Abraham Lincoln: Campaigns and Elections

The following is an excerpt from Chapter 2, “Campaigns and Elections,” in Matthew Pinsker’s biographical study of Abraham Lincoln (CQ Press, 2002), 55-79.



Lincoln’s track record in politics is often misunderstood. He lost a popular vote only once, in his first race for state representative, when he was just twenty-three years old, barely employed, and recently arrived in a new town. During a thirty-three year career in electoral politics that spanned from 1832 until 1864, Lincoln appeared as a candidate on nine general election ballots.  He ran for Illinois state representative six times (1832, 1834, 1836, 1838, 1840, 1854), for U.S. representative once (1846), and for president twice (1860, 1864).  Although he fell short in two contests for U.S. Senate (1855, 1859), neither involved a direct popular election since in those days state legislatures –not the general public– selected members of the upper body (see Tables 1-3).  Thus, he could report honestly at the outset of his first presidential campaign that his rookie defeat in 1832 was “the only time I have been beaten by the people.”

Nonetheless, most Americans continue to regard Lincoln as someone more accustomed to failure than success in the years before his presidency.  Such a view, however, vastly underestimates his well-tested electoral abilities.  In many ways, he became a consummate political professional –developing a thick skin to endure negative attacks, cultivating a folksy charm to win over skeptical audiences, building a reputation as a powerful public debater, and even coming to terms with the importance of raising campaign funds. Above all, he tended to the chores of his trade with a diligence that bordered on obsession. Lincoln may have entered the White House with hardly any administrative experience, but he certainly knew as much as anyone about how to operate inside the nineteenth-century American political system.

On the other hand, it would be equally misleading to define Lincoln as little more than a smooth political operator.  He invested great faith in the moral potential of the democratic process.  His first public statement, for example, loftily describes his “peculiar ambition” as that of  “being truly esteemed of my fellow men, by rendering myself worthy of their esteem” (see Document 1). Although winning esteem while remaining worthy of esteem proved more elusive than it appeared at age twenty-three, Lincoln never lost this conviction.  For years he searched for an issue or cause that would realign the political forces, elevate his own politicking and justify the abuse he endured from unkind rivals.  Ultimately, the future president came to realize that slavery was the fundamental moral and political question of the age.  During the 1850s, he helped organize the new Republican Party in Illinois and focus public attention on the spreading evils of the peculiar institution.  Through his tireless efforts, he emerged as a respected figure in regional politics.  Still, the national press and public were largely surprised by his nomination for president in 1860 and by his emergence as an effective Commander-in-Chief.  Many contemporaries remained bewildered when he became the first president since Andrew Jackson to win re-election, a feat made even more remarkable since it was accomplished in the midst of a lengthy Civil War.   Yet by holding firm to the principle that popular government can achieve a moral purpose, Lincoln finally demonstrated that he was both esteemed and worthy.



Explaining Lincoln’s attraction to political life is not a simple matter.  There was little about his background that encouraged ambition for public office. “I was raised to farm work,” he once recalled.  Yet he left the farm and his family almost as soon as he possibly could.  The lanky twenty-two-year-old settled in the central Illinois trading outpost of New Salem where he worked for several months, according to his own description, “as a sort of Clerk in a store.”  The job offered little in the way of salary but allowed the aspiring young man to meet practically everyone in the small community. He made friends quickly, both among the more rough-and-tumble crowd who were impressed by his surprising athleticism and with the handful of frontier businessmen and professionals who organized earnest debating societies and reading clubs, which the poorly educated Lincoln joined enthusiastically.  In a transient society of self-made strivers, the young man fit in easily.  However, it soon became apparent that getting along was not his only mission.  Despite humble origins, Lincoln had dreams of forging a distinguished public career. In March 1832, less than eight months after his arrival, he announced intentions to run for state representative.

What made that announcement especially audacious was the way it appeared to violate the custom of republican virtue, a tradition still widely celebrated in a nation then little more than fifty years old.  Early nineteenth-century Americans believed that candidates were supposed to “stand” and not “run” for office.  They expected gentlemen of distinction to emerge almost by consensus on polling days without the necessity of divisive or self-aggrandizing campaigns.  Whatever canvassing took place was usually more social than political and typically involved alcohol as much as analysis.  The overriding fear, nurtured since the colonial era, was that anyone who sought power too eagerly could not be trusted to exercise the restraint considered vital for the functioning of a representative system.  Lincoln entered the political arena just as these attitudes were evolving into a more practical approach that accepted the need for actual contests.  For the first time in American history, organized mass political parties were taking shape and campaigns for office increasingly involved the discussion of serious issues.  The two most prominent party movements were the Democrats who supported President Jackson, and the Whigs, who generally opposed his administration’s policies.  Over time, several other political and socioeconomic issues came to divide them, but these differences varied widely by region.  In many of the younger prairie states, like Illinois for instance, there was not open partisan warfare until the late 1830s, after Jackson had already returned to Tennessee. Consequently, Lincoln ran his first campaign without officially aligning himself to either side of the emerging national debate.

That might explain why he lost.  Without an organization behind him and limited in his politicking to a few personal appearances and one public letter, the young candidate was forced to rely too heavily on support from his adopted hometown.  While the voters of New Salem certainly came through for their candidate, backing him by an overwhelming margin of about 98 percent, the rest of the district knew little about him and the future president finished eighth out of thirteen candidates.  There was no shame in defeat, however, and like many first-time political losers, he gained valuable exposure from the attempt. The pro-Jackson forces in Illinois soon approached the rising young man, offering him appointments as local postmaster and deputy surveyor.  The positions offered a good deal for an aspiring politician: much-needed cash and some government experience, plus opportunities to travel the district and keep up with current events (since newspapers were then distributed by mail).  Lincoln accepted the jobs but never joined the Democrats.

Instead, during the 1830s and 1840s he emerged as one of the leaders of the new Illinois Whig Party.  He secured state legislative office on his second try in 1834 and continued to win reelection to the General Assembly until he stepped aside after serving four terms.  The biggest issues of the period concerned regional economics, and Lincoln’s support for commercial growth probably best explains his early affiliation with the Whigs, who were strongly identified with such policies.  He backed an ambitious scheme to expand the state’s transportation network, what were then called internal improvements, but when the national economy declined, the plan faltered and the state temporarily faced bankruptcy.  He also worked to switch the state capital from a village in southern Illinois to the town of Springfield, closer to the state’s center (and within what was then part of his legislative district).  Once the deal was approved, he moved himself to the new capital and after a brief period of study, entered the legal profession.  He quickly mastered the fine-points of law-making and party organization, emerging as a floor leader of the Whigs in the state House. Before long, however, he found that his new lifestyle had created a backlash among some former friends and neighbors in the surrounding farming communities.  Only a few years removed from his days as a penniless store clerk, Lincoln was now criticized for being part of the “Springfield Junto,” a disparaging reference to what was perceived as the arrogant local elite.  His marriage in the autumn of 1842 to Mary Todd, the sister of one of Springfield’s leading hostesses and daughter of a wealthy Kentucky businessman, only fueled this growing jealousy.

