1860: John Wilson to James William Denver

1860 Campaign Ribbon

The following letter was written by Gen. John Wilson (1790-1877), a native of the Shenandoah Valley, who came to California in 1849 as Indian Agent, then as Navy Agent in San Francisco. He soon settled down to practicing law in San Francisco, becoming somewhat of a specialist in land claim cases. Wilson was active in the Whig party in California but when that party dissolved in the 1850’s, he joined other old conservatives to join the Constitution Union Party that selected John Bell and Edward Everett as their nominees for President and Vice President in 1860.

Wilson wrote this letter to his old friend, James William Denver (1817-1892) who had previously filled several military and civilian posts with the US government, most recently as the Commissioner of Indian Affairs. A life-long Democrat, Denver supported the Democratic party’s nominee, Stephen A. Douglas, for the office of President in the 1860 Election.

In this letter, recognizing there was little alternative to preventing Abraham Lincoln from winning the State of California in the Election of 1860, Wilson proposes to Denver that an attempt be made to unite the conservative members of their two party’s slates of electors to cast their ballots for either Douglas (Democratic Party) or Bell (Constitutional Union Party), but not for both. If “divided at the polls, victory will perch upon abolition,” warned Wilson.


San Francisco, [California]
26th September 1860

Hon. Jas. W. Denver, Sir:

Allow me to suggest a matter that I at least think of great importance. There ought & must be—to save the state to conservatism—a combination between the Douglass & B & E [Bell & Everett] men. I think I can answer for the latter that they will agree to a fair one. You are fully informed how I stand. I have attended no public meeting od any party. My views have been expressed to you and are generally known. I feel the negotiation ought to be prompt & more than secret—if one is made that it should be sprung upon the public like a meteor.

Let it be supposed one was in embryo & all factionists the slave dealer & slave liberator would both glory in the work of making it odious with D & B [Douglass & Bell] rank and file, so that our combination would be shorn of its force—before the matter was accomplished & would unquestionably do the matter much harm.

If I can be of service, why command me on behalf of B & E [Bell & Everet]). To begin, I would write to Gov. Downey but I have no personal acquaintance with him & therefore I address you alone. To begin—two or three ways have suggested themselves to me—your committee State Central—& such other prominent men on the D [Democratic] side—sign a paper addressed to me or anyone else they can confide in of B & E men saying our 4 electors will withdraw if yours will. Our committee will meet yours to have an equal number in joint convention. Each party shall nominate two in their own way by their own members. Then when a majority of 2/3rds of their opponents agree to such nominations, they shall be unanimously nominated as two. If a majority or the 2/3rds of their opponents do not vote for these, then nominate new ones till they are thus accepted by the opposite wing. Then so of the other side—or name two of your men who will withdraw and allow the B & E men to name two others by their committee—or propose the names of two you will withdraw & name the two B & E you will agree to in their place. In this last, be very careful you take men who are generally known & influential B & E men.

I make these suggestions to begin with. No doubt you being far more familiar with matters of this sort than I am, can easily suggest a better plan than either. I am satisfied if the public should not be aware of it till completed. Therefore, there should be speed used in every necessary preliminary. If it is thought that I would be a proper channel to carry on the negotiation, I will undertake it. But I shall much prefer some other may be selected. Depend upon it. There is danger of L [Lincoln] carrying this state. This I hold would be a great political calamity to the Union for there are a majority of conservative votes here, but being divided at the polls, victory will perch upon abolition, so says your old friend, — John Wilson

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