The Cause Is to Be Preferred to Men: A Lesson on Selflessness from Lincoln

Today’s Republican Party appears on the way to the curious situation of nominating for President a person with questionable conservative, Republican credentials, who also has the highest unfavorability rating among the general population of any candidate of both major parties (60% unfavorable according to a Gallup poll in late January).  This has primarily been the result of a large number of other more traditional Republican candidates dividing the remaining vote, each unwilling to yield his or her personal ambition for the sake of the party until finally forced out of the race for financial reasons.  And that doesn’t happen nearly as quickly as it used to thanks to the 2010 Supreme Court decision in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission, as well as to changes in how delegates are allocated.

These other candidates might learn a lesson from Abraham Lincoln’s actions in the 1855 US Senate election, which by the way contributed to the establishment and growth of the Republican Party.  That year, in the midst of a tumultuous reshaping of the entire political system, the major dividing line was between those who opposed the Kansas-Nebraska Act and those who favored it.  The ‘anti-Nebraska’ side wished to prevent slavery from extending into new areas of the country, while the ‘Nebraska’ side either desired its extension or didn’t concern themselves with the issue.

Lincoln, who still hadn’t officially made the switch from the waning Whig Party to the nascent Republican Party, was one of three leading candidates for the US Senate seat from Illinois.  The Democratic incumbent James Shields was a ‘Nebraska’ man, while Lincoln and Democratic Representative Lyman Trumbull were decidedly ‘anti-Nebraska’.  There were also a few other minor candidates, and for an extra dose of intrigue, a behind-the-scenes effort by Democratic Governor Joel Matteson to secure the seat for himself.

The Illinois General Assembly, whose 100 members were to choose the new Senator, was about evenly split between the ‘Nebraska’ and ‘anti-Nebraska’ factions, but there were also other issues and loyalties which complicated the situation.  Lincoln and Trumbull together, however, appeared to have just enough support to give the victory to the ‘anti-Nebraska’ side.  In fact, on the first ballot, Lincoln got 44 votes and Trumbull five, for a total of 49, just one short of the number needed by a single candidate to win (50 votes, since only 99 members were present that day), while Shields got only 41.  As subsequent ballots were taken, a few other men indicated a willingness to support Lincoln, which could have given him the election except that none of the five Trumbull men would budge.  These five were all staunch Democrats who refused to vote for a Whig.  Since Trumbull’s supporters, led by Norman Judd, wouldn’t give in, those who preferred Lincoln began to gradually switch their votes over to Trumbull, even as on the ‘Nebraska’ side the votes were being switched from Shields to Matteson.

In the ninth round of balloting, Matteson reached 47 votes, just three short of victory.  Lincoln knew that the governor had been selling himself as an ‘anti-Nebraska’ man even though that wasn’t consistent with his past affiliations and actions.  Sensing that Matteson would win on the tenth ballot unless the ‘anti-Nebraska’ men coalesced around a single true ‘anti-Nebraska’ candidate, Lincoln instructed his followers to vote en bloc for Trumbull.  When they protested the injustice of the candidate who had held 90% of the ‘anti-Nebraska’ vote in the early ballots gifting the election to the one who had held only 10%, Lincoln replied, “You will lose both Trumbull and myself and I think the cause in this case is to be preferred to men”.  Lincoln’s men ceded and Trumbull was elected Senator with the necessary 50 votes on the tenth ballot.

The result was clearly unfair to Lincoln.  In fact, Mary Todd Lincoln, who watched it all from the gallery, never forgave neither Trumbull nor Judd.  She even forever severed her relationship with Trumbull’s wife Julia, who had been her very close friend, each of them having been a bridesmaid at the other’s wedding.

Lincoln himself took a longer view of the situation.  He was severely disappointed, of course, but took satisfaction in the fact that Illinois had elected a committed ‘anti-Nebraska’ Senator to counterbalance Senator Stephen Douglas, author of the hated Kansas-Nebraska Act.  He had also thwarted the machinations of Matteson, whom he didn’t trust to stay true to the ‘anti-Nebraska’ cause.  Perhaps most significantly, the whole exercise also served to strengthen the growing ‘anti-Nebraska’ coalition at both the state and national levels, as Trumbull’s inclusion opened the way for other anti-slavery Democrats to join the cause.  In fact, this was an important step in the Republican Party becoming a viable and powerful political force.

In light of all this, Lincoln’s humiliating personal defeat was of little significance.  As he wrote to a friend: “I could not … let the whole political result go to ruin, on a point merely personal to myself”.

In addition, Trumbull and Judd would forever remember Lincoln’s generous and self-sacrificing gesture, and would support him in 1858 when he ran for Illinois’ other US Senate seat against his arch-rival Stephen Douglas.  Judd would also play an important role in Lincoln’s run for the presidency in 1860, and Trumbull would later co-author the Thirteenth Amendment to Constitution, which would be Lincoln’s greatest legislative victory.

By humbling himself and putting the greater cause ahead of his personal ambition, Abraham Lincoln demonstrated a selflessness and generosity seldom found in public life, neither in his time nor in ours.  Some of today’s Republican candidates might do a service to their own ‘greater cause’ if they would be willing to follow Lincoln’s example.

LinkedIn-LogoSquareKevin J. Wood

February 20, 2016

P.S.  The first paragraph of this article should not be interpreted to mean that I believe that the potential Republican nominee discussed therein has no qualifications to be President, rather only that he would not appear to be an appropriate candidate for the Republican Party.  I’m just sayin’…