It took Lincoln several years to find the right political balance between his frontier roots and the middle class culture that he ultimately embraced.  At first, he seemed inclined toward a rough, informal style.  When he believed that he had been smeared late in one of his legislative campaigns, Lincoln bitterly denounced his attacker as “a liar and a scoundrel” and threatened to “give his proboscis a good wringing” (see Document 2). While speaking to more friendly audiences, he developed the rustic orator’s habit of telling earthy, sometimes crude, jokes in order to warm up the crowds.  Unimpressed, a local Democratic newspaper accused him of having an “assumed clownishness” which it claimed did not “become him” (see Document 3).   Sarcasm was a particular weapon of the young politician.  In an era when personal honor was highly cherished, Lincoln occasionally wrote anonymous satirical pieces for local newspapers that poked fun at the pretensions of leading Democrats.  One such episode even earned him a challenge to a duel, which he accepted and almost carried out.

The aborted duel coincided with the thirty-three-year-old’s much-delayed decision to marry and by most accounts marked the beginning of a newfound maturity in his approach to politics and life. Out of office for the first time in years, Lincoln nevertheless remained engaged in the political arena, managing state party affairs and maneuvering to win the Whig nomination for Congress.  “Turn about is fair play,” became his mantra as he urged local party members to adopt a policy of rotating their nominees  –a decision that would have benefited him most since the incumbent was a fellow Whig unlikely to lose his seat (see Document 4). As part of his campaign for greater stature, Lincoln also started his own law firm, carefully choosing as junior partner a man named William Herndon, who was politically active and associated with those opposed to the ruling Springfield clique.  Lincoln quickly grew his law practice across central Illinois, following a frontier custom called “riding the circuit.”  Attorneys and judges actually rode together from town to town, creating a kind of traveling courtroom for communities too small to sustain their own judicial system.  Riding the circuit provided business for the new firm of Lincoln & Herndon, but it also offered the ambitious would-be congressman a good opportunity to meet new friends in his prospective district.

Lincoln finally won his much-desired congressional seat in 1846, but his timing proved inauspicious.  By the late 1840s, the Jacksonian era party system was losing steam.  The divisive economic issues of the 1830s had been mostly resolved.  Moreover, enthusiasm for the new-style popular campaigns was beginning to ebb.  The political parties had developed a variety of innovative tactics to rally their supporters –everything from parades and bonfires to custom-made songs and snappy slogans (e.g. “Tippacanoe and Tyler Too!”).  Although turnout remained high in presidential contests, observers noticed declining interest in races for other offices.  Lincoln’s congressional contest, for example, hardly received any newspaper coverage.  The only serious controversy erupted when the Democratic nominee, a Methodist preacher named Peter Cartwright, apparently implied to some audiences that Lincoln was “an open scoffer at Christianity.”  This was an old charge that had been leveled against him before but assumed new life in the comparison to his pious opponent. Crafting a measured response, Lincoln admitted in a public statement that he did not belong to any church, and confessed that he had previously believed in a form of fatalism, but vigorously denied the underlying accusation.  “I do not think I could myself, be brought to support a man for office,” he wrote, “whom I knew to be an open enemy of, and scoffer at, religion.”  The episode left such a bitter taste that he authorized local newspapers to reprint his statement even after he had successfully defeated Cartwright in the election (see Document 5).

The other negative factor affecting Lincoln was the changing political climate caused by the outbreak of the Mexican War.  Most Northern Whig politicians opposed the conflict, begun in the spring of 1846, disturbed by the manner in which it was initiated and concerned about the consequences for the simmering national debate over slavery.  They feared that any acquisition of Mexican territory would disrupt the delicate sectional balance that had been essentially in place since the Missouri Compromise of 1820.  The Compromise had been so important because it kept an even number of slave and free states while also establishing geographical boundaries regulating the future extension of slavery. However, among voters, especially in states like Illinois, such legalistic objections to the war proved unpopular in the face of growing patriotic fervor.   Although he avoided taking a stance on the issue while campaigning, Lincoln proved loyal to his national party leadership as a freshman member and stubbornly attacked the Democratic administration’s conduct of the war.  His position earned savage criticism from his political enemies and a series of nervous rebukes from his law partner and other political allies back in Springfield.  Frustrated by the second-guessing, overwhelmed by the workload in an age without congressional staff, and lonely for his wife and young boys, Lincoln eventually made the decision that “turn about” applied to him as well and left Congress voluntarily after a single term.

Leaving Capitol Hill, however, did not necessarily mean leaving politics.  If anything, Lincoln’s ambitions seemed to be growing during this period.  In the presidential campaign of 1848, he attended the Whig National Convention in Philadelphia, where he worked behind-the-scenes to help select General Zachary Taylor, a Mexican War hero whose background was considered an insurance policy against the party’s unpopular anti-war record.  The retiring congressman undertook a major speaking tour in New England on behalf of the Whig nominee, a strange move for a prairie politician unless perhaps he was beginning to see a national horizon within his own future.  Following Taylor’s election, Lincoln made a concerted effort to secure a lucrative and relatively powerful appointment in the new administration as Commissioner of the General Land Office (see Document 6). Despite a frenetic campaign for the position that controlled government land sales, he was passed over.  Declining a consolation offer to become Governor of the Oregon Territory, Lincoln returned to his law practice in Springfield uncertain about his future in politics.



By this stage in his life, the forty-year-old ex-congressman might have easily walked away from the public arena, content to earn more money as an attorney and less abuse as a private citizen.  Many historians believe that was his intention because over the next five years he declined to run for any office and appeared almost indifferent to local Whig Party affairs.   Lincoln himself later wrote that he was “losing interest in politics” until the repeal of the Missouri Compromise in 1854 finally “aroused” his interest once again.  However, this interpretation surely understates his voracious political appetite. After years of studying the electoral trade, he had become a devoted practitioner who was hard-pressed to pass up any realistic opportunities for political advancement.  A good example of his instinctive politicking comes from the correspondence of a Boston journalist who shared a stagecoach ride with Lincoln in 1847. The eastern reporter found his traveling companion so amusing that he worked a few scattered descriptions of the tall politician into his travelogue –of course, utterly unaware of his new friend’s future greatness.  The vivid images suggest how obsessive Lincoln must have appeared to many of his contemporaries.  “Such a shaking of hands –such a how-d’ye-do– such a greeting of different kinds, as we saw, was never seen before,” commented the reporter.  “It seemed as if he knew every thing, and he had a kind word, a smile and a bow for every body on the road, even to the horses, and the cattle, and the swine.”  In this manner, during the five years of political “retirement” that followed his congressional service, as he rode the judicial circuit eagerly shaking hands and swapping stories, Lincoln –regardless of his exact intentions– was steadily improving his future electoral prospects by sheer force of his relentless, folksy charm.

