Sunday, November 27, 2011

Abraham Lincoln: A Divisive President

Abraham Lincoln, who served as president of the United States from 1861 to 1865, is widely regarded as the greatest American president.  Indeed, in numerous "ranking polls" taken over the years, asking historians and political scientists to rank the presidents, Lincoln has been the consistent winner.  According to a chart on Wikipedia, which records the results of 17 major polls taken over the last 50 years, Lincoln has never placed lower than third, and has taken first nine times - more than any other president.  His aggregate ranking in that chart places him in the top position among American presidents.
This wide-spread academic acknowledgement of Lincoln's acheivements as president is reflected in popular culture as well.  Probably no historical president is quoted, mimicked, referenced, or dramatized more often than Abraham Lincoln.  His top hat and beard have become iconic symbols of his presidency.  Children's games are named for him, in memory of his humble beginnings in a log cabin.  No American high school student makes it through a Government class without reading his Gettysburg Address.  Countless books are published about him every single year.  Even in the 21st century, "Lincoln" remains a popular boy's name.  Kentucky hails itself as "Lincoln's Birthplace," while Indiana calls itself "Lincoln's Boyhood Home," and Illinois proudly displays "Land of Lincoln" on its license plate.  

There are literally hundreds of cities, towns, and communities around the U.S. named after him.  His iconic image is stamped onto every penny minted in the United States, and he is also on our five-dollar bill.

In short, Abraham Lincoln is the most widely-regarded, well-known, and beloved of all the American presidents.

With this in mind, one might be inclined to assume that his greatness was recognized even during his life and during his time in the White House.

Surprisingly, this assumption couldn't be farther from the truth.

Everyone knows what happened after Lincoln was elected in 1860.  The southern states seceded over the issue of slavery, and the Civil War began.  

What is often overlooked in this scenario is that the southern states actually seceded in protest of Lincoln's election.

Throughout the 1850's, the issue of slavery dominated the American political environment.  There were many different perspectives on the issue, and as a result of all these perspectives, the 1860 presidential election wound up with 4 major candidates nominated by 4 different parties.

The sitting Vice-President, John C. Breckenridge, was a pro-slavery southerner, and was easily nominated as the Southern Democrat candidate in 1860.  The Northern Democrats, on the other hand, believed that slavery was a states' rights issue, and believed in allowing states, and particularly new U.S. territories, to decide for themselves whether to allow slavery (they called this platform "Popular Sovereignty").  They nominated Stephen Douglas, a well-known Illinois politician who was a political rival to Abraham Lincoln.  

Stephen Douglas

It's important to keep in mind that the labels "Northern Democrat" and "Southern Democrat," in 1860, only referred to general regional loyalties.  There certainly would have been supporters of the "Northern Democrats" in the South, and vice versa.

The Republican party, in 1860, was still a new political party, formed primarily in response to the Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854.  This Act, following the platform of Douglas and the group that would come to be known as the Northern Democrats, had allowed the Kansas and Nebraska territories to choose for themselves whether they would permit slavery.

Those Whigs and Democrats who were virulently opposed to the expansion of slavery, and who, in many cases, supported outright abolition of slavery, broke away from their respective parties after 1854 and formed the Republican party, whose platform was essentially to oppose any expansion of slavery in new territories and states.  In 1860, they nominated the anti-slavery Abraham Lincoln for the presidency.   

The Constitutional Union party was a fourth party formed during the 1860 election as an alternative to all the others.  Their basic platform was to avoid the slavery issue all together.  Their primary goal was to preserve the union - hence the name.  They opposed both factions of the Democratic party, because both were seen as pro-slavery, but they also opposed the Republicans, because they felt that the Republicans were too radical and believed that a Republican victory would lead to a dissolution of the union.  In short, the Constitutional Union party sought only to preserve the union and put off discussions about slavery until later.  They nominated a Tennessee politician and slave-owner named John Bell.  

Unlike modern elections, in which third-party candidates rarely make any significant run for the White House, all four candidates in 1860 had strong bases of support and ultimately won states in the electoral college.

