A Different Kind of Election
The election of 1864 was, in several ways, unique. Although there would have been ample reason to postpone the election, the nation went forward with the democratic process despite the lack of precedent for voting in a divided nation. For the first and only time, a portion of the United States did not participate in the election. The states of Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, North Carolina, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas, and Virginia did not cast votes, upholding Jefferson Davis as their own president.
The election would also set the precedent for absentee voting. Before 1864, absentee voting was deemed unnecessary. But in the midst of the war, a vast percentage of voters were at the front, and the issues at hand were ingrained in what these men had been fighting for over four years. Lincoln, recognizing the benefit of the military vote, supported absentee voting and for the first time in U.S. history, soldiers in the field were given the opportunity to take part in an election. In states where absentee voting was not allowed, Lincoln appealed to the Generals to give their men furloughs so they could return home and vote.
In an effort to broaden their constituency, the Republican Party chose to join with the War Democrats and called themselves the National Union Party. The National Union platform called for concluding the war with an unconditional Confederate surrender, an amendment to end slavery, and support for disabled veterans. If Lincoln was to be reelected, it would be the first time in over thirty years that an incumbent president won a second term.
An Unpopular First Term
For much of Lincolns first term he had been an unpopular president. Pro-southern citizens in the border-states and parts of the Midwest, as well as Peace Democrats in the North, had opposed him from the beginning. Lincolns quest for emancipation and the military draft polarized these factions even more.
Following on the heels of the victory at Gettysburg the war torn nation experienced draft riots across the North. The riots in New York City, by far the worst, constituted the worst civil uprising in United States history. What began as a low and middle class revolt against the draft soon turned into a violent race riot. By the time it was over, several thousand were injured, fifty buildings, including the Colored Orphan Asylum, had been burned, and over 100 people had been killed. The majority of those killed were African American men and eleven of the deaths were due to lynching. The riots illustrated the discontent of many in the North on fighting a war for freedom and with the decisions of the president.
After the Battle of Antietam the New York World published a false story about Lincoln making jokes on the Battlefield. The Democratic campaign took advantage of McClellans popularity among the troops to spread this and other false stories of Lincolns disregard for the suffering of soldiers on the front.
In the weeks and months leading to the election Lincoln was increasingly convinced that the nation would vote against his reelection. In a note to his Congress members Lincoln set aside political competition in a preemptive promise to keep the nation together.
August 23, 1864
This morning, as for some past, it seems exceedingly probably that this Administration will not be re-elected. Then it will be my duty to cooperate 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 afterwards.
Shortly before the election, word spread that Atlanta had fallen at the hands of General William T. Sherman. This turned the war in the Unions favor and restored hope for an end of the war. Lincolns fears proved unfounded as he was reelected with 55% of the popular vote and received 212 electoral votes to McClellans 21. Over 70% of the military vote had gone to reelect President Lincoln.
A Second Inauguration and a New Birth of Freedom
In his second inaugural address, Lincoln promised to end the war and focus on healing the nation, rather than punishing the war-torn South.
"With malice toward none; with charity for all; with firmness in the right, as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in; to bind up the nations wounds; to care for him who shall have borne the battle, and for his widow, and his orphanto do all which may achieve and cherish a just, and a lasting peace, among ourselves, and with all nations."
Lincolns reelection allowed him to push through the largest accomplishment of his presidency the 13th Amendment. The amendment was passed a month before Lincolns second inauguration and abolished slavery in the United States. The 13th Amendment paved the way for citizenship and voting rights for African Americans. Although equality for all Americans has been a long and continuous struggle, the Emancipation Proclamation and the 13th amendment laid the groundwork for the election of our first African American president.
Just 2 months after the amendments passage, Abraham Lincoln was assassinated in Fords Theatre by actor John Wilkes Booth. Upon his passing Secretary of War Edwin Stanton famously remarked He now belongs to the Ages. Abraham Lincoln remains a present figure in popular culture and his legacy lives on through the freedom and equality that this nation offers.
Last updated: November 4, 2016