A national champion, Abraham Lincoln found little favor in New Jersey.
While he often passed through, Lincoln’s wife, Mary Todd Lincoln, spent far more time in New Jersey. As the Civil War raged in August 1861, she vacationed at the Jersey Shore.
Seven months earlier, Lincoln made one of his rare public appearances in New Jersey. More of a tour stop, it took place on Feb. 21, 1861 as he made his roundabout trip from Springfield, Illinois to Washington DC ahead of his March 4 inauguration.
Lincoln met crowds in Jersey City, Newark, and New Brunswick before stopping at the statehouse in Trenton. He gave an obligatory address to each half of the legislature. In his brief to the state Senate, Lincoln told legislators how the stories from New Jersey’s Revolutionary War battlefields shaped his world view.
“I recollect thinking then, boy even though I was, that there must have been something more than common that those men struggled for; that something even more than National Independence; that something that held out a great promise to all the people of the world to all time to come,” Lincoln said.
He also vowed to be a representative of the nation as a whole and directly referenced his lack of support in New Jersey.
“This body is composed of a majority of gentlemen who … did not think I was the man. I understand, nevertheless, that they came forward here to greet me as the constitutional President of the United States,” he said.
Admitted to the Illinois bar in 1836, Lincoln started his political career four years earlier in a campaign for the Illinois House of Representatives. In spite of an early loss, Lincoln would spend eight years as a state legislator before setting his sights on the US Congress. He gained his first seat there in 1847. Within two years, he would draft legislation to abolish slavery. By the end of the second year, he returned to Illinois having vowed to serve just a single term. He never introduced his bill, later telling biographer James Quay Howard that his would-be backers were swayed by pro-slavery Congressmen hailing from southern states.
As the antislavery sentiment grew, Lincoln regained political momentum. He joined the newly formed Republican Party in the run up to his 1856 bid for US Senate and received a nomination for vice president.
He was beaten out for the spot by New Jersey’s William Dayton.
Firmly in the abolition movement, Dayton was New Jersey’s guy. Born in 1807 in Basking Ridge, he was from a prominent – if not rich – family. He nonetheless distinguished himself graduating from the College of New Jersey, now Princeton University, at 18.
At the age of 30, Dayton was elected to New Jersey’s upper house. The next year, he became an associate state Supreme Court judge. At 35, he was appointed to the US Senate, where he served until 1851.
Though Dayton and running mate John C. Fremont lost their 1856 bid for the White House, Dayton found a landing pad. In January 1857, Dayton became New Jersey’s 21st attorney general.
Lincoln, meanwhile, continued his quest to become a US Senator. He lost again in 1858. Still, Lincoln distinguished himself on a national level during debates with eventual victor Stephen Douglas.
Early in 1860, the Monmouth Democrat reported hype out of Chicago for Lincoln as a potential vice presidential candidate to run alongside Pennsylvania Senator Simon Cameron. That February, The Standard of Red Bank nonetheless noted that Lincoln’s potential bid for the presidency was “not without very earnest advocacy.”
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The newspaper staff also presented some keen foreshadowing by claiming “the great aim of the party, undoubtedly will be to find a candidate who can carry Pennsylvania and New Jersey.”
That month, Lincoln gave a speech at Cooper Union but declined subsequent invitations to visit Paterson and Orange. Mayson Brayman, a newspaperman turned attorney who aided Lincoln in his 1858 campaign, later said Lincoln warned him about North Jersey Republicans, whom Brayman classified as “unsophisticated heathens.”
When it came time to pick candidates in May 1860 in Chicago, Lincoln faced immediate opposition from the state’s delegates. As did William Seward, the Republican Party figurehead. Seward was an unpopular personality. Lincoln was a relative unknown.
In the first vote, New Jersey’s 14 delegates selected neither. All their votes went to Dayton. They were, however, the only 14 votes for Dayton.
Historian Allan Nevins in his series “The Emergence of Lincoln” described the entailing shift as an obvious choice.
“WL Dayton could not be nominated, Seward could not be elected,” he wrote.
Though Cameron was still in the mix, Nevins said a committee from Illinois, Pennsylvania, New Jersey and Indiana decided to coalesce around Lincoln after the first ballot. They aimed to convince New Englanders to drop their support for Seward, he wrote.
It didn’t go quite that smoothly, however. In the second round of voting, four of New Jersey’s switched to support Lincoln. By the third round, Lincoln took eight with Seward gaining five and one holding steadfast for Dayton.
Lincoln subsequently emerged from the Republican Convention as the party nominee.
The Monmouth Inquirer that May proclaimed “no man is more deserving of this honor.” “A self-made man – having educated himself after he arrived at manhood by the little he could save by working on a farm by the month – today he has no superior in talent, oratory and clearness in debate,” the newspaper reported.
The Monmouth Democrat nonetheless touted Lincoln’s victory as a betrayal of Seward.
“The persistent opposition of the Republicans of New Jersey and Pennsylvania, who never had the pluck to stand up boldly for the principles of their party, caused him to be thrown overboard at the very culminating point of all his efforts,” the Monmouth Democrat wrote . “If the Democrats reconcile their difficulties, and there now appears every indication that they will, the way for them is clear for a certain victory.”
By the end of June, there were four candidates. They were Lincoln, Douglas, John Bell of Tennessee and John Breckinridge, the vice president from Kentucky.
“We have very strong reasons for believing that some of them will be defeated, and a private opinion that one of the above will be the next President,” the West Jersey Pioneer reported.
NW Voorhees, one of New Jersey’s delegates, wrote to Lincoln that month in June. Even those who switched to Seward would firmly back Lincoln, he wrote.
“You may rest assured that the approval of your nomination in New Jersey is heartfelt and universal,” he wrote. “May success crown our efforts and may our cause prevail.”
Douglas and Breckinridge divided the Democrats’ votes. Lincoln, running as a member of the Opposition Party, racked up electoral votes on his way to victory.
New Jersey was the only free state east of the Mississippi that did not cast its electoral vote for Lincoln.
“That New Jersey should be so far behind other states in its devotion to freedom is a matter of deep regret to the hundreds and thousands of good and true men who inhabit its soil,” the Monmouth Inquirer wrote in Nov. 1860.
The Daily True American newspaper of Trenton staff said New Jersey’s voters should have no regrets in selecting Douglas with the majority of the popular vote.
“Whatever disasters may result to the country from the election of Lincoln … it will be a great consolation for the Democracy and Union men of this State to know, they are not responsible,” they wrote.
The political battles for Lincoln were only beginning, however. Six weeks later, South Carolina became the first state to secede from the Union. Within three months, separatists would establish the Confederate States of America. By mid-February 1861, Lincoln had a rogue president in Jefferson Davis to battle.
Lincoln would stop in New Jersey just one other time. It was a brief Jersey City visit following a war-related trip to West Point.
When reelection beckoned in 1864, New Jersey would again rebuff the president. That time, all seven electoral votes went to George McClellan. The Democratic candidate received nearly 53% of the popular vote.
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