Among the points of genius in the U.S. Constitution is the system of electing members to the House of Representatives every two years. This has often proved a check on the power of the party holding the White House or the Senate. Off-year elections (a phrase not coined till 1906, but ever important) have in the last couple of decades got the reputation of always going against the President’s party. It’s not quite true, but for Lincoln, it did prove true. Why?
In the fall of 1860, Republicans won a majority of House seats, and southern secession quickly raised that majority appreciably. Lincoln could count upon 108 Republicans as well as a fair number of the 40 northern Democrats who remained. (Some members still called themselves Whigs, soon an obsolescent term.) Yet in Illinois, Douglasites remained supreme: Illinois sent 5 Democrats and 4 Republicans to the House.
In autumn 1862, Lincoln’s emancipation policy was in some places more unpopular than his administration’s poor management of the war; or, depending upon the county surveyed, vice-versa. Either way, Republicans lost 22 of their 108 House seats, while Democrats gained 28 (independents, etc., accounting for the gap). The Republican Speaker of the House lost his seat, Galusha Grow of Pennsylvania – a manufacturing state which in 1860 Lincoln had carefully plied and won with protective-tariff promises but which now trended anti-war. Probably the most anti-war Northern state, New York, elected an anti-war Democrat as governor, and so did Ohio. In Pennsylvania and Indiana, the Democrats took control of the state legislature. Two dozen pro-war Democrats in the House did bolster Lincoln’s view that theirs was a national cause, a cause for Union, and not a party affair. Yet once again, Lincoln heard Illinois shout against his war and his party. After redistricting based on the 1860 census added 5 House seats, Illinois in 1862 sent 9 Democrats and 5 Republicans.
A few days later Lincoln wrote to German-American general Carl Schurz, “We have lost the elections. … Three main causes told the whole story. 1. The democrats were left in a majority by our friends going to the war. 2. The democrats observed this & determined to re-instate themselves in power, and 3. Our newspaper’s, by vilifying and disparaging the administration, furnished them all the weapons to do it with. Certainly, the ill-success of the war had much to do with this.” (Collected Works, 5: 493-494). Two days later, Interior Secretary Caleb Smith asked to be relieved of office.
Had Lincoln prepared the field for the off-year elections? Not in the way we might expect today, for instead of compromising with his opponents in hopes of holding the middle ground, he bowed to his radical wing’s long-term demand, and his own growing feeling, for an emancipation policy. With the Illinois Democrats so riven that 40 of the 102 counties refused to send delegates to their state convention in September, Lincoln sent Ward Hill Lamon from Washington, D.C., to Springfield, to try to shore up Republican support. But roughneck Lamon was no silver-tongued winner of skeptics, and they were not even called Republicans in Illinois that year. The pol’s had changed their name to the Union party – almost 2 years before the national party did. When the 1862 votes came in, Lincoln’s oldest friend in the state, and 2nd bunkmate, William Butler, had been defeated in his re-election bid as state treasurer. Or should we call John T. Stuart his oldest friend, he who lent him law books from at least 1833? Perhaps – but Stuart ran for Congress as an ‘independent’ from the Springfield district, against Lincoln’s 1860 election co-manager Leonard Swett, and beat him. Just what is an independent, in that day or this? Someone who runs against old friends.
The crown of ‘oldest intimate friend’ in fact belonged to Joshua Speed. As late as June 1862 Lincoln was responding positively to a petition co-signed by Speed to release a Kentucky man indicted for treason; and in mid-September – crunch-time in electoral terms – to a request by the governor of Kentucky, and Speed, to stop letting the Union military arrest men in that state, turning over the power to the governor himself. Lincoln needed Kentucky, which is to say, he needed friends there, even pro-slavery men like Speed. But he needed Republicans elected in Illinois and the rest of the North even more.
A clearer sign of his lack of political savvy in 1862 is seen in his letter to Schurz, where Lincoln focused on absent soldier-voters and a spiteful press, and overlooked the public’s distrust of what he prized most, emancipation. (He also overlooked the hit caused by the nation’s first Income Tax, begun that year, and the dubious advent of the greenback.) Six days after announcing his timeless, vote-losing Proclamation, he had ruefully deflected Vice President Hamlin’s plaudits thus: “the stocks have declined, and troops come forward more slowly than ever. … The North responds to the proclamation sufficiently in breath; but breath alone kills no rebels.” (CW, 5: 444) So, weakened politically, he ended his year with the military edict that ended slavery in rebel territory. Votes mattered less to Lincoln than a long-term goal reached through short-term force, to wit, military plus emancipatory progress.
Can it also be said that Lincoln let down the team visually? He did not have a photographic portrait of himself made in all of 1862. Indeed, the evidence today is that he visited no photographer between September 1861 and April 1863 (except when he posed with General McClellan and others at Antietam in October 1862, in outdoor ‘at work’ shots). The usual explanation for his absence from a studio is that Willie Lincoln’s death in February 1862 left him downcast and overworried. The modern pollster might suspect that new images of Lincoln would do nothing for other Republicans running for office that year.
Vindication came in 1864 with Lincoln’s re-election. He exerted himself to arrange for soldiers to get home to vote, something he had not pressed in 1862. Now Illinois Republicans – running on the nationally approved ticket as the National Union Party – sent 12 Union men to the House, against only 2 Democrats, while the national sweep was nearly as strong. And Lincoln left us post-election proof of how politically attuned he was after all, in his scrupulous notes of state-by-state voting (see image). Even in a contest that seemed clearly his by early September 1864, he wanted to see how little or how much each state favored him. The war had been effectively won by Grant and Sherman, with help from black soldiers, so Lincoln could get back to counting votes.
No less astute a scholar than James G. Randall of the University of Illinois, a Democrat, pointed out to the American Historical Association annual meeting in 1934 that in the long run, John C. Frémont’s followers had won in 1864. Frémont briefly ran for the presidency as an abolitionist Radical that year, but dropped out of the race, regretting that Lincoln’s rule was “physically, militarily, and financially a failure.” It was those radicals who seized the reins in Congress after 15 April 1865 and rode the vanquished South hard. Randall’s point is sound; but Lincoln’s 1862 pursuit of both war and emancipation led to successes immeasurable on Election Day.