Should the 1864 Election be Postponed?

1864 ElectionA shocking poll conducted in June 2017 found that more than half of Republicans (52%) said they would support “a postponement of the next election if Trump called for it.” Such a postponement would be anti-American and unprecedented. Indeed, during the U.S. Civil War there were some who advised Abraham Lincoln to postpone the 1864 election. He refused to do so:

We cannot have free government without elections; and if the rebellion could force us to forego, or postpone a national election, it might fairly claim to have already conquered and ruined us.

Lincoln forged ahead in 1864 despite his belief that he would lose the upcoming presidential election in November; he insisted the democratic process was what they were fighting for, and that the election would continue as planned.

Lincoln was so convinced he would lose reelection that on August 23, 1864, he wrote what has become known as the “blind memorandum:”

This morning, as for some days past, it seems exceedingly probable that this Administration will not be re-elected. Then it will be my duty to so co-operate with the President elect, as to save the Union between the election and the inauguration; as he will have secured his election on such ground that he cannot possibly save it afterward.

He folded the memorandum in half, asked each member of his perplexed cabinet to sign the back without reading it, then put it away for safekeeping.

Lincoln’s pessimism was justified, as the Democratic Party had selected Lincoln’s former General-in-Chief, George B. McClellan, as their nominee. While arrogantly ineffectual as a fighter, McClellan was beloved by his troops for the care he took to train and outfit them. Lincoln was afraid that too many of the troops, tired of war and eager to return home to the families, would leave the Republican Party to vote for their former commanding officer.

Republicans were so concerned they formed a coalition with some War Democrats and renamed themselves the National Union Party, which set as a primary platform position the continued pursuit of the war until unconditional Confederacy surrender. The platform also included a constitutional amendment for the abolition of slavery. In an effort to facilitate anticipated reassimilation of southern civilians into the Union, former Senator and current Military Governor of Tennessee—and staunch Unionist—Andrew Johnson was chosen to be Lincoln’s vice presidential running mate (a decision that would have significant postwar ramifications).

But the Democratic Party fragmented again. In 1860 it split between Northern and Southern Democrats, and now in 1864 it split between Peace and War Democrats. Some of the latter had joined with Republicans, but most remained in the Democratic Party. Peace Democrats drove the party platform, which proposed a negotiated peace with the South, the very scenario Lincoln warned of in his still-secret “blind memorandum.” Copperheads went even further, declaring the war a failure and demanding an immediate peace. Their own nominee, McClellan, rejected the peace platform, so the Democrats forced him to take on an avowed Copperhead, George Pendleton, as his vice presidential running mate.

In early September, Lincoln finally caught a break. Admiral David Farragut won the Battle of Mobile Bay, a quixotic Union campaign to capture the last harbor controlled by Confederates in the Gulf of Mexico. The harbor was protected by three onshore forts, three traditional wooden gunboats, and an imposing ironclad commanded by Roger Jones, the same man who had so impressively commanded the CSS Virginia against the USS Monitor in a battle of ironclads two years earlier. Mines (then called torpedoes) blocked the harbor entrance. Farragut became famous by being lashed to the rigging of the main mast and, according to legend, yelling, “Damn the torpedoes, full speed ahead.”

Soon afterward, William T. Sherman finally drew Confederate General John Bell Hood away from Atlanta, which allowed the Union to capture the Georgia capital. As northern newspapers praised the mighty successes at both Atlanta and Mobile Bay, Lincoln’s reelection chances suddenly looked more promising.

Indeed, by the time November arrived the election was not even close. The National Union Party received 55 percent of the popular vote (with only northern states voting, of course) to 45 percent for the Democratic Party. But the electoral vote was even more decisive: 212 for Lincoln and 21 for McClellan. Lincoln won 22 of the 25 northern states and was reelected in a landslide.

[The above is adapted from my new book, Lincoln: The Man Who Saved America.]

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David J. Kent is the author of Lincoln: The Man Who Saved America, now available. His previous books include Tesla: The Wizard of Electricity and Edison: The Inventor of the Modern World (both Fall River Press). He has also written two e-books: Nikola Tesla: Renewable Energy Ahead of Its Time and Abraham Lincoln and Nikola Tesla: Connected by Fate.

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9 thoughts on “Should the 1864 Election be Postponed?

  1. Learned quite a bit from reading this… and a flurry of articles about McClellan (only familiar with the saddle), the “Copperheads”, and the “Blind Memorandum”, as well as David Farragut and the USS Hartford, and even the history of “Monitors”. Wow!

