Reuben E. Fenton’s leadership as governor is arguably the most significant contribution he made to the state of New York. However, getting to that point wasn’t easy. There were many challenges and trials that Fenton had to go through in order to gain that coveted position.
Fenton was first seen as a viable candidate for the Republican Party in 1862. The humble Fenton politely declined it as a good friend of his, General Wadsworth, was vying for the candidacy. Wadsworth later died during the Battle of the Wilderness, and thus left Fenton open to running for governor during the next election cycle in 1864.
When the 1864 election had finally come, though, enthusiasm among certain Republicans for Fenton as a candidate was waning. Thurlow Weed, a rival of Fenton and newspaper magnate, preferred John A. Dix, a union general. Weed eventually overestimated Fenton’s support and was about ready to cede the nomination to him when he realized that support was less than he had thought. He desperately tried to contact Dix and prepare a plan of action, but by that time the Republican convention was over. The candidate had been chosen.
Most likely due to his sterling record and accomplishments in Congress, Fenton was overwhelmingly voted the nominee for Governor at the Party’s Union State Convention. “The informal vote was as follows, Reuben E. Fenton 247 ½, Lyman Tremain 69, John A. Dix 35 ½. Mr. Lapham moved that the nomination of Mr. Fenton be made unanimous. Carried.”
Abraham Lincoln saw the need for a strong Republican to oversee New York State. A loyal Republican that was very supportive of his policies would be a great boon during the divisiveness of the Civil War, especially in the democratically held state of New York. Lincoln met with Fenton and told him “You are to be nominated by our folk as Governor of your state. Seymour, of course, will be the Democratic nominee. You will have a hard fight, I am very desirous that you should win the battle.” As a proud member of the Republican Party and Lincoln supporter, it can be assumed that Fenton saw the importance of his words.
Fenton defeated Horatio Seymour, the democratic incumbent by less than 8,000 votes or less than one percent of the vote. He won it despite Seymour being regarded as the better orator. Fenton went on to make numerous improvements to the state of New York as governor, such as the inspection of state hospitals and asylums, increased support and funding for education, and growing the war-devastated economy.