In addition, it was not politics that was losing its appeal so much as the Whig Party.  New issues made the old partisan distinctions appear irrelevant and outdated.  As predicted, the Mexican War unhinged the sectional consensus over slavery once the free territory of California applied for statehood.  The subsequent controversy resulted in the Great Compromise of 1850, an elaborate legislative deal that most notably shifted the balance of power in the Senate in favor of the free states while offering tougher restrictions on fugitive slaves for the South.  Both Whigs and Democrats endorsed the arrangement, further eroding the differences between the two national parties and alienating a growing body of activists on either side of the Mason-Dixon Line.  By the early 1850s, the weaker Whig Party had effectively collapsed in parts of the North, where abolitionists sought to forge a new antislavery coalition from the disgruntled elements of the old parties.  Further complicating the political situation was the emergence of surprisingly powerful social movements, like the nativists who opposed rising European immigration or the temperance advocates who decried the widespread abuse of alcohol.  This impending sense of crisis exploded in 1854 when Senator Stephen A. Douglas, a Democrat from Illinois, secured federal legislation that repealed the Missouri Compromise.  Anxious to expand white settlement across the Great Plains, Douglas gambled that by removing old restrictions on slavery in the territories –essentially allowing residents to decide the issue for themselves via referendum– he would realign the sectional stalemate and enhance his own career.

What happened over the next few years sorely tested American public institutions and the mettle of political leaders from all factions.  In many ways, Douglas was the towering figure of his age, a powerful and ambitious senator blessed with sharp intelligence and a feisty sense of political combat.  The boldness of his “Nebraska bill” (the 1854 Kansas-Nebraska Act) catalyzed a host of changes, leading ultimately to a massive partisan realignment that swept over nativism and temperance, destroyed the Whigs, divided the Democrats, spawned the Republicans and created a dangerous atmosphere where sectional differences finally appeared irreconcilable.  Navigating such treacherous political terrain required extraordinary ability and vision.  Lincoln soon proved himself the equal to the challenge, however.  In the first place, he knew Douglas well, having practically grown up with him in the cloistered world of Springfield politics.  For the next several years, he placed his career squarely in the shadow of the Little Giant, as Douglas was called, elevating his stature by repeatedly testing his better known rival. Second, he learned from his earlier disappointments as a Whig and approached the formation of the Republican Party in Illinois primarily as a challenge in coalition building.  It was hard, time-consuming work, but he proved almost indefatigable in his efforts. And finally, he recognized that the future of slavery in America was too serious a subject to allow pettiness or sarcasm to create unnecessary distractions.  He adopted a new more sober approach to public speaking that impressed audiences with the power of his ideas and the moral force of his philosophy.

From 1854 until his death, Lincoln devoted more time and attention to politics and government service than any other facet of his life, including his lucrative legal career or his beloved family.   His first move was to make a formal comeback in electoral politics as a candidate for state representative.  This might seem like a strange step backward for a former congressman, but Lincoln understood that fragile coalitions require stable figureheads and he was prominent enough as a local figure to unite the various elements of what were generally called the anti-Nebraska forces.  There was no doubt, however, that he had bigger plans in mind than serving another term in the Illinois General Assembly.  On several occasions during the fall campaign, when Senator Douglas spoke to audiences across Illinois, private citizen Lincoln conveniently showed up to rebut his claims. Their seemingly spontaneous debates were actually the result of months of preparation on Lincoln’s part.   Local newspapers reported that he had been observed poring over documents in the state library and his law partner later recalled that he had never seen him take public speaking so seriously.

Lincoln had always received praise for his oratorical abilities, but the response to his standard stump speech in 1854 was overwhelming.  Unlike many other public speakers of the day, Lincoln carefully refrained from hyperbole, pretentious allusions or personal vindictive.  Instead, in speeches that routinely lasted for hours, he patiently built arguments rooted in American history and based upon the plainest, most homespun logic.  “When the white man governs himself that is self-government,” he stated, “but when he governs himself, and also governs another man, that is more than self-government –that is, despotism.”  He used simple, evocative language to persuade his listeners, and not simply impress them.  For example, he admitted that the proposal to allow the extension of slavery in the territories filled him with “hate” because he said it “enables the enemies of free institutions, with plausibility, to taunt us as hypocrites.”  On the other hand, he tempered this outburst by confessing that “Southern people” were “just what we would be in their situation” and that even if he had “all earthly power,” he was unsure what to do with slavery in states where it already existed (see Document 7).

A careful dissection of Lincoln’s principal 1854 speech yields great insight into his developing political strategy.  Without doubt, he considered slavery the overriding issue of the period.   Despite the fact that he was a local candidate running for office in a free state, the future of slavery was all that he talked about on the stump.  Clearly, however, he was still working his way through the implications of an American nation without race-based slavery.  He simply could not yet imagine whites and blacks living together as equals.  Some historians believe his reluctance on this topic was the product of his own racism.  Others argue that his ambivalence reflected political realities, not personal prejudice.  In either case, all sides agree that he was opposed to the extension of slavery, a position that became the central tenet of the new Republican movement.

Lincoln does not often receive credit for being a founder of the Republican Party because he was slow to adopt the label for himself, but he played a more active role in the organization’s formation than anybody else in Illinois.  He not only pursued Douglas on the stump in 1854 and allowed his name to help organize the opposition coalition around Springfield, but also he directed several other races for anti-slavery candidates across the state.  Lincoln actually won his own state house contest but resigned without serving in order to pursue a seat in the U.S. Senate once it became clear that the new legislature might offer a majority for an anti-Douglas candidate.  For months, he and his allies bombarded legislators with appeals for support.  With meticulous care, he prepared notebooks for his principal lieutenants that categorized all one hundred members of the incoming General Assembly by their anticipated political affiliation.  The effort paid off, not in personal victory, but as a framework for organizing the emerging Republican coalition.  In an eleventh-hour decision that enraged some of his supporters (including his wife), Lincoln dropped out of the stalemated balloting and threw his support to an antislavery Democrat named Lyman Trumbull who was subsequently elected by a slim majority.  It was a bold sacrifice for a former Whig leader and earned Lincoln deep gratitude from the small but powerful cadre of ex-Democrats who had bolted their party over Douglas’s controversial repeal of the Missouri Compromise.  Over the next year, Lincoln, practically alone among mainstream political leaders in Illinois, worked to unite the disparate elements of the Republican forces into a formal state party organization.  When a snowstorm disrupted a meeting of pro-Republican newspaper editors in 1856, for example, Lincoln was the only major figure who bothered to attend.  Again and again he stepped forward to deliver speeches, recruit candidates, plot strategy, raise funds or perform any of the demanding chores inherent to basic political organizing.  The members of the Illinois Republican delegation attempted to reward his efforts when they promoted him for a spot on the party’s first national ticket, as the 1856 vice-presidential nominee under candidate John Fremont.  He finished second in the balloting but garnered an impressive tally of more than one hundred votes.

These details are important because most accounts of Lincoln’s path to the presidency do not usually begin in earnest until 1858 when he participated in a now famous series of debates against Stephen Douglas.  By that point, however, Lincoln had already ironed out most of his stylistic wrinkles, essentially set his strategic political course and clearly established his place as a party leader.  In fact, it was his assertive leadership of the Illinois Republicans that netted him a virtually unprecedented early endorsement for the U.S. Senate seat then held by Douglas.  This was the head-to-head match up that had brewing for years, and the public excitement was palpable.  The two men met for seven debates, literally dozens of hours of speeches that sometimes drew outdoor audiences exceeding 10,000 people.  In addition, newspapers across the North carried breathless reports from the impressive exchanges.  Consequently, Lincoln’s national reputation grew despite the fact that the fall election returns failed to change the complexion of the legislature quite enough to unseat Douglas.

