Lincoln's Second Presidential Election

Despite doing his best to preserve the Union and bring the Southern states back into the fold, Lincoln almost wasn't re-elected in 1864. The public had grown weary of the war, especially the huge number of casualties and the tremendous amount of money required to keep the Union war machine rolling, and they placed blame for the whole mess squarely at Lincoln's feet. The Union had assumed the war would be over in a matter of months, and the longer it dragged on, the less support Lincoln had among the Northern states. So bleak did things look toward the end that Lincoln himself felt he would never win the Republican nomination for a second term. The frontrunner, at least for a while, appeared to be Salmon P. Chase, who had long held presidential aspirations.

The first federal paper money, printed under the Legal Tender Act of 1862, carried the image of Secretary of the Treasury Salmon P. Chase, who aspired to be president and saw the greenbacks as a multitude of tiny campaign posters. Sadly for Chase, his dream of living in the White House never materialized.

Indeed, Chase did all he could to undermine Lincoln's chances while bolstering his own. As secretary of the treasury, he surrounded himself with a cadre of high-ranking Republicans who believed they were the true power brokers, and he did all he could to curry their favor. However, Chase's bid for the White House was cut short early in the game when a clandestine attempt to remove Lincoln from the ticket and replace him with Chase became publicly known. The coup made Chase look disloyal to Lincoln, and Chase offered his resignation, which Lincoln accepted a few months later.

Despite growing public dissatisfaction with the war, Lincoln did receive his party's nomination; however, Vice President Hannibal Hamlin was replaced by Andrew Johnson, the Democratic governor of Tennessee. Republican leaders felt the addition of Johnson increased regional balance and improved Lincoln's chances of winning a second term. The party also temporarily changed its name to the Union Party.

Lincoln's greatest opponent in the 1864 election was George B. McClellan, who won the Democratic nomination during the party's convention in Chicago. The race had all the makings of a true grudge match; Lincoln and McClellan had clashed often during the early years of the war during McClellan's command of the Army of the Potomac. Lincoln had eventually fired McClellan over McClellan's frustrating reluctance to pursue the enemy. McClellan regarded Lincoln with disdain and never missed an opportunity to say so.

McClellan ran on a platform of peace that included a vow to end hostilities with the Confederacy, though personally McClellan believed the war should be continued until the Union won. He felt Lincoln had not proved himself an effective leader during the war, and he also had problems with Lincoln's policy of emancipation. Lincoln countered by portraying the Democratic Party — and its candidate — as disloyal to the Union, and he reiterated the need to preserve the Union at all costs.

“Neither party expected for the war the magnitude or the duration which it has already attained…. Each looked to an easier triumph and a result less fundamental and astounding. Both read the same Bible and pray to the same God, and each invokes His aid against the other…. The prayers of both could not be answered; that of neither have been answered fully.” — Abraham Lincoln, second inaugural address, March 4, 1865

One of the biggest thorns in Lincoln's side as the presidential race heated up was the lack of substantial Union victories. Increasingly, Lincoln's leadership and ability to control his fighting forces was called into question, and every Confederate victory was another nail in his political coffin. Newspaper editorials lambasted him at every turn, and his political foes rejoiced at every failure. But the race took a decided turn in Lincoln's favor when Sherman captured Atlanta and Farragut won the battle of Mobile Bay in late August. Suddenly, the Union was making decisive strikes against the Confederacy, and the end of the war seemed near.

Lincoln's star shone brighter than ever, and he soundly defeated McClellan. Lincoln received 55 percent of the popular vote, and his margin in the Electoral College was even more impressive — 212 to 21. McClellan had won only his home state of New Jersey and the border states of Kentucky and Delaware.

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