Abraham Lincoln: The Great Campaigner

October 22nd, 2012

Writing at The Daily Beast, Sidney Blumenthal, a former senior adviser to President Clinton and author of the forthcoming book The Man Who Became Abraham Lincoln: How He Won the Civil War and Was Assassinated, describes the political aptitude of our nation’s 16th president, remarking that “lifting Lincoln above the fray doesn’t remove him from politics. While the political Lincoln may be difficult for us to acknowledge at a time when politics and partisan commitments are widely denigrated, Lincoln’s presidency demonstrates that partisanship and political ruthlessness can be used to advance the highest ideals.”

“The mythology of Lincoln as too noble for politics,” Blumenthal notes, “began at the moment of his death, with his body sprawled across a small bed in a house across from Ford’s Theatre, where he was shot. At the president’s last breath, Secretary of War Edwin Stanton famously pronounced, ‘Now he belongs to the ages.'”

But, Blumenthal continues, Lincoln, though a man for the ages, used the political system to accomplish his higher ideals. As Charles A Dana, Lincoln’s assistant secretary of war commented, “Lincoln was a supreme politician […] He understood politics because he understood human nature.”

Lincoln knew from experience that great change required a thousand small political acts. Never did he apply his granular political skills more cleverly and effectively than during his reelection campaign and the fight to secure passage of the 13th Amendment. His feat was all the more remarkable for having been set in motion during what looked to be the nadir of his presidency, when his reelection seemed almost impossible.“This morning, as for some days past, it seems exceedingly probable that this administration will not be reelected,” Lincoln wrote to himself on Aug. 23, 1864. […]

If Lincoln lost the coming election, he expected the Confederacy would be recognized as a separate nation, the Emancipation Proclamation freeing its slaves rescinded, and the projected amendment to the Constitution to abolish slavery once and for all abandoned. Hundreds of thousands would have been killed and wounded as the price of defeat. Lincoln’s own personal losses since coming to Washington had been devastating enough. The first Union officer killed in the war, his Springfield law clerk Elmer Ellsworth, was shot through the heart after taking down a Confederate flag waving above an Alexandria, Va., tavern. “My boy! My boy!” Lincoln cried upon hearing the news. “Was it necessary this sacrifice should be made?” He insisted that Ellsworth’s body lay in state in the White House. A few months later, Lincoln’s best friend from Illinois, Sen. Edward Baker, was killed in the botched Battle of Ball’s Bluff. Then, in February 1862, Lincoln’s 11-year-old son, Willie, died of typhus. Mary Todd Lincoln sequestered herself in deepest mourning in the upper story of the White House for nearly a year.

