Guest Essayist: Professor Joerg Knipprath


When asked what might derail his agenda for his new Conservative Party government, former British Prime Minister Harold MacMillan is said to have responded, “Events, dear boy. Events.” That aptly describes how the political fortunes of war-time Presidents play out. It is surprisingly difficult for incumbent commanders-in-chief to win even if military campaigns are successful. True, Franklin Roosevelt won in 1944. But, even as the Allies were defeating the Axis powers, the popular Roosevelt won with the lowest percentage margin of victory of his campaigns. When elections occurred while the war effort appeared to be flagging, incumbents have fared badly. In 1952, as a result of the Korean War stalemate, President Harry Truman could not even win re-nomination by his own party, and the Democrats lost decisively. In a similar vein, in 1968, President Lyndon Johnson declined to pursue the Democratic Party nomination for re-election after the newscaster Walter Cronkite and other elements of the media turned the disastrous and strategic military defeat of the Viet Cong during the Tet offensive into a prevailing popular tale of American defeat.

It is, then, not surprising that Abraham Lincoln, running in 1864 for re-election during the bloodiest conflict in American history–and a war between Americans, to boot–faced a daunting task that would be shaped decisively and unpredictably by events. Unlike typical peacetime elections that are referenda on the incumbent and determined primarily by the state of the economy, the election of 1864 was a verdict on Lincoln’s war and security policies judged in light of the progress made on the ground against the Confederate States’ military.

Lincoln’s war-time policies have often been equated to a war dictatorship—and not just by unreconstructed admirers of the Southern struggle. To a degree, this is hyperbole, as Lincoln consistently sought Congressional support, and received it in droves. Sometimes, indeed, that support became unwanted meddling. The “Radical” faction of abolitionists foisted on Lincoln the Joint Committee on the Conduct of the War, which proved to be a constant thorn in the President’s side.

Yet, there was some truth to the “dictatorship” characterization of what was an unprecedented expansion of executive power. Without waiting for congressional authorization, Lincoln called for 75,000 volunteers to suppress the insurrection after the Confederate shore batteries fired on Fort Sumter. He ordered a blockade of Southern ports, an act equivalent to a declaration of war and at odds with the Union’s position that the South was not an independent belligerent but an area wracked by domestic insurrection. A month later, he unilaterally ordered increases in the sizes of the army and navy and ordered $2 million paid out of the Treasury for that purpose. He pledged the government’s credit for a quarter billion dollars. He unilaterally suspended the writ of habeas corpus in certain areas of the country. He ordered the military to arrest and detain citizens who were engaged in or contemplating “treasonable practices.”

In 1862, Lincoln extended the scope of these detentions and the suspension of the writ of habeas corpus to all persons discouraging enlistments, resisting the draft, or “guilty of any disloyal practice affording aid and comfort to rebels.” Such persons would be subject to martial law, and “liable to trial and punishment by courts martial or military commissions.” As Lincoln bluntly declared, these seemingly arbitrary arrests were preventive sweeps and were made “not so much for what has been done, as for what probably would be done.”

One such military arrest and trial was of former Ohio Democratic Congressman Clement Vallandigham, who had strongly challenged Lincoln’s conduct of the war and, according to witnesses at his trial, had even had the effrontery to call the President “King Lincoln.” For this agitation, he was sent to military prison and, eventually, expelled to the Confederacy. Though he remained there only a few months, his case aroused heated controversy in the North. Lincoln defended this action and his general policy of conducting the war under his concept of the “war constitution” in a long letter to a prominent Democrat, Erastus Corning, on June 12, 1863.

Lincoln relied heavily on his presidential oath to “preserve, protect and defend the Constitution,” as well as authority broadly implied from his own constitutional powers as chief executive and commander in chief. That noted, Congress approved Lincoln’s actions in the overall conduct of the war and in promoting internal security and order by adopting various laws to authorize (in many cases retroactively) the President’s actions. Whether such retroactive approval made Lincoln’s actions constitutional at the time they were taken is subject to debate, but Congress’s responses showed that Lincoln’s conduct was not bereft of popular support.

However politically controversial the constitutional niceties of Lincoln’s program might be, that paled in comparison to the political effect of the perceived progress of the war itself. The Democrats had scored a political victory in the 1862 congressional elections, in significant part due to the inability of the Union’s overwhelming advantage in manpower and industrial capacity to vanquish the Confederacy. The patriotic fervor that had gripped much of the North after the fall of Fort Sumter had faded and war weariness was setting in.

By 1864, success appeared even dimmer. Late spring through mid-summer was a lean time for Union Army successes. General William Tecumseh Sherman was halted in his march on Atlanta. General Ulysses S. Grant was bogged down in trench warfare against General Robert E. Lee after suffering significant losses in a failed attempt to capture the Confederate capital. Worst of all, Confederate General Jubal Early invaded Maryland and, on July 11, reached the District of Columbia. Though he was eventually pushed back after a battle the President witnessed from Fort Stevens within the District, Early’s exploit so strengthened anti-war sentiment in the North that a dump-Lincoln movement emerged in his own party.

Lincoln by that time was the nominee of the National Union Party. The Republicans temporarily adopted that name for the national party to accommodate pro-war Democrats and old Constitutional Union Party supporters from the border states. Lincoln’s vice-president, Hannibal Hamlin, a political ally of the Northern Radicals, was dropped from the ticket and replaced with Andrew Johnson, a pro-war and pro-Union Democrat who was then military governor of Tennessee. The platform strongly commended Lincoln, called for prosecution of the war until the South unconditionally surrendered, and demanded a constitutional amendment to abolish slavery. A break-away faction of Radicals calling themselves the Radical Democracy Party separately nominated John C. Fremont.

