SMNR: The Election of 1864

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THU 2:30 - 4:20 pm TNH 3.129

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Because of its lopsided outcome, the Election of 1864 gets short shrift in popular and scholarly discussions of the most important elections in American history. Compared to 1800, 1876, or 2000, it barely makes a dent. Insofar as most people know anything about the election, they probably know only that Lincoln won—and maybe that it wasn’t especially close. The assumption baked into that desultory treatment is that there’s nothing for us to learn from the proceedings. This seminar is premised on the idea that that’s a mistake. A compelling case can be made not only that the Election of 1864 was the most important election in American history, but that, 160 years later, it still has some remarkably important lessons to teach us today. First, the election quite literally saved the Union. Had Lincoln lost (as he thought he would as late as the end of August), the odds are exceptionally high that the war would have been lost alongside the election—with Confederate independence as the inevitable, if not inexorable, result. But the Election of 1864 also brought with it a confluence of remarkable (and underappreciated) historical, political, and legal developments that helped to move the needle from Lincoln’s expected defeat in August to his landslide victory in November—and that we’ll study in this class.

It was in 1864 that northern states first adopted absentee voting on a widespread basis—an effort on the part of Republican-controlled state legislatures, in particular, to make it possible for soldiers fighting away from home to vote. That precedent had immediate short-term implications, as well: as many as 70% of the soldiers who voted in 1864 would vote for Lincoln. And it inaugurated a practice that has become a lightning rod in contemporary American politics—in a context that illuminates, and largely responds to, present-day objections to remote voting. 1864 also saw the only mixed presidential ticket in American history, with Lincoln unceremoniously dumping incumbent Vice President Hannibal Hamlin in favor of the Democratic military governor of Tennessee, Andrew Johnson—a move that would have profound political and historical ramifications of its own following Lincoln’s assassination and Johnson’s succession to the presidency, and from which contemporary political parties have taken all of the wrong lessons about cross-party tickets. Relatedly, 1864 saw one of the largest national unity votes in American history, with countless War Democrats voting for the Republican Lincoln on the “National Union” ticket—literally opting for their country over their party. That ticket included a commitment not just to an unconditional Confederate surrender (the central point of contention between War Democrats and Peace Democrats), but to adoption of a constitutional amendment to abolish slavery—which would pass both chambers of Congress in January 1865, and be ratified by the states 11 months later. And all of this happened while the Union army and navy continued to advance against their Confederate foes—one of the more remarkable alignments of political and military decisionmaking during wartime, with consequences for the division of civil and military governmental functions that persist to the present.

But the most remarkable thing about the Election of 1864 is that it happened at all. It remains the only example in recorded history of a democracy holding a national election during a civil war. Despite calls from some members of his party to consider postponement, Lincoln never wavered from his conviction that holding the election on schedule was absolutely essential—even, if not especially, when he became convinced that he was going to lose. Lincoln desperately wanted to win the war, but only to save the very democracy that he was willing to let vote him out of office to stop him. The Election of 1864 thus is not just a story about the election that saved the Union; it is a story about presidential leadership; it is a story about adapting the franchise to the circumstances of the moment; it is a story about elevating country over party; and it is, at its core, a story about the simultaneous fragility and resiliency of our democracy—one that ought to be shouted from the rooftops, especially today. Our goal in this seminar is to learn—and figure out how to tell—that story.

Textbooks ( * denotes required )

Reelecting Lincoln : The Battle for the 1864 Presidency *
Waugh, John C. and Waugh, John
Hachette Books
ISBN: 978-0-306-81022-0
Decided on the Battlefield : Grant, Sherman, Lincoln and the Election Of 1864 *
Johnson, David Alan
Globe Pequot Press, The
ISBN: 978-1-63388-638-4


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