Louis P. Masur: Take Heart, Barack: Honest Abe Had a Rough Midterm Too

Roundup: Historians' Take

[Louis P. Masur teaches American Studies at Trinity College (CT). He is the author of "The Civil War: A Concise History."]

If you think President Obama has problems going into the midterm election, consider what Abraham Lincoln faced. In fall 1862, the nation was 18 months into Civil War. Eleven states had left the Union and four slave states still within -- Delaware, Maryland, Kentucky and Missouri -- continued to cause Lincoln political problems. The elections were held at different times, with voters in Pennsylvania, Ohio and Indiana going to the polls in October, and Illinois, Missouri, Massachusetts, New York and New Jersey in November.

Entering the fall, few voters were happy with Lincoln. On Sept. 22, just prior to the elections, he issued a preliminary Emancipation Proclamation that pledged to free the slaves in rebel states on Jan. 1 if they did not return to the Union by then. Two days after issuing that decree, he suspended habeas corpus, which allowed wide discretion in detaining Northerners who interfered with the prosecution of the war -- a war that had bogged down, leading to additional criticism of the administration.

Radicals denounced Lincoln as hesitant and slow, viewed the Emancipation Proclamation as weak, partial and ineffective, and demanded a more aggressive prosecution of the war. Conservatives vilified Lincoln as a tyrant, a dictator who was using the engine of government to squash the constitutional rights of citizens. And so there was good reason for the administration to be anxious going into the elections....

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