Lincoln Renominated: A Sesquicentennial Moment Missed

Sometimes the best way to test a hypothesis is to test it without telling anyone. My hypothesis was that there would be minimal attention paid in social media to the 150th anniversary of the renomination of Abraham Lincoln (and the vice presidential nomination of Andrew Johnson). Writing about Cold Harbor–and so many did that, although most of the accounts were predictable and a few settled for perpetuating myths and failing to set that battle in broader context–that Lincoln’s renomination on June 8 would go by with fairly little commentary.

Seems I was right.

To be sure, a few folks did notice the moment. And it was a moment worth noticing. Stan Haynes’s piece observed that the last time the incumbent won renomination was in 1840 (and Democrat Martin Van Buren lost). Incumbents John Tyler, Millard Fillmore, and Franklin Pierce all sought renomination, but they failed. Unlike them, Lincoln had worked hard to build a party machine loyal to him, especially at the expense of rival Salmon P. Chase, whose efforts at becoming the primary occupant of the White House unravelled early in 1864. By the time the Republicans met at Baltimore (the very city where Lincoln dodged an assassination plot back in 1861), the delegates were solidly behind the incumbent, with the exception of some twenty-two Missouri delegates who preferred the current general-in-chief, Ulysses S. Grant, to become commander-in-chief.

The vice-presidential slection remains a matter of discussion among scholars. Incumbent Hannibal Hamlin was in trouble, with many people believing that New York’s Daniel S. Dickinson was a suitable choice. However, it would be Andrew Johnson who secured the votes of 200 delegates, and various shifts in delegation support soon secured the nomination for the Tennessee tailor. Did Lincoln work for this outcome? The evidence is mixed. Did he keep his hands off? That seems doubtful. He had already indicated that Johnson was an acceptable choice. Given that Hamlin did not bear his boss’s endorsement, and that Dickinson’s selection would have placed in peril the continued participation of fellow New Yorker William H. Seward as secretary of state, it made some sense to turn to Johnson, a prewar Democrat who had been a staunch southern Unionist and an effective speaker as well as the military governor of Tennessee. After all, the Republicans ran in 1864 under the banner of the National Union Party in an effort to attract support from non-Republican voters. It’s not clear how successful that strategy was: nor would Johnson’s presence on the ticket earn votes from areas under military occupation.

The consequences of Johnson’s nomination are well-known. I’ve called Lincoln’s willingness to have him on the ticket his worst mistake. Yet most people have decided to overlook it (just as many people have overlooked the other campaigns of 1864 outside of the Overland Campaign).



4 thoughts on “Lincoln Renominated: A Sesquicentennial Moment Missed

  1. Steve June 13, 2014 / 5:51 am

    Civil War exhaustion. Just like the Overland Campaign gets the broad brush in the hurry to get to Sherman’s March, the political details get played down. Proof I suppose that the disconnect between the political and military spheres is still complete.

  2. Bert June 13, 2014 / 6:21 am

    Just a guess, but part of the problem may have been that being VP was a pretty unattractive job for anyone who already had even a little power or influence. IIRC, when Butler was sent feelers about interest in being Lincoln’s VP, he responded with a statement describing how utterly unattractive the job was, and (in a jest that turned out to be rather prophetic) that he’d only consider it if the president promised to die 3 months into his next term. The pool of people who might help the ticket and would actually accept the offer might have been fairly small.

    That being said, yes, it was still a mistake not to give more consideration to whether the VP choice would make a good president should that be necessary. Lincoln may have felt malice toward none, but he doesn’t strike me as someone so naive as to think there weren’t going to be a lot of folks with great malice toward him.

    Then again, could anyone have predicted that Johnson would be as bad a president as he turned out to be?

  3. Christopher Shelley June 13, 2014 / 9:48 am

    “Yet most people have decided to overlook it….Why?”

    I think the reason why is that most Civil War buffs (amateur and professional) don’t tend to be Reconstruction buffs. (Whoever heard of a Reconstruction buff?!) Reconstruction gets neatly sectioned off into its own neat chapter, separate from the war–which is exactly what most U.S. history textbooks do. And so the idea that Reconstruction really began in 1863 with the 10% Plan, or that nominating Johnson was part of that process, or that the Second Inaugural Address was a precursor to Lincoln’s view on Reconstruction (as Garry Wills argues) doesn’t enter into the public consciousness.

    This period isn’t my major field of history, and that limits the scope of books I’ve read on this. But I can think of very view academic historians who blend the two–who view the Civil War and Reconstruction as two sides of the same revolution.

    I would facetiously argue that Lincoln’s endorsement of Johnson was his second-worst mistake; going to the theater on April 14th was his worst.

    • Mark June 13, 2014 / 5:53 pm

      I agree with this, with the addition that since Reconstruction was bound to be messy, though not to say necessarily disastrous, people tend to assume that perhaps Johnson didn’t make that much difference to it. I’m with Brooks that this is misguided, but I think that may be the logic.

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