The pundits have already weighed in on the fact that this November’s presidential election might be one of the most significant presidential elections in our country’s history. Indeed, the disparity in political ideologies and policies are beyond substantial between Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton. Time will tell as to this year’s election significance, but the context has gotten me to ask the question myself- “what was the most significant presidential election in United States history?”
The answer to this question is debatable, many elections have left indelible marks on America’s history. Two elections that immediately come to mind are the elections of 1800 and 1860 respectively. 1800 is significant because it was the first time in our country’s history that an opposing party won the presidency. Thomas Jefferson, a Democrat-Republican took the presidency from the incumbent Federalist John Adams. This transition from one party to the other went smooth and with very few issues; i.e. there was not violent unrest or subsequent challenge to our new constitution. 1860 was also extremely important because it was the election of Abraham Lincoln that drove many southern states to form secession conventions and draw up formal documents to secede from the union. Lincoln was not even on the ballot in many southern states. Abraham Lincoln taking the White House was the final straw for these southern states which consequently helped bring about the Civil War. And yet even possessing these brief explanations justifying their significances as well as the circumstances surrounding these elections, especially the election of 1860, neither are our country’s most significant. That title goes to the election of 1864.
For starters this election was the first time a modern republic attempted to hold a national presidential election in the midst of a civil war. That is truly unprecedented and on one level is the most compelling reason for making it our most significant. It is true that 1860 eventually took us to the war, but 1864 was during the war. A war I might add that split America and tested the integrity, ideals put forth and survival of our constitution.
By 1864 the Civil War was entering its fourth year with no end in sight to match its ever growing an appalling casualty numbers. For example, between May and July of 1864 the Army of the Potomac under recently appointed overall Union commander Ulysses S. Grant took over 60,000 casualties. 60,000 casualties! 60,000 casualties in two months, during a presidential election year no less. Imagine how the media would treat those casualty statistics today? Lincoln had attached his political future to the success of the Union armies on the battlefield and to commanders like Grant. 1864 was a brutal year for the war on both sides, a war that by this point had been reshaped by Lincoln to be no longer limited in scope but rather become a total war. This total war policy waged against the Confederacy now centered on complete military conquest, annihilation and destruction. Moreover, extend the war beyond the battlefields to the people of the South in the hopes of leaving southern societal institutions like slavery completely vanquished. None of this however was a guarantee or a sure thing for Abraham Lincoln. Through August of 1864 there was still a tremendous amount of uncertainty as to whether the Union would win the war, let alone Lincoln getting reelected. Political pressure to negotiate an end of the war was becoming more and more prodigious as war weariness began to set in throughout the North.
Lincoln’s challenger in 1864 was former Army of the Potomac commander George McClellan. McClellan, a Democrat, had a considerable amount of disdain for Lincoln and Washington politics as a whole. An extremely arrogant man, the only opinion that mattered to McClellan was his own. Sacked not once but twice as commander of the Army of the Potomac by Abraham Lincoln for his overt caution and reluctance to send in his army into battle, McClellan ran for the presidency while still on active duty. The presidential campaign of 1864 became a referendum on the war itself. McClellan maintained his support for the military, his desire to win the war and keep the union intact, however, he was not willing to destroy slavery in order to achieve this goal. The war was to be won on the battlefield- period. At issue with this stance was another powerful faction within the Democratic party which wanted the war to end immediately. Known as Copperheads, by 1864 their collective political voice had grown louder and more influential in calling for a negotiated peace with the Confederacy.
A lot was at stake in this presidential election, not to mention the fact that recent presidential history at the time did not favor incumbents like Lincoln. By Lincoln winning his reelection, he became the first incumbent to get reelected since Andrew Jackson did in 1832. A remarkable statistic. The North was willing to pay Lincoln’s asking price when it came to winning the war. Lincoln’s victory also underscored just how greatly divided the Democratic party was between McClellanites and Copperheads.
The most important event that led to Lincoln’s reelection was the taking of Atlanta, GA on September 2, 1864 by Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman. Up until this point the political winds were not favoring Lincoln due to a lack of military success in the Eastern theater of the war. Victory at Atlanta gave the Northern public hope and confidence in the administration’s war policy. It also became the launching point for Sherman’s “March to the Sea.” This Union offensive brought the war for the first time to the Southeastern interior of the Confederate heartland leaving utter destruction and hopelessness in its wake.
Had Sherman been delayed in taking Atlanta to after the November election there is good reason to believe that Lincoln may not have kept his presidency and the war would have ended through negotiation with the likelihood of slavery remaining intact. No other election in American history had so much on the line, not by a long shot.