Politics: The More Things Change...

Portrait of Thurlow Weed
Thurlow Weed / By Chester Harding, c. 1843 / National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution

Among the recent acquisitions placed on view at the National Portrait Gallery is Chester Harding’s c. 1843 portrait of Thurlow Weed (1797–1893), editor of the Albany Evening Journal and one of the all-time great masters of the game of American politics. “Under his sagacious rule,” a contemporary summed up, “governors were made, senators elected, presidential candidates boosted or hindered.”

Weed arrived at the 1860 Republican convention in Chicago, armed with “oceans of money” and a stock of champagne and cigars. He had helped make two Whig presidents—William Henry Harrison and Zachary Taylor—and intended now to see to the election of the first Republican president.

Thurlow Weed's candidate was William Henry Seward—his closest friend—who, thanks to Weed's prowess, had been elected governor of New York and twice selected by the state legislature to serve in the United States Senate. Seward was the front-runner for the nomination, and Weed told Seward that he was willing to accept the Illinois lawyer—one Abraham Lincoln—for the second place on the ticket.

It turned out, however, that this political genius, “the surest calculator of political chances and results,” was outmaneuvered, and Abraham Lincoln was nominated on the third ballot. Thurlow Weed broke down and cried.

“Annoyed and dejected” though he was, Weed did not intend to stay out of the game, and he traveled to Springfield to meet with Lincoln, whom he found to be “sagacious and practical.” At the end of the five-hour conversation, Weed felt prepared to “go to work with a will.”

Weed was, as usual, indefatigable—planning strategy, enlisting workers, keeping the factions of New York’s Republican Party (old Democrats, old Whigs, Know-nothings, abolitionists, and temperance zealots) united, persuading Seward to take the stump on Lincoln’s behalf, and seeing to the all-important task of fund-raising. (“We suppose it is generally understood that party organization costs money and the presidential elections especially are expensive,” he informed the public.) 

On the eve of the election, the Evening Journal trumpeted, “Vote Early! Look Out for Split Tickets! Keep Cool! Don=t Swap! Never Mind the Weather! Keep Moving All The Time! Don=t Stop to Argue! Offer Your Help!” Lincoln carried New York State by more than 50,000 votes.

Thurlow Weed's portrait is on view on the first floor of the National Portrait Gallery, in the "New Arrivals" exhibition.