by Thomas E. Schneider
University of St. Francis Political Science Professor
originally presented at the ACPL on November 9, 2014
As a political scientist I’m interested both in the particular election that took place 150 years ago this week—the election that returned Abraham Lincoln to the White House—and in elections in general. I think that one election can teach us something important about other elections. The most remarkable thing about the election of 1864 is not that Lincoln won it, but that he almost didn’t win it. If the election had taken place in early September instead of early November, there’s a good chance Lincoln would not have been the winner. That was Lincoln’s own view and, as we’ll see, there’s a lot of evidence that his view was accurate. In the middle of the great crisis of the Civil War—the greatest crisis this country has ever faced—Americans came close to rejecting Lincoln in favor of his opponent, General George B. McClellan. This ought to be deeply shocking to us, whatever we might think about McClellan’s merits as a leader. In fact, the evidence suggests the election was not really about the merits of the candidates. Rather, it reflected the state of mind of the electorate. The lesson it teaches is as relevant in 2014 as it was in 1864: Don’t make the election about you.
My consideration of the election of 1864 has a history component and a political science component. I’m going to begin by looking briefly at the results of the election, then consider the evidence that Lincoln was right in thinking his re-election was very doubtful. That’s the history component. After that I’ll turn to political science for help in understanding what all of this means for us today.
An Impressive Victory
I’ve said Americans came close to choosing McClellan as their president. But the actual election wasn’t close at all. It was an impressive victory for Lincoln and his co-nominee Andrew Johnson. Twenty-five states participated in the election and Lincoln carried all but three. He won a solid majority of the popular vote—55%—and a majority of over 90% in the electoral college. The states he lost were probably states he expected to lose. One was New Jersey, the home state of his opponent. The other two were border states, Delaware and Kentucky, neither of which had gone for Lincoln in 1860. (Lincoln was never very popular in his native state, but we should take note that he was only seven when he left it.) More impressive than his losses in those states is the fact that Lincoln did win in two other border states, Missouri and Maryland. Those were states that had been carried by Democrats in 1860 and, what’s more, had been in danger for a time of joining the Confederacy. There were riots in the streets of Baltimore in 1861, and Lincoln had had to travel through the city in secret because of the danger of assassination. Four years later Marylanders voted 55% for Lincoln, very close to the national percentage, and Missourians actually gave almost 70% of their votes to Lincoln in 1864. For comparison, President Obama got about 53% of the popular vote in 2008. So Lincoln in 1864 won by a considerably wider margin than Obama did, even in 2008.
I think everybody would now say that Americans’ choice of Lincoln in 1864 was the right one. It was a crucial election that year, and everybody knew it. The fate of the country might depend on the result. Americans looked at both candidates for president and chose the better man. That’s how it looks from the vantage point of 2014. But in August 1864, a little more than two months out, Lincoln wrote in a private memorandum, “This morning, as for some days past, it seems exceedingly probable that this Administration will not be re-elected.” And Lincoln’s fears were well grounded. Now, there is no polling data from the summer of 1864, but we can reasonably assume that leading Republicans had a good sense of public opinion. And we know they were worried about the election—desperately worried, in fact. This is clear not only from what they said but also from what they did. Three pieces of evidence are particularly striking: first, the nomination of Andrew Johnson as vice president; second, the unofficial but well-known candidacy of Salmon Chase, Lincoln’s treasury secretary; and finally the abortive candidacy of ex-general John C. Fremont.
