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Friday, November 2, 2012

Brooks D. Simpson on Lincoln and the November 4, 1862, midterm elections

Guest blog post by Brooks D. Simpson, professor of history, Arizona State University and one of the co-editors of The Library of America's four-volume series, The Civil War: Told by Those Who Lived It (the first two volumes of which have appeared).

In the midterm elections of 1862, which concluded on November 4, the Lincoln administration and the Republican party suffered a serious setback at the polls. Proclaiming “the Constitution as it is and the Union as it was,” Democrats pointed to the promised Emancipation Proclamation and Lincoln’s recent nationwide suspension of the writ of habeas corpus as evidence of the Republicans’ desire to impose a tyrannical dictatorship upon the republic. Nor did the prospects for decisive military victory seem bright: whatever optimism had been expressed in the wake of Antietam, Corinth, and Perryville had faded away as Union armies failed to capitalize on their successes.

Democrats claimed victory in New York with the election of Horatio Seymour as governor; they also won the governorship of New Jersey and assumed control of state legislatures in New Jersey, Indiana, and Lincoln’s home state of Illinois. The Democrats’ sizeable gains in the House of Representatives, mostly in the lower North from New York to Illinois, reduced the Republican majority to a plurality, although the Republicans would be able to control the new House with the support of Unconditional Unionists from the border states. Fortunately for the administration, the state election calendars in Pennsylvania and Ohio mandated elections in odd-numbered years, while Republican governors Richard Yates of Illinois and Oliver P. Morton of Indiana had been elected in 1860 to four-year terms. And as historian James M. McPherson has pointed out, Republicans still held most of the governorships and a solid majority of state legislatures, allowing the party to eventually pick up five Senate seats as the terms of Democrats elected in 1856–57 expired and Republican-controlled legislatures chose their replacements.

President Lincoln weathered the electoral defeat as well as could be expected. In responding to a rather harsh note from General Carl Schurz, a leading Republican who claimed, as Lincoln put it, “that we lost the late elections, and the administration is failing, because the war is unsuccessful; and that I must not flatter myself that I am not justly to blame for it,” the President wrote: “I certainly know that if the war fails, the administration fails, and that I will be blamed for it, whether I deserve it or not. And I ought to be blamed, if I could do better. You think I could do better; therefore you blame me already. I think I could not do better; therefore I blame you for blaming me.”

Even as news of the administration’s setback circulated through the newspapers, Lincoln moved decisively in removing George B. McClellan from command of the Army of the Potomac on November 5, replacing him with Ambrose Burnside. The change was made just two weeks after the President had replaced Don Carlos Buell with William S. Rosecrans at the head of the Union army in Middle Tennessee. But whether new generals meant an improvement in Union military fortunes, and the political standing of the administration, remained to be seen.

(This item will be cross-posted at Civil War 150, cosponsored by The Library of America, The Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History, and the National Endowment of the Humanities)

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