In the years since the Lincoln-Douglas debates, there has been a great deal of mythology that has developed around them.  First, it has become easy to forget that they had only an indirect impact on the result of the senatorial decision.  Second, despite many moments of high drama and powerful eloquence, there were also tedious stretches of repetition.   In addition, the text commonly accepted for the debates might not accurately reflect the words that listeners heard.  A few years ago, historian Harold Holzer produced a new version that used Republican newspaper accounts for Douglas’s speeches and Democratic transcripts for Lincoln’s.  The result was that both men appeared more human, prone to the type of verbal slips, awkward phrases and garbled digressions that their own partisan reporters apparently edited away without hesitation.  And finally, according to the legend of the so-called Freeport Doctrine, Lincoln sacrificed the senate seat but secured his election to the presidency by placing a shrewd question to Douglas during their second debate in Freeport (August 27, 1858). On that day, Lincoln queried his opponent about the meaning of the Supreme Court’s controversial decision in the Dred Scott case, delivered the year before.  By ruling that slavery in the territories was a property right beyond the interference of Congress or the popular will, the majority on the high Court had seemed to imply that Douglas’s policy of territorial referendum (as well as the Republican position of containment) was unconstitutional.  Lincoln simply asked Douglas if there was “any lawful way” that territorial residents could exclude slavery in the aftermath of the Court’s ruling (see Document 8).  The incumbent senator replied that prohibition could always be maintained through local regulations that discouraged slaveholding.  Douglas’s answer worked well in Illinois, where ambivalence on slavery was often appreciated, but reportedly destroyed him as a national candidate because his words upset Southerners. This explains the origins of the theory that Lincoln traded the contest in Illinois for a bigger prize down the line.  In fact, Republicans had every reason to believe that by forcing Douglas to speak out on the Dred Scott decision, they would hurt him in the immediate campaign.  This was because his position acknowledging the role of unfavorable local regulations put him at odds with the official policy of President James Buchanan, who supported the Court’s decision wholeheartedly.  Buchanan, the nation’s leading Democrat, subsequently set out to destroy Douglas whom he considered a selfish and arrogant rival.

Lincoln proved quite adept at exploiting divisions among his opponents and throughout the campaign exhibited a cool, calculated approach to practically all of the potential problems that developed.  The Douglas-Buchanan feud, for instance, initially struck some eastern Republicans as a golden opportunity to approach the Senate’s leading figure about switching parties.  This would have been a disaster for Lincoln but rather than curse the indifference of national party leaders, he dispatched his law partner to New York City on a discrete lobbying mission and mobilized the rest of his local supporters to set up the unprecedented early endorsement convention.  During the campaign, he not only attempted to put his rival on the rhetorical defensive, but also authorized agents to work covertly with Buchanan’s men in an unholy alliance to dump Douglas.  As Election Day approached and fears multiplied that the Democrats might attempt to flood the polls with unregistered voters, Lincoln calmly offered what he called a “bare suggestion.”  In a secret memo, Honest Abe wrote that the party should hire someone of the “detective class” to trick the mostly foreign-born transients used by the Democratic operatives into supporting Republican legislative candidates (see Document 9). Once the contest was concluded and the state Republican Party fell into debt, Lincoln dutifully kicked extra funds into the coffers and reluctantly asked others for more money.  But most important, after the party’s defeat became apparent, he rallied his downcast supporters by reminding them that the “fight must go on” and confidently predicting that “we shall have fun again.”



As Lincoln matured, he developed such humble personal mannerisms that it became easy to underestimate his ambition.  “I do not think myself fit for the presidency,” he concluded to more than a few supporters in the aftermath of the 1858 senate campaign.  Yet in the year following the contest, he gave political speeches in five states outside of Illinois.   He bought a German-language newspaper which he turned over to a local editor with strict instructions not to print anything “designed to injure the Republican party” until after the 1860 presidential election. He quietly made plans to have his debates with Douglas published in book form and distributed nationally.  He initiated correspondence with some national political leaders and despite a stated desire to focus on his law practice, maintained an active role in state party affairs.  Repeatedly, he warned Republicans to avoid divisions while predicting that the Democrats were bound to break apart sooner or later over the slavery question.  He continued to monitor Stephen Douglas closely, certain that the Illinois Senator would become the Democratic presidential nominee in 1860.

Although the presidential election was clearly on his mind, Lincoln stubbornly refused to acknowledge any personal interest in the contest (see Document 10). His humble denials, however, began to sound increasingly empty.  When asked to provide a biographical sketch for northern newspapers, he demurred, saying there was “not much of me” but then penned a shrewd note that highlighted every aspect of his background that might appeal to different states or groups across the North.   Meanwhile, he encouraged Norman Judd, who was the Illinois state Republican chairman and one of the former Democrats he had been cultivating for years, to win approval from national party leaders for holding the 1860 Republican National Convention in Chicago.  Even more telling, Lincoln gave a series of political speeches in the Northeast, beginning with what would become a famous address at the hall of the Cooper Union, an institute for higher learning, in New York City.  In that speech, he attempted to explain why the Republican policy against the extension of slavery represented the moral center of the national debate.  Using a litany of historical examples, compelling logic and sober rhetoric, he condemned radicals of all stripes –including abolitionists, like the recently martyred John Brown– and managed to make the Republican argument sound conservative.  It was an especially deft accomplishment for an undeclared presidential candidate visiting the home state of his party’s frontrunner, New York Senator and former governor William Seward, a man whose primary weakness was that some leading Republicans considered him too controversial.  Lincoln then gained additional momentum by venturing through New England, ostensibly to visit his eldest son, who was attending boarding school in New Hampshire.

For someone who supposedly considered himself unfit for the presidency, Lincoln was proving to be quite effective as a potential nominee. Republican leaders began to give the Springfield attorney serious consideration.  In many ways, he was an obvious choice. The party had to win at least two out of three key states in 1860 that had gone against them in the previous election –Illinois, Indiana, and Pennsylvania.  Lincoln grew up in Indiana and lived in Illinois.  If the Democrats nominated Douglas as most expected, then only a strong local candidate like Lincoln would offer them any shot of saving Illinois’s eleven electoral votes. Meanwhile, Republicans in Pennsylvania and Indiana were divided among themselves over various “favorite son” possibilities –none of whom had much appeal outside of their home states. The two leading national figures in the Republican Party, Seward and Ohio Governor Salmon Chase, were considered too radical for most voters in the northern border states, which had a reputation for rewarding moderates on the slavery questions.  If the Republicans wanted to nominate someone who would appeal to the lower North, then Lincoln was probably their safest choice.

Complicating the situation even further was a dying third party organization built around the nativist movement, called the Americans or “Know Nothings,” after their habitual secrecy.  In 1856, many Republicans blamed Millard Fillmore, the American Party presidential candidate, for splitting the anti-Democratic vote in the lower North and costing them the election.  The Americans had lost significant political ground in the four years since, but Republicans still wanted to find a nominee who would appeal to, or at least refrain from alienating, former Know Nothings.  Seward had publicly opposed bigotry against Catholics and foreigners, earning the enmity of many so-called Americans. Lincoln, on the other hand, had been more practical, insisting that despite his sincere opposition to the principles of nativism, he would do nothing publicly to jeopardize the fragile opposition coalition.  In fact, Lincoln worked with Know Nothing politicians in Illinois and was regarded by most nativists as an ally.  Some historians now believe that his support among this group might have been the deciding factor in both his nomination and his election.