Stephen Douglas, of the Northern Democrats, only carried one state (Missouri), but he garnered nearly 30% of the popular vote.  John Bell, the candidate of the Constitutional Union party, carried three states, but took only 12% of the popular vote, by far the least of any of the candidates.

John C. Breckinridge, the pro-slavery incumbent Vice-President, carried every southern state except for Tennessee, and took 19% of the popular vote.

John C. Breckinridge

Abraham Lincoln took most of the northern states, as well as California and Oregon, winning 39% of the popular vote and ultimately winning the election.  However, within 10 of the 15 slaves states, Lincoln did not receive a single, solitary vote from a single, solitary voter.  He wasn't even on the ticket there.  Of the 996 counties spanning the 15 slave states, Lincoln won only 2.  

As such, Lincoln won the election not by a majority, as most candidates do, but by a "plurality" - in other words, he didn't get a majority of the votes, but he got more than anyone else.  Still, more than 60% of the U.S. population voted for someone other than Abraham Lincoln in the 1860 election.  This is remarkable; Lincoln came into office with almost two-thirds of the country opposed to him.  

His election, in fact, was so divisive, that it ultimately led to the secession of the southern states, which began happening before he even took office.  The dire predictions of the Constitutional Union party were being played out before everyone's eyes.  The union was falling apart because of the election of a radical anti-slavery president.  Lincoln attempted to stop this, giving speeches aimed at the South, promising not to abolish slavery there.  It goes without saying that this failed to stem the tide.

Following Lincoln's election, the secession of the southern states, and the outbreak of the Civil War, Lincoln found himself up for re-election again in 1864.  Although a Union victory was no longer in doubt by the time the actual election took place in November of that year, much of the 1864 campaign season took place during a time when victory was by no means assured.

Still, considering Lincoln's confident and competent leadership of the country during the war, and considering that his famous Gettysburg Address, and his even more famous and profound Emancipation Proclamation, had both already taken place by this time, one would have expected Lincoln to win his re-election handily.

Not so.

In the 1864 election, only the northern and western states were eligible to vote - the southern states had seceded and, at that time, were no longer part of the United States.  This means that the only states who voted in the 1864 election were the states where Lincoln was already most popular.  They were made up of states that Lincoln had mostly won in 1860, and which he had subsequently led for the previous three years.  

Yet despite this, the election was not a clear-cut victory for Lincoln.  In fact, Lincoln failed to gain the re-nomination of his own Republican party in 1864.  The party, by this time, was pushing a platform that went even farther than Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation.  They wanted a constitutional amendment barring slavery for good, and wanted legislation to guarantee racial equality for all people.  Lincoln was not willing to go this far, and so the party nominated John C. Fremont of California as the Republican presidential candidate.   

John C. Fremont

As such, Lincoln was forced to form a third party, called the National Union party, which included more moderate Republicans and a group of northerners known as "War Democrats."  These War Democrats were northern Democrats who were radically opposed to making peace with the Confederacy.  Their platform was essentially to win the Civil War at all costs, and ultimately re-unite the broken country through military victory.  

The Northern Democrats, by this time, had become a party advocating peace with the Confederacy.  They came to be known as the Copperheads or Peace Democrats, and their most vocal leader was Clement L. Vallandigham, an Ohio congressman.  They nominated Lincoln's former top general, George B. McClellan, as their candidate.  This was somewhat of a contradiction, because McClellan openly supported continuing the war with the Confederacy, and largely disagreed with the party platform written by Vallandigham. 

Clement L. Valladigham

As the campaign among these three candidates progressed, the Republican nominee Fremont expressed concerns about splitting the Republican vote with Lincoln's party.  He openly vowed to bow out of the election if the National Union party would nominate someone other than Abraham Lincoln.  The party, however, refused to do this, and Fremont himself finally relented, removing himself from the race in September of 1864.  

Fremont's decision to bow out of the race ultimately led to Lincoln winning the election in November of 1864.  The Northern Democrats had hurt their cause by nominating a candidate who didn't even fully agree with their own platform of peace.  

George McClellan

Furthermore, the entire peace platform was becoming irrelevant by this time, since it was becoming obvious that the Union was going to win and thus re-unite the country (this had not been the case earlier in the campaign).  As such, Americans voted to keep Lincoln in office.     

