Written By: Herald Boas
Donald Trump famously used Twitter to power himself to the White House. Before him, Ronald Reagan perfected the art of the TV presidency, which was first pioneered by John F. Kennedy a generation prior. Franklin Roosevelt used radio and the airplane to aid his political fortunes. But you may be surprised to learn that it was crafty Abraham Lincoln who started the trend of candidates riding new technology to the White House all the way back in 1860.
It was Lincoln who got it all started as a private citizen in 1860 as he began his campaign for president unknown and last on a list of 12 Republican candidates headed by the frontrunner, New York Governor William Seward.
Lincoln was an ambitious and politically creative man who made the first real usage of new technology and media to succeed. He began a tradition of winning the presidency using innovation in technology that has continued to flourish in the 20th and 21st centuries.
His challenge was to go from last to first among the Republican candidates, and to accomplish this in a very short period of time, only weeks before the party nominating convention in Chicago. Radio, television, telephones, movies and tape recorders did not exist, but two recently developed technologies did. Samuel Morse had invented the telegraph and Isaac Pitman had developed the modern shorthand method about 20 years earlier. The wily Lincoln devised a brilliant strategy to make himself president — and indelibly change American history.
Lincoln knew that he was little known outside Illinois where he lived, and he needed to do something to get attention on the East Coast which had so many convention votes. New York City was the logical place to do it, and Lincoln was aware that the industrialist and philanthropist Peter Cooper had just built a large modern hall, Cooper Union, at his new educational institute on Astor Place in lower Manhattan, across the street from Horace Greeley’s Republican newspaper, the Tribune. Lincoln calculated that Cooper, the Bill Gates of his day, would welcome a major news event to show off his new building.
Through friends and allies he had developed over the years since his one term in Congress (1847-49), Lincoln arranged to rent Cooper Union for a speech he would give on February 27, 1860. Then he invited the leading political reporters from each of the Republican-sympathetic daily newspapers in the major East Coast cities, including Boston, Philadelphia, Providence, Hartford, Baltimore, and Albany — in addition to New York City — to attend the speech in person. He knew that most of these reporters were trained in shorthand, and would be able to quickly telegraph his full speech to their newspapers all over the East Coast. Then he arranged to give the same speech in several cities in the days following.
The great political issue of the day was the extension of slavery into the federal territories (which would soon become new states). The South knew that if it could not increase the number of slave states, there would eventually be enough non-slave states to change the Constitution and abolish slavery in all states. The Democratic President James Buchanan, notoriously weak, had done nothing to end the growing crisis, and his party supported allowing slavery in the territories. The 1860 Democratic presidential nominee was going to be Illinois Senator Stephen Douglas, a slavery extension apologist who had defeated Lincoln for a U.S. Senate seat two years earlier. Douglas’s views, however, were not enough for South, which wanted the North to surrender completely on the slavery issue, and decided to run their own pro-slavery Democratic candidate, Buchanan’s vice president, John Breckenridge.
Lincoln realized that with the Democrats dividing their votes between two candidates, the Republican presidential nominee was very likely to be elected. The long speech itself has little of the grandeur and eloquence of his later Gettysburg Address or Second Inaugural. Instead, it is a brilliant historical refutation of Douglas’s rationalization of allowing slavery in the territories. Lincoln does not promise to abolish slavery, a goal which was then not possible, but he always explicitly says that slavery is wrong. His devastating destruction of the argument in favor of extending slavery was easily understood by both the anti-slavery Republicans and pro-slavery southerners as a forecast of the eventual end of slavery.
When Lincoln stepped to the podium that February evening at Cooper Union, his audience saw a tall, gangly, almost awkward figure. By the end of the speech, however, he had captured them, and received a standing ovation.
As he had anticipated, the reporters took down his remarks in shorthand, and telegraphed them to their newspapers.
The next morning he began his speaking tour of nine Eastern cities. He found enthusiastic audiences which had already read his speech. His strategy had worked. Almost overnight he had electrified northern Republican voters, going from last on the list to the front. Soon he was nominated. As he had foreseen, the Democrats then split their votes in November, and he was elected president.
Decades later, Franklin Roosevelt sidestepped a hostile media, and used the then new medium of radio to speak directly to the American people with a series of “fireside chats.” George W. Bush pioneered the art of using data to micro-target individual votes, and Barack Obama used the internet to build a massive grassroots fundraising machine. Most recently, Donald Trump used the social medium of Twitter to take his populist message to the voters. Unlike Lincoln, Trump was already a celebrity when he announced his candidacy, and unlike Lincoln, Trump was not assured of winning in November once nominated–but like Lincoln, Trump would likely never have been elected if he had not invented a novel way to employ new technology.
Abraham Lincoln began it all on that cold February evening at Cooper Union. Looking forward to 2024, we might ask what new technology will be used to elect the next president.