Still, most experts of the day rated Lincoln as a long shot heading into the Chicago convention.  There were no primary contests to raise name recognition and he was out of office and less well known than his leading rivals.  In addition, one of the biggest factors working against him was money.  Seward and his principal aide, Albany newspaper editor Thurlow Weed, controlled a sizable campaign war chest.  Some Republicans attributed their defeat in the 1856 presidential contest to what had been an overwhelming Democratic financial advantage.  They did not want to wage another national campaign without better access to campaign funding sources, mostly concentrated among eastern businessmen.  On this front, prairie attorney Lincoln was at a competitive disadvantage.  “I can not enter the ring on the money basis,” he admitted in a letter to one potential convention delegate (see Document 11).  To another corespondent, he wrote, “I could not raise ten thousand dollars if it would save me from the fate of John Brown.”  A second potential blow to Lincoln’s chances came in April 1860 with unexpected news from the Democratic convention at Charleston, South Carolina.  Neither Douglas nor any candidate had been able to win the necessary two-thirds supermajority for nomination and Southern delegates, upset over a platform they considered too ambivalent on slavery, had walked out.  It now seemed less certain that Illinois would be ground zero of the electoral contest, and Democrats appeared on the brink of chaos.  Under these circumstances, the chances for frontrunner Seward grew more likely.

Thus, the Republicans meeting in Chicago on May 16, 1860 for only their second national nominating convention had the luxury of considering themselves ahead in the presidential contest.  They adopted a moderate platform designed to hold their commanding position in the North and set forward a winning legislative agenda.  Filled with expectation, Seward’s forces initially gained the upper hand, but Lincoln’s team of advisors proved more resourceful.  They commandeered a suite at the city’s best hotel and entertained delegates in high style –as the invoices for cigars and whiskey still attest.  Using their prerogatives as hosts of the convention, they also delayed the presidential balloting for a day to provide some extra time in their last-ditch efforts to unite the anti-Seward forces.  Meanwhile, local Chicago newspapers trumpeted Lincoln’s winning qualities, paying special attention to his reputation for honesty and hard work.  Just a week prior, he had been dubbed the “rail splitter” at a state party convention in honor of his youthful experiences as a frontier laborer.  It was the kind of popular image that helped win nineteenth-century political campaigns and did not escape unnoticed by the pragmatic delegates from the lower North.  And finally, leaving almost nothing to chance, Lincoln’s managers toyed with the seating chart and even printed a phony set of admission tickets to the convention hall in order to guarantee that he had more observers, and supportive cheering, once the balloting began.

Lincoln himself was not present for any of these behind-the-scenes maneuvers.  It was still considered inappropriate for a presidential candidate to solicit votes on his own behalf.  Instead, he waited impatiently in Springfield, but the underlying strategy was one that he had defined from the outset.  “Our policy,” he had written, “is to give no offence to others –leave them in a mood to come to us, if they shall be compelled to give up their first love” (see Document 12).  Simply put, Lincoln and his advisors positioned him as the second choice for anyone opposed to Seward.  It was the classic strategy for toppling a frontrunner and worked in this case with textbook precision.  The New York Senator led on the first ballot, about sixty votes short of the simple majority of delegates required by Republican Party rules.  But Lincoln gained on the second and won decisively by the third round. Ever since, there has been widespread speculation that Lincoln’s men accomplished this trick with more than just whiskey and cigars.  However, it is difficult to imagine that they could have offered any deals or bargains that would not have been made with equal effect by any other serious contender.  Lincoln biographer David Donald believes the only credible case can be made for a secret arrangement with the Pennsylvania delegation (the convention’s second largest) to provide crucial support for Lincoln on the second ballot in exchange for giving Senator Simon Cameron a seat in the Cabinet.  There is no clear-cut proof for this alleged trade, but the controversial Pennsylvania politician did ultimately receive a cabinet post despite fierce objections from other leading Republicans.

By modern standards, the campaign itself was anti-climatic –or at least, predictable. The Democratic Party reconvened in June but broke apart again almost immediately.  This time, however, Douglas finally secured his long-awaited nomination from the remaining northern delegates and a few southern participants who had been produced by his managers.   Most leading Democrats from the Deep South bolted the party and nominated the incumbent Vice-President, John Breckinridge of Kentucky, as their candidate.  The collapse of the national Democratic organization essentially guaranteed a Republican victory in November.  Without southern electoral votes, Douglas had no chance of success.  Breckinridge actually had a larger base of support, but faced stiff competition in upper southern states from another splinter group, the Constitutional Union Party, formed during the election by ultra-conservative Whigs and Know Nothings.  Led by nominee John Bell, a former U.S. Senator from Tennessee, the Constitutional Union movement earned substantial backing from voters frightened by the overt sectionalism of the major parties.  There was some hope of forming what was called a Fusion ticket, combining the various opposition forces aligned against the Republicans, but coordination proved too elusive and by October, Douglas, for one, acknowledged his impending defeat.

From his law office in Springfield, Lincoln also appeared to recognize that he was about to become president.  With exceptional self-discipline, he kept quiet and provided Douglas with no ammunition to use against him. He gave no speeches, attended only a handful of local campaign events, and provided correspondents and reporters with nothing but vague, innocuous statements (see Document 13).  For a man who had spent so many years in the middle of intense political combat, it was an extremely difficult assignment.  According to his closest friends, boredom became one of his principal enemies.  Just over two weeks before Election Day, the presidential candidate found time in his schedule to answer a letter from an eleven-year-old girl who had written asking if he had any daughters and suggesting that he follow the fashion of the day by growing a beard.  “As to the whiskers,” Lincoln replied, after listing the ages of his three sons, “do you not think people would call it a piece of silly affection?”

The beardless, pre-presidential Lincoln no longer occupies much space in the public consciousness.  However, the youthful rail-splitting image was central to his appeal as a presidential candidate.  One must remember that the electorate in 1860 was not only all-male and lily-white, but also substantially younger than it is today.  Only eight percent of the population was over fifty years old according to the 1860 census.  Republicans consequently targeted their efforts toward younger male voters, using paramilitary-style clubs called Wide-Awakes to organize parades and bonfires in the popular tradition of the earlier Whig and Democratic campaigns.  The ideological contest was about slavery, and to a lesser degree, about secondary issues like the tariff, westward expansion or government corruption, but the spirit of the battle was over competing notions of virility.  Each party created its own fraternity.  In an era before professional sports, tight-knit alumni networks or compulsory military service, nineteenth-century American white men tended to express their primary male bonds through politics.

The result was that Election Day in mid-nineteenth-century America offered an exciting spectacle. Over 80 percent of eligible voters cast ballots on November 6, 1860.  More than 4.7 million Americans participated in what was arguably the nation’s most important election to date.  For months, southern newspapers and politicians had warned that a Republican victory would destroy the Union.  Without doubt, the results confirmed their complaint that the United States had become hopelessly divided along sectional lines.  The Republicans did not even field presidential electors on the ballots in 10 out of 15 slave states, winning absolutely no electoral votes and only a smattering of popular votes across the South.  But there was no need for a southern strategy.  Lincoln carried all 18 free states except New Jersey, which he split with Douglas.  Although he won only about 39 percent of the popular vote nationwide, he carried 54 percent of the popular ballots in the North.  Lincoln secured 180 out of 303 electoral votes and would have won an electoral majority even if all three of his major opponents had their vote totals combined.

