Fremont and the Radical Democracy
Another potentially serious challenge to the president’s renomination came from the party’s first presidential nominee, John C. Fremont, the former western explorer and present Union general. The two men had crossed swords earlier when Lincoln had rescinded Frémont’s 1861 emancipation order in Missouri and twice relieved him of military command. In the absence of another willing candidate, Republican critics of Lincoln coalesced around Fremont and held a convention on May 31 in Cleveland, one week before the scheduled Republican convention in Baltimore. Most of the movement’s supporters were anti-slavery German-Americans from Missouri, along with a small group of New England abolitionists like Wendell Phillips, Frederick Douglass, and Elizabeth Cady Stanton. This time the president was genuinely concerned and therefore sent agents to observe and report on the convention.

Adopting the name Radical Democracy, the delegates ratified a platform that called for the continuation of the war without compromise (a slap at the Peace Democrats); a Constitutional amendment banning slavery and authorizing federal protection of equal rights (ideas later embodied in the post-war 13th and 14th Amendments and civil rights acts); protection of the rights of free speech, free press, and the writ of habeas corpus (aimed at the Lincoln administration’s controversial crackdown on civil liberties); confiscation of rebel property (a plank Fremont rejected); enforcement of the Monroe Doctrine (with an eye to the French in Mexico); a one-term presidency; and, integrity and economy in government (which was perhaps an implicit call for civil service reform).

Next, the delegates nominated Fremont for president and John Cochrane of New York, a former Democratic congressman, for vice president. Fremont resigned his army commission in order to accept the nomination. Lincoln’s deputies reported that the convention was a failure, and the president seemed bemused by the proceedings. There was some speculation in the press that the Radical Democracy hoped that the Democrats would endorse the Fremont-Cochrane ticket, but that expectation went unfulfilled. In fact, the Fremont campaign failed to pickup momentum and stalled in the wake of a strong, harmonious National Union (Republican) Party convention.

By the fall, the fear of a Democratic administration, especially the likelihood that it would discontinue and even reverse the emancipation process, gnawed at Fremont, making him open to Senator Zachariah Chandler’s suggestion that he drop out of the race. Chandler offered to persuade Lincoln to remove Postmaster General Montgomery Blair, the general’s Missouri foe. In late September, Fremont and Cochrane issued public letters withdrawing from the campaign. Although Fremont had not stipulated any conditions, Lincoln, to appease the radicals, asked for and received Blair’s resignation.

The National Union (Republican) Convention
The nominating convention of the National Union Party, dominated by Republicans with a scattering of War Democrats, met in Baltimore on June 7-8, 1864. By that time, Lincoln’s supporters had thwarted various insurgencies and secured control of the proceedings. The platform called for pursuit of the war until the Confederacy surrendered unconditionally; a constitutional amendment for the abolition of slavery; aid to disabled Union veterans; continued European neutrality; enforcement of the Monroe Doctrine; encouragement of immigration; and construction of a transcontinental railroad. It also praised the use of black troops and Lincoln’s management of the war. On the first presidential ballot, Lincoln got all of the votes except for 22 cast by Missouri delegates for General Grant (506 of 528). The Missouri faction, however, quickly changed their votes to make Lincoln’s renomination unanimous.

Like many presidents, Lincoln gave little thought to the vice presidency; therefore, he left the selection of his running mate to the convention, expressing no opinion publicly or privately. Vice President Hannibal Hamlin desired to be renominated, but he generated little enthusiasm. Some thought it was important strategically and symbolically to nominate a War Democrat, such as former U.S. Senator Daniel Dickinson of New York. Dickinson’s election, though, would likely put pressure on Secretary of State William Seward, another New Yorker, to resign from the cabinet. The convention swung to Andrew Johnson, the Union military governor of Tennessee, who had the double distinction of being a War Democrat and a Southern Unionist. He was nominated overwhelmingly on the first vice-presidential ballot. Since most radicals were satisfied with the party platform and the direction, though not the pace, of the Lincoln administration on emancipation, Johnson’s nomination was palatable to them.

The Democratic Convention
The Democrats, on the other hand, were energized by what they saw as the morass of a stagnant Union war effort:  death, debt, and destruction with no end in sight.  Furthermore, several of Lincoln’s key policies were extremely unpopular:  emancipation, the military draft, the use of black troops, and violations of civil liberties.  Democrats also benefited when the president’s outline of preconditions for peace negotiations, in his “To Whom It May Concern” letter of July 1864, included the stipulation that the Confederate states abolish slavery.  Frederick Douglass had to convince Lincoln not to backpedal on that forward-looking stance, and the president did stand firm, even though it undercut his support among War Democrats and conservative Republicans.  Democrats played the race card for all its worth, insisting that the Republicans were upending traditional race relations and advocating “miscegenation”—a word for racially-mixed marriage allegedly coined during the campaign.

