Holding an Election During the Civil War Set the Standard for Us TodayRoundup
tags: Civil War, Abraham Lincoln, elections
Jonathan W. White is associate professor of American studies at Christopher Newport University and author of Emancipation, the Union Army, and the Reelection of Abraham Lincoln. He is presently writing a history of African American visitors to the Lincoln White House.
With President Trump’s illness disrupting his campaigning and the ongoing coronavirus pandemic afflicting Americans across the country, some commentators have wondered whether the 2020 election should be postponed. But the election of 1864 and President Abraham Lincoln’s insistence that it be held, even amid civil war, provides a resounding answer: No. Indeed, Lincoln believed that holding a fair election under even the most challenging circumstances was needed if self-government was to survive.
From the very beginning of the Civil War, Lincoln insisted that he was willing to fight to ensure the survival of republican government. “Our popular Government has often been called an experiment,” he told Congress in a special message on July 4, 1861. It was now for the American people “to demonstrate to the world that those who can fairly carry an election can also suppress a rebellion; that ballots are the rightful and peaceful successors of bullets.” Once ballots had “fairly and constitutionally decided” a contest, resorting to anything “except to ballots themselves at succeeding elections” could not stand. This, Lincoln wrote, “will be a great lesson of peace, teaching men that what they can not take by an election neither can they take it by a war.”
Lincoln had long believed that government by consent was worth sacrificing for. He would later immortalize his ideas at Gettysburg when he said that the Civil War was being waged so “that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.” Ironically, his appeal to the bullet between 1861 and 1865 was an attempt to maintain the ability of the American people to appeal to the ballot.
In the lead-up to the presidential election of 1864, some Democrats predicted that Lincoln would refuse to relinquish power even if he lost. A Cincinnati editor wrote privately that the Republicans “will proclaim themselves in power during the war. … I believe that Lincoln will not give up the idea of accomplishing the great idea of the war, though he may be compelled to resort to the levy en masse,” or national conscription. Others made similar charges publicly in the pages of Democratic newspapers.
In response to these sorts of accusations, Lincoln insisted that he had no intention “to ruin the government.” In October 1864, he explained to a group of visitors at the White House: “I am struggling to maintain government, not to overthrow it. I am struggling especially to prevent others from overthrowing it.” Lincoln was firm that “whoever shall be constitutionally elected therefor in November, shall be duly installed as President on the fourth of March; and that in the interval I shall do my utmost that whoever is to hold the helm for the next voyage, shall start with the best possible chance to save the ship.”
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