Lincoln had begun his reelection year with high hopes of winning the war and enacting the 13th Amendment. In April the Senate voted in favor: “Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude … shall exist within the United States …” Though the House of Representatives fell short of the required two-thirds majority, Lincoln was not discouraged. His handling of the Emancipation Proclamation—waiting to announce it after a military victory, the Battle of Antietam—gave him a blueprint. He understood that he had to bring the public along through events to build momentum for change. He was playing a long game. Lincoln believed that the abolition of slavery required a constitutional amendment and that the Proclamation was merely a temporary measure justified by military necessity. The Constitution enshrined slavery, and the Supreme Court had upheld it long before the infamous Dred Scott decision of 1857 that ruled that blacks were “so far inferior that they had no rights which the white man was bound to respect.” At the convention that nominated him as a candidate for a second term, in June 1864, Lincoln operated behind the scenes, instructing that the 13th Amendment be the subject of the keynote address and be treated as the “keystone” of the Republican Party platform […]
But Lincoln knew that such efforts would come to nothing if he lost the election—and that he would likely lose if the war continued to go badly for the North. In Ulysses S. Grant, Lincoln had at last found the general in chief who would go on to win the war after a succession of arrogant, incompetent, and dilatory commanders. Yet within six bloody weeks, from May 5 to June 12, the Army suffered about 65,000 casualties, the equivalent today of about 880,000 killed and wounded. In a frontal assault on Confederate lines on June 2 at the Battle of Cold Harbor, more than 7,000 men, who had pinned their names on their backs expecting to be killed, fell in less than 10 minutes. Hospitals overflowed with the wounded. One nurse in the Washington hospitals, Walt Whitman, suffered a nervous breakdown. He described the triage in the wards: the “worst cases get little or no attention. We receive them here with their wounds full of worms … Many of the amputations have to be done over again … many of the poor afflicted young men are crazy … it is perhaps a privilege that they are out of their senses.” “O years and graves!” Whitman wrote.
Lincoln knew that to abolish slavery once and for all, more worldly means than prayer would be required. Congressman James S. Rollins, one of the largest slave owners in Missouri and an adamant opponent of the Emancipation Proclamation, was sitting at his desk on the floor of the House when he received an invitation from Lincoln, written in pencil. “Rollins,” he said, “I have been wanting to talk to you for some time about the 13th Amendment.” When Rollins arrived at the White House, Lincoln waxed nostalgic about old political times before beginning his pitch for the amendment. Rollins replied that he had decided to vote for it immediately after the election result. Lincoln wasted no time, running down a list of undecided congressmen from Missouri and assigning Rollins the task of persuading them to join their side. “Tell them of my anxiety,” he said. To provide an incentive, Lincoln kept vacant a federal judgeship in Missouri, whose appointment would be influenced by one of those voting in favor of the amendment.
The list of political favors paid out didn’t end there. Congressman Alexander Coffroth, a Pennsylvania Democrat, had won reelection so narrowly that Republicans were challenging the outcome. But opposition to Coffroth taking his seat miraculously disappeared as soon as he voted in favor of the amendment. Shortly after Democratic Congressman Moses Odell of New York came out in favor of the amendment, Lincoln named him the new naval agent for his home state. Congressman George Yeaman of Kentucky, who had introduced a resolution denouncing the Emancipation Proclamation as “an assumption of power dangerous to the rights of citizens,” announced his support for the amendment and was soon appointed minister to Denmark.
The formal debate lasted almost three weeks, with the final vote scheduled for Jan. 31. “The galleries, corridors, and lobbies were crowded to the doors, and the reporters’ gallery was invaded by a mob of well-dressed women, who for a time usurped the place of the newspaper men,” reported Noah Brooks. Five Supreme Court justices marched onto the floor to observe, led by the newly appointed Chief Justice Salmon P. Chase, Lincoln’s former secretary of the Treasury, a political rival who had tried to deny him a second nomination but whom Lincoln named to the court as an unbending abolitionist to sustain the amendment. Dozens of senators and members of the cabinet filled the chamber. Every Republican voted for the measure, 16 Democrats (five from New York), with eight Democrats strangely -absent—two votes more than the two-thirds majority needed. “Then,” wrote an observer, “there was an explosion, a storm of cheers, the like of which probably no Congress of the United States ever heard before. Strong men embraced each other with tears. The galleries and aisles were bristling with standing, cheering crowds.” […] “The greatest measure of the nineteenth century,” Thaddeus Stevens, the Radical Republican congressman of Pennsylvania confided to a friend, “was passed by corruption, aided and abetted by the purest man in America.”

As you read the rest of Blumenthal’s account, consider the relationship between the ideals of the American political process and politics as practiced. Do you agree with Otto von Bismarck’s famous remark that “politics is the art of the possible”? Or, as Harvey Mansfield put it at our conference in February celebrating George Washington’s birthday: “We will not always have George Washington. This is my favorite statement in the Federalist: ‘An enlightened statesman will not always be at the helm.’ They are now, but they won’t always be. The question arises: Is it better to follow George Washington, like most presidents do, showing the modest wisdom of showing one is not wise, or is it better to imitate Abraham Lincoln, whom we also celebrate?”

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