The word “campaign” has its origins in 17th-century battles, the term referring to an army’s field operations. By the beginning of the 19th century, “campaign” took on its current political meaning. And 150 years ago, it was aptly applied to both.
For on June 8, 1864, the delegates of the National Union Party, a hastily assembled group of Republicans and politicians known as War Democrats, gathered in Baltimore for its nominating convention. The Civil War Battle of the Wilderness was a month in the past, the Battle of Cold Harbor was coming to an end, the selection of Abraham Lincoln’s onetime top general, George B. McClellan, for the Democratic presidential nomination, nearly a dozen weeks off.
The two meanings of the word “campaign” converged in a calamitous way. The country was battered and bloodied. A year earlier Abraham Lincoln had elevated the war to a moral crusade, a fight now not only for Union but also for freedom. Yet the killing continued, as did slavery. Lincoln had reason to fear that holding the moral high ground might not ensure that he held the country — or that he would continue to hold the White House.
The convention’s opening prayer June 8 conveyed some of the delegates’ mood, speaking as it did of the “shackles of oppression” and “the light of freedom and of liberty.” The platform resolved “not to compromise with Rebels” and was uncompromising on slavery, describing it as the cause of the war and calling for its “utter and complete extirpation from the soil of the Republic.”
Everywhere on the floor there was brave talk but little confidence. You can read the proceedings today and be astonished at the high rhetoric. But you can thumb through the fourth volume of the Library of America’s anthology of letters and speeches from the war, this latest from the conflict’s last year, and you will be struck less by how the convention rhetoric soared than by how the national spirit plunged. America’s heart hurt, and the hurt reached the heart of America, in the Confederate states, of course, but in the North as well.
Today the name Leonard Swett, a Republican delegate from Illinois, is known only by Lincoln specialists. The lawyer, whose name was spelled Sweat in the official transcript of the convention, was a native of Maine who settled in Illinois and was drawn into Lincoln’s circle, by some accounts becoming his confidante, at least on political matters. He knew Lincoln wanted to be re-nominated and was “much more eager for it, than he was for the first one,” adding: “and yet from the first he discouraged all efforts on the part of his friends to obtain it.”
At the Baltimore convention, Swett rose to his feet and said, “Mr. Lincoln was our citizen, but when we gave him, then, to the country we felt that our claims upon him were relieved; and now, more than ever, we feel that this Convention, in re-nominating him, has nominated not especially the child of Illinois, but the favored child of this great nation.”
It was a run-on sentence, but a sentence to run on.
The Lincoln Papers include a manuscript that is not in Lincoln’s hand but that nonetheless quotes him saying he was gratified to have been deemed “not unworthy to remain in my present position.”
The double negative reflected his mood, and the country’s.
Shortly thereafter, a delegation from the convention descended upon the president, who said his re-nomination was less a “personal compliment” than a symbol of what he described as “a higher view of the interests of the country for the present and the great future.” Then he added:
“I have not permitted myself, gentlemen, to conclude that I am the best man in the country; but I am reminded, in this connection, of a story of an old Dutch farmer, who remarked to a companion once that it was ‘not best to swap horses when crossing streams.’”
And yet the stream Lincoln was crossing was perilous indeed and, by midsummer, no one, especially the president, had a clear view of the perilous twin campaigns ahead — one military, one political. In the White House, Swett asked the president if he expected to be re-elected. “Well,” Lincoln said, “I don’t think I ever heard of any man being elected to an office unless someone was for him.”
But it was not apparent that enough people were for him. On Aug. 22, Thurlow Weed, the prominent publisher and politico, wrote to Secretary of State William H. Seward that Lincoln couldn’t possibly be re-elected, as “People are wild for Peace.” In the entire 886 pages of the Library of America anthology, there is no document more poignant than this one, dated Aug. 23, 1864, written from the executive mansion and quoted here in its sorrowful entirety:
“This morning, as for some days past, it seems exceedingly probable that this Administration will not be re-elected. Then it will be my duty to so co-operate with the President-elect, as to save the Union between the election and the inauguration; as he will have secured his election on such ground that he can not possibly save it afterwards.”
It is signed: A. Lincoln.
Lincoln pressed this memo in half, passed it among members of his cabinet, and insisted they sign the folded piece of paper without reading it.
The campaign went on, in both senses of the word. The Union’s William Tecumseh Sherman entered Atlanta, the Confederacy’s Nathan Bedford Forrest mounted an attack on a Union supply base in Tennessee. The Democratic campaign that once called for an armistice shifted course as Sherman advanced and, as Election Day neared, the party’s core position — that Lincoln had presided over four years of failure — looked small-minded, and wrongheaded.
Lincoln took the November election, winning seven times as many states as McClellan and 10 times as many electoral votes. In one shining March moment the following year, he dedicated the country to “malice toward none” and “charity for all,” as powerful a legacy as his Emancipation Proclamation.
The next month the war ended and Lincoln was assassinated. America’s sadness marched on, along with this truth: Lincoln won three of the most important campaigns in the nation’s history, two for himself, one for the North, but really all of them for the country he served and helped define.
David M. Shribman is executive editor of the Post-Gazette (email@example.com, 412-263-1890).