Table of Contents
It was Lincoln’s life-long habit to keep himself close to the plain people. He loved them. He declared that the Lord must love them or he would not have made so many of them. Out of them he came, to them he belonged. In youth he was the perennial peacemaker and umpire of disputes in his rural neighborhood. When he was President the same people instinctively turned to him for help. The servants called him Old Abe,–from them a term of affection, not of indignity. The soldiers called him Father Abraham. He was glad to receive renowned politicians and prominent business men at the White House; he was more glad to see the plain people. When a farmer neighbor addressed him as “Mister President,” he said, “Call me Lincoln.” The friendship of these people rested him.
Then, too, he had a profound realization of their importance to the national prosperity. It was their instincts that constituted the national conscience. It was their votes that had elected him. It was their muskets that had defended the capital. It was on their loyalty that he counted for the ultimate triumph of the Union cause. As his administrative policy progressed it was his concern not to outstrip them so far as to lose their support. In other words, he was to lead them, not run away from them. His confidence in them was on the whole well founded, though there were times when the ground seemed to be slipping out from under him.
The middle portion of 1864 was one such period of discouragement. The material for volunteer soldiers was about exhausted, and it was becoming more and more necessary to depend upon the draft, and that measure caused much friction. The war had been long, costly, sorrowful. Grant was before Petersburg, Farragut at Mobile, and Sherman at Atlanta. The two first had no promise of immediate success, and as to the third it was a question whether he was not caught in his own trap. This prolongation of the war had a bad effect on the northern public.
Lincoln, shrewdly and fairly, analyzed the factions of loyal people as follows:
“We are in civil war. In such cases there always is a main question; but in this case that question is a perplexing compound–Union and slavery. It thus becomes a question not of two sides merely, but of at least four sides, even among those who are for the Union, saying nothing of those who are against it. Thus–
Those who are for the Union with, but not without, slavery;
Those for it without, but not with;
Those for it with or without, but prefer it with; and
Those for it with or without, but prefer it without.
Among these again is a subdivision of those who are for gradual, but not for immediate, and those who are for immediate, but not for gradual, extinction of slavery.”
One man who was in the political schemes of that day says that in Washington there were only three prominent politicians who were not seriously discontented with and opposed to Lincoln. The three named were Conkling, Sumner, and Wilson. Though there was undoubtedly a larger number who remained loyal to their chief, yet the discontent was general. The President himself felt this. Nicolay and Hay have published a note which impressively tells the sorrowful story:
“Executive Mansion, Washington, August 28, 1864.
This morning, as for some days past, it seems exceedingly probable that this administration will not be reelected. Then it will be my duty to so cooperate with the President-elect as to save the Union between the election and the inauguration, as he will have secured his election on such ground that he cannot possibly save it afterward.
Early in the year this discontent had broken out in a disagreeable and dangerous form. The malcontents were casting about to find a candidate who would defeat Lincoln. They first tried General Rosecrans, and from him they got an answer of no uncertain sound. “My place,” he declared, "is here. The country gave me my education, and so has a right to my military services.”
Their next attempt was Grant, with whom they fared no better. Then they tried Vice-President Hamlin who was certainly dissatisfied with the slowness with which Lincoln moved in the direction of abolition. But Hamlin would not be a candidate against his chief.
Then the Secretary of the Treasury, Chase, entered the race as a rival of Lincoln. When this became known, the President was urged by his friends to dismiss from the cabinet this secretary who was so far out of sympathy with the administration he was serving. He refused to do this so long as Chase did his official duties well, and when Chase offered to resign he told him there was no need of it. But the citizens of Ohio, of which state Chase had in 1860 been the “favorite son,” did not take the same view of the matter. Both legislature and mass meetings demanded his resignation so emphatically that he could not refuse. He did resign and was for a short time in private life. In December, 1864, Lincoln, in the full knowledge of the fact that during the summer Chase had done his utmost to injure him, nominated him as chief justice, and from him received his oath of office at his second inaugural.
The search for a rival for Lincoln was more successful when Fremont was solicited. He was nominated by a convention of extreme abolitionists that met in the city of Cleveland. But it soon became apparent that his following was insignificant, and he withdrew his name.
The regular republican convention was held in Baltimore, June 8, 1864. Lincoln’s name was presented, as in 1860, by the state of Illinois. On the first ballot he received every vote except those from the state of Missouri. When this was done, the Missouri delegates changed their votes and he was nominated unanimously.
In reply to congratulations, he said, “I do not allow myself to suppose that either the convention or the League have concluded to decide that I am either the greatest or best man in America, but rather that they have concluded that it is not best to swap horses while crossing the river, and have further concluded that I am not so poor a horse that they might not make a botch of it trying to swap.”
That homely figure of “swapping horses while crossing the river” caught the attention of the country. It is doubtful if ever a campaign speech, or any series of campaign speeches, was so effective in winning and holding votes as that one phrase.
But, as has already been said, the prospects during the summer,–for there was a period of five months from the nomination to the election, –were anything but cheering. At this crisis there developed a means of vigorous support which had not previously been estimated at its full value. In every loyal state there was a “war governor.” Upon these men the burdens of the war had rested so heavily that they understood, as they would not otherwise have understood, the superlative weight of cares that pressed on the President, and they saw more clearly than they otherwise could have seen, the danger in swapping horses while crossing the river. These war governors rallied with unanimity and with great earnestness to the support of the President. Other willing helpers were used. The plain people, as well as the leading patriots, rallied to the support of the President.
The democrats nominated McClellan on the general theory that the war was a failure. As election day approached, the increased vigor with which the war was prosecuted made it look less like a failure, even though success was not in sight. The result of the election was what in later days would be called a landslide. There were two hundred and thirty-three electors. Of this number two hundred and twelve were for Lincoln. The loyal North was back of him. He might now confidently gird himself for finishing the work.
Such was his kindliness of spirit that he was not unduly elated by success, and never, either in trial or achievement, did he become vindictive or revengeful. After the election he was serenaded, and in acknowledgment he made a little speech. Among other things he said, "Now that the election is over, may not all, having a common interest, reunite in a common effort to save our common country? For my own part, I have striven, and will strive, to place no obstacle in the way. So long as I have been here I have not willingly planted a thorn in any man’s bosom.”