Though in 1854 he was not yet a national figure, Lincoln was locally accredited with keen political insight, and was, regarded in Illinois as a strong lawyer. The story is told of him that, while he was attending court on the circuit, he heard the news of the Kansas-Nebraska Act in a tavern and sat up most of the night talking about it. Next morning he used a phrase destined to become famous. "I tell you," said he to a fellow lawyer, "this nation cannot exist half slave and half free."
Lincoln, however, was not one of the first to join the Republicans. In Illinois, in 1854, Lincoln resigned his seat in the legislature to become the Whig candidate for United States senator, to succeed the Democratic colleague of Douglas. But there was little chance of his election, for the real contest was between the two wings of the Democrats, the Nebraska men and the anti-Nebraska men, and Lincoln withdrew in favor of the candidate of the latter, who was elected.
During the following year, from the midst of his busy law practice, Lincoln watched the Whig party go to pieces. He saw a great part of its vote lodge temporarily among the Know-Nothings, but before the end of the year even they began to lose their prominence. In the autumn, from the obscurity of his provincial life, he saw, far off, Seward, the most astute politician of the day, join the new movement. In New York, the Republican state convention and the Whig state convention merged into one, and Seward pronounced a baptismal oration upon the Republican party of New York.
In the House of Representatives which met in December, 1855, the anti-Nebraska men were divided among themselves, and the Know-Nothings held the balance of power. No candidate for the speakership, however, was able to command a majority, and finally, after it had been agreed that a plurality would be sufficient, the contest closed, on the one hundred and thirty-third ballot, with the election of a Republican, N. P. Banks. Meanwhile in the South, the Whigs were rapidly leaving the party, pausing a moment with the Know-Nothings, only to find that their inevitable resting-place, under stress of sectional feeling, was with the Democrats.
On Washington's birthday, 1856, the Know-Nothing national convention met at Philadelphia. It promptly split upon the subject of slavery, and a portion of its membership sent word offering support to another convention which was sitting at Pittsburgh, and which had been called to form a national organization for the Republican party. A third assembly held on this same day was composed of the newspaper editors of Illinois, and may be looked upon as the organization of the Republican party in that state. At the dinner following this informal convention, Lincoln, who was one of the speakers, was toasted as "the next United States Senator."
Some four months afterward, in Philadelphia, the Republicans held their first national convention. Only a few years previous its members had called themselves by various names--Democrats, Free-Soilers, Know-Nothings, Whigs. The old hostilities of these different groups had not yet died out. Consequently, though Seward was far and away the most eminent member of the new party, he was not nominated for President. That dangerous honor was bestowed upon a dashing soldier and explorer of the Rocky Mountains and the Far West, John C. Fremont.*
*For an account of Fremont, see Stewart Edward White, "The Forty-Niners" (in "The Chronicles of America"), Chapter II.
The key to the political situation in the North, during that momentous year, was to be found in the great number of able Whigs who, seeing that their own party was lost but refusing to be sidetracked by the make-believe issue of the Know-Nothings, were now hesitating what to do. Though the ordinary politicians among the Republicans doubtless wished to conciliate these unattached Whigs, the astuteness of the leaders was too great to allow them to succumb to that temptation. They seem to have feared the possible effect of immediately incorporating in their ranks, while their new organization was still so plastic, the bulk of those conservative classes which were, after all, the backbone of this irreducible Whig minimum.