We are now upon the 150th anniversary of the Democratic presidential convention of 1864. That convention nominated George McClellan and George Pendleton of Ohio as the Democratic ticket on a platform framed largely by Copperheads such as the recently-returned Clement Vallandigham.
Could the Democrats have done better? Tell me how. I wonder how the platform could have been different. Could Democrats have reached out to recover more members of their party by passing a more moderate platform on the conduct of the war without alienating the peace wing of the party (which, after all, had nowhere else to go unless it wanted to see a divided Democracy hand the fall contest to Lincoln). Was there a better choice than McClellan? You tell me.
Great question. Not only were the Democrats split between War Democrats and Peace Democrats but the Peace Democrats were also split between Horatio Seymour who urged a negotiated peace and Thomas Seymour who simply declared the war a failure. Others nominated were Lazarus Powell of Kentucky and Franklin Pierce (former President) from New Hampshire. Both declined. Powell??? So I think the question really should be “Was there a better War Democrat than McClellan?” I can’t think of any leading War Democrats other than Andrew Johnson of Tennessee and John Brough of Ohio. And I don’t think either one could have been elected. McClellan was the only logical choice, if for no other reason than name recognition.
Perhaps the Democrats problem was the bottom of the ticket. Keep McClellan but add W. S. Hancock as VP nominee. Drop the peace at any price plank and you have at least a chance.
I don’t think there was a serious alternative to McClellan as nominee, but they sure as hell could have done a better job keeping the loonies under control. The platform put them in the position of almost running against the troops, and that is rarely a good idea. If they had run against emancipation, alone, they might have done much better.
There was no good choice for the Democrats in 1864 any more than there was a good one for the Republicans in 1944. For me the interesting speculation is what would have happened if McClellan (and Dewey, for that matter) had been smart enough to decline the nomination “in the name of national unity”. Their heroic self-sacrifice would have given the each of them a real advantage. There is no question in my mind that McClellan would have done even better with white Northern voters than Seymour did; the question of loyalty to the Union would not have been a campaign issue.
I don’t know nearly enough about who was available and “runnable” other than McClellan, who at least had the advantage of saying he’d fought for the Union rather than being a treasonous poser like Vallandigham and the rest of the Copperhead crew. As for the platform, I wonder whether timing would have made a difference. That was put together before Atlanta and events in the Valley. It’s astonishing how quickly the war tables were turned a a matter of weeks.
I’m not sure there was much that the Democrats could have done on their own to improve their chances (although not having Pendleton on the ticket would have helped some, particularly with the soldier vote), but the Democrats might have done better had Fremont remained in the race as a candidate of the Radical Democracy Party, which was actually the radical wing of the Republican Party. He had significant appeal from the radical Republican wing, which had supported Fremont’s Emancipation Order in 1861 and was still unhappy about Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation, which did not free slaves in the Border States. And Fremont had enormous following among the German communities, which might have taken some votes from Lincoln in Pennsylvania and New York in particular. Lincoln’s advisors scrambled to entice Fremont out of the field for that very reason, but it may have been Fremont’s wife Jessie who engineered his withdrawal, by arranging for John Greenleaf Whittier, a close friend and long admirer of Fremont, to make a rare trip from his home to the Fremont’s to make a personal appeal for his withdrawal. It was not too long after that, that Fremont withdrew from the race. Of course, the Democrats might also have done better had not Sherman, Sheridan, and Farragut triumphed in Atlanta, the Shenandoah Valley, and Mobile Bay around that time, too.
My understanding is that the Peace Democrats demanded that they write the platform and they would accede to the War Democrats’ nominating McClellan. They would probably make the same demand of anyone the War Democrats would want to nominate. I don’t know that there was a “moderate” Democrat who could unite the two wings of the party. If the Peace Democrats nominated someone the War Democrats may have wanted to write the platform, if they even would have accepted the nominee, as McClellan was a good choice because he was fairly well inoculated from the charge of being a traitor, of which the Peace Democrats were vulnerable.
I don’t know if there was any better candidate for the Democrats than McClellan.
As for the platform, I letting the Copperheads craft it was a fatal mistake, especially since it was unraveled by events like the fall of Atlanta. It would seem a more effective platform would be one that appeals to conservatives and racists rather than simply war-weariness: a promise to rescind the Emancipation Proclamation and not require the seceded states to abolish slavery as a condition of readmission to the Union. McClellan would fit that platform well (instead of being so disconnected with the platform he historically got) and it would have much wider appeal without relying on defeatism. It probably still doesn’t win the election or lead to seceding states voluntarily returning (not to mention the moral issues behind it) but it would seem much more effective to me.
Seems like there must be a better choice than McC. The best I can come up with is Joel Parker. Maybe a Parker/Powell ticket and lose the second paragraph of the platform. Problem is that even considering this to be a better ticket, I dont see much change in the overall outcome.
Short actually digging up the whiskey-embalmed carcass of Stephen Douglas or the skeletal remains of Andrew Jackson, Little Mac was probably the best they could do. And I doubt that either of the reanimated zombies would have agreed to run on the peace platform.