[The Great Comeback: How Abraham Lincoln Beat the Odds to Win the 1860 Republican Nomination by Gary Ecelbarger (Thomas Dunne Books, 2008). Hardcover, photos, notes, bibliography, index. 304 pp. ISBN: 0-312-37413-5 $25.95]
Civil War author Gary Ecelbarger's new book The Great Comeback: How Abraham Lincoln Beat the Odds to Win the 1860 Republication Nomination addresses the question of how Abraham Lincoln, a one-term Congressman and two-time Senate race loser by 1858, was transformed into the Republican party's 1860 nominee for President. Certainly, the year 1859 was key. Most histories trumpet the watershed moment of the February 27, 1860 Cooper Union speech propelling Lincoln onto the national political scene as a serious presidential contender, but Ecelbarger concentrates his own research efforts into the earlier speaking circuit that took Lincoln all over the states of Ohio, Indiana, and Wisconsin, as well as Kansas territory. About half the text is devoted to these events. Indeed, without those two months of exhaustive meetings and travel -- aided by the telegraphed texts of his speeches spreading across the north-- would the invitation to Cooper Union even have been offered?
In addition to the Decatur Convention, Ecelbarger highlights the earlier struggle to consolidate the Illinois Republican delegates into a pro-Lincoln bloc. The nasty party infighting between Republicans Norman Judd and Chicago Mayor "Long" John Wentworth, and how it would potentially help or harm Lincoln's chances, is a common thread during this period. While Lincoln outwardly discounted his own presidential abilities and desires early on in order to not peak too early and create unnecessary enemies, his ambitious 1859-1860 speaking circuit throughout the west and northeast was a presidential campaign under the thinnest of deniable disguises.
Ecelbarger ably recounts the mechanics, strategies, and "corrupt bargains" inherent in national political conventions, in this case the Republican convention in Chicago. Even before it started, likely candidates were whittled down to two, Lincoln and William Seward, the latter harmed more by his "Irrepressible Conflict" speech than Lincoln by his own equally controversial "House Divided" words. Lincoln was perceived as a moderate to the radical Seward, a significant advantage for the former. Nevertheless, it was a close run thing, with Lincoln's cause immeasurably aided by the convention management of Judge David Davis and Norman Judd. Ecelbarger credits much of the victory to a range of politically shrewd actions, from successful backroom deals (e.g. "promising" of a cabinet post to the Pennsylvanians) to brilliant crowd management and arrangement of convention seating. Ecelbarger really take the reader on an entertaining and enlightening journey into mid-19th century presidential convention politics.
To be honest, I do not know how well other Lincoln books have covered this particular period, but I would venture to guess that this book's main value (to separate it from the more common mass of Lincoln books that are churned out every year) is in Ecelbarger's finely considered coverage of Lincoln's extensive speaking circuit conducted prior to the famous Cooper Union address. It clearly set up all that was to follow.