There’s an old joke where a teacher asks her class “What happened in 1809?” One of her students replied “Abraham Lincoln was born.” She goes on to ask the kids “And what happened in 1812?” Another student offered “Abraham Lincoln celebrated his third birthday.”
There’s a consensus in U.S. history that President Abraham Lincoln was one of the best. Panels of historians on CSPAN have voted him in the top five, if not the top spot, nearly every year. There’s the whole Lincoln Memorial, the pennies, aircraft carrier names, the capital of Nebraska, Illinois and Kentucky fighting over who claims him, Oscar nominated movies and fights with zombies…I could go on and on.
But how many of you knew that Abraham Lincoln was almost a one-term president?
On November 8, 1864, Election Day, Abraham Lincoln won 212 Electoral College votes to 21 for George B. McClellan, so it looks like a blowout. But looks can be deceiving.
In research of mine in 2004, I discovered that in five states, including New York, the margin of victory was so close in the state vote that had McClellan taken those states, he would have won the election.
Lincoln supporters might point out that the incumbent won 2,203,831 votes in the popular contest in the 1864 election, to 1,797,019 for the challenger. But there may be more to the story that just Election Day results.
Those who saw the Oscar-nominated movie “Lincoln” by Stephen Spielberg may have been shocked at all of the underhanded tactics employed by the president’s associates to win ratification of the 13th Amendment, including money and the promise of political appointments.
They shouldn’t be too surprised. Team Lincoln was merely dusting off their old playbook from the 1864 election, which would have made President Nixon’s reelection team proud.
In fact, Lincoln almost didn’t win renomination, but foes couldn’t agree on an alternative. Secretary of the Treasury Salmon P. Chase challenged Lincoln, as did 1856 GOP candidate Gen. John C. Fremont. Fremont eventually withdrew, and Chase was nominated as Chief Justice to the Supreme Court, effectively removing him as an opponent.
According to author Charles Flato, Lincoln himself felt like he was the underdog in the race against popular Northern Gen. McClellan. After the Democratic National Convention, Lincoln predicted his own defeat.
So Lincoln’s allies went to work. According to Flato “The Republicans also played rough. In control of the government, they used every political trick they could to win the election. They forced government employees to contribute money to the party treasury. They passed laws allowing soldiers to vote in camp, and whole regiments were furloughed so that the men could go home and vote.”
Those tricks, along with a string of timely victories in Atlanta, Mobile and the Shenandoah Valley, gave Lincoln the edge he needed to win a second term. But without those factors, one wonders not only how the Civil War might have ended, but how history would view Lincoln today.