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Tuesday, November 4, 2014

November 4, 2014: Exemplary Elections: 1864

[I don’t have high hopes for Tuesday’s elections, but I also know they’ll be far from the most complex or significant ones in American history in any case. So this week I’ll AmericanStudy five such exemplary elections and election years. I vote that you add your thoughts, on this year’s elections or any others!]
On one very good and one very bad thing about the crucial wartime election.
I’ve blogged before about the moment in which I’d argue (hyperbolically to be sure, but not, I believe, without cause) that the Civil War and thus the fate of the American future most clearly hung in the balance: the second day of the Battle of Gettysburg, and specifically Joshua Chamberlain and the 20th Maine’s stand on Little Round Top. Even if I’m being too extreme about that particular moment, it’s certainly fair to say that after Gettysburg the Confederacy stood very little chance of winning the war militarily. But on the other hand, much remained uncertain and undetermined about the war’s final stages, outcome, and aftermath, and no single moment more decisively impacted those futures than the presidential election of 1864.
For a number of reasons, President Lincoln’s ultimately decisive victory over Democratic challenger (and former terrible Union general) George McClellan was a very positive result. For one thing, despite the eventual size of that victory (212 to 21 electoral votes, and a popular vote margin of more than 400,000), it was hardly a foregone conclusion: for much of 1864 the war was going poorly enough that Lincoln’s chances, particularly when coupled with John C. Frémont’s initial presence in the race as a third-party candidate, seemed gloomy at best. And for another, related thing, had McClellan triumphed he almost certainly would have negotiated a peace with the Confederacy (that was his stated platform and plan) that would have made such outcomes as the 1865 passage of the 13th-15th Amendments far more difficult, if not indeed impossible.
So it’s a very good thing that Lincoln won reelection. But in order to strengthen his chances of doing so, Lincoln and the Republican Party did a very bad thing: nominating Andrew Johnson, Tennessee’s Military Governor and a lifelong Southern Democrat, as Lincoln’s second Vice President (replacing his first, former Maine Governor and longtime Republican Hannibal Hamlin). Perhaps Johnson helped assure that victory, although by election day, with Frémont and his third party out of the race and the war going much better, it’s doubtful that his contribution was required. Far more certain is that, after Lincoln’s tragic assassination, the presidency of Andrew Johnson was one of the worst and most destructive in our nation’s history, culminating both in his near-impeachment (the first in American history) and, much worse, in a very different vision of Reconstruction than what Lincoln had begun. It can be easy to overlook VP nominations, but Johnson’s proves just how significant that element of an election can become.
Next exemplary election tomorrow,

PS. What do you think? Other elections you’d highlight?

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