Presidential Politics in Early 1864: Lincoln’s Reelection Prospects Look Dim
January 17, 1864. 1864 was an election year, and like any candidate, even an incumbent president, Lincoln had to keep an eye on both of his political flanks. The Democrats continued to advocate for a negotiated peace with the South, certainly at the expense of the preservation of the Union and involving the continuation of slavery. After nearly three years of bloody war, particularly in a war that people initially thought would be brief, the prospect of peace was attractive to many.
Even within his own Republican party, there was some discussion about whether Lincoln could win reelection — if he were the nominee again. The radicals felt that the war was not being prosecuted vigorously enough, that Lincoln had not embraced emancipation and abolition enthusiastically enough, and that he was too gentle or generous with the South. The name most bandied about by the radicals was that of Salmon P. Chase, Lincoln’s Secretary of the Treasury, a man who had long hungered for the Presidency. When, in late February, his name was circulated publicly, Chase plead innocence and ignorance, but those assertions strained credibility. In early March Chase would publicly withdraw from consideration for his party’s nomination. So much for a challenge from within his own party to take the nomination away from him.
However, in late May, a group of Republican dissidents would form their own party, the Radical Democracy party, and nominate passionate anti-slavery advocate General John Charles Fremont for president. Abolitionist Wendell Phillips of Massachusetts endorsed Fremont.
In the fall election, Fremont would win no states; former general George McClellan, the Democrat’s peace candidate, would win only three — Delaware, New Jersey, and Kentucky. Lincoln, who ran not as a Republican, but under the National Union banner (in order to garner the support of war Democrats), would win 22.
Editor’s note: This entry was submitted by Peter A. Gilbert, Vermont Humanities Council, executive director