GAMBIER — On this date, 200 years ago, a baby was born in Kentucky to Thomas and Nancy Lincoln; a baby who had the destiny to become the 16th president of the United States.
Or did he? Was it really what looks in retrospect like the smooth machinery of destiny, or was it instead the rough, jostling mechanics of frontier politics and backroom deals in smoke-filled rooms that gave Abraham Lincoln his chance to change history?
Kenyon College alumnus Peter W. Dickson thinks it is the latter, and over the course of a 10-year research odyssey, he has dug up a wealth of winks and nods that hint he may be onto something. Dickson did not start out looking for evidence of Lincoln’s connections with his alma mater, but rather tripped across it when he was exploring a different political machine. He was intrigued by the similarities between the 2000 election, with its stalemate between George W. Bush and Al Gore, and the 1876 election, in which Kenyon College graduate Rutherford B. Hayes was locked in a stalemate with Democratic candidate Samuel J. Tilden. In that earlier election, although Tilden had the greater popular vote, behind-the-scenes deals were cut, giving an electoral college majority, and thus the presidency, to Hayes.
As he looked into Hayes and the Kenyon backgrounds of many of Hayes’ fellow Republican politicians, Dickson began to trace those roots further back. Before he was done, he found that not only was Kenyon a Republican stronghold throughout the mid- and latter 1800s, but that many prominent Kenyon figures were intimately woven into the career of an earlier president: Abraham Lincoln.
An inextricable part of this story is the political ascendancy of the “West,” which in those days was anything west of the Appalachian Mountains. As Kenyon College was one of the most well-established institutions of higher learning to have popped up in the early years of the frontier, it was prominent and well known. As graduates became involved in the growing political influence of the west, they began to operate as a network, gaining, sharing and protecting their political power. Foremost among them were David Davis and Columbus Delano.
Davis (Kenyon Class of 1832) became a circuit judge in Illinois during the first part of his career, befriending the rising young lawyer Abraham Lincoln. As their friendship grew, so did their reputations and ambitions. By 1860, Lincoln was a nationally known figure in the new Republican party, and Davis was in a position to help him. Davis masterminded Lincoln’s sudden rocket to the top during the 1860 convention in Chicago. As Dickson pointed out, before the convention, Lincoln was best known for losing to Sen. Stephen A. Douglas of Illinois in a hard-fought campaign two years earlier. Few regarded him as a contender, least of all frontrunners William H. Seward and Salmon P. Chase, thus the Republicans agreed to hold the convention in Chicago.
But as the convention was being set up, David enlisted the help of his old Kenyon friend Columbus Delano, of Mount Vernon, Ohio, to help him maneuver the nomination to Lincoln. Besides behind-the-scenes proselytizing, Davis and Delano also identified key delegates that would have to be convinced to support Lincoln for the “Lincoln for President” movement to get anywhere. The Illinois delegation was solidly behind Lincoln, and Delano was working to turn a significant portion of the Ohio delegation for Lincoln.
Identifying Pennsylvania as the major delegation most likely to consider supporting Lincoln, Davis and Delano used their influence on the party to get the Pennsylvania delegation seated down in front on the convention floor, between the Illinois and Ohio delegations, and as far away as possible from delegations supporting Seward. The politically savvy Salmon P. Chase (nephew of Kenyon College’s founder, Bishop Philander Chase) sensed which way the winds were starting to shift as Delano maneuvered the Ohio delegation toward Lincoln, and reigned in his rhetoric, which had initially been extremely anti-Lincoln.
When none of the leading candidates was able to win on the first ballot, Lincoln’s supporters nominated him on the second ballot, with Delano himself seconding the nomination. Meanwhile, Davis had hired a huge claque of Illinois farmers to fill up the observation galleries of the convention hall, and to yell and shout when Delano seconded Lincoln’s nomination. The visceral sound they made has been cited as one of the turning points that brought other delegates on board and suddenly boosted Lincoln to the Republican nomination. Dickson found a Cincinnati newspaper report, which described the yell as sounding like “all the hogs in Cincinnati being stuck at once.”
And so Lincoln became positioned to win the White House. But, according to Dickson, the Kenyon connection hardly ended there. Davis went on to be selected by Lincoln for a position on the Supreme Court. He remained a close associate, and was the executor of Lincoln’s estate, and later advised Robert Lincoln to institutionalize his mother, Mary Todd Lincoln, when her mental condition deteriorated into insanity. Columbus Delano ran for the U.S. Senate with Lincoln’s support, but lost by only two votes. The following year, he was successfully elected as a state representative, and he later served as Secretary of the Interior under President Ulysses S. Grant.
And so the connections continue. Salmon P. Chase became Secretary of the Treasury under Lincoln, although he never liked the president. To both remove him from daily contact but to keep Chase’s supporters pleased, Lincoln accepted Chase’s resignation as Treasury Secretary and appointed him instead to the Supreme Court.
Another Kenyon alumnus, Edwin Stanton, was held over from the administration of previous president James Buchanan to serve as Secretary of War under Lincoln. Former Kenyon College President Bishop Charles McIlvaine was enlisted to serve on the delegation Lincoln sent to England, which convinced the English to remain neutral during the Civil War, instead of supporting the Confederacy, as most had expected the longtime U.S. rival to do. Davis’ cousin, Henry Winter Davis, was instrumental in persuading voters in border state Maryland to vote in favor of remaining in the Union.
Without the Kenyon network, would there have been a Lincoln presidency, and even if so, would it have been half as effective without these shrewd, skilled masters of politics? It is one of the great what-ifs of history, one that has been largely forgotten and ignored by biographers focused on the east coast politics of the period. But Dickson is correct in identifying the shift to Ohio’s national dominance, and Kenyon’s role in it.
Before Lincoln, no president had been boosted into power by the state of Ohio. After Lincoln, five of the next eight presidents would be from Ohio, including Kenyon College alumnus Rutherford B. Hayes. In the subsequent century, only two have been from Ohio, the last being Warren G. Harding, who died in office in 1923. Ironically, the controversial election of 2000 saw Ohio’s return, after a century of doldrums, to the center of the presidential stage, where it has remained for the last two presidential elections.
Dickson has assembled his research and photographs of the key players in a book titled “Old Kenyon and Lincoln’s Kenyon Men.” Dickson will be speaking about his discoveries Monday, Presidents Day, at Sips Coffee House, 101 S. Main St., Mount Vernon, at 4:30 p.m. A book signing will follow immediately afterward at the neighboring Paragraphs Bookstore.