Lincoln's Renomination 150 Years Ago Broke a Trend

tags: Civil War, Lincoln, Presidential Nominations

Stan M. Haynes, a Baltimore attorney, is the author of "The First American Political Conventions: Transforming Presidential Nominations, 1832-1872."  For more information about the book, visit www.americanpoliticalconventions.com.

One hundred and fifty years ago this month, in the midst of the Civil War, the United States was conducting a presidential campaign. The year was 1864 and, beginning on June 7, the city of Baltimore was in the nation’s spotlight as the location of the Republican Party’s presidential nominating convention. It was a familiar role for Baltimore, which had been a favorite site for political conventions since the 1830s. The location of the 1864 convention was, however, was a curious one for the pro-Union Republicans, given the city’s reputation during the war as a hotbed of Confederate sympathizers.

There was no guarantee that the Republicans would re-nominate the nation’s wartime leader, Abraham Lincoln, for a second term. It was an era of one-term presidents. No incumbent president had been re-nominated since Martin Van Buren in 1840, and he went on to lose the election. The Civil War was in its fourth year at the time the convention met and, with several battlefield losses by the Union army during the preceding months, Lincoln’s popularity was at a low point. While a majority of the convention’s delegates were pledged to Lincoln, nothing was certain. There was discontent in the party with his leadership. The Republicans in control of Congress, known as the Radicals, wanted the war fought more aggressively, and harsh punishment of the South at the war’s end. Lincoln resisted both. Early in 1864, Lincoln’s own secretary of the treasury, Salmon Chase, had flirted with challenging him for the nomination. Many delegates passed through Washington on their way to Baltimore for the convention and, while there, heard last-ditch appeals by Republican members of Congress to derail a Lincoln re-nomination. Noted one observer of the scene in Baltimore on the eve of the convention, “There was a radical grumpiness, an anti-Lincoln . . . feeling that all things they detested about this administration were being crammed down their throats.”

The convention was held at the Front Street Theater. The Democrats had met in the same building four years earlier, a divisive convention during which the party had split into two factions, with each nominating its own candidate, Stephen A. Douglas by the northern faction and John C. Breckinridge by the southern. In an effort to broaden their appeal in 1864 to pro-war Democrats in the North, Republicans called their gathering the National Union Convention. More than 500 delegates and thousands of onlookers came to Baltimore for the proceedings. During the week of the convention, the square surrounding Baltimore’s Battle Monument was the scene of evening political rallies. Massive crowds gathered to hear music from brass bands that played on the balconies of nearby hotels and, for hours on end, to listen to speeches. In that era, prospective nominees did not travel to convention cities, nor give acceptance speeches to the delegates once nominated. Lincoln remained in Washington and followed events in Baltimore by telegraph.

The convention opened with a speech by Edwin Morgan of New York, the party’s chairman, who, at Lincoln’s urging, called for a plank in the party’s platform supporting a constitutional amendment abolishing slavery. How times had changed in four years. In 1860, the Republicans had opposed expansion of slavery to the territories, but had not called for outlawing it in the states where it then existed. By 1864, a war that had begun as an effort to save the Union had become a war to end slavery. Ironically, the state where the convention was being held, Maryland, part of the Union, still had slavery at the time the convention met in June 1864, despite Lincoln’s 1863 Emancipation Proclamation outlawing the institution in the states belonging to the Confederacy.

The most intense politicking during the convention was over the selection of a vice presidential nominee. Lincoln had quietly told a few key supporters that, in an effort to broaden his support in the coming election, he wanted to replace his first-term vice president, Republican Hannibal Hamlin of Maine, with a Democrat who supported the war. In the spring, he had approached Benjamin Butler of Massachusetts, a Union army general who was a well-known Democrat, but Butler had declined. As the convention neared, attention focused on Andrew Johnson, a Tennessee Democrat who was the military governor of Union-controlled portions of his home state, which was part of the Confederacy. Not all Republicans approved of Johnson being on the ticket. Fumed Thaddeus Stevens of Pennsylvania to his fellow delegates, “Can’t you find a candidate for vice president in the United States without going down to one of those damned rebel provinces to pick one up?” The historical record conflicts as to whether Lincoln personally lobbied for Johnson before and during the convention, or whether he would have been content with any Democrat who supported the war.

By the time the voting started on the convention’s second day, June 8, the opposition to Lincoln had fizzled. His re-nomination was almost unanimous, with only Missouri’s twenty-two delegates bucking the trend by voting for General Ulysses Grant. The demonstration following Lincoln’s victory among the almost three thousand people packed into the Front Street Theater was loud and boisterous, causing one reporter to observe “I involuntarily looked up to see if the roof of the theater were not lifted by the volume of sound.” Later the same day, Andrew Johnson won the vice presidential nomination by a similarly lopsided margin. In a grim reminder that the convention was meeting in the midst of war, as the convention closed, an announcement from the podium encouraged all delegates to visit a local hospital before leaving Baltimore, where over a thousand Union soldiers were being treated for battlefield injuries, and who would be “gratified to meet their delegates.”

With his re-nomination, Lincoln was given the opportunity to complete the job he had started and to see the war through to its end. On the day after the convention, in the East Room of the White House, he greeted a committee from the Union League, which had been in Baltimore and had come to offer their congratulations. Lincoln, the man who always had an anecdote or joke to tell, advised his amused guests, “I have not permitted myself, gentlemen, to conclude that I am the best man in the country, but I am reminded, in this connection, of a story of an old Dutch farmer, who remarked to a companion once that ‘it was best not to swap horses when crossing streams.’”

There were more setbacks for the Union army over the summer of 1864 and there were calls by some Republicans for a new convention, to be held September in either Cincinnati or Buffalo, to replace Lincoln and to select a new nominee. The fall of Atlanta, the Confederacy’s largest city, to the army of General William Tecumseh Sherman in early September, ended the renewed opposition to Lincoln within his party and he went on to win the presidential election by a comfortable margin over General George B. McClellan, the nominee of the Democratic Party. 

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