The 1860 election was unlike any other in American history because of what happened in its aftermath.  For the first and only time so far, the losers of a contest refused to accept the results as legitimate.  Some northern politicians panicked and attempted to broker a deal, but President-Elect Lincoln would have none of it.  He had been engaged in the struggle for too long.  “Let there be no compromise on the question of extending slavery,” he insisted.  “The tug has to come, & better now than any time hereafter.”   Subsequently, within a month and a half following the election, states from the Deep South, led by South Carolina, began to secede from the Union.  Lincoln refused to acknowledge their right to leave, arguing that it was “the essence of anarchy.”  Uneasily, the nation prepared for a war to settle a dispute that for once politics could not seem to resolve.



            The first two years of the Lincoln Administration were politically disastrous.  A little more than a month after the Inauguration (then held in March) war broke out between the states.  Despite the fact that the Confederacy was only a few months old, Rebel generals and troops seemed better prepared for the conflict than their Federal counterparts.  Although Republicans controlled Congress once Southerners walked out, the new President still had a stormy relationship with Capitol Hill.  Many of the top Republican legislators considered him too slow and indecisive, especially on controversial matters like emancipation or military strategy, and treated his public actions with “undisguised contempt,” according to one leading journalist.  Personal problems added to the President’s woes.  His wife was unpopular and drew criticism for overspending the White House budget.  Even more devastating, at the end of the war’s first year, the Lincoln family endured the death of a child, twelve-year-old Willie, from typhoid fever.

Midterm elections in 1862 generally confirmed the political trend against the President.  Northern Democrats gained 32 seats in the House, a fairly typical upswing for the out-of-power party, but nevertheless an impressive public relations victory.  Republicans also lost key gubernatorial races and control of the state assembly in both Illinois and Indiana.  The northern anti-war movement became emboldened and Lincoln faced difficult choices about maintaining civil liberties in the face of plunging Union morale.  The winter of 1862-1863 was miserable.  In Europe, leading statesmen debated whether or not to intervene in the stalemated conflict.  Back home, Republican governors, senators and congressman met separately in private caucuses to criticize the course of the Administration and plot ways to dump some of the President’s advisors, or ultimately perhaps, the Commander-in-Chief himself.

At least initially, there had been little discussion about whether Lincoln would seek re-election.  No president had served a second term since Andrew Jackson, over thirty years before. The perception of failure seemed too ingrained in the overmatched Administration for consideration of another political campaign.  However, as the war dragged on, the inherent strengths of the President and the Federal side became increasingly apparent.  Northern advantages in manpower, industrial capacity, and financial resources started to wear down the Rebels.  When Robert E. Lee’s army suffered defeat at Gettysburg (July 1863) almost at the same time that Ulysses S. Grant’s forces seized effective control of the Mississippi River, the tide of the conflict finally seemed to have shifted in the Union’s favor.  Moreover, the President’s halting embrace of an emancipation policy for southern slaves actually seemed to have allowed passions to cool.  He was also popular with the troops and the public, considered down-to-earth, kind and wise, known widely as “Father Abraham.”  By late summer 1863, John Hay, one of Lincoln’s top aides, reported in his diary that there was a rising chorus of political talk in favor of a second term for his boss.

One way to approach Lincoln’s campaign for re-election is to consider practically everything through the lens of the battlefield.  Union victories translated into higher morale, which meant bolstered public confidence in the President.  Defeat simply reversed the process.  When most of the military news was bad, as was the case during the war’s first two years, Lincoln was unpopular.  As Federal troops captured more territory, especially under Grant’s command in the Mississippi Valley, Lincoln’s prospects improved.  When Grant was transferred east in the spring of 1864 and given control over all Union armies, the President’s standing probably reached its apex.  Republicans, acting now as the Union Party, renominated him with an overwhelming consensus. Then a long summer of bloody stalemate between Grant’s and Lee’s armies plunged northern public opinion once again into despair.  By August 1864, Lincoln faced the real prospect that he might be removed as the Union coalition’s nominee.  Only the fall of Atlanta in early September appeared to rally the public and save his campaign.  As Federal troops prepared for a final assault on the heart of the Confederacy, Lincoln cruised to a landslide victory in November.

Such a mechanistic interpretation, however, ignores a fundamental truth about the election.  It never had to happen.   At any point prior to the start of the fall campaign in 1864, Lincoln might have stepped or stumbled aside and allowed a handful of equally ambitious Republican politicians to lead the Union effort.  Yet despite repeated military and political disasters, he never yielded his post nor appeared to lose his self-confidence.  But even more impressive than his own decision to run was his conviction that an election itself was possible, even necessary, in the middle of a Civil War.  The Lincoln Administration suspended civil liberties on several occasions during the conflict and ultimately authorized the military arrest of more than 14,000 people. Union leaders were not shy about combating whatever they considered a potential breeding ground for treason.  It is quite possible that if the President had attempted to suspend the 1864 elections, he would have received support from both the Congress and the northern public.   Instead, he plunged forward on sheer faith.

Even a brief review of the campaign suggests that what grounded Lincoln more than anything else was his experience.  He knew how to win.  Consider, for example, the problem of his Treasury Secretary and former 1860 presidential rival, Salmon Chase.  From early on, the President –and everybody else in Washington– realized that a member of his own Cabinet aspired to replace him.  Instead of reacting with fury or self-pity, Lincoln calmly set about taking care of his own political business while allowing Chase to destroy himself.  In November 1863, the Secretary hosted a wedding for his daughter, who was marrying a wealthy senator from Rhode Island.  The event brought together most of official Washington and might have served as launch pad for his prospective campaign had not the President himself arrived, with gift, to enjoy the festivities and conduct a little of his own networking.  A week later, Lincoln again demonstrated his single-minded determination by traveling to Pennsylvania, despite a sick child and over his wife’s objections, in order to help dedicate the new military cemetery at Gettysburg.  What made this trip so important, besides the memorable speech, was the fact that several northern governors attended the ceremony.  Between the Chase wedding and the Gettysburg dedication, Lincoln was able to meet in person with most of the major political figures in the North.  It was the equivalent of an announcement tour, providing the President an opportunity to make known his intentions to accept another nomination if offered.

Therefore, it was no coincidence that once the new political season began, with the convening of state legislatures in January and February of 1864, Lincoln’s supporters were fully prepared to act.  He received a series of pre-arranged endorsements from legislative bodies and party committees, a public relations move that stunned the disorganized Chase forces.  They attempted to respond with a series of written attacks on the President that belittled his “want of intellectual grasp” and blasted his prospects for reelection as “practically impossible.”  Yet such harsh negative statements struck most Republicans as counterproductive and quickly created major political problems for the Treasury Secretary.  By March, he withdrew from the contest. Lincoln coolly kept him in the Cabinet until his renomination was secured in June and then abruptly dismissed him.  Still, their political dance was not yet over, as the President then proceeded to dangle a potential Supreme Court appointment before the talented former attorney, presumably as an enticement for loyalty during the campaign  –a promise he kept after Chief Justice Roger Taney died late in the year.