The Democrats chose General George McClellan, from the pro-war wing, and balanced that with Ohio Congressman George Pendleton, a “Copperhead” from the Radical Peace faction of the party. The party platform condemned the administration’s war effort and its domestic security policies and called for an immediate end to hostilities and a new convention of states to restore the Union. Sensing a future political debacle, McClellan rejected the platform.

That platform was largely the product of the Radicals led by Clement Vallandigham. Yes, that Vallandigham. After his expulsion to the Confederacy, Vallandigham was treated as an enemy alien by the Confederate government. Vallandigham then travelled to Bermuda and, from there, to Canada. While in Canada, Vallandigham became the Democrats’ nominee for governor of Ohio in 1863, but was defeated in the election. The following year, he slipped across the border and ended up as a delegate to the Democratic convention. Lincoln knew about Vallandigham’s capers, but chose to ignore the matter to avoid a repeat of the political tempest that had arisen from Lincoln’s earlier expulsion order. Vallandigham became an informal part of the Democratic ticket when he was put forth as–of all posts–the presumptive Secretary of War in a McClellan administration.

McClellan as nominee was a propitious choice. Lincoln had given him command of the Army of the Potomac in 1861 when McClellan was only 34 years old. He was handsome and had an engaging personality. He was intelligent, having graduated second in his class at West Point. He had excellent skills of organization and preparation, which helped immensely in training the Army of the Potomac. He was an able technical commander, whom Robert E. Lee after the war called his ablest opponent. Ulysses S. Grant was more reserved in judgment, declaring McClellan to be “one of the mysteries of the war.” The problem for Grant (and Lincoln) was that McClellan was cautious to a fault and failed, time and again, to press the war against the Confederates. Eventually, the general’s failure to act increased pressure on Lincoln to remove McClellan over time from his various commands. By the end of 1862, after the Battle of Antietam, McClellan was effectively sidelined when Lincoln transferred command of the Army of the Potomac to General Ambrose Burnside.

However, McClellan personally remained popular with the public and with his men, and the Democrats hoped that his nomination would obscure the influence of the “Copperhead” faction. McClellan viewed Lincoln with contempt, judging the President as unworthy of the office and referring to him disparagingly as a baboon and similar designations in his correspondence.

With the unresolved military situation, some Republicans sought a “do-over” to rescind Lincoln’s nomination. Prominent among those was Lincoln’s Treasury Secretary and future Chief Justice, Salmon P. Chase. Chase was one of the most prominent and powerful Republicans in the country. He longed to be president and was a failed nominee at the 1860 Republican convention. He was aligned with the Radicals, although he was ecumenical enough in his ambition for the office that he did an expedient about-face in 1868 and wooed the Democrats unsuccessfully at their convention. Foiled again, Chase helped form the Liberal Republican Party in 1872 as an alternative to Ulysses S. Grant and sought to become their nominee. Third time was not the charm for Chase, as he was passed over by his new party in favor of Horace Greeley, publisher of the New York Tribune.

A more direct attack on Lincoln came from Radicals chafing at Lincoln’s pocket veto of a Radical bill on harsh reconstruction of the South. Politicians and Greeley began a call for a new Republican convention to nominate General Benjamin Franklin Butler, a politically well-connected, but militarily incompetent, sometime ally of the Radicals.

Lincoln was so gloomy about his prospects in August, 1864, that he gave a sealed letter to his cabinet, to be opened only after the election. The letter read,

“It seems exceedingly probable that this administration will not be re-elected. Then it will be my duty so to co-operate 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.”

Suddenly and dramatically, the political calculus changed. Atlanta fell to Sherman. Union armies won significant victories in the Shenandoah Valley and at Mobile Bay, Alabama. Northern confidence rebounded. Fremont removed himself from the election and supported Lincoln, and Chase likewise then campaigned for the President. Despite having rejected his party’s “peace platform,” McClellan and the Democrats could gain little traction.

Demonstrating Harold MacMillan’s aphorism about the importance of chance “events” in shaping political outcomes, the election turned into a rout. With the Confederate states out of the picture, Lincoln received 55% of the popular vote. The military’s vote was even more lop-sided. Despite McClellan’s standing among the troops, the soldiers voted about 75% for their commander-in-chief. Lincoln carried 22 states in the Union for 212 electoral votes; McClellan carried 3 states for 21 electoral votes. Two Southern states under Union control, Louisiana and Tennessee, also voted for Lincoln, but their 17 electoral votes were not counted.

An expert on constitutional law, Prof. Joerg W. Knipprath has been interviewed by print and broadcast media on a number of related topics ranging from recent U.S. Supreme Court decisions to presidential succession. He has written opinion pieces and articles on business and securities law as well as constitutional issues, and has focused his more recent research on the effect of judicial review on the evolution of constitutional law. He has also spoken on business law and contemporary constitutional issues before professional and community forums. Read more from Professor Knipprath at:

1 reply
  1. Ralph T. Howarth, Jr.
    Ralph T. Howarth, Jr. says:

    I think it is safe to say that every American president has been charged a “king” at some point during their presidency from some corner of the entire expanse of the union…at one point or another; albeit, some much more than others.


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