    Can’t help but ask what might have happened had McClellan somehow won the election, perhaps by only a small margin as northern victories accumulated. Would he have attempted to negotiate a peace with the south despite his own opposition to the idea… perhaps simply proposing something that the Confederates wouldn’t be likely to accept? Or did the Copperhead Democrats have enough influence over him to demand an immediate end to the conflict, and how would that have been accomplished at that point in the war… territories handed back, a smaller or larger Confederacy, new national borders, and what of those ex-slaves who had escaped before or during the conflict, been liberated, or who joined with the Union Army? A strange and confusing, almost-alternate history…

    • There’s a lot packed into this short section of the book. I’m glad you found it informative.

      I think Lincoln was right in his blind memorandum; if McClellan won it would have put us on a path to either 1) reunification with a reversion to slavery, or 2) formal separation into two countries, with the South formally institutionalizing slavery (which the Confederate Constitution had already done). McClellan would have been as ineffectual a president as he was a general. He was a pro-slavery Democrat and would have followed through on the “Peace” (aka, reinstitution of slavery) platform.

      • Given that many former slaves were already in the Union army, plus millions of un-escaped slaves that expected an end to slavery, I can’t imagine they would have complacently gone back into slavery. Nearly half of the population in the lower South were slaves in the 1860 census. The proportions in the upper South and border states were about 30% and less than 15%, respectively. Since hundreds of thousands of white Southern men were casualties in the war, that would likely make the black male population a powerful force fighting to save itself in the lower South. The border states stayed in the Union and at least some of the upper South states (e.g., Virginia) would have been expected reenter the Union within a relatively short time, which would have further isolated the deep South’s ingrained racism. And while the cotton trade would likely have regained some of its prior northern and European market and financing, it’s doubtful it would have been enough to compensate for the inevitable Southern internal fighting for its soul (not all Southerners were happy with secession).

        • The South likely would have tried to invade Cuba and other Caribbean nations (they had planned to do so before the war), but the world community likely would have fought back and not allowed it. By this time the North had a more formidable navy and had signed agreements with the UK to help police the illegal slave trade, pirating, and privateering.

          • (Sorry for the piecemeal reply. Apparently there is a word count limit on replies to comments)

  2. Thank you for the very knowledgeable reply. As is generally the case, actual history emerges from a complex amalgam of not necessarily apparent underlying influences. After reading your response, I can see how a McClellan victory would have been a long-term disaster for the US. The lingering civil conflict would almost certainly have erupted into an eventual larger and more destructive military confrontation.

    This seems to reflect the paradox of game-theory when pursuing the resolution of both practical grievances and their underlying social and political sources through warfare. Lincoln appears to have intellectually or intuitively understood that effective warfare is a fully-committed, zero-sum affair — the reason why it is (or should be) an act of last resort. Social and political movements, however, are open-ended, whack-a-mole and amoebic.

    Warfare that seeks change to a social or politically motivated grievance is consequently always incredibly destructive. The abandonment of deeply-rooted cultural norms requires that a preceding civilization be left in ruins (Japan and Germany post WWII). But even then, as recent news illustrates, those amoebic values can still hide the darkest recesses.

    • Civil War historians often lament that the North won the war but the South won the peace. One could argue the use of the word “peace,” but it would be impossible not to see how the current day “South” (including rural North) is stuck in the antebellum era. John C. Calhoun, pro-slavery Southern firebrand said that all you had to do is convince poor whites that they were still better than any blacks and they would riot in the streets to protect their white supremacy.

      Yes, recent news illustrates that whites in this country still have delusions of superiority even when they demonstrate rank inferiority in every metric of Americanness and humanity.

  3. Thanks for providing this very interesting historic information. It is also useful to me as I am in the middle of drafting a post for the blog of the Anderson County (TN) Democratic Party’s website urging that today’s Democratic Party (at all levels) remain in “the middle of the road” if it hopes to gain any ground at any level. I would only add that, in my proposed usage of these facts that you have provided, the “middle of the road” or maybe actually a bit to the right when it came to continuing the war, was a stronger position in this 19th century situation than it would be in a similar application to today’s wars that see the US all voluntary military spread way too thin in too many foreign (and sometimes secret) locales.

    • I’m glad you found it useful. I think the key is not so much “finding the middle” as it is finding the right (by which I mean, finding the appropriate). Today’s world might be more complex, but Lincoln also had to find the right positions to take on relationships with Great Britain, France, Mexico, as well as abolition vs slavery. Because of Lincoln’s decisions, the US was put on the road of becoming the most powerful nation on Earth, a position we must take seriously. We must strive to find the “right thing to do.”

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