Lincoln demonstrated his hardheaded approach to vexing personnel questions throughout the contest. When moderates pushed to broaden the Republican appeal in the spring of 1864, Lincoln acquiesced.  The movement adopted a new label, the Union Party, and worked diligently to embrace Democrats who supported the war effort.  When delegates met for the national nominating convention in June at Baltimore, the President allowed them to remove from the electoral ticket his radical-leaning Vice-President, Hannibal Hamlin, in favor of Andrew Johnson, a prominent War Democrat from Tennessee.

Eventually, he was compelled to placate radicals as well.  In May 1864, a group of abolitionists and other radical politicians had organized a third party movement in a small convention at Cleveland, Ohio.  Upset by their lack of influence over Administration policies, they nominated John Fremont, who had been the Republican Party’s first presidential candidate in 1856. The former Union general had no hope of winning, but for several months played the role of potential spoiler.  According to Zachariah Chandler, a powerful Republican senator from Michigan, the President eventually agreed to a deal that got Fremont out of the race in exchange for the dismissal of a conservative (but loyal) Cabinet member whom the radicals despised.

In addition, Lincoln was not the only Republican playing hardball.  Over the summer, his critics within the party gained ground as Union armies stalled in their assaults on remaining Rebel strongholds.  The failure of General Grant to dislodge Lee and the Army of Northern Virginia convinced the President that more troops were necessary.  His call for yet another 500,000 enlistments confounded a war-weary northern public and set off a new round of heated public criticism.  Some newspaper editors and politicians called for negotiations with the Confederates.  Others demanded harsher terms before captured Rebels could be readmitted into the Union. By August 1864, nobody seemed satisfied with the course of events (see Document 14).  As the opening of the Democratic National Convention approached, groups of Union politicians began meeting secretly to consider replacing their besieged presidential nominee.

In this moment of crisis, however, Lincoln enjoyed perhaps his finest hour.  Beset on all sides by hostile critics, he maintained his poise and stayed in command of his coalition long enough to allow the changing tides of the battlefield to work in his favor once again.   His most important decision was to avoid panic.  Despite intense pressure, the President declined to abandon his emancipation policy and, though he authorized secret agents to approach the Rebels, he set preconditions that made real negotiations impossible.  He also called together his Cabinet and had members sign a memorandum “blind,” i.e. without seeing contents.  In a somewhat mystifying document, Lincoln outlined what would happen if he lost the November election and how his Administration would work with the new President-Elect to carry forward the war effort.  Most historians have since interpreted the strange episode as part of the gloom that surrounded the President during this period, but it was more revealing about the depth of his determination to remain as his party’s nominee.  While critics were calling for his removal, Lincoln was already contemplating the potential aftermath of the election.  From his perspective, he might lose, but he was definitely not stepping aside (see Document 15).

What the President understood better than most of his contemporaries was how both national parties were split along various, almost contradictory, lines. It was a problem he had been facing for over a decade. Each movement had radical and conservative wings with overlapping regional and personal disputes that complicated party management.  Finding a single candidate who could unite the various factions was extraordinarily difficult and there was virtually no chance that disgruntled Republicans would identify an alternative to Lincoln acceptable to everyone.  The only serious contender for the role besides the President was General Grant, but Lincoln monitored him closely and knew that his potential rival could not win political support unless he achieved more progress on the battlefield –a development that would simultaneously help alleviate criticism of the White House.

Instead, with grim determination, the President prayed for Democratic divisions to reveal themselves.  He did not have long to wait. The Democratic Convention, held in Chicago at the end of August, proved to be a fiasco.  The so-called Peace Democrats wrote a party platform that bitterly attacked the war as “four years of failure.”  Yet pro-Union Democrats succeeded in winning the presidential nomination for George B. McClellan, who was closely identified with the war effort because he had commanded the Army of the Potomac for more than a year before clashing with Lincoln over strategy.  The general favored continuing the conflict, although not on the President’s terms, whom he privately labeled a “gorilla.”  A novice politician, McClellan simply tried to ignore the dissonance within his own party and proved indifferent to most of the campaign’s requisite politicking.

The irony is that if the dates of the national nominating conventions had been reversed  –if Democrats had met in June and Unionists in August– then an entirely different result might have occurred.  Instead, the Democrats emerged from their convention at the worst possible moment, denouncing the Administration just as Union forces finally achieved their long awaited breakthrough.  General William Sherman’s army captured Atlanta in early September, a result that reinvigorated northern morale and convinced most observers that Lincoln’s reelection was finally secure.

Nonetheless, the campaign was fiercely contested.  Partisan newspapers on each side unleashed a full-throttle political contest.  In those days, newspapers provided the principal communications tools for the parties.  The Union campaign chairman, for example, was Henry Raymond, who also served simultaneously as editor of The New York Times.

At times, the tone of the contest became shrill.  Northern Democrats accused Lincoln of having assumed dictatorial powers during the war.  The Administration responded by issuing a special report from Judge Advocate General Joseph Holt documenting widespread allegations of domestic treason.  A couple of Democratic operatives attempted a race-baiting hoax that they thought would embarrass the President.  They secretly produced a pamphlet, entitled “Miscegenation,” which they attributed to abolitionists who supposedly endorsed the sexual and social intermingling of the races as a likely future for post-emancipation America. Then they mailed the document to leading anti-slavery figures, including the President, requesting supportive statements of the fanciful proposal.  The President’s aides shelved his copy, and the hoax was eventually exposed, but Democrats repeatedly tried to stir the racist fears of northern whites during the contest.  Pro-Union newspapers also engaged in some bigoted attacks.  The New York Times claimed, for example, that the Democratic Party had fallen into the hands of “foreign Jew bankers” because the organization’s campaign committee was headed by August Belmont, an advisor to the famous Rothschild family.

Although Lincoln once again stayed out of the public fray, he worked behind-the-scenes on several key campaign projects.  One of the attacks against him was quite personal, rehashing an old allegation that he had shown disrespect for dead Union soldiers by swapping jokes and singing songs with his entourage while visiting the bloody battlefield at Antietam, Maryland in 1862.  Lincoln called his friend and frequent companion, Ward Hill Lamon, into the White House to discuss the events, and carefully prepared an affidavit for him denying the charges.  On another occasion, the President told one of his top aides that he had dispatched power broker Thurlow Weed on a special trip related to opposition research.  The goal, according to the President, was to find evidence that would prove a rumor that General McClellan had once signed a letter pledging to slow the progress of his armies in exchange for Democratic backing in the 1864 contest.  Weed, who had been Seward’s right-hand man in 1860, was now proving useful to Lincoln.  The New York-based power broker also collected tens of thousands of dollars in campaign funds from Union army contractors.  By this point in his career, the President well understood the power of money and even allowed party fundraisers to demand hundreds of dollars each from the members of his Cabinet.

