debates, Abraham Lincoln – unknown, for most of his life, outside the Eighth Judicial Circuit – had suddenly won a national reputation. From a frontier lawyer he was, amid a host of worthies, a contender to top the Republican ticket.   With, then, this first taste of presidential ambition in his mouth, Lincoln outlines here how to win not the nomination, ten months away – but the upcoming national election in November. Looking beyond his nose, he explains that their strategy must be twofold: ignore the many regional issues that divide them, and concentrate instead on the single national issue that unites them. To be ignored, then, are, among them, agitation against foreigners in Massachusetts; the repeal of the Fugitive Slave Law in Ohio; and “squatter sovereignty” in Kansas. To be emphasized is the one issue upon which all Republicans can agree: opposition to the extension of slavery. Entertain the local issues, Lincoln warns, and there will be “explosive matter enough to blow up half a dozen national conventions”; but standing to prevent the “spread and nationalization of slavery is a national concern” and must, perforce, “be attended to by the nation.” In other words, for the new party to capture the presidency – in what was only its second national election – it would collectively have to look beyond its nose. This he explains to Republican Congressman Schuyler Colfax (who, not incidentally, was supporting Edward Bates, and not Lincoln, for president):

My main object… would be to hedge against divisions in the Republican ranks generally, and particularly for the contest of 1860. The point of danger is the temptation in different localities to “platform” for something which will be popular just there, but which, nevertheless, will be a firebrand elsewhere, and especially in a National convention…  What is desirable, if possible, is that in every local convocation of Republicans, a point should be made to avoid everything which will distract republicans elsewhere… [We] ought not to forget that to prevent the spread and nationalization of slavery is a national concern, and must be attended to by the nation. In a word, in every locality we should look beyond our noses; and at least say nothing on points where it is probable we shall disagree.

I write this for your eye only; hoping however that if you see danger as I think I do, you will do what you can to avert it. Could not suggestions be made to the leading men in the State and congressional conventions; and so avoid, to some extent at least, these apples of discord?

Engraved portrait of Abraham Lincoln in Frank Leslie's Illustrated Newspaper, 1872. P. Butler, Springfield. Wikimedia Commons.

Lincoln’s deft classical allusion to ignore “apples of discord” brought to mind the mythical Judgment of Paris, in which the ancient Greeks told the story of what led up to the Trojan War… How, at a banquet of the Gods, the Goddess of Strife was not invited, and so lobbed on to the festive table a golden apple inscribed “to the fairest.” Whom that might be led, naturally, to an Olympian argument – which ended, ultimately, in tragedy and disaster. Lincoln, conjuring up the vainglorious goddesses, might well have glimpsed the dissension soon to lay siege to the Democratic Party, in which its three top contenders all claimed the mantle of leadership for themselves. Stephen A. Douglas, running on a platform of popular sovereignty (the doctrine whereby residents of a territory would decide for themselves, by vote, whether to allow whether to allow slavery or not) would lead the Northern Democrats. Vice President John C. Breckinridge of Kentucky, with the support of out-going President Buchanan, headed up the Southern Democrats, calling for federal protection of slavery and its extension into new territories. And John Bell of Tennessee, choosing to ignore the slavery question altogether, stood in favor of the Union and the enforcement of laws according to the Constitution, making his 1860 bid on the aptly named Constitutional Union party ticket.  Such doctrinal divisiveness, Lincoln subtlety reminded, must also, even at this early juncture, be “avoided.”

All this avoidance, not surprisingly, led Lincoln to win, on a third ballot, the presidential nomination of a Republican Party united and focused on opposing the expansion of slavery. And, as the rival Democrats, beset by sectional and doctrinal differences, splintered, and factional parties flooded the field, the most momentous election in American history was won by Lincoln’s Republicans – against three other parties, with a mere 40% of the vote. This was done, as Lincoln prophetically suggests here, by looking beyond their noses…

With, at this point, the possibility – however slim – that this year, no presidential front-runner will capture their party’s nomination, Lincoln’s message, albeit first delivered over a century and a half ago, is the only one the current crop of presidential aspirants, Republican and Democratic, need heed. Listen to Lincoln: stop fighting each other, find a unifying principle, and beat the other side, not each other, in the forthcoming election.

ABRAHAM LINCOLN. 1809-1865. The 16th President of the United States

Autograph Letter Signed (“A. Lincoln”), 3 pages, quarto, Springfield, Illinois, July 6, 1859. To Congressman Schuyler Colfax.

 

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