23 July 2009

Chapters 1 and 2

Chapter 1-summary: Kearns introduces the characters: Lincoln, Seward, Chase, and Bates. All had obvious political strengths and weaknesses, and each believed he could somehow win the 1860 Republican presidential nomination. When reading this chapter, think about each candidate’s political strategy. What did each need to happen in order to win the nomination? And remember, campaigns and conventions haven’t really changed that much. Candidates today need many of the same attributes: good geographical and ideological positioning, party support, background, and some charisma. The primary difference now is the massive amounts of money that candidates must raise.

Discussion Questions
1. When he decided to seek the presidential nomination in 1860, was Lincoln a national figure? Was he the most prominent Republican running for that office?

2. Who was the “favorite” for the 1860 nomination and why?

3. It appears Seward needed a first-ballot victory at the 1860 Chicago convention? What does that mean exactly? We still have political conventions today—when was the last time we witnessed anything but a first-ballot nomination? (Seward's picture is below)

4. What did Seward mean when he referred to a “higher law” concerning slavery? Why did this statement hurt him with Western voters?

5. Why was Lincoln so well-situated to “steal” the 1860 nomination?

6. In February 1860, Lincoln gave his now famous Cooper Union speech in New York City. It was considered a make-or-break moment for his candidacy. Why might it have been so important for Lincoln to deliver a successful speech in that particular venue at that time?

Other Misc. Points
Thurlow Weed: without a doubt, the greatest name in U.S. political history. Wouldn't you all agree?

The photograph of Lincoln above is dated from the summer of 1860. He did not grow his famous beard until after the election.

Chapter 2-summary: Kearns introduces us to the time period (most refer to this era as antebellum America, which literally means 'before the war'). And in order to truly understand these characters, we need to know about the society they lived in. Personal and social issues like family problems, frequent deaths (Salmon Chase lost 3 wives), class conflicts, friendship, love, and relationships—these are all topics that historians now examine in detail. There was a time when the profession did not study these types of subjects. But with more diversity in universities and a new “bottom-up” approach that began in the 1960s, scholars now investigate “regular” people in history, not just elites. And we are all the better for it as we can now understand how people lived, what might have been important to them, and how society itself operated and functioned.

Discussion Questions
1. Why was the West (now the Midwest) so important politically in 1860? How and why did Western interests differ from Eastern and Southern interests? In other words, what did each section care about?

2. Why did so many young men (and families) move West during this era? What was going on in the East that might have helped spur this migration?

3. Why was slavery banned in most of the North after the American Revolution? Why didn’t the S
outhern states do the same?

4. What was education like in antebellum America? Did everyone get an equal chance?

5. Salmon Chase seems especially tough on himself--even reprimanding himself for reading fiction! Are there hints to his character flaws in this chapter—on how he would get along with others? Think about how he differs from Lincoln, Seward, and Bates.

6. Think about Lincoln’s upbringing and how it compared to the others. What was his childhood like? His education? His family and friends?

7. What traits were young men like Lincoln supposed to have? Did his father care if Abe was educated and a good reader? Why not?

8. During this time period, why did men often sleep together in the same bed? It happened in motels, inns, and even in military barracks. Why did they think it normal in the 1850s while some today wince at the idea? What does that say about historical interpretation?

9. The Lincoln-Ann Rutledge love story—does it seem accurate or could it be a myth? If you have a little extra time you might enjoy reading about this fascinating historical mystery. This article by distinguished historian John Y. Simon is a wonderful examination of the Rutledge controversy. It is well-written and offers insights into how historians investigate these kinds of murky issues. And by the way, I will have more to say about historian John Y. Simon in a later post.


  1. Throughout the book the reader is treated to examples of mid-nineteenth century letters that exhibit such organizational skill and beautiful prose. Even letters of mundane subjects are often poetic in style - even by people of little formal education. Sadly, for many reasons, this type of literary talent seems to be a lost art in contemporary America.

    Tim Utter

  2. chpt 1, question 1 Lincoln was not a national figure. Lincoln was a great lawyer and spoke well in public. He was a countryside lawyer who traveled from town to town. Perhaps this is what made him great, speaking in front of different audiences both urban and rural. He could appease the people and say what he wanted and people listened to him.

    He definitely was not the most prominent figure.

    In question two the favorite for the 1860 nomination was not Lincoln. The favorite was William Seward. He was a senator for more than a decade and was a governor for two terms, and therefore made stiff competition for Lincoln.

    In question four the "higher law" is refering to God being in control of the situation which stamped Seward as a radical in the western states which gave Lincoln the advantage when the election of 1860 came.

  3. Chapter 2, question 6. Abraham Lincoln's life was harder than his rivals becauae his family was poor. Seward had both parents into adulthood, Bates lost his father, and Chase lost his father. Lincoln lost his mother and sister at a young age. His rivals went to prestigious colleges and law schools, but Lincoln was self-educated and borrowed books from friends and neighbors.

    Question 7. Qualities expected of young men Lincoln's age were being strong, good-natured, and being able to out-athleticize everyone else. His dad didn't care about his education and only allowed him to go to school between stints of farm work. Lincoln's relationship with his father grew strained when his father decided to hire him out to other farmers. His father also wrecked his books and may have physically abused him.