The results of Election Day on Tuesday, November 8, 1864 confirmed the wisdom of Lincoln’s tactics and his faith in the process.  He won 55 percent of the popular vote and more than 90 percent of the electoral vote.  McClellan only carried three states: Delaware, Kentucky and New Jersey.  Meanwhile, Republican candidates in other races had also done extremely well.  The party won 145 out of 185 seats in the House and regained almost all of the losses suffered in the previous midterm and off-year contests.  By most accounts, the key to the landslide was the overwhelming pro-Union vote from soldiers.  Nineteen states allowed troops to vote in the field or by absentee ballot.  Not all of the states tabulated the soldier vote separately, but among those that did, Lincoln scored nearly 80 percent of the ballots –a remarkable testament to the Commander-in-Chief’s popularity among his own subordinates.

For Lincoln, wining reelection under these circumstances was especially gratifying.  He had risked a great deal for himself and the nation. “We can not have free government without elections,” he said afterwards, “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.” Some Americans of that era denigrated what Lincoln called “political war” as divisive and unnecessary.  Yet from his perspective, it was the only possible foundation for the nation’s freedom (see Document 17).

Unfortunately, there was a personal price that Lincoln paid for achieving the power that popularity and esteem brought him.  His victory demonstrated his indispensability to the Union cause and made him a target for anyone determined to destroy the Federal government.  As the Confederacy collapsed, embittered Rebels increasingly focused their rage against the man who, more than any other single individual, was responsible for their impending defeat.  Some of those around the President realized the danger and tried to protect him.  One of the most poignant scenes concerning the election appears in the diary of John Hay, Lincoln’s personal secretary.  He noted that on election night, Lincoln’s unofficial bodyguard Ward Lamon instinctively came to the White House after the results were announced and sat outside the President’s bedroom door with “a small arsenal of pistols & bowie knives around him.” He stayed all night before finally slipping away early in the morning (see Document 16).   It was a touching gesture during an era when ballots were sadly often followed by bullets.


Recommended Reading


David Herbert Donald, Lincoln (New York: Simon & Schuster), 1995.

Out of literally thousands of biographies on Abraham Lincoln, this single volume probably offers the most reliable and comprehensive analysis of the great president’s political career, especially for the campaigns of 1860 and 1864.

Albert J. Beveridge, Abraham Lincoln, 1809-1858 (2 vols., Boston: Houghton Mifflin), 1928.

Written by a sitting U.S. Senator, this impressive two-volume work still contains valuable insight into Lincoln’s pre-presidential career.

Don E. Fehrenbacher, Prelude to Greatness: Lincoln in the 1850s (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press), 1962.

This relatively slim monograph presents the most sophisticated description available of Lincoln’s rise to power in the 1850s.

William E. Gienapp, “Who Voted for Lincoln?” in John L. Thomas, ed., Abraham Lincoln and the American Political Tradition (Amherst, MA: University of Massachusetts Press), 1986.

For numbers-crunchers and political junkies, this essay is heaven-sent, providing a detailed breakdown of the demographic factors at stake in the 1860 election.

William Frank Zornow, Lincoln & the Party Divided (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press),1954.

Although there are more recent and equally readable books on the 1864 election, Zornow’s work still stands as the most meticulous accounting of that exciting race.

Additional Secondary Sources

William E. Baringer, Lincoln’s Rise to Power (Boston: Little, Brown & Co.), 1937.

Gabor S. Boritt, Lincoln and the Economics of the American Dream (Memphis, TN: Memphis State University Press), 1978.

Richard N. Current, The Lincoln Nobody Knows (New York: McGraw-Hill), 1958.

Paul W. Findlay, A.Lincoln, the Crucible of Congress (New York: Crown), 1979.

William E. Gienapp, The Origins of the Republican Party, 1852-1856 (New York: Oxford University Press), 1988.

Daniel Walker Howe, The Political Culture of the American Whigs (Chicago: University of Chicago Press), 1979.

Harold M. Hyman, “Election of 1864” in History of American Presidential Elections, 1789-1968 (Vol. 2) edited by Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr., Fred L. Israel, and William P. Hansen (4 vols., New York: Chelsea House), 1971.

Harry V. Jaffa, Crisis of the House Divided: An Interpretation of the Lincoln-Douglas Debates (New York: Doubleday), 1959.

Robert W. Johannsen, Lincoln, The South, and Slavery: The Political Dimension (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press), 1991.

Willard L. King, Lincoln’s Manager: David Davis (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press),1960.

David E. Long, The Jewel of Liberty: Abraham Lincoln’s Re-Election and the End of Slavery (Mechanicsburg, PA: Stackpole Books), 1994.

Reinhard H. Luthin, The First Lincoln Campaign (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press), 1944.

Elting Morison, “The Election of 1860,” in History of American Presidential Elections, 1789-1968 (Vol. 2) edited by Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr., Fred L. Israel, and William P. Hansen (4 vols., New York: Chelsea House), 1971.

Larry E. Nelson, Bullets, Ballots, and Rhetoric: Confederate Policy for the United States Presidential Contest of 1864 (University, AB: University of Alabama Press), 1980.

Phillip Shaw Paludan, The Presidency of Abraham Lincoln (Lawrence: University of Kansas Press), 1994.

Donald W. Riddle, Congressman Abraham Lincoln (Urbana: University of Illinois Press), 1957.

Thomas F. Schwartz, “‘An Egregious Political Blunder’: Justin Butterfield, Lincoln and Illinois Whiggery,’ Papers of the Abraham Lincoln Association 8 (1986), 9-19.

Joel H. Silbey, “‘Always a Whig in Politics’: The Partisan Life of Abraham Lincoln,'” Papers of the Abraham Lincoln Association 8 (1986), 21-42.

Paul Simon, Lincoln’s Preparation for Greatness: The Illinois Legislative Years (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press), 1965.

John C. Waugh, Reelecting Lincoln: The Battle for the 1864 Presidency (New York: Crown), 1997.

Robert H. Wiebe, “Lincoln’s Fraternal Democracy” in John L. Thomas, ed., Abraham Lincoln and the American Political Tradition (Amherst, MA: University of Massachusetts Press), 1986.

Douglas L. Wilson, Honor’s Voice: The Transformation of Abraham Lincoln (New York: Alfred Knopf), 1998.

John S. Wright, Lincoln and the Politics of Slavery (Reno: University of Nevada Press), 1970.

Selected Primary Sources

Roy P. Basler, et.al., eds., The Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln (9 vols., New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press), 1953.

Michael Burlingame and John R. Turner Ettlinger, eds., Inside Lincoln’s White House: The Complete Civil War Diary of John Hay (Carbondale, IL: Southern Illinois University Press), 1997.

Michael Burlingame, ed., Lincoln Observed: Civil War Dispatches of Noah Brooks (Baltimore, Md: Johns Hopkins University Press), 1998.

William H. Herndon and Jesse W. Weik, Herndon’s Life of Lincoln (orig. pub. 1888; New York:Da Capo), 1983.

Harold Holzer, ed., The Lincoln-Douglas Debates: The First Complete Unexpurgated Text (New York: HarperCollins), 1993.

Herbert Mitgang, ed., Abraham Lincoln: A Press Portrait (orig. pub. 1956; New York: Fordham University Press), 2000.

Harry E. Pratt, ed., “Illinois as Lincoln Knew It: A Boston Reporter’s Record of a Trip in 1847,”Transactions of the Illinois State Historical Society (1937), 109-141.