The Democratic National Convention met in Chicago in late August 1864, when Union military prospects appeared dim.  That circumstance strengthened the Peace wing of the Democratic Party, led by Clement Vallandigham, a former congressman from Ohio, and Fernando Wood, a congressman and former mayor from New York City.  Their proposals for a cease-fire and negotiated settlement with the Confederacy were ratified by the delegates and incorporated into the official party platform.  Confusing the issue, though, the Democrats overwhelmingly chose General George B. McClellan, a War Democrat, as their presidential nominee over two peace candidates, Governor Horatio Seymour of New York and former Governor Thomas Seymour of Connecticut. 

McClellan was the controversial former general-in-chief of the Union army, praised as an superb trainer of raw recruits, beloved by his men as the dashing “Young Napoleon,” yet much criticized for his hesitancy, which some characterized as cowardice, in committing his troops to battle, particularly at the Second Battle of Bull Run and Lee’s retreat after Antietam.  U.S. Representative George Pendleton of Ohio, a Peace Democrat, was selected as the vice-presidential nominee after former treasury secretary James Guthrie of Kentucky, the leader on the first ballot, withdrew. 

The Campaign
In accepting the nomination, McClellan rejected the peace plank of the party platform, vowing instead to prosecute the war with more skill and vigor than Lincoln. The president despaired of his chance for reelection and feared that, despite McClellan’s assurance, the momentum of a Democratic victory would fortify the Peace faction and force the general to recant his campaign promise. Lincoln, therefore, made his cabinet sign, sight unseen, a pledge to cooperate with President-elect McClellan during the interim period to ensure a speedy Union conquest of the Confederacy before the general’s inauguration. A few days after McClellan’s nomination, however, the military tide began to turn in the Union’s favor with the fall of Atlanta on September 2 to General William Tecumseh Sherman and subsequent Union successes. Consequently, McClellan’s star began to fade and the president’s reelection seemed more likely.

The Republican campaign warned the Union: “Don’t swap horses in the middle of the stream.” They went beyond that innocuous slogan, however, to equate opposition to Lincoln and the Republicans with disloyalty to the Union. They papered the North with posters of Thomas Nast’s political cartoons, “The Chicago Platform” and “Compromise with the South,” which depicted the Democrats essentially as traitors. A Republican pamphlet alleged there was a clandestine agreement between the Peace Democrats and the Confederates. In October, party officials distributed 10,000 copies of the report by the judge advocate general of the army, Joseph Holt, on secret societies of Confederate sympathizers in the North, implicitly associated with the Democratic Party.

The Union servicemen were an important segment of Lincoln’s base of support. Where they had been able to vote in the 1863 off-year elections, they had voted heavily Republican. In the fall of 1864, Secretary of War Edwin Stanton saw to it that they were given absentee ballots (when state law allowed) or furloughs home to vote in person. Lincoln himself wrote to General Sherman asking him to allow his men from Indiana to return home in October to vote in that state’s crucial election. The president asked the same of Generals George Meade and Philip Sheridan regarding the Pennsylvania election, of General William Rosecrans concerning the Missouri election, and of Navy Secretary Gideon Welles relating to the New York election. Stanton and Holt also used patronage and government contracts to shore up the Republican political machine.

The Election Results

With 78 percent of the Union electorate casting ballots, Lincoln was reelected in an Electoral College landslide, 212 to McClellan’s 21. The 55% popular vote for the president was the third largest in the nineteenth century, surpassed only by Jackson’s first victory in 1828 and Grant’s reelection in 1872. McClellan won only New Jersey, Delaware, and Kentucky. Republicans drew support from native-born farmers, skilled and professional workers, those of New England descent, younger voters, and military personnel. Democrats were strongest in the cities and among Irish- and German-Americans (the most populous immigrant groups). It has been estimated that Lincoln received 78% of the vote of Union soldiers and sailors. The figure was not necessary for his reelection, but was perhaps the margin of victory in a few close states and, more importantly, of great symbolic value. Republicans also gained seats in Congress to retain unassailable control, 149 to 42 in the House and 42 to 10 in the Senate; took back several state legislatures; and lost only the governorship of New Jersey (McClellan’s home state).

The Democrats, though, remained a viable party. McClellan captured 48% of the vote in a bloc of states stretching from Connecticut to Illinois, and Republican totals declined over 1860 in several key states, such as New York, Pennsylvania, and Indiana. The two-party system was sound, and Democrats were well positioned to challenge Republicans in future contests.

Sources consulted: William A. DeGregorio, The Complete Book of U.S. Presidents; David Herbert Donald, Lincoln (1995); Harold M. Hyman, “Election of 1864” in History of American Presidential Elections, vol. III: 1848-1868, ed. Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr. (New York: Chelsea House Publishers, 1985), pp. 1155-1178; Harper’s Weekly via HarpWeek; James McPherson, “Abraham Lincoln,” American National Biography (online); Phillip Shaw Paludan, The Presidency of Abraham Lincoln (1994); and, Jon Schaff, “The Domestic Lincoln: White House Lobbying of the Civil War Congresses,” White House Studies (Winter 2002).

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