Without a doubt, one of the most notable US presidential elections in the history was the one held in 1864. Only 25 of the 38 states took part in the election, which was held in the midst of the American Civil War; three of those states—Kansas, West Virginia, and Nevada—had only recently joined the Union. Deep divisions existed between the two main political parties.
A segment of the Republican Party known as “Radicals” established a new party called the Radical Democracy Party because they felt that Abraham Lincoln was too moderate on the subject of slavery and race. They met in Cleveland, Ohio in May 1864, nominated John C. Fremont, and issued a program that called for constitutional modifications that would outlaw slavery, allow for the president to be elected directly, and restrict the officeholder to one term.
A week later, in Baltimore, the main Republican group met and nominated Lincoln for a second term. The party changed its name to the “National Union Party” in a bid to appeal to Democrats and moderates, and it nominated Tennessee Senator Andrew Johnson, a pro-Union Democrat, to be Lincoln’s running mate.
In particular, their platform endorsed Lincoln’s handling of the war, including the Emancipation Proclamation and the enlistment of black soldiers. It also called for continuing the war until the rebels unconditionally surrendered, supported a constitutional amendment outlawing slavery, encouraged and facilitated increased immigration from abroad, and supported government assistance for those left disabled or widowed by the war.
The Democratic party also experienced division. A significant group known as the “Copperheads” demanded an end to the conflict immediately, with reunion as the only prerequisite (thus leaving slavery intact). “War Democrats” inside the party opposed the Copperheads because they believed the war should go on until it was won.
In August, the Democrats gathered in Chicago to select their nominees and adopt a platform. The results they produced were indicative of the party’s division. They decided on the 37-year-old War Democrat and former commanding general of the Union army, George McClellan, who had been dismissed and succeeded by Lincoln 21 months previously, as their presidential candidate. Copperhead George Pendleton was the Democratic nominee for McClellan’s running mate.
The party adopted a Copperhead platform that further complicated political matters by rejecting what it saw as unconstitutional actions by the Lincoln administration, demanding the protection and preservation of states’ rights, avoiding any mention of slavery, and calling for an immediate cease-fire and a negotiated peace. However, McClellan refused to accept a position that termed the war “a failure” and believed that it should continue until the Confederate states either surrendered or were defeated. He also firmly opposed federal action on slavery and the Emancipation Proclamation. Thus, in an unprecedented move, McClellan accepted the party’s candidacy but rejected the platform.
Many people in the war-weary nation found McClellan to be an appealing choice. His campaign was centered on his assertion that Lincoln was an ineffective commander-in-chief and that only he (McClellan) could lead the nation to triumph. He enjoyed great support from the troops. Lincoln began to think he wouldn’t be re-elected by late August, when the Federal soldiers appeared to be stalled in Georgia and Virginia. Lincoln was disheartened that his blood and fortune had been squandered in an attempt to save the union, and he feared that if elected, McClellan would cave in to Copperhead’s demands.Because they were concerned about a Democratic triumph, Fremont and the Radicals withdrew from the contest and supported Lincoln.
However, as election day drew near, the Democratic Party’s support started to dwindle because of the Copperhead platform, which made it unpopular with many voters (including the great majority of troops) despite McClellan’s condemnation of it. When General William Tecumseh Sherman conquered Atlanta on September 2, demonstrating that the war was being won, the outcome of the election was decided.
Lincoln went on to easily win the election before being killed 41 days after taking office to complete his second term. In 1877, McClellan won the election for governor of New Jersey. He passed away at age 58 from a heart attack in 1885.
On August 31, 1864, General George B. McClellan received the Democratic Party’s presidential nomination.
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