The last temptation of Abraham Lincoln

Joel Achenbach (c) 2014, The Washington Post. In the grim summer of 1864, with the Civil War in its fourth year and seemingly stalemated, the smartest minds in American politics came to the realization that there was no chance that President Abraham Lincoln would be reelected.

Even Lincoln had lost all hope.

“You think I don’t know I am going to be beaten, but I do, and unless some great change takes place, beaten badly,” he told a fellow Republican.

On Aug. 23, he committed his pessimism to paper.

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“This morning, as for some days past, it seems exceedingly probable that this Administration will not be re-elected. Then it will be my duty to so 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 can not possibly save it afterwards.”

Lincoln folded the memorandum and elaborately sealed it, then asked the members of his Cabinet to sign the back of the paper without reading it. This oddly theatrical gesture would forever remain a bit enigmatic. One plausible interpretation is that he thought the memorandum would be politically useful after the election, but he didn’t want word to get out that he already was making contingency plans for his defeat.

The astounding duration and carnage of the war had made the Northern citizenry “wild for peace,” declared Thurlow Weed, a prominent Republican who, had he lived in a later age, surely would have been a ubiquitous pundit on Sunday morning talk shows.

Weed informed Secretary of State William Seward that Lincoln’s reelection was “an impossibility.”

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Political allies of Lincoln began plotting to force him to withdraw so they could nominate a candidate with better prospects. Radical Republicans, who despised Lincoln for his political moderation, were poised to back Gen. John C. Fremont’s third-party candidacy. Lincoln’s political enemies in the Capitol were on the verge of calling for his impeachment.

And those were just his fellow Republicans. The Democrats hated him more. As the telegraph wires hummed with woeful bulletins from the battlefields, the pro-slavery, white-supremacist “peace” wing of the Democratic Party — the “Copperheads,” as their critics called them — gained strength.

The presidential election Nov. 8 would serve as a referendum on the war. At stake was not merely Lincoln’s continued occupation of the White House, but the fate of millions of African-Americans held in Southern bondage.

Slavery was, as Lincoln said later, “somehow the cause of the war,” but to forge an alliance of Republicans and northern Democrats, he initially had insisted that his only goal in prosecuting the war was to restore the Union.

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When Lincoln drafted the Emancipation Proclamation in 1862, he made the argument that it was a military necessity first and foremost. Abolition would drain strength from the Rebels as blacks escaped to freedom or as Union forces conquered Rebel territory. Lincoln’s emancipation order applied only to the rebellious states, leaving slavery intact in the loyal border states.

By the summer of 1864, the Union war machine included, by Lincoln’s estimate, close to 150,000 black soldiers, sailors and laborers.

“There have been men who have proposed to me to return to slavery the black warriors of Port Hudson and Olustee to their masters to conciliate the South,” Lincoln told two visitors to the White House. “I should be damned in time and in eternity for so doing.”

In a later letter that he decided not to send, he said the Union military needed the might of its black fighters, and added, “Nor is it possible for any administration to retain the service of these people with the express or implied understanding that upon the first convenient occasion they are to be re-enslaved. It can not be, and it ought not to be.”

But even his allies questioned whether he had gone too far in making the war about abolition rather than simply the restoration of the Union. Lincoln faced pressure to cut a deal.

It was tempting.

In July, he had given a letter to Horace Greeley, an opponent of slavery who planned to meet with Confederate agents, listing as the conditions for any peace “the integrity of the whole Union, and the abandonment of Slavery.” Then in mid-August, after a northern politician questioned the president’s insistence on abolition as a condition for peace, Lincoln drafted a letter that suggested that he remained flexible on the issue, and that ended with a sentence that would remain the subject of historical debate a century and a half later:

“If Jefferson Davis wishes, for himself, or for the benefit of his friends at the North, to know what I would do if he were to offer peace and re-union, saying nothing about slavery, let him try me.”

But Lincoln did not mail the letter yet. He knew it would be published in newspapers and widely discussed. He wanted to talk it over with Frederick Douglass.

Douglass, an abolitionist and former slave, came to the White House and, after reviewing the letter, persuaded the president not to send it.

