Blue State Blues: Trump, Lincoln, and the Election of 1864

Abraham Lincoln 1864 (Currier and Ives / Wikimedia Commons)
Currier and Ives / Wikimedia Commons

Nervous supporters of President Donald Trump have been reminding themselves that the presidential election looked as tough at this point of the 2016 as it does today.

An even better parallel might be the election of 1864, when President Abraham Lincoln looked almost certain to lose his reelection bid to presumptive Democratic challenger George McClellan, whom he had recently fired as general-in-chief of Union forces. The fate of the country hung in the balance.

As contemporary historian John C. Waugh recalls in Reelecting Lincoln: The Battle for the 1864 Presidency, Lincoln’s election in 1860 had been rejected by half the country, and the Southern states began seceding even before he had taken office.

Much of elite opinion — especially in New York — was opposed to Lincoln, and the 1862 midterm elections were a “disaster.” Many in Lincoln’s own Republican Party opposed him openly, and doubted he could win a second term.

The parallels to 2020 are evident. Democrats “pictured Lincoln as a tyrant, and his administration as a dictatorship.” Meanwhile, Lincoln’s administration was divided and often disorganized.  The writer Richard Henry Dana noted “the absence of personal loyalty to the President.”

Many Republicans believed that Lincoln was simply not up to the job. Salmon Chase, the Secretary of the Treasury, who contemplated running against Lincoln for the party nomination, regarded the president with something between “active hostility and benevolent contempt.”

The abolitionists felt Lincoln was moving too slowly; others felt he had gone too far. The president had to manage mounting war losses (nearly 90,000 dead in the months leading up to the election), rising national debt, and even outbreaks of disease.

Democrats cast Lincoln as the reason the war had dragged on; McClellan promised a return to the status quo ante, if only the North would accept the South as it wished to be.

Like some generals today, active and retired, McClellan had stirred the opposition by stating his public disagreement with the president’s war aims — even before he became a candidate.

Meanwhile, some Democrats tried to help the Confederacy through stirring insurrection in the west through an organization calling itself the Sons of Liberty — though, like today’s Antifa, they were the opposite of what their name advertised. They offered an end to conflict — if only Lincoln lost.

Throughout the late spring and summer of 1864, McClellan seemed to be winning. And, ironically, he was winning without campaigning. He stayed at home for months, rarely venturing into public or appearing at rallies.

The election was to be a referendum on Lincoln, who was blamed for everything, the target of every imaginable form of vitriolic public criticism, including from members of his own party who thought he should step aside for a stronger candidate.

Henry Raymond of the New York Times observed: “No living man was ever charged with political crimes of such multiplicity and such enormity as Abraham Lincoln. He has been denounced without end as a perjurer, a usurper, a tyrant, a subverter of the Constitution, a destroyer of the liberties of his country, a reckless desperado, a heartless trifler over the last agonies of an expiring nation.”

The Democrats could sense victory — as could the failing Confederacy. Republicans, worried that the Union would be lost forever if Lincoln were defeated, wondered openly if he should be replaced on the ticket.

Horace Greeley, the pro-union editor of the New-York Tribune, wrote to a like-minded ally: “Mr. Lincoln is already beaten. He cannot be elected. And we must have another ticket to save us from utter overthrow.”

But as historian Waugh observes, “The politicians and editors were mainly talking with one another, not with the electorate.”

And Lincoln retained the support of the electorate through sheer perseverance. He never gave up.

Even when he himself thought his defeat was likely, in August of that year, he had the members of his Cabinet sign a commitment to convince the new administration — if there was to be one — not to give up the fight to preserve the Union.

Lincoln had the quality he so admired in his new general-in-chief, Ulysses S. Grant: “I can’t spare this man; he fights,” the president had said.

Ultimately, the tide of war turned in late summer. When news came that General William Tecumseh Sherman had taken Atlanta, with Confederates burning their own city in retreat, Lincoln knew he had a chance. There were more nervous ups and downs, but Lincoln won reelection handily.

Our nation is in crisis today. We are not, thank God, shooting each other, but we are in a kind of civil war, thanks to the refusal of Democrats to accept the choice of the electorate in 2016, to acknowledge the voters’ rejection of their agenda.

Instead of listening to those voters, and returning to common-sense policies that promote economic growth at home and project strength abroad, Democrats have doubled down on the left-wing approach of the Obama years.

Former Vice President Joe Biden promises to “fundamentally transform” America — just as Barack Obama did in 2008, and just as democratic socialist Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) did throughout the 2019-20 Democratic presidential primary race.

Americans do not want transformation or political revolution. We want a return to stability, and to the basic principles that have guaranteed our freedoms and built our prosperity for generations.

Our challenge is a communist foe abroad — which spawned the pandemic — and Marxist foes within who wish to erase the country’s history, to “burn down this system and replace it.”

Trump, like Lincoln, still fights, for the Union and for its future. That is why he can win.

As we have seen, it’s happened before.

Joel B. Pollak is Senior Editor-at-Large at Breitbart News and the host of Breitbart News Sunday on Sirius XM Patriot on Sunday evenings from 7 p.m. to 10 p.m. ET (4 p.m. to 7 p.m. PT). His new book, RED NOVEMBER, is available for pre-order. He is a winner of the 2018 Robert Novak Journalism Alumni Fellowship. Follow him on Twitter at @joelpollak.

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