Still, while Lincoln won a landslide in the electoral college, he won only 55% of the popular vote.  Fifty-five percent!  This means that even despite his leadership during the war, and despite his Gettysburg Address and his Emancipation Proclamation, and despite the Northern Democrats making several political blunders, Lincoln was still opposed by almost half of Americans - and this, of course, does not count the southerners, who were opposed to him so dramatically that they seceded over his election and ultimately assassinated him.

In the modern day, we would consider a 55% to 45% victory in the popular vote to be a strong showing and an easy win.  And this would have been true in 1860 as well.  However, when you bear in mind what I said at the outset of this post - when you consider the way we revere Lincoln today and consider him the greatest of our American presidents - it is downright staggering that he only managed to win 55% of the popular vote in his 1864 re-election campaign. 

Abraham Lincoln's presidency was a strange one.  His entire presidency was taken up by the Civil War - which started just a few months after he took office, and ended only a few weeks before he was assassinated.  He never had the chance to be a "normal" president and to work on the "normal" things that presidents work on.  Instead, his entire presidency was marred by a civil war between the states.  He was elected initially with less than 40% of the popular vote - making him one of the most un-wanted presidents in U.S. history.  The states of the south literally seceded from the union, precipitating the Civil War, in protest of his election.  He failed to garner the re-nomination of his own party when he ran for re-election in 1864 because they didn't think his views on slavery and racial integration went far enough.  And in that race, he won only 55% of the popular vote, even though the southern states didn't even get to vote in that election.  He only had 55% support from the states where he was most widely liked!  

This fact of history, of course, is an important one to keep in mind when evaluating modern presidents.  It would be fair to say that Abraham Lincoln, if evaluated solely on his popularity during his time in the White House, may have been the most divisive person to ever serve the office of the presidency.  The simple fact is, he was not very widely popular, and was absolutely detested by a significant portion of the American people.  This is important to remember when considering the highly divisive presidents who have served over the last 20 years or so.    


Anonymous said...

Well, you mentioned Clement Valladigham at least. :)

Funny how the Republicans are so quick to claim Lincoln now. How little people actually pay attention to historical fact. I'm tweeting this one. It was good.

Scott said...

Thanks, and I figured you'd like the Valladigham reference. That was pure serendipity, by the way. I came across him as I was researching this.

The fact that the Republicans failed to re-nominate Lincoln in 1864 should definitely be used against them whenever modern Republicans claim Lincoln as their own :)

Anonymous said...

I think this is a sign that you should not only write about Valladigham, but you should go to The Golden Lamb and sit up all night in the dark in the room where he accidentally shot and killed himself and tell me if he or Bloody Mary appears. :)

Trent N. said...

I guess it's no different than modern day Democrats claiming JFK as their own. Never mind that he tirelessly pushed for LOWER tax rates across the board to spur economic growth and led/escalated us into a war of choice that makes Iraq and Afghanistan absolutely pale in comparison. I would actually venture to say that JFK was to the right of G.W. Bush on the political spectrum, yet modern day Democrats claim him as one of their standard bearers.

Oh well. As a Libertarian I claim Thomas Paine.

Scott said...

It definitely works both ways, Trent.

As for Lincoln, I wouldn't use the Republican failure to renominate him against modern Republicans, because that would be ridiculous, but IF a modern Republican wants to parade Lincoln around as a way to support their own ideas, then I think it's fair to point out that Lincoln was no modern day Republican, and even the 1860's Republicans rejected him.

Mr D said...

I would hope historians would attempt to evaluate the people and thought in light of the times in which they lived. Your own study lead you to say that Lincoln was not re-nominated because his ideas did not go far enough to end slavery and give equality to the slaves. The tone of the comments seem to miss this important distinction and sink into petty partisanship.

Scott said...

Thanks for the comment, Mr. D, although I must say I disagree.

I was, actually, attempting to evaluate this situation in light of the era in which it took place. And the simple fact is that a significant number of Republicans believed Lincoln was too soft on the South in general and on slavery in particular. That's the reason the Radical Republicans split the party in 1864.