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How the Union Pulled Off a Presidential Election During the Civil War

April 2, 2020 in History

By Becky Little

Fearing Lincoln would lose, some wondered if the country should delay the election.

The United States has never delayed a .

“[Lincoln thought] if you suspend democracy in the middle of the war, you are basically undercutting the whole purpose of the war,” he continues. “So even when he thought he was going to lose, he never really contemplated suspending the presidential election.” (Lincoln did, however, suspend the writ of habeas corpus and ignore a ruling by the Supreme Court’s chief justice that he didn’t have the authority to do so.)

Abraham Lincoln’s Wartime Run

Lincoln and Johnson’s 1864 campaign banner.

When Lincoln first ran for president in 1860, it was his Republican Party that had a stronghold in the north, and the Democratic Party that had found popularity in the south. When 11 southern states seceded to join the Confederacy, the Republican Party became the Union’s dominant political party. Even so, for the 1864 election, the Republican Party decided to join forces with some Democrats to form the National Union Party.

Despite concerns about Lincoln’s electability, the National Union backed him as its presidential candidate. Yet notably, Lincoln ditched his current Republican vice president to run with Andrew Johnson, a Democrat who had previously supported slavery, in an attempt to “balance the ticket.”

Meanwhile, a divided Democratic Party nominated George McClellan, a popular general who’d served in the Union Army. Lincoln’s campaign position was that there would be no ceasefire until the south rejoined the north and ended slavery. In contrast, McClellan said his only condition for ending the war would be that the Confederate states rejoined the Union.

Lincoln’s Opponents Launched Racist Campaign

A racist political cartoon depicting a fictional “Miscegenation Ball” at the Headquarters of the Lincoln Central Campaign Club, circa 1864.

Whether or not slavery continued—as well as the fate of black Americans—was not a priority for McClellan or the Democratic Party. And in the party’s attempt to win the votes of war-weary white northerners, it launched “probably the most racist presidential campaign in American history,” says David Goldfield, a history professor at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte and author of America Aflame: How the Civil War Created a Nation.

For example, one Democratic political cartoon exploited white Americans’ fears about interracial sex by depicting a fictional “Miscegenation Ball at the Headquarters of the Lincoln …read more


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