Republican Wigwam Erected at Chicago

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Republican Wigwam Erected at Chicago
Attributed to William Thomas Law
Watercolor on paper
9½  x 13½ in.
Chicago History Museum purchase
Accession/catalog number:  1953.351, ICHi-52653

On May 16, 1860, ten thousand people packed this building. Outside, thirty thousand more people anxiously waited for the news. Who would the Republican Party nominate to run for president? For weeks, Chicagoans had watched in anticipation as the “Wigwam” for the Republican Party’s presidential nominating convention had been built. The artist painted this scene four days before the convention; notice how much bigger the Wigwam is compared to the other buildings. One newspaper reported that the “gigantic structure” was “the largest audience room in the United States.”

You may wonder why the Republicans referred to the building as a “wigwam.” Though the term originally referred to the lodges or tents of some North American Indian tribes, by the early 1800s, American political parties had begun to refer to their campaign headquarters by the same name. The outcome of Chicago’s Wigwam meeting was far from assured. Contenders for the presidential nomination included William Seward of New York, Salmon Chase of Ohio, Edward Bates of Missouri, and Simon Cameron of Pennsylvania. But there was someone else, too: Abraham Lincoln of Illinois, a lesser-known but rapidly rising star of American politics. Lincoln had strong convictions and a powerful speaking style, especially when voicing his opposition to extending slavery. Lincoln, like the other candidates, did not attend the Chicago convention, it being considered undignified to do so, but he waited for the results in Springfield, his hometown. In a raucous affair, party delegates nominated Lincoln on the third ballot, causing a wild celebration throughout the city.   


1. In this watercolor rendition of the Wigwam, the artist is interested in documenting the historic building. What do you know about the structure from examining the painting closely? Does anything seem to be out of proportion? If so, why do you think this was done?

2. How do political conventions today differ from those in Lincoln’s time?

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