Despite presiding over the bloody and tumultuous Civil War, President Abraham Lincoln never tried to postpone either the 1862 midterm elections (in which his Republican Party lost seats in Congress) or the 1864 presidential election. 

“We cannot have free government without elections,” he explained, “and if the rebellion could force us to forego or postpone a national election, it might fairly claim to have already conquered and ruined us.”

Fealty to democracy, however, did not automatically endear him to voters, and his popularity waned as the twin victories at Vicksburg and Gettysburg became ever more distant. Critics particularly blasted a spring 1864 invasion of Virginia, when General Ulysses S. Grant’s force suffered so many casualties in such a short period that even Lincoln’s wife referred to him by the unflattering nickname, “the Butcher.” “The dissatisfaction with Mr. Lincoln grows to abhorrence,” an opponent wrote around that time.

Knowing that no president had won a second term since Andrew Jackson in 1832, challengers to Lincoln popped up both within the Republican Party and outside it. His own treasury secretary, Salmon P. Chase, began covertly campaigning against him as early as December 1863, garnering the support of several Republican congressmen who likewise believed in more aggressive measures to end slavery, use Black troops and implement Southern reconstruction. Chase soon was forced to drop out, done in by the release of two anti-Lincoln pamphlets that caused a public backlash against his candidacy.

Campaign poster depicting the Democratic ticket led by George McClellan
Campaign poster depicting the Democratic ticket led by George McClellan

A few hundred Republicans unhappy with Lincoln, including abolitionist Frederick Douglass and suffragist Elizabeth Cady Stanton, next decided to form their own party, which they named Radical Democracy. Meeting in Cleveland in May 1864, they nominated for president General John C. Frémont, who had freed the slaves owned by Missouri rebels in 1861—well before the Emancipation Proclamation— only to be overturned by the White House. Among other things, the Radical Democracy Party called for equality regardless of race and confiscation of Confederate property.

Another, larger threat came from the Democrats, who mercilessly lambasted the military draft and emancipation of enslaved people, while also accusing Lincoln of violating civil liberties and strategically mismanaging the war. As part of their party platform, approved in late August at their convention in Chicago, they even called for a settlement with the Confederacy. 

“After four years of failure to restore the Union by the experiment of war,” the platform stated, “justice, humanity, liberty and the public welfare demand that immediate efforts be made for a cessation of hostilities.”

For their presidential nominee, the Democrats chose George B. McClellan, Lincoln’s notoriously cautious former general-in-chief of the army who had been fired after failing to pursue the retreating Confederates from Antietam in 1862. An able organizer and trainer of troops, McClellan held a personal grudge against Lincoln. Yet he refused to endorse his party’s peace platform, writing that he “could not look in the face of my gallant comrades … and tell them that their labors and the sacrifices of so many of our slain and wounded brethren had been in vain.”

Hoping to broaden his appeal among Democrats, Lincoln ran on the so-called National Unity ticket instead of as a Republican. At its convention in Baltimore, the party selected him a new running mate, rejecting Vice President Hannibal Hamlin in favor of Andrew Johnson, the Democratic governor of Union-occupied Tennessee. At the same time, it stole some of Frémont’s thunder by supporting a constitutional amendment to ban slavery and by insisting on the South’s unconditional surrender.

Anti-Lincoln campaign pamphlet
Anti-Lincoln campaign pamphlet

Nonetheless, Lincoln did not like his prospects, having received a number of pessimistic reports from political insiders. “I am going to be beaten … and unless some great change takes place, badly beaten,” he purportedly told a White House visitor. Reiterating on August 23 that defeat appeared “exceedingly probable,” he made the members of his cabinet sign a pledge to cooperate with the new president-elect to save the Union before the inauguration.

Just a week-and-a-half later, General William T. Sherman captured Atlanta, and this was followed up by a major Union victory in Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley. Suddenly, with the Confederacy on the ropes, the Democratic platform seemed harebrained. Meanwhile, Lincoln received an added boost when the foundering Frémont withdrew from the race.

In keeping with the protocol of the era, neither Lincoln nor McClellan openly campaigned for the nation’s highest office. But their supporters let the vitriol fly, with Republicans attacking the Democrats as essentially traitorous, and with the Democrats playing on fears of racial intermingling. One prominent anti-Lincoln cartoon, for example, depicted white men dancing at a ball with Black women.

Citizens went to the polls on November 8, re-electing Lincoln with 55 percent of the popular vote. He won 22 states and 212 electoral votes, whereas McClellan triumphed in only Kentucky, New Jersey and Delaware (for a total of 21 electoral votes). Notably, Lincoln received overwhelming support from the men in uniform, who voted by absentee ballot or by traveling home on furlough. 

“The election having passed off quietly, no bloodshed or riot throughout the land, is a victory worth more to the country than a battle won,” Grant wrote afterwards. Indeed, with Lincoln at the helm, the Confederacy collapsed the following April.