A 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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