Historian Jonathan White, author of “Emancipation, the Union Army, and the Reelection of Abraham Lincoln,” says Lincoln knew that Davis would never agree to restoring the Union. Davis and the Southern leaders wanted permanent independence. There was never a deal to be had.

Thus Lincoln probably was being characteristically crafty: His suggestion of flexibility would not have been aimed at the Rebel leaders, but at his allies in the North who threatened to pull their support from the war effort.

Lincoln understood that peace would be reached only on the far side of the battlefield. He sought an unconditional surrender by the Rebels.

“It is an issue which can only be tried by war, and decided by victory,” Lincoln said.

The election of 1864 — taking place in the middle of a civil war — would be the most consequential presidential election in American history to that point — and perhaps to this day.

“It is remarkable that there was even an election held,” says historian Joan Waugh of the University of California at Los Angeles.

The political fortunes of Lincoln — who had been nominated in Baltimore in June, with the Republicans rebranding themselves the National Union Party — suddenly improved when the Democrats gathered Aug. 29 in Chicago to nominate their candidate.

The Democrats were deeply split by their pro-war and Copperhead factions. They reached a compromise: They nominated a war candidate and adopted a peace platform.

That candidate was, as long expected, Gen. George B. McClellan, a handsome young officer who had risen to the command of all the Union armies only to be shelved by Lincoln after he repeatedly overestimated the enemy’s strength and hesitated to attack the Rebels.

The peace platform said Lincoln had been unable to restore the Union by “the experiment of war,” and called for “a cessation of hostilities, with a view to an ultimate convention of the States, or other peaceable means, to the end that at the earliest practicable moment peace may be restored on the basis of the Federal Union of the States.”

McClellan registered that the restoration of the Union was not a precondition of such an armistice, and said, in his letter accepting the nomination, that he could not face his “gallant comrades” in the Army and the Navy and tell them that “we had abandoned that Union for which we had so often periled our lives.”

Although he had, in effect, repudiated a key element of the platform, the damage had been done. Many rank-and-file Democrats, including legions of troops in the field who were going to cast absentee ballots, saw the Democratic platform as treasonous. Lincoln would win the military vote overwhelmingly.

The Democrats also suffered a case of exquisitely bad timing. Even as news of the peace platform spread, another bulletin came from the Deep South: “Atlanta is ours, and fairly won.”

Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman’s telegram, received in Washington on Sept. 3, a day after his forces had taken Atlanta, signaled another turning point of the war.

Lincoln ordered 100-gun salutes across the country and a national day of thanksgiving.

He then maneuvered to neutralize Fremont’s third-party threat. By firing the conservative postmaster general, Montgomery Blair, a bitter enemy of Fremont, Lincoln appeased the Radical Republicans and won their support.

On Nov. 8, Lincoln won 55 percent of the popular vote to McClellan’s 45 percent — a margin of about 400,000 votes — and enjoyed an Electoral College landslide, winning 22 states and 212 electoral votes to McClellan’s three states and 21 electoral votes.

The enemies of human liberties, Douglass said after the election, had hoped to see “this country commit suicide.” It had been a contest, he said, between the advocates of freedom and “the advocates of caste, of aristocratic pretensions, of despotic Government, of limiting the power of the people, all who are for King-craft and priest-craft.”

Lincoln convened his Cabinet and finally read out loud the “blind memorandum” of Aug. 23. He told members what he had planned to say to president-elect McClellan:

“You raise as many troops as you possibly can for this final trial, and I will devote all my energies to assist and finish the war.”

And then Seward observed, “And the general would have answered you, ‘Yes, yes,’ and the next day when you saw him again and pressed these views upon him, he would have said ‘Yes, yes,’ and so on forever, and would have done nothing at all.”

Lincoln replied, “At least I should have done my duty and have stood clear before my own conscience.”

We cannot know what Lincoln actually would have done had he lost, but a close reading of the blind memorandum offers a hint. Lincoln wrote that “it will be my duty to so cooperate with the President-elect as to save the Union,” and the word “so” looms large there. He is not going to let the election results destroy the Union and perpetuate slavery.

Lincoln’s term would not end until the inauguration of the new president March 4. He had work to do, and a war to win, and no one was going to stop him.