A Democrat for Running Mate
To begin with Andrew Johnson. Johnson was chosen by the Republican convention, which met in June 1864, to “balance the ticket,” as political commentators say. Now the practice of balancing a presidential ticket with a vice-presidential nominee who brings different strengths to the ticket or who has a different base of support is a familiar one in American politics, going all the way back to the beginning. Usually this balancing has been done on a regional basis. So, for example, in 1976 Jimmy Carter, from the southern state of Georgia, was nominated along with Walter Mondale from the northern state of Minnesota. When Mondale himself ran in 1984, he chose a Congress member from the East Coast, Geraldine Ferraro, to be his running mate. But Johnson was chosen for a different reason—he was chosen because he was a Democrat. To choose a vice-presidential candidate from the other party is certainly an extreme form of balancing. But the convention chose Johnson, and Lincoln accepted the choice. The Republican ticket was re-branded the National Union ticket to reflect the inclusion of a Democrat.
Why did they do it? The delegates must have reasoned that they could pick up some Democratic votes by nominating a Democrat for vice president. By choosing Johnson they risked the anger of Republicans in New England, which was the home region of Lincoln’s first vice president, Hannibal Hamlin. But they were evidently prepared to take this risk in the hope of stealing some votes from McClellan, who had not yet been formally nominated but who was almost certain to be the Democratic candidate. Whatever else one might say about the choice of Johnson, it clearly did not indicate confidence in the Republican brand.
Challenges from Within the Party
One might assume that Lincoln’s own place on the ticket was assured. After all, as a sitting president he would have been the de facto leader of his party. But in fact Lincoln’s nomination was not assured. Some Republicans clearly wanted a different candidate. Among the names most frequently mentioned in the months leading up to the election was Salmon Chase. In some ways this was not very surprising. Chase was known to be ambitious, and he had been a candidate in 1860. Still, 1864 was different from 1860. Now Chase was in Lincoln’s cabinet. He was, in effect, running against his own boss. He positioned himself as a candidate in the same way other candidates do—by criticizing the frontrunner. But he couldn’t do this publicly, so he did it behind Lincoln’s back. Now you might think that this kind of thing would not go down well with Republicans. You might think it would create a bad impression—that it would raise questions about the character of a man who would undermine the administration that he himself was part of, for the sake of his personal ambition. It’s true that Chase was eventually forced to repudiate his candidacy. Still, it’s a measure of Lincoln’s unpopularity with some members of his own party that Chase could even think of mounting a challenge to him.
A few words, finally, about another challenge to Lincoln. This one came from disaffected Republicans who met in their own convention in May 1864 and nominated John C. Fremont for president. Fremont had been the Republicans’ first presidential nominee, in 1856, and Lincoln of course had campaigned for him. When the war began he was appointed to a command in Missouri and actually issued an emancipation proclamation there in the summer of 1861, more than a year before Lincoln’s proclamation. Lincoln cancelled the proclamation, but the episode made Fremont a hero to many in the North. There was never any real danger that Fremont would win the election, but there was a danger that he would draw enough votes away from Lincoln to cause McClellan to win. (This is what actually happened in 1856—a third candidate in the race, former president Millard Fillmore, drew enough votes away from the Republican nominee to ensure the election of the Democrat, James Buchanan.) Lincoln took the threat from Fremont seriously enough that he did something very uncharacteristic of him. He apparently agreed to make a change in his cabinet if Fremont would withdraw from the race. Montgomery Blair, Lincoln’s postmaster-general, was especially unpopular with Radical Republicans, who were the people most likely to support Fremont. You might wonder why they should care who the postmaster-general was. Part of the reason is that the cabinet was smaller in Lincoln’s day, and he often used it as a council of advisors. (The whole cabinet can be seen in Francis Carpenter’s famous painting, The First Reading of the Emancipation Proclamation.) The more important reason is that Blair came from a famous political family. The whole Blair family was intensely unpopular with the Radicals in Congress, but Montgomery was the only member they could get at. Lincoln, for his part, was grateful for the support of the Blair family and hated to give in to pressure from the Radicals. Montgomery Blair understood the president’s position and had offered to resign. Lincoln finally accepted his resignation on September 22, 1864, and the next day Fremont withdrew from the presidential race.
