Next week's Republican National Convention will overflow with pageantry. But drama? We'll see a coronation ceremony for Sen. John McCain. The only open question is his running mate's identity -- and that too will be settled well before the first gavel.

In May 1860, things were different. As 40,000 Republican delegates and supporters converged on Chicago, the nation was teetering on the brink of dissolution, and the party's nomination process was charged with electric tension.

The party was only six years old in 1860, and its rallying cry was opposition to slavery. In Chicago, it had its first opportunity to select a candidate with a real chance at victory.

A few years earlier, one newspaper marveled, all the nation's Republicans could have fit in one train car. Then, the anti-slavery principle had been "ridiculed, shunned and condemned," but now it "blossoms white over the land."

In 1860, "America's youngest political party" met in "America's fastest-growing city," says historian Doris Kearns Goodwin, who tells the story in "Team of Rivals." In 1830, only 12 families lived in Chicago, and wolves roamed its streets at night.

By 1860, Chicago was home to 100,000 people, but it still strained to house its visitors. Though private citizens invited delegates into their homes, many had to make do with mattresses stretched across the city's numerous billiard tables.

In 1860, unlike today, backroom convention deal-making determined the presidential nomination, and candidates discretely stayed away. Still, few in Chicago doubted that William Seward -- the eminent, silver-tongued senator from New York -- would be the nominee.

Some worried, however, that Seward was too radical on slavery. They feared that his nomination would hurt the chances of local candidates in critical Northern states -- Illinois, Indiana, New Jersey, Pennsylvania -- all of which bordered on slave states.

But Seward's opponents had little hope of stopping him, because they couldn't agree on an alternative candidate.

Everyone's second choice

Waiting in the wings was a dark-horse candidate -- Abraham Lincoln of Illinois. Unlike his prominent rivals, Seward, Salmon P. Chase and Edward Bates, he was an unschooled prairie lawyer, though his 1858 Senate run against Stephen Douglas had briefly brought him national attention.

Lincoln's strategy was to be every delegate's second choice, and to let his name be introduced at the last minute, says Goodwin. He wanted the delegates to be "in a mood to come to us, if they shall be compelled to give up their first love," he said.

Lincoln's men worked the floor, targeting individual delegates to prevent a Seward victory on the first ballot. On May 18, the day of balloting, the political armies converged. Seward's adherents led a triumphant march to the convention site, but discovered when they arrived that Lincoln's men had already packed the hall.

When Lincoln's name was announced, one reporter wrote, "the audience, like a wild colt with [a] bit between his teeth, rose above all cry of order and again and again the irrepressible applause broke forth and resounded far and wide." For the first time, Seward's supporters' confidence was shaken.

Infernally intense screams

The "'trial of lungs' intensified" when the nominees' names were seconded, writes Goodwin. After Seward's second, "no Comanches, no panthers, ever struck a higher note, or gave screams with more infernal intensity," declared the Cincinnati Commercial. But Lincoln's supporters were not to be outdone. When his name was seconded, "five thousand people at once" leaped up.

Initially, Seward was ahead, but on the second ballot, support began to shift to Lincoln. After the third ballot, "in about ten ticks of a watch," an Ohio delegate "stood and announced the switch of four votes" to Lincoln.

"A profound stillness fell," reported an observer. Then Lincoln's supporters "rose to their feet applauding rapturously."

Lincoln had won. "Shouldering the symbolic fence rails that Lincoln had supposedly split, Republicans paraded through the streets to the music of a dozen bands," says Goodwin.

The story of 1860 reminds us that there was a time -- long past -- when political conventions could elevate once obscure men to power, and champion ideas that would leave an indelible legacy. They could provide high drama that was worthy of the country's riveted attention.

Katherine Kersten • Join the conversation at my blog,