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The 1864 Presidential Election Previous Next
Digital History ID 3091


The 1864 presidential election was one of the most critical in American history. At stake was whether the war would end in unconditional surrender or a negotiated settlement, which might result in the preservation of slavery as a legal institution. Even though hundreds of thousands of slaves deserted to Union lines during the war, it is not at all inconceivable that slavery could have survived if the President had not been committed to emancipation. During the American Revolution a third of Georgia's slaves had been freed by the British, and tens of thousands of Virginia's slaves had escaped bondage. Nevertheless, slavery survived the revolutionary upheavals in the South, and soon began to flourish and expand. Similarly, slavery was temporarily reinstituted by the French in St. Domingue and greatly expanded in Guadeloupe, Martinique and other colonies despite the Haitian Revolution and the French emancipation decree of 1794.

In August 1864, Lincoln expressed his view in moving words. Observing that over 130,000 blacks were fighting to preserve the Union, he said that they were motivated by the "strongest motive...the promise of freedom. There have been men who proposed to me to return to slavery the black warriors. I would be damned in time & in eternity for so doing. The world shall know that I will keep my faith to friends and enemies, come what will."

Deeply anxious about the election's outcome, Republicans and pro-war Democrats formed the National Union Party, which re-nominated Lincoln and selected Andrew Johnson (1808-1875), a former Democratic Senator from Tennessee, for Vice President. Johnson replaced Lincoln's first Vice President, Hannibal Hamlin (1809-1891), a former U.S. Senator from Maine.

As their presidential nominee, the Democrats chose General George B. McClellan, who opposed the Emancipation Proclamation and who ran on a platform which condemned Lincoln for "four years of failure" and called for a negotiated end to the war.

Some Radical Republicans also opposed Lincoln's reelection. Lincoln had asked Congress to seat representatives from three recently conquered Confederate states--Arkansas, Louisiana, and Tennessee--and also announced that when 10 percent of the voters in the rebel states (excluding high Confederate officials) pledged loyalty to the Union (including government actions concerning slavery) they would be readmitted to the Union. Radicals denounced the "10 Percent Plan" as too lenient. Congress in July 1864 adopted a much more radical measure, the Wade-Davis Bill, which required rebel states to abolish slavery, repudiate the Confederate war debt, disfranchise Confederate leaders, and require fifty percent of the citizens to pledge loyalty to the Union. The radicals nominated General John C. Freemont for President, but he withdrew a month before the election.

Lincoln feared that northern battlefield victories might be lost at the polls. During the summer of 1864, he confessed, "it seems exceedingly probable that this administration will not be reelected." There seems little doubt that a McClellan victory would have resulted in an agreement to maintain slavery in the United States.

The capture of Atlanta, a major southern railroad and manufacturing center, in September, electrified northern voters, who gave Lincoln a resounding victory. He received 55 percent of the popular vote to just 21 percent for McClellan.

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