In May 1860 Illinois Republicans met to select their presidential nominee. Lincoln’s supporters staged a demonstration in the meeting hall, which they capped off with John Hanks, Lincoln’s cousin, carrying in two fence rails split by Lincoln and Hanks. Suspended from the rails was a banner that read, “Abraham Lincoln the Rail Candidate for President in 1860.”
The delegates wildly cheered the theatrics, and Lincoln handily won the nomination. One observer noted, “That banner was to be the ‘Battle flag’ in the coming contest between ‘labor free’ and ‘labor slave,’ between democracy and aristocracy.” In that moment, Lincoln became a symbol of the self-made frontiersman and representative of honest, enterprising labor.
John Hanks returned to the fences and gathered additional rails. During the campaign he sold pieces of the fence to Lincoln supporters that were used to decorate campaign headquarters and carried in parades. This piece, cut from a larger rail, was later sold to raise money for Union soldiers.
Gift of Sen. Leverett Saltonstall, 1984