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The presidential election of 1864 was one of the most important in American history. It was, first of all, remarkable that it even occurred. It took place in the Union states during a bloody civil war, with no precedent for voting in a divided nation, and with seemingly ample justification for postponement. The spirited yet orderly process of the 1864 elections, with relatively little corruption and negligible violence, became a sterling example and vindication of the democratic process itself. Furthermore, it was an election in which voters cast ballots to determine crucial questions about the direction of the war, the government, and the society. Should the war be sustained or a settlement sought? What role would blacks play in the war and in a post-war society? Those and similar questions raised some of the most fundamental issues to be considered since the founding of the republic.

President Lincoln's First Term:  Military Affairs
In the interval between Abraham Lincoln’s election in November 1860 and his inauguration in March 1861, seven states of the Deep South, those most dependent on slavery, left the union. A compromise proposed by Senator John Crittendon of Kentucky would have extended the Missouri Compromise line to the Pacific. Since it would have constitutionally protected slavery south of that line, the president-elect rejected the offer. In his inaugural address, Lincoln vowed not “to interfere with slavery where it exists,” yet condemned secession as unconstitutional. He also pledged to execute federal law and hold federal property in all states. At odds, in particular, was the situation at Fort Sumter in the harbor off Charleston, South Carolina (the first state that seceded). Confederate officials demanded that the Union commander surrender the fort, which he refused to do. With provisions dwindling, Lincoln decided to supply the fort with non-military goods only. When Confederates fired on Fort Sumter on April 12, 1861, the American Civil War began. Subsequently, four more slave states left the union.

After the surrender of Fort Sumter to the Confederates, Lincoln took unprecedented, unilateral action as president: activating state militias; calling for federal military volunteers; guaranteeing the government’s credit at an incredible 250 million dollars; proclaiming a blockade of Confederate ports; suspending the writ of habeas corpus; and using military detention of civilians (at least 15,000 during the entire war). Although there was sharp debate over the constitutionality of these policies, Congress or the Supreme Court acquiesced or ratified them after the fact.

President Lincoln concentrated on his role as commander in chief by closely monitoring events, searching for aggressive generals, reading books on military strategy and history, and visiting troops. The Union’s defeat at the First Battle of Bull Run in July 1861 was disappointing, and indicated to both sides that the war would not be short. Frustrated in 1862 by the slow pace of Union troop movement in the Eastern Theater, Lincoln admonished General George B. McClellan, “you must act.”

Meanwhile the president was impressed by the victories of General Ulysses S. Grant in the Western Theater, including those in Tennessee at Forts Henry and Donelson (February 1862) and Shiloh (April 1862). In September 1862, Union troops repelled Confederate General Robert E. Lee’s invasion of the North at Antietam (Maryland). However, after Lee’s forces were allowed to retreat to Virginia, Lincoln removed McClellan from command of the Army of the Potomac. In early July 1863, the Union rebuffed Lee’s second attempted invasion at Gettysburg (Pennsylvania), and Vicksburg (Mississippi) surrendered to General Grant, giving the Union control of the Mississippi River and dividing the Confederacy in two. In March 1864, Lincoln appointed the gritty, no-nonsense Grant as general-in-chief.

President Lincoln’s First Term: Domestic Affairs
While most of Lincoln’s attention naturally focused on the Union war effort, the Republican Congress enacted a sweeping domestic agenda. Recent scholarship has suggested that the president was more active in trying to influence the legislation, particularly monetary and banking laws, than has previously been assumed.

In order to help pay for the extraordinary cost of the war, the Revenue Act of 1861 included the first federal income tax (repealed in 1872). It was a 3% tax on annual incomes over $800 (equivalent to $115,000 in 2002 dollars), which excluded most wage earners. The Revenue Act of 1862 imposed excise taxes on numerous goods (alcohol, tobacco, yachts, jewelry, etc.), license taxes on all professions except the clergy, an inheritance tax, a corporation tax, and other forms of taxation. To manage the tax and tariff systems, the act established the Bureau of Internal Revenue. The Legal Tender Act of 1862 created the nation’s first paper currency (called “greenbacks”) not backed by gold or silver. The National Banking Act of 1863 established federally chartered banks, recognized the federal bank notes as legal tender, and levied a tax on state bank notes (to pressure state banks to become federal banks).

The Homestead Act of 1862 distributed 160-acre parcels of land free to settlers who agreed to occupy, improve, and farm the land for five years. Under its provisions, 270 million acres were eventually settled. The Land Grant Act of 1862 awarded each Union state a grant of 30,000 acres of public land for each member in its congressional delegation. The land was to be used as sites for colleges of agriculture, mechanical arts, or military science. Under its provision, over 70 land grant colleges were established. Both acts had previously passed Congress and been vetoed by President James Buchanan, Lincoln’s Democratic predecessor. The Pacific Railroad Act of 1862 was the fruition of years of lobbying for a railroad line that would connect the settled eastern part of the United States with the West Coast. The Union Pacific Railroad Company and the Central Pacific Railroad Company began work the next year, completing the project in 1869.

Northern Opposition to Lincoln
For most of his tenure in office, Lincoln was an unpopular president. There were two main oppositional factions: Confederate sympathizers in the Border States and lower Midwest, and the peace wing of the Democratic Party. The latter group believed that the Civil War was undermining the Northern economy, civil liberties, and states’ rights. Particularly objectionable to Northern Democrats were two Lincoln administration policies: emancipation and the military draft.

