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  • Print publication year: 2015
  • Online publication date: November 2015

2 - African Lessons


At a tumultuous nominating convention in Chicago in May 1860, Republican Party delegates assembled in the recently built huge two-story meeting hall called the Wigwam. In the third round of balloting, a majority of the delegates cast their votes for Abraham Lincoln. From the cupola atop the Wigwam, a brass cannon then boomed to signal the choice of a candidate. The nominee's political friends quickly launched his bid for the presidency. Within a month, Lincoln's campaign biography was almost written.

Starting with Andrew Jackson's unsuccessful 1824 run for the office against John Quincy Adams, an authorized election-year biography had become a staple of presidential campaigns. These books touted the qualifications of the candidate to lead the American people. Benefiting from the printing and publishing innovations of the prewar decades, these cheap and mass-produced political works in English were intended to reach a national audience and sell inexpensively. Other editions were translated into the languages of immigrants to the United States and targeted their communities. From June 1860 through the election, thirteen campaign biographies in English, three in German, and two in Welsh publicized the Republican candidate's qualifications for the presidency. Of these campaign pieces, Lincoln scholars consider the one written by John Locke Scripps, editor of the pro-Lincoln Chicago Press and Tribune, the most authoritative, the most widely circulated, and the most influential. For a few cents, the thirty-two-page booklet introduced the candidate to a broad public beyond the Republican Party faithful.

Readers learned of Lincoln's rise from his family's Kentucky log cabin, to splitting rails as a backwoodsman, to debating Democrat Stephen A. Douglas as they campaigned for the U.S. Senate in 1858. As a skilled writer, Scripps made his points both explicitly and implicitly. Readers might learn of Lincoln's political positions, including those about slavery and its extension into the territories, through speeches taken from the 1858 Illinois Senate campaign. Scripps adopted less direct means when he established Lincoln as a pious, antislavery man– a candidate who appealed to evangelical voters dedicated to Christianity and social reform in the United States.