The Democratic Response
The nomination of Johnson, the candidacies of Chase and Fremont—all of these were signs that Lincoln was right to worry. Members of Lincoln’s own party doubted that he could win a second term, and some of them even doubted that he deserved a second term. But the picture of Lincoln’s re-election prospects would not be complete without a consideration of the Democratic response. The Democrats could read public opinion just as well as the Republicans could. As Republicans grew more worried, Democrats grew more hopeful. They saw an opportunity and moved to take advantage of it.
The Democrats knew that, at bottom, it was Northern dissatisfaction with the progress of the war that gave them their best chance to beat Lincoln. In retrospect it seems obvious that the resources of the South were almost exhausted and that the Confederacy would soon have to give up the fight. But it didn’t seem that way in the summer of 1864. The Confederates had shown amazing resiliency. It was bad enough that Grant made little progress against Richmond, despite terrible causalities. For a brief time it appeared that the Confederates might reach Washington first. In July 1864 forces under Confederate general Jubal Early came so near to the city that Lincoln could see the fighting and actually came under fire himself. Early was soon driven off, and the strictly military effects of his raid on Washington were small. But the psychological effects were considerable. Early’s raid reinforced the growing impression that the South could not be beaten, or that beating the South was not worth the cost in lives that it would require.
The Democrats responded to Northern war-weariness in two important ways. First, they inserting language in their platform declaring the war effort a failure. Second, they nominated a Peace Democrat for vice president, a congressman from Ohio named George Pendleton. Both of these decisions were awkward for McClellan, the presumptive nominee, because he, of course, was a War Democrat. McClellan had taken a big part in the war effort that his party’s platform now declared to be a failure. Though he and Pendleton were from the same party, putting them on the same ticket was, if possible, an even more extreme form of balancing than putting Lincoln and Johnson together. At least Lincoln and Johnson agreed on war policy, and the election was all about the war. Beyond the obvious political-strategic advantages of putting a Republican and a Democrat on the same ticket, there was a more serious justification. The war was not a Republican war or a Democratic war but a war for everybody who loved the Union. But McClellan and Pendleton disagreed about whether the war for the Union was worth fighting; and the platform reflected Pendleton’s view rather than McClellan’s.
A Bad Choice, Avoided
Americans almost made a bad choice in 1864—they almost elected McClellan. But my point is not that McClellan was a bad man or even a bad commander. I’ll leave that question for others to decide. The choice of McClellan would have been a bad choice because it was a kind of non-choice. Democrats were offering a War candidate on a Peace platform. Americans could vote for McClellan because he alone was capable of winning the war, or they could vote for him because the war was unwinnable and he would make peace.
Lincoln put his finger on this contradiction when he wrote the private memorandum that I mentioned earlier.
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 can not possibly save it afterwards.
This was written on August 23, before the Democratic convention, but it was already clear who the nominee would be and what kind of platform the Democrats would adopt. The writing is very terse, but I think the meaning is sufficiently clear. McClellan believes the Union is worth fighting for, but he’s going to be elected by the votes of people who don’t believe that. He’s going to come into office under tremendous pressure to make peace with the South. The South will accept a peace agreement on one condition—namely, recognition of southern independence. McClellan will be forced, then, against his own belief, to accept a partition of the Union. The only hope for saving the Union is to win the war in the four months between the election in November and McClellan’s inauguration in March.
As it turned out, the platform adopted by the Democrats was very much as Lincoln had predicted. It suggested that peace was somehow possible without giving up the Union, which McClellan must have known was a delusion. It was a non-choice, as I’ve said. The real choice before Americans was this: either continue the war, because the Union is worth fighting for; or stop the war, because the Union is not worth fighting for. But a vote for McClellan was not exactly a vote for war, and it was not exactly a vote for peace either. The only thing clear about a vote for McClellan is that it was not a vote for Lincoln. And all the signs pointed to a defeat for Lincoln.
