Decoding the Myths of Asa Packer, 1805?-1879

President Packer?

In 1868, the Democratic National Convention convened in New York City to put forth a candidate in the upcoming election. No fewer than 12 candidates garnered votes on the initial ballot. Two Pennsylvanians placed fourth and fifth in the voting, they were former Union General Winfield Scott Hancock and Asa Packer. The Pennsylvania delegation did not split their votes between the two candidates, but put all their votes forward for Asa Packer. Only after fourteen ballots did the Keystone men change their vote.
Did Packer want to be President? What made the Pennsylvania convention vote for Packer? It appears that Packer never issued a public statement about his desire to become President. If nominated, his sense of duty would undoubtedly compel his service, but it remains questionable how hard he would have campaigned for the office. Pennsylvania’s delegation apparently thought Packer made a fine candidate. George W. Woodward made the longest nominating speech at the convention in favor of Packer and “declared that [Packer’s] nomination was not intended as a mere compliment; the delegation presented him in good faith.” After the nominating speech, an unimpressed delegate reputedly uttered the line: “Who in the hell is Packer?” Needless to say, Packer received little support outside the Pennsylvania delegation.
Perhaps the Pennsylvania delegates knew Packer would not or could not win election. The Boston Daily Advertiser suggested that the Mid-Atlantic states purposefully nominated underwhelming candidates “so as to retain the balance of power at the critical moment.” Essentially, the newspaper suggested that delegates from Pennsylvania, New York, and New Jersey waited to see whom the other states preferred and would then act to vote in their favorite of the frontrunners. Eventually, Horatio Seymour, a man not on the initial ballot, won the election and went on to lose to Ulysses S. Grant in the general election. Interestingly, Francis Preston Blair earned the Democratic nomination for Vice President. George Woodward tried to forge a Packer-Blair ticket prior to the convention.
Once again, Packer’s personal feelings remain elusive. The lackluster reception of Packer at the convention reinforced his national reputation, that is to say he did not have one. Though Asa Packer’s name remained well known to political and industrial elites, he never cultivated those relationships for national gain.

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