Lincoln presented an emancipation plan to his cabinet in July 1862, but was convinced by Secretary of State William Henry Seward to wait until a major Union victory to announce it publicly. After the Battle of Antietam that September, the president issued a preliminary proclamation, declaring that he would free the slaves in Confederate-held territory if the Confederacy did not surrender by January 1, 1863. On that day, the Emancipation Proclamation went into effect, and thousands of slaves were subsequently freed as Union forces marched across the South. However, it remained for the 13th Amendment (1865) to free all the slaves and abolish the institution of slavery permanently.

In response to the congressional enactment of a military draft at the request of the Lincoln administration, anti-draft riots erupted across the North during the summer of 1863. The most serious occurred in New York City, where huge mobs demolished draft offices, lynched blacks, and destroyed large sections of the city in four days of looting and burning (infamously including the Colored Orphan Asylum).

One of the most controversial incidents of suppressing antiwar protest involved a former Democratic congressman, Clement Vallandigham. In 1863, he purposefully violated a military decree in Ohio against expressing Confederate sympathies in public by condemning “King” Lincoln’s war to free blacks and enslave whites. Vallandigham was arrested, tried, and convicted in a military court. The incident provoked outrage in the Northern Democratic press and undermined War Democrats’ support of the Lincoln administration. Vallandigham appealed to the Supreme Court, who refused to hear the case. Lincoln commuted his prison sentence to exile in the Confederacy. Vallandigham soon left the South for Canada, at which time Ohio Democrats nominated him for governor. He directed his campaign from Canada, but lost overwhelming to the Republican nominee. When he returned clandestinely to Ohio in June 1864 and again began speaking out against the war, Lincoln instructed military and civilian officials to ignore him. At the Democratic National Convention in August 1864, Vallandigham was instrumental in convincing delegates to add a peace plank to their party platform.

Republican Challengers to Lincoln
As the incumbent president, Abraham Lincoln faced several obstacles to reelection. Recent history was against him because no sitting president had been reelected in over three decades since Andrew Jackson won a second term in 1832. More importantly, Lincoln faced a continual barrage of criticism aimed at his policies and leadership, particularly against emancipation and his management of the Union military effort. Also, Republicans had lost seats in the 1862 congressional and legislative elections. That was not surprising for a party in power, but in the context of a protracted war of uncertain outcome, some Republican leaders concluded that their party needed a new helmsman if it was to achieve victory in the 1864 elections. Challengers to Lincoln for the presidential nomination surfaced as early as 1863.

In an effort to broaden their appeal, Republicans had begun calling themselves the National Union party and invited War Democrats to join them in the new alliance. A few of the Republicans who were unhappy with the president thought that General Benjamin Butler, the Union military commander of New Orleans, could unite War Democrats with the radical and moderate wings of the Republican party. The general lacked sufficient support within the party organization, however, and declined the overtures. A group of radical Republicans tried to persuade Vice President Hannibal Hamlin to throw his hat into the ring, but he stood loyally by Lincoln. The New York Herald urged the nomination of General Ulysses S. Grant, but the Union commander was horrified at such a prospect and was adamant that Lincoln’s election was necessary to the Union cause.

The Chase Candidacy

A more genuine threat to the president’s nomination came from his ambitious and talented secretary of the treasury, Salmon P. Chase of Ohio. The dissatisfaction of abolitionists and radicals with Lincoln, especially regarding his hesitancy toward both emancipation and the use of black troops, worsened in December 1863 when the president announced his reconstruction plan, a policy that the radicals judged to be far too mild and cautious. Chase’s commitment to racial equality, on the other hand, was firm and long-standing. The nucleus of his campaign included Whitelaw Reid, the Washington correspondent of the Cincinnati Gazette, Senator John Sherman and Representatives James Garfield and James Ashley, all from the secretary’s home state of Ohio, and Senator Samuel Pomeroy of Kansas, who felt slighted by Lincoln’s distribution of patronage in Kansas. For his part, Chase used Treasury Department patronage to gain support for his candidacy, and he cooperated in the preparation of a campaign biography.

In February 1864, the Chase campaign circulated two pamphlets, both calling for a new president, and the second one explicitly designating Chase as the man for the job. The latter, which became known as “the Pomeroy circular,” had been intended for private dissemination but was leaked to the press. Rather than generate support, its publication created an anti-Chase backlash, prompting even the Republicans of his home state to endorse the president’s reelection. Lincoln himself had essentially ignored Chase’s political activities, but the president’s followers had been working diligently behind the scenes to bolster support for his renomination. Their efforts resulted in numerous state and local Republican organizations climbing aboard the Lincoln bandwagon. Within a few weeks after the fiasco of the Pomeroy circular, Chase announced publicly on March 5 that he was not a candidate for the presidential nomination.

In late June, Chase offered to resign his cabinet post, an empty gesture the secretary had made several times before. This time, however, the president accepted it. When Chief Justice Roger Taney died on October 12, the president knew of Chase’s great desire for the position, but delayed in appointing him. Chase got the message and took to the stump for Lincoln’s reelection. Shortly thereafter, he received the Supreme Court nomination.


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