“By paying them their price”

I am working my way through the copy-editor’s comments on the manuscript of Seward.  One of her questions was about the 1860 Republican convention, about the deal which Judge David Davis did to secure the Pennsylvania delegates for Lincoln.  I quoted Davis as telling reporters that he secured the Pennsylvania delegates “by paying their price,” that is, by promising a cabinet post for Simon Cameron of Pennsylvania.  The copyeditor queried that quote; what was my source?

My source was Gary Ecelbarger’s wonderful book on the 1860 election:  The Great Comeback.  His source, however, was unclear.  When I contacted Gary by email, he said that he thought the source was Carl Sandburg, and fretted that Sandburg was not very reliable.  I went over the PEA Library and upstairs to find Sandburg.

Sandburg’s biography of Lincoln indeed had the quoted language but no footnote.  But there was a clue:  Sandburg said that Joseph Medill “told of [the incident] later.”  Did young Sandburg perhaps know Medill?  Was there perhaps a memoir by Medill?  Downstairs to check the American National Biography.

The ANB suggested that Sandburg and Medill probably never met:  Sandburg was too young when Medill died.  Moreover, Medill did not write any memoir.  But the ANB entry on Medill said:  “Medill and his circle promised cabinet posts in exchange for delegate votes, thus obtaining the support of Indiana, Pennsylvania and Ohio.”  Surely the ANB author would not say that without SOME support?  The first source cited in the ANB bibliography was a three-volume history of the Chicago Tribune.  Upstairs to find this book.

The history of the Chicago Tribune had a long description of Medill’s role at the 1860 convention.  It did not include the quoted language, but cited “an interview in 1890 which was reprinted in the [Chicago] Tribune of February 7, 1909.”  Downstairs to find the Chicago Tribune on an electronic database.

There were several articles about Medill and Lincoln in the February 7 issue, but one of them indeed has Medill’s recollection of Davis and the Pennsylvania delegates.  It reads in part:

When Judge Davis came downstairs late at night or towards morning, I went up to him and asked him what Pennsylvania was going to do.  The judge replied: “Damned if we haven’t got them.”  “How did you get them?” I asked. “By paying them their price,” he said.  The next man who came along replied to my question “Pennsylvania is for Abe Lincoln.”  Finally I met Dr. Ray [his colleague on the Tribune] and asked him how that had been brought about.  “Why,” said he, “we promised to put Simon Cameron in the cabinet.  They wanted assured that we represented Lincoln, and that he would do what we said.”  “What have you agreed to give Cameron,” I asked.  “The treasury department.”  “Good heavens,” said I, “give Cameron the treasury department?  What, what will be left?” “O, what is the difference,” said Ray, “We are after a bigger thing than that; we want the presidency and the treasury department is not a great price to pay for it.”

As often happens, the primary source is richer than the secondary source:  Cameron’s reputation for corruption comes through in Medill’s question about what would be left in the treasury if Cameron were appointed.

Of course, it is not certain that these are the exact words of Davis, Medill and Ray in 1860:  Medill was speaking thirty or more years later.  But Medill was THERE in Chicago in 1860, and this is thus a far more reliable source than a twentieth century book.  So I am going with the quote.