The penchant of politicians for monikers is historic and widespread – starting with the Father of Our County, Old Hickory and Tippecanoe. More recently Americans coined The Gipper, JFK and just plain W.
Abraham Lincoln was blessed – or burdened, take your pick – with three nicknames: Honest Abe, Rail Splitter and Great Emancipator. Each highlighted an aspect of his character ranking with that of George Washington.
The turbulent politics presaging the War Between the States (Civil War to history-challenged Yankees) spawned the Republican Party, emancipation of slaves and states’ rights.
Lincoln, an Illinois country lawyer, served four terms in the Illinois Legislature and one term in Congress as a Whig. Nevertheless, he became disillusioned with Whig politics and left that party in 1856 to become active in the Republican Party.
That new political party had formed two years earlier by former Democrats and Whigs. They were upset over passage of the Kansas-Nebraska Act that repealed earlier compromises prohibiting extension of slavery into new western territories.
Honest Abe – as he was called by business acquaintances — gained political stature in the Republican Party by debating Stephen “Little Giant” Douglas during the election campaign of 1858. Lincoln lost to the long-term senator.
In those days, U.S. senators were elected by state legislators, not by direct vote as today. In that election, Lincoln polled more popular votes than Douglas but was defeated by a legislature of Democrat representatives.
(Interesting how things even out in the long run.)
The little-told story of how Lincoln acquired a new nickname, and the presidency in 1860, starts with Richard J. Oglesby of Decatur, Ill. He was a bluff, friendly man who later was elected governor of Illinois and a U.S. Senator.
Oglesby, a former Whig, was appointed chairman of arrangements for the Illinois Republican nominating convention at Decatur, Ill. He was a “Lincoln Man” but concerned about his candidate’s public appeal.
He sought something that would identify Lincoln as a common man – an essential attribute for political candidates in those days.
“Log Cabin Candidate” had the right tone, and Lincoln had been born in such a humble structure. However, that image was already associated with William Henry Harrison (Tippecanoe) and his vice-president John Tyler (Too) and their “Log Cabin and Hard Cider” Whig campaign of 1840.
Oglesby came up with the winning moniker during a chance meeting with John Hanks, a distant relative of Lincoln. After Lincoln was elected, Oglesby recalled his inspirational campaign slogan.
“I had known John Hanks all my life. He was a Democrat, but a great friend of Lincoln. Years before, they had gone together on a flat boating expedition down the Mississippi. Hanks had wanted to vote for Lincoln for U.S. senator but could not do this without voting for the local Republican candidate for the legislature.”
“Hanks said that in 1830 he and Abe made a clearing 12 miles west of Decatur. There was a patch of timber – 15 or 20 acres – and they cleared it and built a cabin. They cut the trees, mauled rails and put up a fence.
“John,” said I, “did you split rails down there with old Abe?”
“Yes, every day,” he replied.
“Do you suppose you could find any of them now?”
“Yes,” he said. “The last time I was down there 10 years ago, there were plenty of them left.”
“The next day, we drove out to the old clearing. We turned in by the timber and John said, ‘If I don’t find any black walnut rails, nor any honey locust rails, I won’t claim it’s the fence Abe and I built.’
“Presently John said, ‘There’s the fence!’
“But look at these great trees,” said I.
“Certainly” he answered. “They have all grown up since.”
“John got out. I sat in the buggy. John kneeled down and commenced chipping the rails of the old fence with his knife. Soon he came back with walnut shavings and honey locust shavings.”
“There they are,” said he triumphantly, holding out the shavings. “They are the identical rails we made.”
“We took two of the rails and tied them under the hind axletree of my new buggy and started for town.
“People would occasionally pass and think something had broken. We let them think so, for we didn’t wish to tell anybody just what we were doing. We kept right on until we got to my barn. There we hid the rails until the day of the convention.”
Despite the secrecy, two days before the convention opened, the Illinois State Journal correspondent “Viator” reported two days before the convention:
“Among the sights which will greet your eyes will be a lot of rails, mauled out of Burr Oak and Walnut 30 years ago by old Abe Lincoln and John Hanks of this county. They are still sound and firm, like the men that made them. Shall we not elect the Rail Mauler President? His rails — like his political record — are straight, sound and out of good timber.”
Despite the tip-off, Oglesby managed to build suspense.
“Before the convention met, I talked with several Republicans about my plan. We fixed it up that old John Hanks should take the rails into the convention. We made a banner, attached to a board across the top of the rails with the Inscription:
The Rail Candidate
For President in 1860
Whose father was the first
Pioneer in Macon County
It was customary for candidates wait until summoned while nominations and votes are underway. However, an exception was arranged for Lincoln, according to Oglesby. Abe quietly took a seat in the back row.
“After the convention got underway, I arose on the speaker’s platform and announced that an old Democrat desired to make a contribution to the convention.
“The proceedings stopped. All was expectancy and excitement. Three thousand people had crowded into our wigwam of canvas with 900 seats.
“Then in walked old John with the rails. Lincoln was there in a corner, trying to escape observation.
“How are you Abe?” said John familiarly as he passed.
“How are you, John?” Lincoln answered with equal familiarity.
“Then the convention cheered and cheered. There were loud and persistent calls for speech from Lincoln.
“Abe had not known that the rails were to be brought in. He hardly knew what to say about them.
“The crowd pushed him forward, almost carrying him.
“Gentlemen,” he finally said, “John and I did make some rails down there; and if these aren’t the identical rails we made, they certainly look very much like them.”
“From that time forward, the rail was ever-present in the campaign. There was a great demand for Lincoln rails. John Hanks sold the two that he brought into the convention. A man from Kentucky gave him five dollars for one.
“The next day, John went out and got a wagonload and put them in my barn. He sold them for a dollar apiece. Then other people went into the business, and the supply seemed inexhaustible.”
The following week, the national Republican Convention was held in Chicago and Lincoln won the Whig candidacy easily. He went on to win the general election, defeating three other candidates — a northern Democrat, Southern Democrat and a Constitutional Union Party.
The fence rail became a favorite symbol for editorial cartoonists – pro and con–until Lincoln’s assassination shortly after the war.