But something changed between the end of August and the beginning of November. What was that? Lincoln didn’t change; McClellan didn’t change; their parties’ positions on the war didn’t change. What changed is, the Northern public began to feel better about the war. And the cause for their new optimism isn’t hard to identify. The principal cause was Sherman’s successful capture of the city of Atlanta. It pains me to say so, but the man most responsible for the re-election of Abraham Lincoln was not Abraham Lincoln but William Tecumseh Sherman. Sherman’s victory raised the spirits of the northern people and put them in a favorable state of mind to re-elect the president. They had been ready to vote for a new president and a new party; but after Atlanta they decided that they liked the old president and the old party after all.
Explaining the Vote
So much for the history component of my presentation; now for the political science component. There’s a theory in political science that explains the kind of voting I’ve just described. In the 1960s a political scientist named V. O. Key Jr. wrote a book called The Responsible Electorate: Rationality in Presidential Voting, 1936-1960. In this book Key defended the idea that American voters are rational, against other political scientists who claimed that voters are not rational. Key said, Let’s take regular voters, those who vote regularly in every presidential election—we can divide these voters into two categories. In any given election, there are those who vote the same way they had voted in the previous election, and there are those who vote differently. Key called the first group standpatters and the second group switchers. Though he didn’t go back as far as 1864, you can see the relevance of his theory. It was the switchers that Lincoln had to worry about. If there were too many of these, he would lose the election. But how do voters decide whether they’re going to stand pat or to switch? According to Key, they do this by comparing their circumstances going into a new election with their circumstances four years before. Accordingly, a voter might explain his or her vote in either of two ways. A standpatter might say, “The last time I voted for a president I was doing well; I felt good about the direction the country was moving. I still feel that way, so I’m going to vote the same way I voted before.” A switcher would give the opposite explanation.
Now I agree with Key that there’s a kind of rationality in these explanations. I have to admit, however, that I find Key’s theory somewhat troubling. The voter’s explanation is only really rational if he or she has made an accurate judgment about cause and effect. It’s not sufficient for a switcher to say, for example, “I feel bad because I lost my job.” It must be possible for him or her to say, “I lost my job because of the policies of the party that I voted for last time.” This is an explanation grounded in arguments about policies, and not solely in the voter’s state of mind. It might be a good or a bad explanation, but at least there’s an effort to trace the voter’s dissatisfaction back to the result of the last vote.
Voting really ought to be about the candidates and issues, and not about the feelings of the voters. And this brings me to an uncomfortable truth about human nature. When people feel bad, for whatever reason, they’re likely to look around for somebody to blame. In doing this they may not be especially concerned about establishing cause and effect. In 1864 Americans in the North felt bad about the war, and they blamed the Republicans. The Democrats knew this, and they offered voters two reasons to switch their votes. They could vote Democratic because McClellan would beat the South, or they could vote Democratic because McClellan would make peace with the South. In other words, Americans could vote for a change without really making a choice about what direction the country would take. The evidence suggests that Americans would in fact have voted Democratic if the election had been held in August. This result was possible because voters could not put their fears aside and look calmly at the alternatives in front of them. In other words, the voters had made the election about themselves.
I don’t want to judge the Northern public too harshly. We do well to remember that a large proportion of Northern households had a son (or a father or a husband) in the Union army, or had already suffered the loss of one. I’m not sure that I would have done differently in their place. Still, at this distance of time, I do believe we can learn a lesson from the election of 1864. The lesson is, Give credit where credit is due and blame where blame is due, but don’t look to your personal circumstances solely in deciding how to cast your vote.
I’d like to close with a quotation from Lincoln from the immediate aftermath of the election. Given all that had happened, you might expect the president to be a little bitter. The country had almost abandoned his administration, for reasons that had more to do with them than with him. But Lincoln was remarkably philosophical about his near-defeat. “Let us,” he said, “study the incidents of this [election], as philosophy to learn wisdom from, and none of them as wrongs to be revenged.” We can hardly do better than to follow Lincoln’s example.