An obscure New Jerseyan named William Dayton nearly knocked Abraham Lincoln out of his place in history.
Dayton was elected to the New Jersey Legislature as a member of the Whig Party in 1837, and then became an associate justice of the New Jersey Supreme Court in 1838. He was appointed to the U.S. Senate when the incumbent died in 1842. He was elected to a full term in 1845 but lost his bid for re-election in 1851.
He became a member of the new Republican Party and sough the vice presidential nomination at the first Republican National Convention in Philadelphia in 1856.
Dayton’s main competitor for the vice presidency was a former congressman from Illinois – Lincoln. He led Lincoln 253 to 110 on an informal first ballot, after which most of the delegates swung his way.
He became the running mate of John Frémont, a U.S. Senator from California. Frémont and Dayton were defeated by Democrats James Buchanan and John Breckinridge.
Dayton got crushed in his home state. Buchanan won New Jersey by a 47%-29% margin, with 24% going to an independent, former president Millard Fillmore.
Following his defeat, Dayton returned to New Jersey to spent four years as the state Attorney General.
In 1860, Dayton sought the Republican presidential nomination.
At the national convention in Chicago, Dayton received 14 votes on the first ballot – all from New Jersey. He lost four New Jersey delegates to Lincoln on the second ballot. On the third ballot, New Jersey gave Lincoln eight votes, with five going to William Seward and just one holding for Dayton.
Lincoln won the nomination on the third ballot.
Dayton was one of the less-known members of Lincoln’s “Team of Rivals” – he became the U.S. Minister (that’s what Ambassador’s were called then) to France.
He helped convince Napoleon from recognizing the Confederacy during the Civil War. He died in Paris in 1864 at the age of 57.
Dayton started a trend of defeated vice presidential candidates being unable to secure a future presidential nomination — Franklin Roosevelt was the only exception. Between 1948 and 2007, seven losing VP candidates run for president in the next election and failed to secure the nomination.