It was surprising that Abraham Lincoln won the presidency in 1860, given that his name did not even appear on the ballot in Southern states. That he won again in 1864, seemed nothing short of a miracle.
The Ford’s Theatre Museum today features a section on the political troubles of 1864 and that year’s presidential election. The exhibition explains how Lincoln himself believed his loss was imminent. In fact, on August 23, he asked his cabinet to sign a letter, sight unseen, to offer their unwavering loyalty and commitment to the preservation of the Union, regardless of the election’s outcome.
Lincoln’s pessimism was well-founded. Years of grueling war with no foreseeable end, his changing policies on slavery and his bold use of executive power all threatened his popularity. He doubted the Republican Party would even nominate him.
His opponents also constantly expressed their concerns about Lincoln remaining in power. Given that his first term witnessed the secession of seven states within mere months of his election and that anti-Lincoln sentiment grew in both the North and South as the war dragged on, one can understand Lincoln’s pessimism.
Despite all of this antagonism, Lincoln won the party nomination.This still did not make him confident in victory.
The Democratic Party chose the former head of the Army of the Potomac, General George McClellan, as its candidate. Frustrated by the General’s passivity and failure to pursue Robert E. Lee, Lincoln removed McClellan from his military position in November 1862. As a result, the two remained bitter enemies.
Lincoln and McClellan stood for very different ideas. Lincoln’s re-election meant a continuation of the war to end slavery and save the Union, whereas the Democratic Party’s platform called for immediate peace—even if it meant the perpetuation of slavery. Although McClellan stated that he would never abandon the Union’s fight, many soldiers in particular were ambivalent about voting for a man who had no faith in his army and whose campaign rhetoric conflicted with his party’s platform.
Yet Lincoln still felt apprehensive. He was not particularly popular and could not count on the soldiers’ loyalty to ensure his success without significant military victories. He asked Frederick Douglass to draft a plan to help as many slaves escape as possible before the November election, in case he lost and could no longer enforce emancipation policies.
Despite the odds against him, Lincoln won in a landslide. He took every state except for Kentucky, New Jersey and Delaware. He received 55% of the popular vote and 212 electoral votes to McClellan’s 21. A large portion of the Union soldiers voted for Lincoln as well, illustrating their willingness to keep fighting and refusal to accept defeat.
Lincoln’s victory not only showed the public’s trust in Lincoln—a remarkable feat considering how many people truly disliked him—but also resulted from a change in the military situation. Previously, Union troops had struggled on the battlefields and remained deadlocked with the Confederates. But in the months before the 1864 election, the tides turned. Most notablyGeneral William T. Sherman captured Atlanta in September and severely crippled the Confederacy’s ability to make war.
Lincoln’s1864 win is significant for multiple reasons. That an unhindered election even occurred during a time of national emergency highlighted the strength of the American democracy. Lincoln even stated in November 1864, “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’s Second Inaugural Address, given a month before Robert E. Lee’s surrender and Lincoln’s own assassination, offered words of reconciliation and hope for the future. Although difficult to guess what might have happened if Lincoln lost the election, his win allowed the fight to preserve the Union to continue.
For more information on the 1864 election, read the National Park Service’s articles, “Lincoln, Grant, and the 1864 Election” and The Election of 1864, or the Library of Congress’ page about the election.
Anna Snyder is the Digital Public History Intern at Ford’s Theatre. She is a first-year graduate student in American University’s Public History program.