Book Review: The Great Comeback

The Great Comeback: How Abraham Lincoln Beat The Odds To Win The 1860 Republican Nomination, by Gary Ecelebarger

As someone who reads many books about Abraham Lincoln [1], I often find myself seeking to place what makes one book about Lincoln different from the tens of thousands of other books that exist. At least among the books I have read, this book manages to fill a very excellent niche in examining the political strategy that led Abraham Lincoln to rise from a narrow and bitter defeat in the Senate campaign of 1858 in Illinois, the second such campaign he had lost in the space of four years, to the nominee of the Republican party with an inside track to election given the division of the Democrats into sectional wings. While it is unclear if such a strategy would work today, those who are interested in political strategies would be well-served to examine this book in its insights for how Lincoln rose from obscurity to victory, an immensely dramatic tale that is worthy of reading about.

In terms of its structure and contents, the book is a straightforward book of narrative history, organized in chronological fashion, beginning with his bitter gloom about defeat in the Senate election in Bloomington, a city he often visited as part of his work as a lawyer in the Eighth Circuit Court, then continuing through his recovery from his melancholy state, his handling of a fractious divided Republican party with various wings and factions that needed to be placated, his visit to Chase’s backyard in Ohio to encourage Republicans there while stealthily improving his own reputation as a thoughtful Republican statesman, to the praise he received as a giant killer who would be able to top Douglas in a popular vote. After this the author discusses the start of a Lincoln boom thanks to his travels to Iowa and Kansas and the attention those travels received in newspapers across the Midwest, to more divisions within the Republicans between Wentworth and Judd, two Chicago leaders with a ferocious rivalry that included a libel lawsuit, to Lincoln’s justly celebrated Cooper Union speech in New York, in Seward’s backyard, and his follow-up campaign speeches in New England. The pace and drama of the book then increase as the author discusses Lincoln as a candidate seeking to have the unified vote of the Illinois contingent, his populist rebranding as a rail-splitter despite his intellectual inclinations and abhorrence of manual labor, and a couple of chapters on the machinations of his campaign management team at the Republican convention in Illinois, and a brief discussion of his behavior immediately after being recognized as the nominee. All of this the author manages to discuss with copious footnotes and a pleasant style that takes about 240 pages or so of text.

So, what is the strategy that Lincoln and his associates used that is detailed here for how one becomes a stealth nominee when one’s party has an unappealing presumptive nominee, as was the case with Seward? First, build connections with a strong base of support so that one has a firm base. Develop a reputation as a party loyalist who works hard and successfully to develop coattails by supporting one’s party in other states outside of one’s home base. Develop a reputation as a consensus builder who brings people together and who can reach out to others. If possible, stealthily stage manage matters of logistics so as to be favorable without drawing the scrutiny and opposition of others. Make lots of friends and be willing to make deals or accept, however grudgingly, the deals that are made by one’s managers. In an age of brokered conventions, that was sound advice. Although some of the advice would not likely work as well today, contemporary politicians still work according to many of the templates that Lincoln and his partisans worked skillfully to lead to an unlikely nomination, something still worth studying today.

[1] See, for example:

About nathanalbright

I'm a person with diverse interests who loves to read. If you want to know something about me, just ask.
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